Bonsai (pronounced BONE-sigh) is made up of two root words, ‘bon’ meaning tray and ‘sai’ which means plant. Bonsai, or “tree in a pot,” translates the same from both Japanese and Chinese. (Mispronounce it by saying “banzai,” and you’re exclaiming “ten thousand years!”)
Variations of the horticultural art form date back hundreds of years, so long that the actual ancient origins from which it sprouted blur, but everyone agrees the roots are in the Orient.
Other forms of miniature gardening exist, but differ in subtle ways. In tree penjing, a Chinese method, specimens have a wider range of tree shapes, are more “wild-looking,” and are placed in brightly-colored and creatively-shaped pots.
Bonsai are more simplified in shape, more refined in appearance, with larger trunks in proportion to their foliage. They are customarily planted in unobtrusive, low-sided containers with simple lines and muted colors to draw focus to the plant itself.
Enthusiasts agree that bonsai are “enjoyed and practiced by diverse cultures, utilizing the lessons of nature to improve the physical, mental, and spiritual well-being of mankind and our relationship to our environment.” (from Bonsai Clubs International)
Just any old small tree doesn’t qualify as bonsai. The tree, or trees, should exude majesty and elegance. Growers strive for miniaturization, proportion, asymmetry, poignancy, and no trace of the artist, and use wiring, grafting, pruning, clamping and defoliation to achieve their desired result.
Growers prefer woody, deciduous varieties. Shapes vary from formal and informal upright, forests, slant, and rock-based styles, among others.
Tools and pots are important. Pots are usually ceramic, come in a variety of shapes and colors, and may be glazed or unglazed. They have drainage holes for fast-draining soil, allowing excess water, which is crucial to growing healthy specimens, to flow out. Pots usually have vertical sides, so that the tree’s root mass can easily be removed for inspection, pruning, and replanting.
Tools necessary, besides strong fingertips for the best pruning, include tiny tweezers, saws, wire and cutters, and rakes.
Fun Fact from Bonsai Outlet: The oldest living bonsai is over 300 years old, a White Pine affectionately known as the Yamaki Pine, in honor of its donor, Masaru Yamaki. The Yamaki began its life in the 1600s and, despite being less than five miles away from the impact site, it survived the atomic bomb blast at Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945. It is now housed in the US National Arboretum.
National Bonsai and Penjing Museum, located within the U.S. National Arboretum, in Washington, D.C. has the largest, and most valuable exhibition in the United States.
Visit these sites for more information, and to see beautiful photos of this natural art form:
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