If you were signed in, you could rate this activity and add it to one of your lists.
The art of growing trees and plants, keeping them very small.
Bonsai is the art of growing trees and plants, kept small by being grown in a pot and by the use of skilled pruning. The trees and plants are formed to create an aesthetic shape and the illusion of age; although many bonsai trees are quite old and simply show their age in miniature form. The Chinese art of penjing is very similar to and is the precursor of the Japanese art of bonsai.
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. In addition, the bonsai pot 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 somewhat larger than seen in Japanese bonsai.
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 trees may 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.
Traditional subjects for bonsai are pine, maple, flowering apricot, japanese wisteria, juniper, flowering cherry, and larch. 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.
There are many different styles of bonsai, but some are more common than others are. These include formal upright, informal upright, cascade, semi-cascade, raft, literati, and group / forest.
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 modeled after trees that grow over water or on the sides of mountains. Semi-cascades do not lean as far downward as the cascade style.
Raft style bonsai are bonsai which mimic a natural phenomenon where a tree which has been toppled (typically due to erosion or another natural force) begins to grow a new root system out of the part of the trunk that is in contact with the ground. Raft bonsai are typically planted with the original root system still intact and in contact with the soil. The bark on the underside of the trunk is trimmed off until the smooth wood underneath is visible; this wood is then placed in contact with the soil and, typically, the trunk is buried either immediately or over time. This group of bonsai 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 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 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.
A group or forest bonsai display is, as the name suggests, a number of bonsai (typically an odd number if there are three or more trees) placed together in a pot. Typically the number of trees in a forest style display is fifty or less, though there is no formal limit to this number. The trees are often the same species and are styled accordingly; although group or forest bonsai tend to contain smaller trees (which would be classified as "mame" style bonsai if they were planted alone), larger trees may be used.
Additionally, bonsai are classed by size. There are a number of specific techniques and styles associated with "mame" and "shito" sizes, the smallest bonsai. These are often small enough to be grown in thimble-sized pots, and due to their miniscule size require special care and adhere to different design conventions.
Shaping and dwarfing are accomplished through a few basic but exacting techniques. The small size of the tree and the dwarfing of foliage are maintained through a consistent regimen of pruning of both the leaves and the roots. Various methods must be employed, as each species of tree exhibits different budding behavior. Additionally, some pruning must be done seasonally, as most trees require a dormancy period and do not grow roots or leaves at that time; improper pruning can weaken or kill the tree.
Most species suitable for bonsai can be shaped by wiring. Copper or aluminium wire is wrapped around branches and trunks, holding the branch in place or shape until it eventually lignifies and maintains the desired shape (at which point the wire should be removed). Some species do not lignify strongly, or are already too stiff/brittle to be shaped and are not conducive to wiring, in which case shaping must be accomplished primarily through pruning.
Because of their relative lack of protection from the elements, bonsai care can be quite difficult. The shallowness of bonsai containers affords roots little protection and certainly little water and nutrient reserve. Consequently, proper watering of bonsai is practically an art in itself. Some species can handle and even prefer short dry periods, while others require near-constant moisture. Heavy watering does however make the trees more susceptible to fungal infections and "root rot". Sun, heat and wind exposure can quickly dry a bonsai tree to the point of drought, and most trees must be afforded some protection from these elements. Allowing the bonsai soil to dry out completely is one of the fastest ways to kill the plant, for even a little bit of time in completely dry soil will cause massive damage that is very often fatal. Various evergreens do not display outward signs of drying and damage until long after the damage is done, and may even appear green and healthy despite having an entirely dead root system.
Bonsai are generally repotted and root-pruned every few years. This prevents them from becoming pot-bound and encourages the growth of new feeder roots, allowing the tree to absorb moisture more efficiently.
