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History and Art of Bonsai

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There are entire books – nay, collections of books – on the subject of bonsai history and cultivation, so the “art” of this introduction to the fabled hobby will be to condense that info into a chunk of text you can read quicker than a hiccup.

Let’s get started.

‘Bonsai’ is not a tree type at all.

Yep, you read it right: Bonsai is just a word that describes any tree or shrub that is grown in a certain way, using specific cultivation techniques, to meet a specific standard.

The techniques are varied, but the standard and styles are a part of Japanese tradition and viewed without compromise. The art has its own language and descriptors that are readily understood by masters.

The bonsai art is very, very old … and originated in China.

The word bonsai is actually a Japanese rendering of the Chinese word pun-tsai or penzai, which translates to “tray plant” and was first used to describe one variation of the art form some 5,000 years ago in what was to become China.

Back then, the shallow pots, or pun, were filled with a variety of natural features (trees, mountains, etc.) in miniature because of a belief that the larger version’s power could be harnessed that way.

Japanese bonsai art is comparatively young.  

The first Chinese pun-tsai were exported to Japan in the early 14th century, long after the Chinese had developed a tradition for cultivating landscapes in miniature. And, it would take hundreds of years more for the Japanese art to take root and grow, so to speak.

The Japanese tradition developed in tandem with the rise of Zen Buddhism, which had a significant impact on the practice as a meditative art.

It took another 500 years for bonsai art to make its way to America.

It’s true that English travelers reported on bonsai art in Western Europe well before the 19th century, but it wasn’t until the late 1800s that Americans got their first glimpses of it via photographs and fair exhibitions.

Even so, the practice would take another hundred years to mature into a widely known and appreciated pursuit among American bonsai enthusiasts.

Anyone can practice bonsai art, but mastering it takes a lifetime.

It takes near-infinite patience and much practice to grow a bonsai plant from a seedling, which is more than half the point. It’s a meditative process that is meant to be meticulous; to fully absorb the conscious mind and focus it on bringing nature’s energy deeper into one’s life.

But, anyone can start today, although a word to the wise: If you enjoy the look, but don’t want the work, consider an artificial bonsai like the ones pictured, because the mature plants take skill to maintain their health and shape.

Good luck!

This silk cedar bonsai by Nearly Natural stands 16 inches and is perfect for the home or office.

Nearly Natural offers this silk bonsai collection that includes three 12-inch trees in decorative pots. 

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