The Ancient Art of Growing Small Trees

Bonsai is the ancient art of growing small trees that are dwarfed artificially for the purposes of ornamentation. These miniature decorative trees are created from plants and herbs and grown in pots. They can be made from a variety of different kinds of plants and are formed with great care and attention by the Bonsai artists. Many different techniques, including the pruning of the leaves and the shaping of the branches with moldable wiring, are utilized to give the plants their unique shape. The miniature tree can then be displayed on its own or in the context of a miniature garden surrounded by rocks and other trees. For the creator of the bonsai tree, the appeal is in the calming effort of shaping and cultivating the tree, and for the observer, the appeal comes from the beauty of the tree and the opportunity for contemplation and reflection. Bonsai trees should not be confused with merely dwarfed trees. Bonsai trees are ‘dwarfed’, but through an artificial process that involves wiring and pruning the branches, pinching the buds, and restricting the growth of the plants cautiously in order to establish the shape and appearance of a small, aesthetically pleasing tree.

Where Does the Art of Bonsai Come From?

Bonsai has its roots in Chinese culture, with a practice known as penzai, or the practice of building a miniature garden. When the practice was carried over to Japan, it was adapted and changed to the creation and cultivation of miniature trees – the garden aspect no longer being a major staple. So, the art of bonsai in Japan (and as a cultural export throughout the world) is the practice of growing dwarfed, replica trees in shallow containers and displayed for ornamental purposes. Along with these specifications, bonsai also developed its own sense of contemplative aesthetic that, while still in touch with its Daoist and Chinese Buddhist roots, has a uniquely Japanese Zen quality to it that makes it unique compared to related arts like penzai and saikei. Bonsai trees are a cultural staple in Japan, used to beautify many Japanese homes and outdoor spaces, and their popularity has spread throughout the world, especially in recent years.

Why Are Bonsai Trees Grown?

Bonsai trees are contemplative and decorative. The creation and cultivation of bonsai trees is an art that exists for itself: there is nothing additional to be gained from bonsai – the trees have no healing qualities (in the ordinary, medicinal sense) and of course are not edible or cultivated for any kind of special material or commodity. Bonsai is a craft that exists for its own sake, for the beauty in the practice, the development, and the final result, which is ornamental and, for some, meditative.

What’s in a Name?

Bonsai takes its name from the Chinese term ‘penzai’. Penzai is the art of creating miniature landscapes, including bonsai-like trees, rocks, water, and other features. When the art and practice entered Japan, it took on a Japanese pronunciation as ‘bonsai’. The word is composed of two separate parts, ‘bon’ and ‘sai’. ‘Bon’ refers to a small dish or bowl and refers to the pot that is used as a vessel to grow and display the miniature tree. ‘Sai’ means, in short, a plant that has been planted. So, the word ‘bonsai’ as a whole refers to both the dish and the plant that together will eventually form the small, decorative tree that we know as a bonsai tree.

How Does It Work?

First of all, a plant is chosen. Different plants have different characteristics, so if you are growing your first bonsai tree, you should look into what kind of end result you want and then work backwards by finding out which plants will produce such a result. A seed is then planted, or a small plant is bought and is nursed until it reaches a certain stage (depending on the type of plant). Then the roots are shaped, and the plant is repotted. There are other small steps from here, but to keep things simple, we move on to the shaping stage. The leaves are pruned, giving the plant the same consistency as a tree (with leaves at the end of its branches and some sparseness around the ‘trunk’). Then the stalks are shaped to replicate the branches of a tree. For this to occur, wire is wrapped around the plant and twisted to shape the branches in an aesthetically pleasing manner, as well as a shape that looks like a real, natural tree. Then there is a process of patient cultivation. Eventually, when the wire is removed, you have your miniature tree, which is further cared for and nurtured. The whole process takes patience and some level of meditative contemplation, a kind of ‘oneness’ with the plant.