Bonsai is an ancient art form that originated in China and Japan and is primarily focused on producing beautiful miniaturized trees.
Bonsai is in fact a Japanese version of the original Chinese word ‘pun-sai’ or 'pen-sai' that was applied to this oriental art form. The Chinese also created ‘penjing’ – miniature landscapes in shallow containers – which were in existence before the single bonsai tree concept was developed. There are wall paintings of penjing dating back to the Han dynasty in 200 BC. So it has been around a long time!
The art of bonsai was introduced to the west as a result of American and British troops returning home from the Far East following the second world war, but also from some early international exhibitions dating from Victorian times.
The word ‘bonsai’ is made up of two root words, ‘bon’ meaning tray and ‘sai’ which means plant. Thus, a literal translation is ‘plant in a tray’ which gives a ‘flavour’ of the art of bonsai.
An essential part of bonsai is that the trees are always planted in a pot of some type. There are many different forms of pot used for the purpose of growing bonsai trees. You will often see the term ‘tree in a pot’ used to describe bonsai.
However, this represents only a hint of what bonsai is really about.
Bonsai Basics & Understanding
Perhaps the most important thing to understand about bonsai is that it is all about aesthetics, the beauty of the tree. Whilst many people understand that bonsai is something to do with growing little trees, they perhaps do not appreciate that the most important thing is to grow a majestic and thriving small tree.
A small tree is not accepted as bonsai until it has been carefully pruned and trained into the desired shape. Bonsai trees are not necessarily naturally small, nor are they the shape that they are because that is the way they were going to grow anyway.
Also, we have 'Yamadori', which means tree collecting from the wild. This is where bonsai really started, the trees were owned by the 'priviledged' and Royal famillies and collected from the wild, often in life-threatening locations, by the 'under-priviledged' as a way to earn a meagre income. Some of the finest examples of bonsai are those collected from a rocky outcrop on the side of a mountain, sometimes there is only a small amount of work required to create a masterpiece!
I've done this myself on a craggy mountain-top in Scotland to collect a beautiful Spruce, it was surviving in a little gravel about 2 metres over the cliff edge, I was able to lift the little tree (while dis-locating a finger in the process due to one very strong root buried deep into granite) which really needed no work doing amd is now a 'Specimen Bonsai' in a private UK collection.
*For a Real In-depth History & Study of Bonsai: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bonsai