Bonsai (盆栽) is the art of cultivating small trees in a container while keeping the shape of a full-grown tree. Bonsai cultivation takes a lot of time, patience, and require special tools to keep the tree healthy in the small pot containing it.
Being trees, bonsai can live for a long period of time with appropriate care. A number of bonsai trees that are known to be over a century old, some are even said to be 1,000 years old.
Bonsai trees are not cultivated for medicine or for food, as the main purpose of bonsai cultivation is the joy of seeing a beautiful plant growing and taking the shape of a miniature tree, slowly becoming a work of art.
The first bonsai trees appeared in Japan around the 7th century, after a few miniature trees were brought back from diplomatic missions in China. Bonsai was described in the oldest full-length Japanese narative called Utsubo Monogatari (The Tale of the Hollow Tree), and started to appear in handscroll paintings in Medieval Japan.
Before being called “bonsai”, the art was called “Bowl’s Tree”, or hachi no ki (鉢の木) in the 14th century. At that time, they used a deep pot to plant the tree. Nowadays it is common to use shallow pots for bonsai.
Only around the 17th century did bonsai frequently appear in stories. At that time, shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu was a known enthusiast of the art, and one of the oldest known Bonsai trees dating back from that period has been taken care of by him. That tree, called the Sandai Shogun no Matsu, is thought to be at least 500 years old, and it is considered a National Treasure of Japan. The tree is currently held in the collection of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo.
Bonsai cultivation only became popular with the general population around the end of the 18th century, and became a common hobby during the 19th century. New tools and techniques to cultivate Bonsai trees were invented, and after the Second World War, this Japanese tradition became accessible to other parts of the world, thus increasing its popularity overseas.
Nowadays, Bonsai trees are known worldwide and appreciated by many. Clubs, conventions, and associations of this art exist now in many different countries in the world, and is accessible to everyone.