The craft of shaping miniature trees in a small pot first arose over a thousand years ago in China, where it was known as pun-sai.
Even then the variety of individual bonsai was astonishing, as known from ancient drawings. Gnarled, faux-windswept trunks, with sparse leaves to full-flowering miniature blossoming trees dot the historic record.
The Chinese artists often went one step beyond nature and shaped their trees into replicas of real animals and imaginary icons. Native birds, mythical dragons and a host of tiny fauna formed the models for many of these fine sculptures.
As Zen Buddhism spread from China to Japan during the Kamakura period, so too did the art of bonsai. The late 12th century saw the migration of both artists and craft techniques to the small island in the northeast.
While bonsai was already a highly developed skill in China, as it grew in Japan it evolved into the highest of arts. The care and patience required, the complexity in miniature and the creation of a living work of art suited the temperament of the horticultural artists of Japan.
Planted first in the monasteries, the art of bonsai was practiced and refined by the learned scholars and cloistered artists of this rural society. This gentle art, requiring the skill of a jeweler and the patience of a saint, suited the monks well.
Developed to a peak during the 18th century, where they were frequently regarded as treasured objects by the nobility, bonsai rapidly became popular beyond the walls of the monastery and the palace.
As Japan grew from an agricultural society to an industrial and trading powerhouse in the 19th century an ironic historical twist occurred. The agricultural art of bonsai spread from the monasteries to the general populace.
As Japan, for centuries fiercely isolationist, opened up its ports and palaces to Westerners, the distinctive miniature trees drew the attention of awe-struck visitors. Nowhere before in their travels had seamen and ambassadors seen anything like these carefully crafted living things, so like their larger cousins.
Many adopted the practice of placing fine bonsai in a ‘tokonoma’ – a special niche in every Japanese home whose purpose is to display special ornaments and prized possessions. Among these was invariably a bonsai or two.
Museum exhibitions of bonsai in the Western world became popular at the same time as they began to display animals and artifacts from travels and conquests around the globe. In London, Vienna and Paris bonsai were all the rage. With the Paris World Exhibition in 1900, the future worldwide fame of these miniature trees was assured.
As with any popular phenomena, there grew pressure to mass produce bonsai to meet the demand for these unique living works of art. But bonsai resist mass production. Each must be carefully tended over decades to produce even a recognizable tree, much less a work of art.
But many new artists developed many new forms and this living art is now practiced and the products displayed around the globe. Bonsai are treasured in the US and Asia, but also around Europe, South Africa and Australia. Anywhere there is abundant sunshine can be found the bonsai.
The history of this unique form of art is hardly finished as the artisans continue to create new and ever more varied ways of shaping and displaying these glorious miniature trees.