Bonsai trees have long been associated with bringing their owner peace and harmony. Television shows and movies frequently depict tranquil owners beatifically trimming their bonsai, with the twinkling of chimes in the background and sunshine pouring through their window.
But the real question is, is that real or just a marketing gimmick for these pricey plants?
The most precious bonsai trees are often not for sale and have been passed down through multiple generations spanning hundreds of years.
But there are plenty of affordable bonsai trees available and these will provide their owner with the same sense of fulfillment and peace as their more expensive counterparts.
Not So Humble Origins
Originating from East Asian culture, the art of growing bonsai trees began in China in 700 AD and bonsai were originally known as “penzai”, which translates to “tray plant”. Although the practice was first encouraged by Buddhist monks, It became known as a hobby for the privileged class and gradually made its way into Japan in the 12th century.
The art of bonsai was a manifestation of the infatuation of miniaturization in Chinese culture at the time. It was a widely held belief that recreating natural objects in miniature gave these subjects concentrated magical powers and came to hold a certain air of mysticism for believers.
Penzing vs. Bonsai
While the practice of bonsai originated in China, it is known as “penzing” in China and the word “bonsai” is a Japanese term. While both styles utilize much of the same practices and tools, they incorporate very different ideas and serve different purposes for their respective artists.
The Chinese word “penzai” refers to the tree itself, “penzing” is the art of taking care of the bonsai tree and means “tree scenery”, referring to, not only the plant, but its container and the overall effect of the tree and its home together that creates the kind of landscape so prized in traditional Chinese culture.
Japan bonsai trees are often what come to mind when thinking of bonsai plants and are widely popularized because of their simple and refined appearance. When bonsai was first introduced to the Japanese aristocracy, they created a set of rules and ideal shapes that formed the structure of the modern art of bonsai.
Chaos to Perfection
Penzing focuses on recreating nature in a miniature landscape and is less concerned about perfection and more about the symbolism and the emotion it evokes as a piece of art. It is often seen as an act of personal expression and the beauty and power of nature through the eyes of the artist.
Penzing also often utilizes tools such as rocks and ceramics to bring a sense of completion to its landscape. A large part of Chinese traditions in bonsai are intertwined with Chinese and Korean ceramics, and the intricately painted containers become an integral part of the scenery.
The Japanese practice of bonsai art dictates strict adherence to their rules because of the harmony they symbolize between nature and man.
Attaining perfection in each piece means that perfect balance was achieved in this little being, and will in turn bring peace and harmony to its observers.
These rules encompass the underpinnings of Japanese culture and how they approach all living things. Just as bonsai trees are pruned every day to remove all nonessential parts of the plant, this practice mimics the Japanese philosophy that reveres minimalism, popularized by Marie Kondo.
The ancient techniques of bonsai were jealously guarded until after World War II. In the late 1960s, a group of American botanists traveled to Asia and were allowed to study in Japanese nurseries, and this group ultimately returned to the United States and established the American Bonsai Society.
Even though there are many individuals who practice the art of bonsai in the Western world, because those specimens are mass produced today to satisfy demand, the quality of Japanese bonsai trees is unrivaled. Likened to wine, the older the bonsai tree, the more valuable.
Not Just a Tree, a Lifestyle
For beginners, there are many common bonsai plants available for purchase at about $20.00, but the price tag for more prized specimens can escalate quickly. It is even more difficult to find an older bonsai plant because their owners are unwilling to sell. The older they are, the more valued, and bonsai trees that are over a century old are considered priceless.
There are a myriad of factors that go into raising a bonsai tree, beginning from what kind of tree to pick, where you will place it in your home, and most importantly, how to manage the daily upkeep and intensive care this plant requires. Although the basics are easy to learn, the techniques can take decades to master.
Pruning is the most important technique when attempting the art of bonsai and your mastery of this technique will play a heavy role in the shape and size of your tree. The second most important factor is wiring, where you wrap aluminum or copper wires around the branches to guide how the branches will grow.
Because bonsai trees are more delicate than others of their species, they are also sensitive to the specific types of fertilizer and soil and watering patterns.
While they dry out quickly due to their small pots, if over-watered, they can develop root-rot, one of the most common causes of death in bonsai plants.
Bonsai trees are genetically identical to any regular-size tree found in nature and will grow to their regular size if they are ever removed from their pots. The most common trees used for bonsai are:
- Japanese Maple
The maintenance of the bonsai plant is intimidating to most beginners, but it is a lifelong journey that can yield a beautiful flora companion and bring peace to the gardener. Maintaining the practice of pruning and trimming bonsai plants is much venerated in Asian cultures, as these bonsai plants can live for centuries with proper care.
For example, a bonsai tree that used to belong to the Yamaki family is over 400 years old, surviving the Hiroshima bomb attack in 1945. It is currently on display at the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum in Washington.
Some of the oldest known bonsai plants are over 800 years old and the most expensive among them was sold for 1.3 million dollars in Takamatsu, Japan. Many owners of the most ancient bonsai trees refuse to sell and choose to treasure them as family heirlooms.
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Bonsai trees are unique to other types of plants not only because of their impressive age and beauty, but also because of their rich history and symbolism of traditional Chinese and Japanese philosophies.
Because it will take at least 10 years for a young tree to show visible results, it is a true test of patience and diligence.
Because of the amount of upkeep and time required, these plants are not for the faint of heart, but would be a worthy challenge for those looking for a way to reconnect with nature and a hobby that encourages meditation and peace of mind.