Bonsai is an ancient art of taking a tree and planting it in a small shallow pot, But bonsai has changed over 100's of years and it is believed to have started as a medicinal purpose rather then the aesthetic practise it is now. so lets have a look at what makes a Bonsai and where it is believed to have come from.
Now take this with a grain of salt because this can be unclear on where bonsai actually began or why, but we can talk about what we believe to be true. There are depictions of Bonsai all the way back to the Egyptians 4000 years ago but these depictions aren't the art as we see it today, they are simply just trees in pots.
Trees in pots can also be traced back to the Indians as a form of medicine. The Indians used to use natural resources for medicine including things that grow on trees. Now when a patient was sick you couldn't just transport the patient out into the forest to be able to create medicine for them to get better so the Indians grew their trees in pots for transport purposes. This allowed them to bring the tree to the patient. But once again this isn't exactly bonsai as we know it.
So now we move onto the Chinese. The Chinese started off by creating little landscapes in their backyards which included stacked rocks to simulate mountains, eventually this got miniaturised to fit into a small pot rather then a backyard. Once in the small pot that started featuring little trees within the landscape planting and this is what we now know as Penjing. Penjing is a more natural approach though, there is less wiring and more clip and grow.
Now we move onto the next iteration in Japan and that's where Bonsai as we know it now is born. When the Japanese adopted the art of bonsai they created their own version of Penjing, Except for the most part there was no landscape involved, Just the Tree and Pot. Bonsai translates to Tree in Tray, or Tray Planting. There are many different interpretations of the translation but they all equate to the same thing, a Tree in a Pot. When the Japanese started doing bonsai that's when things like bonsai wire were introduced to manipulate the tree into some of the basic styles now that we see including Formal Upright, Informal Upright, Slanting, Semi-Cascade and Cascade. The Japanese also introduced other techniques such as creating deadwood with Jins, Shari and Uros. There were specific styles of pots being used with different shapes and colours to compliment different trees and styles.
Like we spoke about earlier going back in history their were early depictions of trees planted in pots, and with the translation of bonsai meaning a tree in a pot does this mean any tree in a pot is automatically a bonsai? Not Really. Look at it like this, one could argue that a regular daily driven car could actually be a drag car, but put that regular car on the drag strip next to an actual drag car and there will be some glaring differences. This can be the same for Bonsai, You could out a regular old fig tree in a big regular garden pot and let it grow naturally but no one will look at that and say “ oh nice bonsai “. Even people who don’t practise bonsai can see the difference between a bonsai tree and a regular plant in a pot.
Woody bark texture : Most species used for bonsai feature a woody bark which is what helps give the illusion of an old ancient tree planted in a pot. These types of trees can also grow pretty thick and gnarly which gives a more appealing look.
Basic Bonsai Features : There are a few basic features you will see on any good bonsai which are a nice Nebari ( root flair ), Nice lines and movement, Taper in the trunk and branching, Well Maintained growth and Healthy Foliage. All of this creates balance which is what most bonsai design sets out to achieve.
A Bonsai Pot : Like mentioned earlier there are certain shapes and colours in bonsai pots that will compliment a composition. Choosing the right bonsai pots can make or break your design so this is a very important step.
Deadwood : Most bonsai artists like to add dead wood to their design to once again depict a tree that is very old and has gone through some rough times in its life. This is done by stripping branches of their bark which is called “ Jin “ or removing strips of bark from the trunk leaving a live vein to support the growth, This is called “Shari”. There is also a technique which creates a hollow in the trunk called “Uro”. These techniques are created using special Bonsai Carving Tools All of these can be highly sought after features in a bonsai tree.
Bonsai can go much much deeper then this but that is a very basic over view of what a bonsai tree is. Bonsai is a hobby that is practised on all different levels so depending on how you want to practise bonsai you might need proper Bonsai Tools or you might need to learn proper techniques which are available in our Online Bonsai Course.
I do hope you give this art a go and get some enjoyment and creativity out of it, Although it requires a lot of patience it is very rewarding.
Until Next Time, Enjoy Your Bonsai Journey.
Author : Joshua Hooson
Learn Bonsai Online With Josh
Joshua Hooson is an author and enthusiast of the art of bonsai. He has built his knowledge and understanding of bonsai through a combination of self-experience, lessons learned through hands-on practice, and extensive research. His articles reflect his passion for the subject and offer insights gained through his own personal journey in the world of bonsai. All the information provided in his works is a result of his own experiences and the knowledge he has gained through his studies. He is dedicated to sharing his love of bonsai and helping others grow in their understanding and appreciation of this ancient and beautiful art form.