Bonsai, by definition, is the art of aesthetic miniaturization of trees in a container. The most rudimentary form was first observed around 4000 B.C., in ancient Egyptian pictorials in which containers cut out of stone held the tiny tree. Subsequently, the Chinese adopted it and referred to the practice as penzai. Then, during the time of China’s Song Dynasty, Japan began mimicking the Chinese. The term ‘bonsai’ arose from the Japanese pronunciation of penzai, and to this day the term ‘bonsai’ is widely known as the refined art of tree miniaturization in a container. The process of transforming a basic plant or tree into a piece of art is a complex, yet simple process. It is complex in the potential depth it possesses, yet simple in its approach. All that is needed to begin is a desire to learn something new and the patience necessary to bring a new creation into the world.
My grandparent’s story is characteristic of a traditional approach to the art of bonsai. They began by enrolling in a class taught by an elderly Japanese man at their local nursery and bought a plethora of books in an attempt to understand the art. Once the courses were finished, they went home with a few young bonsai trees and a healthy knowledge of the traditional techniques involved. They began their pursuit sixty years ago and now have many superb bonsai trees. They followed the rules precisely, and, traditionally speaking, have perfect bonsai trees because of it. While this remains an extraordinary example, trial and error remains the most entertaining method.
The ability for anyone to pick any plant they desire to miniaturize is one of the most interesting aspects of the art. I recently tried miniaturizing a Joshua tree. While proving unsuccessful, it demonstrates the principle of trial and error and the fun involved in trying to help a little tree grow. No tree is ever guaranteed to survive, but with the right conditions the potential always remains. There are traditional standards set for what is considered beautiful, but it must be remembered that such standards are completely subjective. The proverbial saying, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” has never been more appropriate. There are conventional methods that can be admirably mastered, but it bears remembering that the reason behind growing a bonsai tree is to expand creativity and provide a fun, relaxing hobby for all.
Two books that are great for newcomers are Practical Bonsai for Beginners and Bonsai for Pleasure. These books encourage beginners and masters alike to grow bonsai trees and provides many tips for tree maintenance, including a comprehensive guide detailing how to first get started. Both books recommend trees for beginners to grow and then leave all possibilities open as the growers’ skills increase. The list of bonsai trees to be used is not a rulebook, but a guide to give the lost beginner some direction. Bonsai trees such as the Cork Bark Oak and the Japanese Maple are recommended because of their heartiness, but not for the sake of tradition. The books emphasize the ability a person has in choosing what to miniaturize and explains that a basic knowledge of traditional techniques, although not necessary, allows the grower more creative freedom. There are no boundaries involved except the imagination. Rather than hampering the mind, a firm foundation in method simply opens up more possibilities for the grower.
The art of bonsai truly typifies what a fun hobby should be. It has the traditional mastery that experienced growers appreciate. It also holds the potential that a beginner can enjoy the pursuit instantly and find fulfillment in his or her masterpiece. The ultimate lesson to be learned is that the exciting art of bonsai is not for one, but for all. So go to your local nursery, find these books and some young bonsai trees, and let the fun begin!