There are nearly as many opinions about soil mixes and fertilization as there are bonsai artists. Bonsai soil is primarily a loose, fast-draining mix of components, usually a mixture of coarse sand or gravel, fired clay pellets, and an organic component such as peat or compost. There are various thoughts as to proportion of these elements; some artists work with a standard 1:1:1 ratio for all trees, others vary depending on tree species, age, or climate. Some artists omit the organic component entirely, preferring to fertilize manually, in such cases a soil such as akadama is used. Various fertilizers exist for bonsai, and some artists maintain a very strict feeding schedule, reducing nitrogen content later in the season to discourage new growth. Others rely on various vegetable fertilizers to encourage growth early in the season, although the long-term efficacy of this approach has not been conclusively demonstrated.
Contrary to popular conception, most bonsai are not indoor plants, and if kept indoors will most likely die. In fact, this is one of the best ways to kill them. Certain trees, particularly tropicals, will flourish if kept indoors; those of similar species to common houseplants like ficus and umbrella plant (schefflera) will thrive indoors, while those based on outdoor shrubs or trees (most confiers, maples, larch, etc) require a cold dormant period in which to store energy for spring growth. These outdoor trees must be protected from wind and drying effects in the winter, but also must be kept cold and in a generally darker environment. In-ground cold frames, unheated garages, porches, and the like are commonly used by hobbyists and artists.
Inexpensive bonsai trees often sold in chain stores and gift shops are derisively referred to as "mallsai" by experienced bonsai growers, and are usually weak or dead trees by the time they are sold. Often these bonsai are mass produced and are rooted in thick clay from a field in China. This clay is very detrimental to the bonsai, as it literally suffocates the roots and promotes root-rot. Very little if any shaping is done on mallsai, and often the foliage is crudely pruned with little finesse to resemble a tree. Due to the conditions under which they are transported and sold, they are often inadequately watered and are kept in poor soil, usually a clump of sphagnum moss or the aforementioned clay with a layer of gravel glued to the top, which leaves them susceptible to both drying and fungal infections. Some "mallsai" can be resuscitated with proper care and immediate repotting, although this is reportedly rare. This top layer of glued-on gravel should be immediately removed once the bonsai is purchased, and the plant should be repotted in a good bonsai soil such as akadama.
Most nursery stock trees can be grown as bonsai with varying degrees of success. While Japanese varieties of juniper and maple are usually seen as the most suited for traditional styles, other North American, Korean and Siberian species of various trees will also work quite well and are especially suited for colder climates, while some south Asian, south American and African species lend themselves well to tropical cultivation or growth in warmer climates.
Other times, trees collected from the wild are cultivated as bonsai. Known among enthusiasts as "Yamadori", These specimens are highly prized and are often already many hundreds of years old when they are harvested from nature. Very great care must be taken when collecting Yamadori, as it is very easy to damage the tree's root system (often irreparably) by digging it up. Trees that are to be collected must be analyzed with careful scrutiny to determine whether they may be removed safely. Trees with a shallow or partially exposed root system are ideal candidates for extraction.
There is a legal aspect to removing trees, so the enthusiast should take all steps necessary to ensure permission from the owner of the land before attempting to harvest Yamadori.
Bonsai collections are open for public viewing in many cities around the world. The National Arboretum in Washington, DC has an impressive collection of trees, some of them gifts from the Nation of Japan. The Montreal Botanical Garden has an amazing indoor bonsai facility that can be viewed year round. The Arboretum in Des Moines, Iowa has a modest bonsai collection, as does the Como Park greenhouse in St. Paul, MN. Weyerhaeuser Company has a large collection of bonsai trees in Federal Way, Washington.
Visitors to Tokyo are encouraged to take a short train ride to the northwest to the city of Omiya, where an artisanal village of bonsai growers and stylists grow and maintain their stock. In Omiya Bonsai Village, more than a half dozen large bonsai nurseries allow visitors to view trees most days during growing season. By one estimate, more than 10,000 trees of world-class quality can be seen in a single day; probably 300 times more trees than in any other museum.
Flags: Very Long (1+ days), Solo, With a Friend, With a Group, Children, Teens, Adults, Seniors, Indoors, Outdoors, At Home, Morning, Day, Night, Sunny, Snowy, Rainy