The art of bonsai has ancient roots in China or even India where it is believed it developed first as a way of caring for medicinal plants. As an art, it has roots in China and probably came to Japan in the 13th century.
Bonsai is the ultimate expression of the Japanese love for miniature. It is truly all of nature in one small tree. There are a variety of styles, some ancient, some modern. Most are meant to express a tree which has grown naturally under specific conditions; standing undisturbed in a forest, wind-swept on a rocky shore, clinging to a cliff side, etc. Perhaps the oldest form of bonsai is the informal upright style in a Chinese-style pot or plain unglazed pot. Many of the more exotic styles of bonsai such as cascades and sharimiki (dry, dead wood still sporting live branches) probably do not predate the 18th century.
The growing of bonsai is an exercise in patience. It is said one is not a true bonsai-ka (student of bonsai) until one has killed at least a dozen trees. The work of balancing proper light, soil, water, nutrients and shaping takes years to master. Of course, this can be said of all Japanese arts. On average, a bonsai does not look right until it has been in training for at least three years. Training is the operative term - a specimen may be one or one hundred years old before it is placed in a pot and trained. It is not important how old the tree is, but how old it appears. Does it look like a mature tree?
In addition to trees, almost any vegetation may be bonsai. If the plant is a grass, it may be placed in a tray and pruned to serve as a companion plant; a specimen displayed along with a bonsai. Classic choices for bonsai are pines, junipers and maples. But other popular choices include azalea, camellia, wisteria, ginkgo, birch, willow and even tropicals such as ficus. (usually kept in doors)
All bonsai have a front and a back. Solid, rugged or weathered specimens are said to be male while gracefully curved, delicate or clean-lined trees are considered female. No one usually asks the trees how they feel about this. Each tree has a distinct personality and is unique. It is said that as one sculpts a bonsai, the bonsai also is sculpting you.
Roots caress a simple pot
White blossoms shimmer
The essence of all forests
Lives here in one small tree.
- Mastuyama Mokurai