The Ancient Art of Bonsai

A beautiful little bonsai tree.
I’ve always been intrigued by “bonsai-d” trees and plants. There is something so cool about those tiny trees and forests! They almost look like tiny fairy gardens. I find them really magical.
they look just like miniature trees
I love the idea of working in harmony with a living thing to achieve an end result that is aesthetically pleasing and actually a living piece of art. Even though painting and drawing are my true passions, I plan on learning to bonsai.

The ancient art of Bonsai originated in China over a thousand years ago. Since then, it has been studied, copied and adopted all over the world and embraced as an artform as well as a gardening practice. The original practice of planting single trees in pots was known as “pun-sai.” The concept of bonsai is to grow a tree or shrub in a container and prune it in such a way that it is in harmony with it’s container, creating an aesthetically pleasing shape. Bonsai is more an artform than a horticultural practice, but basic gardening knowledge is essential to practicing the art of bonsai because the artist is creating and harmonizing with a living growing subject matter.

During the Kamakura period in Japan (1185-1333) many Chinese traditions were adopted. The spread of Zen Buddhism around Asia brought with it the spread of cultural trademarks, such as the art of Bonsai. The Japanese began to refine the artform and the practice of planting and creating these beautiful little living sculptures became a symbol of honor and prestige, representing a fusion of ancient beliefs with the Eastern philosophies of the harmony between man, the soul and nature.

Nature has always been a prominent subject in Japanese art. This is an example of an 18th century panel painted on gold leaf.
Over time, the practice continued to develop and eventually became quite commonplace and evolved through different styles and “fashions”. In the 17th and 18th century, the Japanese philosophy was one which embraced the reduction of everything just to the essential elements and ultimate refinement. The styles of bonsai trees reflected these ideas and was considered a representation of this minimalist philophy.

Eventually, other trends began to develop such as introducing other natural elements such as rocks, supplementary plants, and even small buildings and people. This particular style was known as “bon-kei.” One of my favorite type of bonsai is the representation of miniature landscapes, known as “sai-ke.”

In Japan, mostly native species such as pines, azaleas and maples are used in their bonsai. However, other countries explore many other plants in their attempts.

One of the bonsai plants on display at the Chicago Botanic Garden.
If you are interested in trying to practice the art of bonsai on your own, there are many books on the subject. Check out for some book options. There is also an American Bonsai Society for enthusiasts in the United States.


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