What Is Bonsai: Definition And History For Beginners

What Is Bonsai?

A bonsai tree is a perfectly scaled artists representation of an ornamental tree or shrub.

The tree is gently sculpted over time to characterise a full-sized and mature tree that would be found in nature. Bonsai is a technique that forces artificial dwarfdom of trees or shrubs.

Typically, bonsais are grown in shallow ceramic pots.

The word bonsai originates from ‘bon’, which means tray and ‘sai’, which means planting.

When you picture a bonsai tree in your mind’s eye, you’ll perhaps think of a scaled-down representation of a mighty lonesome oak or a striking tree that has been formed and windswept by incessant coastal weather fronts.

You’ve all seen silhouette-like trees that have grown against all odds on craggy mountainsides with nothing other than the occasional goat to keep them company.

Nature has a wonderful way of creating beauty wherever you look.

Weeping willows bend soulfully into languid rivers as ever-moving nutrients feed their exposed roots. Ancient banyan trees survive with their complex root and aerial root systems. Every tree is different.

Bonsai are delicate, fragile miniature trees that require daily attention and habitual maintenance.

Growers must always have a long-term vision of their scaled tree.

When cared for properly, it is common for families to pass heirloom bonsai trees through entire generations. This extraordinary craft started in China over a millennia ago and has gained popularity in Japan and South Korea.

Part of the attraction of bonsai growing is that the techniques are an amalgamation of science, art, sculpture, horticulture and the best bit, magic.

It’s a different way to appreciate and encourage nature.

Bonsai Definition

Bonsai, in Japanese, is written as 盆栽.

The first symbol, ‘bon’, is a dish or a thin bowl, whilst the second symbol, ‘sai’, is a tree or other growing specimen that is planted.

When you combine the two characters, ‘bonsai’ means ‘a tree which is planted in a shallow container’ or, in simpler terms, ‘a tree in a pot’.

What Does Bonsai Mean?

Bonsai is an ancient art of ‘a tree in a pot’ that is the exact replication of nature in the form of a miniature or dwarf tree. A bonsai must not physically show any human intervention. The tree should be detailed and have enough features that would suggest a scaled, fully-grown tree.

Whilst bonsai is an art form; it should still retain a sense of nature yet be a representation of something much more than itself; this allows the viewer to build their own interpretations and experiences.

The bonsai should be revered and so valued that it receives attention and care each day and throughout its life.

The Japanese hold beautiful bonsai’s in such high regard that they will even bring them into the house despite them containing soil from the garden. A bonsai garden can represent the seasons of the year or life. It should be kept close by for contemplation assistance or meditation practice.

Ultimately, the meaning of a bonsai is personal.

It can be seen as a pilgrimage to understanding and connecting with a higher source.

Bonsai History: Where Does Bonsai Come From?

Kamakura Period

Although bonsai is a Japanese word, the pun-tsai practice originated in the Chinese empire around 700 AD.

Elite high society Chinese were the only people at this time to practise this exquisite art; the trees gained popularity as they were dispersed across the country as luxurious gifts.

During the Kamakura period between 1185 and 1333, Japan embraced many of China’s cultural trademarks. It was during this time that the art of growing miniature trees was formally introduced into Japanese culture. Bonsai artisans developed many well-known Japanese techniques, styles, and tools over the following centuries from ancient Chinese traditions.

Bonsai remained virtually undiscovered for almost three centuries but slowly became popular outside Asia.

Pen, Pan, Pun

Shallow bowls or trays, known as Chinese pen, pan, or puns, were crafted from earthenware for over five millennia. A thousand years later, these shallow dishes were recreated in bronze for religious and constitutional ceremonial celebrations.

China created the five agents theory – water, fire, wood, metal, and earth. Students began to create reduced scale elements so that they could gain access and focus on their magical properties.

It was thought that the smaller the reproduction, the more magically powerful it would be.

Interestingly, the importation of incense started under the Han Emperor.

In order to burn these new aromatics, a new vessel was created from bronze and ceramic in the form of mountain peaks that rose above the waves of the mythical islands of the blessed. Some of the burners rested on pen-style dishes adorned with mythical figures, forested hills and cave openings. The incense smoke would rise like mystic vapours.

Some of the later lids already had lichen and moss attached, the onset of natural miniature landscapes.

Tomb paintings from 706 AD for the Crown Prince Zhang Huai depicted ladies-in-waiting with miniature landscapes and tiny plants in shallow dishes.

