From Academic Kids

For other meanings, see Bonsai (disambiguation).

A bonsai  growing in the root over rock style.
A bonsai trident maple growing in the root over rock style.

Bonsai (盆栽, "tray gardening", in Japanese) is the art of growing trees and plants, kept small by being grown in a pot and by the use of skilled pruning, formed to create an aesthetic shape and the illusion of age. The Chinese art of penjing is very similar to and is the precursor of the Japanese art of bonsai.



A bonsai tree
A bonsai tree

Sketches of trees grown in pots, apparently used for decorative purposes, occur in Egyptian tombs, dated over 4,000 years old. Subsequently, caravans were known to transport trees in containers of various kinds throughout Asia. The trees were sources of chemicals used medicinally by healers in the caravans and places visited along the way.

The modern-day art of bonsai originates from China over two thousand years ago, where it has been called penzai and written in the same Hanzi that gave rise to the Kanji above. It was brought to Japan by imperial embassies to Tang China (the 7th - 9th century). In the Kamakura period, penjing that recalled customs from the Heian period came to be drawn in some picture scrolls and documents. In the Muromachi period, penjing has developed into various directions in Japan. Just like a Japanese garden, it came to assume the artistry of "Wabi-sabi" to be essence. However, the bonsai was still the enjoyment of people of the chosen hierarchy in the period. In the Edo period, it became possible to enjoy the bonsai for many daimyos, samurais, merchants, townsmen, and others. The show of the bonsai was often held. And, the bonsai pot also became popular by each daimyo's employing the pottery master who belonged exclusively to the bonsai pot. It is said that it came to be called "Bonsai" this time. Indeed a lot of bonsais were drawn in many an "Ukiyo-e (浮世絵)".

The art is still practiced in China today, often under the name of penjing. As the Chinese art is intended for outdoor display the plants tend to be some what larger than seen in Japanese bonsai.


Ginkgo as penjing in the Montreal Botanical Gardens
Ginkgo as penjing in the Montreal Botanical Gardens

A bonsai is not a genetically dwarfed plant. It is any tree or shrub species actively growing but kept small by crown and root pruning. Theoretically, any species could be used, though ones with attributes such as small leaves and twigs will generally make better bonsai, helping to create the illusion of a larger tree in miniature. Properly maintained bonsai can have lifespans that might be able to reach that of their full-sized counterparts. However, bonsai require a great deal of care, and improperly maintained bonsai will not survive.


In the art of bonsai a sense of aesthetics, care, and patience come together. The plant, the shaping and surface of the soil and the selected container come together to express "heaven and earth in one container" as a Japanese cliché has it. Three forces come together in a good bonsai: shin-zen-bi or truth, essence and beauty.

The usual plants used in Japan are species of pine, azalea, camellia, maple, beech, bamboo and plum. The plants are grown outdoors and brought in to the tokonoma at special occasions when they most evoke the current season.

The Japanese bonsai are meant to evoke the essential spirit of the plant being used: in all cases they must look natural and never show the intervention of human hands. Chinese penjing may more literally depict images of dragons or even be guided to resemble highly intricate Chinese characters, such as 壽, "longevity", in various styles, but usually cursive.

Common styles

There are many different styles of bonsai, but some are more common than others. These include formal upright, informal upright, cascade, semi-cascade, raft and literati.

The formal upright is just as the name suggests, and is characterized by a tapering trunk and balanced branches. The informal upright is much like the formal, but may bend and curve slightly, although for aesthetic quality the tree should never lean away from the viewer.

Cascade and semi-cascade are modelled after trees that grow over water or on the sides of mountains. Semi-cascade do not lean as far downward as the cascade style.

Raft style bonsai are those that are planted on their side, and can include many other styles such as sinuous, straight-line, and group planting styles. These all give the illusion of a group of trees, but are actually the branches of a tree planted on its side.

The literati style is the hardest to define, but is seen fairly often. The word literati is used in place of the Japanese bunjin which is a translation of the Chinese word wenjen meaning "scholars practiced in the arts". The literati style is usually characterized by a small number of branches typically placed higher up on the trunk and a long, contorted trunk. Their style is inspired by the Chinese paintings of pine trees that grew in harsh climates, struggling to reach the light of the sun.

See also

External links

ca:Bonsai de:Bonsai es:Bonsi fr:Bonsa id:Bonsai it:Bonsai ja:盆栽 nl:Bonsai pl:Bonsai pt:Bonsai sr:Бонсаи


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