I know they are considered desperately déclassé in certain circles, but I kind of love bonsai. After a few years living in California where local garden centers are chock full of them, it’s easy to dismiss them as a fakey Zen accessory, but here in the context of the Japan’s contemplative craft traditions they make perfect sense.
Bonsai (盆栽 lit. plantings in tray, from bon, a tray or low-sided pot and sai, a planting or plantings) is a Japanese art form using miniature trees grown in containers. Similar practices exist in other cultures, including the Chinese tradition of penjing from which the art originated, and the miniature living landscapes of Vietnamese hòn non bộ. The Japanese tradition dates back over a thousand years, and has its own aesthetics and terminology.
The purposes of bonsai are primarily contemplation (for the viewer) and the pleasant exercise of effort and ingenuity (for the grower). By contrast with other plant cultivation practices, bonsai is not intended for production of food, for medicine, or for creating yard-size or park-size gardens or landscapes. Instead, bonsai practice focuses on long-term cultivation and shaping of one or more small trees growing in a container.
A bonsai is created beginning with a specimen of source material. This may be a cutting, seedling, or small tree of a species suitable for bonsai development. Bonsai can be created from nearly any perennial woody-stemmed tree or shrub species that produces true branches and can be cultivated to remain small through pot confinement with crown and root pruning. Some species are popular as bonsai material because they have characteristics, such as small leaves or needles, that make them appropriate for the compact visual scope of bonsai.
Bonsai has now definitively reached a world-wide audience. There are over twelve hundred books on bonsai and the related arts in at least twenty-six languages available in over ninety countries and territories. A few dozen magazines in over thirteen languages are in print. Several score of club newsletters are available on-line, and there are at least that many discussion forums and blogs. Educational videos and just the appearance of dwarf potted trees in films and on television reach a wide audience. There are at least a hundred thousand enthusiasts in some fifteen hundred clubs and associations worldwide, as well as over five million unassociated hobbyists. Plant material from every location is being trained into bonsai and displayed at local, regional, national, and international conventions and exhibitions for enthusiasts and the general public.
What Of It? Over centuries of practice, the Japanese bonsai aesthetic has encoded some important techniques and design guidelines; these guidelines help practitioners work within an established tradition with some assurance of success. Simply following the guidelines alone will not guarantee a successful result. Nevertheless, these design rules can rarely be broken without reducing the impact of the bonsai specimen. Some key principles in bonsai aesthetics include:
Miniaturization: By definition, a bonsai is a tree kept small enough to be container-grown while otherwise fostered to have a mature appearance.
Proportion among elements: The most prized proportions mimic those of a full-grown tree as closely as possible. Small trees with large leaves or needles are out of proportion and are avoided, as is a thin trunk with thick branches.
Asymmetry: Bonsai aesthetics discourage strict radial or bilateral symmetry in branch and root placement.
No trace of the artist: The designer’s touch must not be apparent to the viewer. If a branch is removed in shaping the tree, the scar will be concealed. Likewise, wiring should be removed or at least concealed when the bonsai is shown, and must leave no permanent marks on the branch or bark.
Poignancy: Many of the formal rules of bonsai help the grower create a tree that expresses the traditions of Wabi-sabi.
I Am Curious about ancient traditions, about design traditions that have deep spiritual and cultural beliefs that underpin them, of various global versions of beauty, and of the notion of cultivation and contemplation going hand-in-hand.