Take a look at that bald cypress growing in your yard, stretching 75 feet up to the sky. Then imagine an immaculately pruned 10-inch version, with the same bark and foliage, growing in a 6-inch pot in your garden window. That is a bonsai, an art form that has developed over centuries to provide garden enthusiasts and horticultural hobbyists with miniature forms of some of the most majestic plants on Earth.
A bonsai is a tree or shrub that normally grows naturally in the landscape, but has been meticulously pruned, trained and maintained to a miniature version of itself, according to Bonsai4Me. Just about any vine, shrub or tree can be maintained as a bonsai, everything from an alder to a rhododendron, according to the Bonsai Guide. Depending on the species, the bonsai plant is usually no more than 1 foot tall and grows in a small plant pot, often no more than a couple of inches deep. It looks just like a finely and artistically pruned species of its type should.
The precursor to bonsai, created by the Chinese, was called “penjing,” which means a small landscape created in a shallow container. Wall paintings of this form were discovered from the Han dynasty in 200 B.C., according to Beautiful Bonsai Secrets. The art form was refined to tending a single plant in a small container, and when Zen Buddhists took the practice to Japan, it took on the name bonsai, which breaks down into “bon,” which means tray, and “sai,” or plant. Hence, bonsai is a “plant in a tray.”
While it’s easy to find a bonsai plant in a garden center or even grocery store, the earliest bonsai were created more than 1,000 years ago in China, according to Bonsai Gardener. At the time, it was called pun-sai, and the trees would be pruned into gnarled shapes that represented animals, even dragons. When the Buddhist monks arrived in Japan in the Kamakura period (in the 1200s), bonsai became a more common pursuit and the art of cultivating trees and bushes in miniature form became more refined.
In its literal form, bonsai means “plant in a tray.” But as an art form, it has a deeper meaning for those who practice it. According to Bonsai Gardener, the Japanese view bonsai as “a fusion of strong ancient beliefs with Eastern philosophies of harmony between man, nature and the soul,” and the monks who developed the art saw it as a “symbol of honor and prestige.” And for many horticulturalists today, it means a way to “transform your garden into a living, breathing work of art,” according to Bonsai Gardener.
At the end of World War II, troops returning home from Asia introduced bonsai to the West. Bonsai became so popular, Japan presented 53 specimen bonsai trees to the United States as part of the 1976 bicentennial. These plants became the cornerstone of the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum at the U.S. National Arboretum.