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Treasures of Japan - The Bonsai Tree

What is a Bonsai Tree?

This ancient art of horticulture has a lot of representative imagery, but none reflects China and Japan as much as the bonsai tree. Some people might think the name “bonsai” has a deep origin and background, but in fact it means “tree-in-a-pot.” It was originally conceptualized and developed in the Orient nearly 2000 years ago. Today, bonsai trees are enjoyed by horticulturists all over the world but they still carry an East-Asian charm.

Bonsai trees are observed and appreciated based on their shape, harmony, proportion and scale. The key to growing a bonsai tree is to be in control of its growing pattern. Branches that are unimportant to the tree’s design should be pruned away. Roots must also be clipped so the tree does not outgrow the box. There is no single set of care rules for a bonsai tree. As with people, every tree has different needs and adapts to different environments. Bonsai trees can live for hundreds of years and they will change with the season. All throughout its life it will need training and pruning and as it ages, it will become more beautiful.

History of Bonsai Trees

Although “bonsai” is a Japanese word, the art of the bonsai tree actually originated in China sometime before the year 700 AD. They called it “pun-sai,” but it was the same basic concept: growing small trees in containers. Pun-sai included several of China’s other art forms including bowl-making and designing miniature replicas. In fact, bonsai would have never existed if not for an interest in recreating bamboo forests and other landscapes. For some time, pun-sai was only practiced by the elite and the trees were considered luxurious specimens.

Japan did not adopt the art until they learned it from China during the Kamakura period (1185-1333). The Japanese saw the trees as religious souvenirs, so they became popular amongst people of all classes from shogun to peasant. Japan had to develop new methods of caring for the trees. With much less land than China, they also had fewer resources. To assist each other, the Japanese published many books and catalogs about caring for the trees. They also made new developments such as using copper and iron to shape the trees.

In 1604, the Spanish reported that the Chinese immigrants in their then-colony of the Philippines had the trees. With the interest sparked, the next 300 years would bring the trees steadily westward. By 1915 they had been seen at expositions in Chicago, Paris, Philadelphia, San Francisco and St. Louis. They perhaps gained to most popularity in Australia, Hungary, Korea and Scotland.

Types of Bonsai Trees

Hokidachi (Broom-style Bonsai): This type of bonsai tree has fine branches that extend wide like a folding fan. These branches comprise the top 2/3 of the tree’s height and their leaves give the tree the appearance of a ball-shaped crown.

Chokkan (formal upright Bonsai style): These trees are very natural-looking. They grow perfectly vertical with the trunk gradually thinning as the eye travels upward. This style of bonsai is among the most popular.

Moyogi (informal upright Bonsai style): Similar to the Chokkan style, this type of bonsai grows vertically with the trunk getting thinner as the eye moves upward. However, it is not perfectly straight. Instead, the trunk forms more of a letter S shape with branching occurring at every change of direction.

Shakkan (Slanting Bonsai style): When trees grow, they will naturally bend toward their light source. The roots on the opposite side of the tree will develop strongly to keep them standing. The perfect slanting bonsai tree grows at about 60 to 80 degrees from the ground with a trunk that is thicker at the bottom than at the top.

Kengai (Cascade bonsai style): These bonsai trees are grown in small pots so that their branches may grow downward. This generally causes the tree to grow at a slant, but balance can be maintained as long as the branches grow evenly and horizontally.

Ishisuki (Growing in a Rock Bonsai style): One fascinating way to grow a bonsai tree is through a rock. Their ironic existence represents a struggle to survive. These trees need to be tended carefully and watered more often to accommodate their lack of space to hold nutrients.

Seki-joju (Growing on a Rock Bonsai style): If growing through a rock is not the effect desired; horticulturalists may also choose to grow a bonsai on a rock. These trees are fascinating because the roots grow over the rock to reach the soil.

Sharimiki (Shari Bonsai style): Many trees in nature lose patches of bark due to weather. Their bare area is then whitened by sunlight. Many horticulturalists choose to replicate this phenomenon with bonsai. They remove a patch of bark with a sharp knife and then treat the bare spot with calcium sulfate.    

There are other types of bonsai trees not listed above. For more information, consult the following webpages.

More Information on Bonsai Trees