What Are Bonsai? (Could I grow these? Do I want to try?)
The first time someone who does not know about bonsai sees one, their natural reaction is likely to be: “Is that a real tree? Is it alive? How can it grow like that?” Yes, they are real trees and they act much like their full-sized relatives.
The mixed species forest shown here belongs to the NC Arboretum. The picture was taken in the fall when the leaves on the maples had changed color None of these trees is more than 24 inches tall, and they are growing together in a shallow tray in a few inches of soil. After their leaves fall, these trees will go into winter dormancy. And they need to do this to stay healthy, just like the 35 foot maple you may have in your front yard.
Interest in growing miniature trees started with the Chinese, who were doing it by the 700s CE. The practice spread from China to Korea and Japan. (“Bonsai” is a Japanese word. “Bon” means pot or tray. “Sai” means tree or plant.) At first, naturally dwarfed trees shaped by growing on rocks in the cold and bitter wind were collected from mountain sides. Searching for these trees was associated with Taoist, then Buddhist, principles. As methods for growing dwarfed trees from normal seedlings or nursery stock were developed, the experience of caring for a tree and joy in seeing it change through all four seasons for many years were also considered of philosophical and religious value.
The Japanese developed and documented methods of creating and caring for bonsai and also standards and rules for style. In 1878 and 1889, the Japanese pavilion at the Paris Exposition included bonsai, and the French became interested. Interest spread through Europe, then to America, but not quickly. The first American book on bonsai was published in 1940.
Americans and Europeans at first relied on Japanese expert advice about methods and standards of design. However, Japanese practice was developed for native Japanese trees growing in Japan. Providing a safe dormant period in winter for a bonsai growing in Minneapolis presents entirely different problems than for a bonsai in Tokyo—or, for that matter, in Phoenix. Also, the Japanese naturally use trees native to Japan, and we have become interested in bonsai that include our own native trees, like bald cypress and Ponderosa pine. By now, the art of bonsai has spread around the world. There are bonsai nurseries and clubs and websites in India and Vietnam and Indonesia, and they use amazing trees we have never seen before.
Belonging to a bonsai club gives you a place to learn from experienced people and a friendly place to bring a tree—to show it off or ask for help or advice. You can start a bonsai rather easily. Repotting and pruning a nursery plant will make it begin to look like a bonsai, but the real reward is over time. Your trees, whether you develop them yourself from nursery stock or buy an established bonsai and maintain it and improve it, become yours over time; living things that are part of your life and household.
The following three pictures are all of the same tree: a wind-swept maple raft developed over 20 years by one of our members, shown in summer, fall, and winter (and three changes of pots).
Here are two more trees to complete the seasons:
Winter: A mugo pine: Spring: Blooming wisteria (in nature, a vine not a tree.)
We would love to have you join us in the Blue Ridge Bonsai Society. (See the About Us page for directions to the location of our meetings.)