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What Does a Bonsai Tree Mean?

Anyone can try the bonsai art, no matter how much experience one has in gardening or plant growing. In short, a bonsai is a tree planted in a shallow dish. But this is just the foundation of bonsai. With a long and meaningful past, bonsai can be made into whatever you want. Every bonsai is special and means something different to everyone. We will be talking about the definition of bonsai, what bonsai is, the deeper meaning of bonsai, and the history of the tradition.

Definition of Bonsai

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The term bonsai is a Japanese word that means “a tree which is planted in a shallow container”. Written in Japanese, the word is written as 盆栽. The word “Bon” (the character on the left) means a shallow dish or bowl. The word “Sai” (the character on the right) means a growing tree or plant that is planted. 

While this is the exact definition of a bonsai, many find this too limiting. Bonsai is so much more than a planted tree in a dish; it is a journey. 

What Exactly is a Bonsai?

As previously mentioned, a bonsai is a tree or plant housed in a shallow container. Contrary to popular belief, bonsai are not genetically dwarfed trees! Special techniques are used to limit or redirect growth in order to achieve the small look of the bonsai. Restriction of nutrients through water and fertilizer is another way growth is redirected.

Other important aspects of bonsai growing include pruning and wiring. Pruning consists of pinching off or cutting off leaves. The purpose of these techniques is to shape and style the bonsai. Wiring branches and/or trunks is done by wrapping aluminum or copper wire around the bark in order to bend it into the shape and style you want.

Significant Meanings and Symbolism

Bonsai is an amazing tradition that anyone can partake in. First and foremost, the goal of bonsai is to create a miniaturized version of the tree as it is found in nature. In addition to this, this art form can be used to express one’s life, experiences, family, culture, world, or literally anything else! Each person that looks at a bonsai will see and interpret it differently, which is another purpose of bonsai growing: to get someone to stop and think about the tree and what it means to them. 

Symbolism can be seen in every piece of the bonsai. No element of the bonsai is without meaning. Common themes include age, harmony, balance, and simplicity. The bonsai grower can also include aspects of their own life such as struggles and triumphs over hard times.

History of Bonsai

Before bonsai, the tradition of Penjing originated in China at around 700 AD. This centuries old tradition involved creating miniaturized trees grown in shallow dishes, which is very similar to bonsai. Unlike most bonsai, Penjing art pieces involved creating realistic masterpieces that replicated parts of nature, such as mountains or hills. 

Around twelve hundred years ago, the Penjing tradition was brought to Japan and expanded there. Originally, bonsai was seen as a religious practice. Eventually, at around the year 1800, the religious view of the tradition transformed into more of a design-based idea. 

Slowly but surely, this tradition crossed Asian borders into the Western world, where many more young people are beginning to experience this art. Typically, travelers and teachers will go to Japan, then come back to their Western country and tell students about bonsai. 

Bonsai can mean so many different things. The literal definition, of course, is a tree planted in a shallow container. But what the tree really means is up to you. Elements of age, harmony, balance, and simplicity are some of the more common symbols in bonsai. The best bonsai pieces are ones that have significant meaning to the grower. These bonsai make people stop and think about what the piece means to them. No bonsai is meaningless, and every aspect of the tree is put there for a reason. It is up to you to take the literal meaning of bonsai and transform it into a story!

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