Bonsai is the Japanese word for the horticultural art form of growing plants in containers. In English it has come to be associated with normally large plants grown in miniature by using small containers.
There are however a very wide number of plants that can be grown as bonsai, or in miniature form. From shrubs, trees, even bamboo, these all can be grown as a smaller, but still healthy version of themselves by planting them in a container and carefully pruning and restricting fertilizer.
Bonsai plants can get up to three feet tall and have been shown to grow to
up to 800 years of age. Bonsai is the Japanese, and now widely used in English word for it, but the practice originated in Chinese where it is called Penzai or Penjing.
Penzai is the art of creating entire miniature landscapes. These are created with the addition of rocks, and miniature water features. Single plants can be shown as well but usually accompanied by rocks.
The Japanese bonsai is a more simplified form of Penzai in that the bonsai plants are commonly grown singular,they are more carefully shaped, and the containers are simple.
The art of bonsai comes in with the shaping of the plant into a form that inspires the grower and caretaker. Bonsai and Penzai have been depicted in ancient theater and tomb mural paintings. A scroll dated from 1195 had a depiction of a bonsai tree on it. The earliest documented Penzai is from a tomb dated from 706 that has a depiction of a man carrying a miniature landscape in a shallow pot.
Different regional styles have developed. These have translated into named styles of bonsai dependent on the shape or medium used. One of the earliest examples the explorers first saw were of bonsai growing on coral. Bonsai over or in rock is a style still used today.
Bonsai growers will use bamboo, strings, wires, or other instruments to bend and shape their bonsai plants to certain shapes they find appealing. The earlier Chinese versions preferred a more wild appearance, whereas the Japanese used a more purposefully shaped look. Even today, there is a difference between the shapes and styles of older and younger generations of growers.
It was in the early 1900’s that books started being published about creating and caring for your own bonsai and it is a more commonplace occurrence in all households worldwide. Since there is such a variety of plants that can be both grown indoors or outdoors, and the fact that they are specifically designed to not take up much space, bonsai has become very popular. There are now many bonsai clubs all over the world as well to meet and connect with fellow bonsai enthusiasts. It is easy to find a plant that inspires you. Bonsai is, after all, an art of love and a challenge of patience that brings everyone who grows bonsai great pride and of course want to show off their plants to people who appreciate the time and artistic value that goes into them.
Although you may keep them for only you to look at and enjoy, there are many bonsai shows throughout the country, as they are a very portable art form. You can start by purchasing a tree that is already growing and maintain proper care, or start or your own from a seed or cutting.
Every Japanese cultural fair I have been to has a bonsai show. There are also bonsai collections at arboretums and cultural centers. Bonsai shows started in the late 18th century in Kyoto, when growers from around the region would bring one or two bonsai specimens from their collection. There are many different plants that have been turned into bonsai versions, so you can easily search to see what type of plant you would like and see if it has already been turned into a successful bonsai.
There are a few more common varieties that are seen of bonsai either because of their ability to appear as an exact duplicate of a full grown tree except in miniature or because it is a local species. Any plant with a woody trunk and smaller leaves with the ability to grow in a pot can be turned into bonsai. Careful pruning, restricted use of fertilizers, and root restriction causes what would normally be a large plant to grow to an old age in such a miniature presentation.
Bonsai are traditionally grown in wide, shallow containers of earthenware. Part of the fun and the challenge of growing bonsai plants is to keep the trees healthy and growing so that they live long and can be shaped how you desire. Bonsai plants will change color with the seasons, and even produce fruit depending on the type of bonsai plant. It should be a joy for you to participate in this ancient art form.