While the literal definition of a bonsai is a plant housed in a shallow container, there is so much more to the bonsai tradition. Every aspect of the tree is designed for a reason. There are aspects of age, simplicity, balance, and harmony in the bonsai. Additionally, the tree could symbolize anything the grower or the viewer wants it to. 

The bonsai tradition involves manipulating roots, branches, and the trunk to create a miniaturized version of the tree as it is found in nature. While much of the symbolism may be invisible to an inexperienced bonsai grower, every piece of the tree is important to the story that it tells.

How Age is Portrayed

The different stages of life can be seen on the tree in many different ways. Every piece of the tree can be manipulated in one way or another to represent age. For example, the look of age can be seen in exposed roots.

A smooth, unblemished trunk symbolizes liveliness and youth, while a twisted, gnarled trunk can represent older age. Trunks and branches of dead trees, called dead wood, can be placed within the tree as well. This can symbolize the tree’s evolution. Trunks growing at an angle out of the soil can symbolize not only age but surviving the elements as well. 

As for branches, the direction at which they hang will determine whether the look of old or young age is desired. Branches that grow upward symbolize young age. In contrast, hanging branches represent maturity. 

Trees with branches left alone to grow vivaciously often express youthful qualities. Leaves can also be pruned to make growth sparse, which is said to represent older age.

The Simplicity of Every Bonsai

The aspect of simplicity is valued not only in bonsai, but in Japanese culture as well. You will find elements of simplicity in every aspect of Japanese life. The respect for nature is evident in their value of this element. 

Every part of the bonsai is simple in its own way. Even the most extravagant pieces have simplistic elements. The container in which the bonsai is planted should be neutral in color, reflecting the simplicity in nature. The tree itself is the focal point of the piece, so the container does not need to be decorated or painted a bright color. In addition, no decorations are needed in the soil.

The Aesthetic of Balance

Crucial to the bonsai look is the aspect of balance. The shape of the triangle is often used in the look of the tree. This shape represents stability and strength. However, the triangle that is used may not be the one that you think. 

In the bonsai tradition, the isosceles triangle, rather than the equilateral triangle, is used. Unlike the still, motionless look of the equilateral, the isosceles gives the bonsai a sense of movement that can represent the constant continuation of life. 

The asymmetry of the isosceles triangle is what is most desired in this art. This deliberate imperfection, also called “sabi,” is preferred for its natural balanced look.

The Harmony in Design

Another element in bonsai that is also evident in the Japanese culture is harmony. All aspects of the bonsai tree coexist with each other well, with no one aspect shining through more than the others. This is said to represent the tree’s coexistence with nature. 

The harmony found in bonsai stems from the conflict-avoidant Japanese culture. The effects of this culture are evident in the extremely low crime rate in Japan. Harmony is often prioritized in friend groups. The customs, laws, and manners in Japan all derive from the desire to have a peaceful country. Different aspects of the tree symbolize people’s differences of opinion. 

Growing a bonsai tree is a journey that everyone should experience. In participating in this tradition, you are not only caring for a tree, but you are expressing yourself and your life through art. There are countless ways you can intertwine aspects of age, simplicity, balance, and harmony into the tree. The exact meaning of your piece is, of course, entirely up to you, but others will interpret it based on their own life and experiences. We know that once you embark on this bonsai journey, you will appreciate each and every second of it.