These were the earliest documented forms of bonsai art.

The initial collection of trees were oddly twisted specimens from the wild.

These small trees became sacred because they served no purpose other than contortion-inspired art where branches were repeatedly bent at awkward angles.

Regional Flair

Tomb paintings from 706 AD for the Crown Prince Zhang Huai depicted ladies-in-waiting with miniature landscapes and tiny plants in shallow dishes. These were the earliest documented forms of bonsai art. The initial collection of trees were oddly twisted specimens from the wild.

These small trees became sacred because they served no purpose other than contortion-inspired art where branches were repeatedly bent at awkward angles.

Bringing Bonsai To Japan

Artisic Portrayals

It’s thought that the first small-scale landscapes were brought into Japan around 1,200 years ago as religious keepsakes.

Utsubo Monogatari is the author of ‘Tale of the Hollow Tree’ a late 10th-century Japanese story and the country’s oldest full-length narrative. He described, “A full-size tree that is left growing in its natural state is a crude thing. It is only when it is kept close to human beings who fashion it with loving care that its shape and style acquire the ability to move one”.

Artistic portrayals of bonsai in Japan were created about 800 years ago.

At some point, Chinese Chan Buddhism became popular in Japan and known as Zen Buddhism. The Zen monks found beauty in severe austerity. They began to develop their own miniature landscapes that represented the universe, resulting in the gardening art form hachi-no-ki, which literally translates into ‘the bowl’s tree’.

A resplendent folkloric tale from the 14th-century talks of an impoverished samurai warrior.

He sacrificed his only three miniature trees to provide warmth for a travelling monk on a cold winter’s night. The tale became a famous Noh theatre play. Images from the story were recreated in woodblock prints across many centuries.

Annual Bonsai Shows

Everyone from peasant workers to a Seii Taishogun, a general who overcomes the barbarians, grew some form of bonsai in an abalone shell or flat pot. An annual show in Kyoto would see country-wide bonsai connoisseurs displaying their dwarf pine potted trees for judging.

Takamatsu, a small town nearby, became the home of the Kinashi Bonsai growing field. Partly shaped pine bonsai would provide significant streams of income.

In the early 19th century, a group of scholars of Chinese arts discussed bonsai as an essential matter of design rather than a mythical entity. The dwarf trees were officially renamed as bonsai, which is quite simply the Japanese pronunciation of pun-tsai.

Various styles and methodology was developed over the next century, and books, catalogues and articles were published. Early bonsai shows became popular and interesting dialogue was exchanged. Copper and iron wire was replaced with hemp fibres, and the Japanese style containers became mass-produced, which encouraged an increase in bonsai hobbyists.

In 1924, Tokyo was devastated by the Great Kanto Earthquake.

30 families of professional growers resettled in Omiya, which became the centre of Japanese bonsai culture.

In the 1930s, a formal bonsai display was allowed annually at Tokyo’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. After the long recovery from the Pacific War, a greater number of shows, books and other publications and classes for foreigners became accessible.

Bonsai was recognised as a mature and cultivated form of native art.

Bonsai is now a popular art suitable for all ages, with easy-to-care-for trees and landscapes to complex wired trees for highly regarded masters.

3 Awesome Reasons To Keep A Bonsai Tree

There are various reasons why you should consider keeping a bonsai tree in your home, office or garden. Bonsai has been successfully grown for thousands of years and are known to have multiple psychological, health and wellness attributes.

Stress Reliever

Bonsai is known as a great stress-reliever. Growing a miniature tree or shrub is calming, detail-oriented and requires concentration and patience to form the most beautiful gnarly trunks and accentuated foliage. When you work with your bonsai tree, you’ll wake up your inner artist and strive to create an authentic and a visually untouched tree. You are creating a unique form of living art.

Offices, gardens and homes across Japan, Asia and the rest of the world are adorned with bonsai trees.

Each bonsai requires proper care, trimming, watering and fertilising and teaches the grower the important lesson to work hard, be patient and reap the rewards.

A bonsai can live for over 800-years and will become your daily companion.

You’ll learn how to be tender with your care and consider your bonsai as a treasure you can hand down to the next generation.


Training a bonsai can be likened to training yourself. It’s beneficial for your mind and body. Interestingly, by practising the consistency needed to ensure that your bonsai thrives, you can also reap an array of health benefits.

Routine actions relate to the operation of your mind and the response it has to external stimuli such as stress, the number one cause of modern-day disease.

