Most people have at least a vague idea of what bonsai is. Still, it seems that this knowledge is mostly limited to the fact that bonsai is a Japanese way of growing little trees in pots. However, the truth is that bonsai goes much beyond that, and in fact, it is actually considered an art form that’s very closely connected to Zen Buddhism. Of course, you don’t have to be a Buddhist to enjoy the sense of relaxation and wonder that comes with cultivating a bonsai tree.
Bonsai as an Art Form
The term bonsai technically refers to the art form itself and also the result of it, i.e. the bonsai tree. It is considered an art because it involves much more than simply growing a tree inside a pot. Instead, the purpose is to continually direct and shape the growth of the bonsai tree in a way so that it takes whatever the artist deems to be its ‘perfect’ shape.
In many ways, the goal is to attempt to shape the tree so that it recreates the shape of majestic old trees seen in nature. However, since bonsai is closely tied to Buddhist ideas about the power of meditation, the act of carefully trimming, maintaining and shaping the tree is considered as important as the result itself.
The History of Bonsai
The close ties between bonsai and the culture of Japan means that it can generally be considered to be truly Japanese. However, like many other aspects of Japanese culture, bonsai actually has its origins in China, where it is known as penjing. The Japanese learned of the tradition around 600 A.D., but at this time most trees were still imported for China and were only reserved for the extremely wealthy.
The art didn’t really begin to take off in Japan until around 1300 after a famous Japanese poet wrote about it. From there, the technique was eventually developed and refined over the centuries, with more focus placed on the overall design and natural simplicity. Still, it wasn’t until the early 1800s that the discipline was fully structured and classified, and this is also when the art was given the name bonsai.
Common Types of Bonsai Trees
Bonsai trees can come in a huge range of different shapes, styles and sizes depending on the will of the tree and the skill of the artist. In fact, there are at least 12 to 15 classic styles, each of which represents different things. The various styles are in some way meant to symbolize the way a tree would grow in nature under certain conditions, such as curving or slanting as if constantly blow by strong winds. While the artist has some control over the final form, the condition of the nursery tree will also play a huge part in exactly how the tree wants to grow and thus what it takes to shape it.
Most people are probably more common with using pine trees for bonsai. However, there are actually a number of different species that work well for the art, including Chinese elm, Japanese elm, Japanese maple, wisteria, beech and numerous others. The species you grow obviously plays a huge factor in how your bonsai will look, so it’s always important to think carefully about your decision.
Basic Techniques of Bonsai Gardening
Coaxing your bonsai tree into the perfect shape will require hours of dedication and years worth of growing and waiting. Throughout the process, you will need to continually trim leaves or needles, prune limbs and branches and repot the plant whenever you want it to grow a bit bigger. As well, it will also be necessary to tie or wire the branches to ensure that they grow as desired, while more advanced bonsai gardeners may even use special clamps. Expert bonsai artists also use certain techniques to kill off certain parts of the growth to achieve an even more natural look.
Learning the techniques of bonsai takes no small amount of time and patience. There’s nothing wrong with simply buying a few trees and giving it your best shot. However, if you are serious about learning the art, you may want to take a bonsai growing class or read a few books so that you better understand everything that’s involved.