The first time I saw a bonsai I remember being deeply captivated by its beautiful shape and diminutive size. It was an evergreen tree at the Japanese embassy in Ottawa and I was only a child, on a field trip with my grade-four class. I can still recall the ebony-glazed pot the tree was planted in and the gnarled, almost windswept expression of the tree itself, manipulated into shape by skilful, patient hands.
The term bonsai means simply “plant in a tray” – a Japanese derivation of the Chinese term “penjing,” which means the same thing. The English definition of bonsai, however, has come to encompass any tree or plant that has been intentionally miniaturized and planted in a shallow, decorative pot.
While the practice of cultivating miniature trees originated in China, it was the Japanese who turned it into an art. With over a thousand years of tradition guiding its very strict principles and practices, the Japanese have perfected it.
A bonsai often begins with a cutting or seedling of any perennial wood-stemmed tree or shrub that produces true branches and can be cultivated to remain small through pot confinement, regular pruning and root reduction. The shape of the plant is often created by grafting or carefully binding the trunk or branches. Pruning and defoliating the tree in areas where leaves and branches are not desired keeps the plant in its determined pose. Once it has reached its desired size and shape, the tree is planted in a decorative, shallow tray (almost always designed specifically for bonsai planting) which further restricts the root growth. Throughout the year, regular pruning and shaping keeps the bonsai true to form.
Bonsai are meant to inspire wonder and contemplation for the viewer. For the grower it is about mastering patience, skill and discipline. Below are five beautiful examples of bonsai, including junipers and even a blackberry bush! Many of these specimens are decades old. The treehouse sculpture is by Japanese artist Takanori Aiba. It has been incorporated into a cascading bonsai and the result is truly extraordinary.
Brent and Martha Stewart chose the bonsai as the symbol when they created the Martha Stewart Center for Living at Mount Sinai