Growing a bonsai will help improve confidence; it teaches you that it is still beautiful even if the tree has many wounds.

Beauty is found in our tiny flaws and makes us authentic and completely unique.

Patience is a highly regarded trait in Japanese culture. Learning how to be patient without negative emotion is attributed to empathy, understanding and kindness. Bonsai trees can also purify the air around you and can help cure tiredness and fatigue, a sore throat and a cough.


A bonsai is an extraordinary gift that will bring happiness, health and wellbeing to its intended recipient. By gifting a bonsai, you are encouraging self-discovery, which might lead to unearthing creative talent and imagination. You are not only gifting life in the form of a miniature tree but enabling human growth and understanding.

A traditional Japanese proverb says “自業自得 – “one’s actions, one’s profit” or “you reap what you sow”.

A bonsai gives insight into attitudes of failure. It teaches that obstacles faced on the fragile journey of life are, in fact, traits of your existing character.

Top 3 Bonsai Tree’s For Beginners

Choosing the right bonsai is a minefield. Some trees are perfect for beginners because they can be pretty forgiving, whereas others are pernickety and troublesome. You’ll want to learn how to practice the art of bonsai calmly, so choosing the right miniature companion for you is essential for long-term enjoyment.

Tree #1: Ficus Bonsai

The Ficus belongs to a family called Moraceae, otherwise known as mulberry or fig plants.

Its thought is that there are over 2000 species.

The ficus is a popular choice for bonsai beginners because it is relatively easy to grow.

The two most popular bonsai species for beginners are the ficus retusa and the ficus ginseng. The ficus produces beautifully glossy and waxy leaves but doesn’t produce flowers.

The tree often features attractive aerial roots that hang hauntingly from the branches and trunk.

Once you have found the ideal home for your ficus and mastered its location, watering needs and pruning and feeding programme, you’ll find it relatively easy to maintain and grow.

The Ficus tree is used to the warm, tropical conditions of Asia, making it the ideal choice as an indoor bonsai. The tree is also known as the banyan fig, the Taiwan Ficus or the laurel fig.

It’s a beautiful bonsai; the aerial roots that grow from the branches and trunk will form ‘legs’ that eventually connect with the soil and form a strong, thick trunk.

The Ficus bonsai can be trained to be pillar-like, the root-over-rock style known as deshojo, slanting, semi-cascade or twin or triple trunk.

Bonsai artists pay particular attention to the raised roots of these unconventional plants to create a gorgeous aesthetic.

Tree #2: Juniper Bonsai

The Juniper bonsai is a coniferous plant that belongs to the Cypress family.

It is one of the easiest to keep, and over time, the trunk becomes twisted and gnarly, making it a unique and attractive tree.

You can quickly identify the type of your juniper bonsai; one type has leaves that are spiky blue-green needles that have a heady, foresty scent like the Japanese needle, green mound and the common juniper.

The other type of bonsai has scale-like foliage and include the Chinese and California juniper species.

The juniper bonsai is one of the most versatile bonsai trees on the market. Even the most non-, green-fingered owner can miraculously maintain a healthy tree.

They can be pretty forgiving if you overlook watering them for a day or two.

There are over fifty varieties of juniper bonsai, and the good thing is that the trees are equally as happy inside your home or in a sunny patch of your garden.

The juniper bonsai ages gracefully and forms some breath-taking silhouettes, particularly when grown in a contemporary sculptural style.

The tree’s fruits are a pretty yellow-green colour and, as they age, turn black.

They are ideal for bonsai beginners as they are one of the most straightforward varieties to care for.

Tree #3: Buxus (Boxwood) Bonsai

The boxwood is an evergreen plant that has been traditionally used for hedges and topiary in formal and manicured gardens.

Buxus sempervirens, the European common boxwood and Buxus harlandii, the Chinese boxwood, are commonly found in bonsai.

As the boxwood grows in nature, it can often form interesting twisted branches and gnarly trunks. Its flowers are greeny-yellow in colour, and bees find them irresistible.

You need to be particularly careful with this plant as all parts of it are poisonous to people when ingested and to pets because the plants contain the steroidal alkaloids aconitine, mesaconitine, and jesaconitine.

The Boxwood bonsai is pretty hardy and can grow in most soils, including barren ground, in shady areas or bright sunny gardens.

Boxwood can be aggressively cut back, and buds can form on old wood.

Boxwood that is grown outside must be protected from very low temperatures or frost throughout the winter months or moved to a cool room with sufficient light.

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