The Art of Bonsai

Splendid bonsai example at U.S. National Arboretum

The Art of Bonsai

People have been caring for Bonsai trees for over a thousand years. The practise actually started in China before eventually arriving in Japan in the 14th century. The Japanese then went on to enhance the art and developed the refinements which make bonsai what it is today.

In a nutshell, the art of bonsai (tree in a tray) uses growth-restricting techniques such as pinching buds, pruning and wiring to produce miniature specimens that mimic mature, full-size trees.

Fascinated by the challenge of this ancient art form, I started a baker’s dozen of buxus cuttings some fifteen years ago with bold aspirations of reaching bonsai mastery, and notions of creating a legacy collection that would last through the generations. This is often the case with bonsai – some specimens are over 500 years old, having been duly passed down through family or trusted care-givers as the centuries ticked over.

After a couple years, our young trees began to take shape, each suggesting the style that would suit their ultimate stature. Of course there is a range of recognized forms including, roots-over-rock, cascade, forest and formal.

Armed with copper wire and sharp scissors, the training and pruning of a bonsai collection is more than just an occasion – it’s an absolute event. With this ancient and absorbing art form, it’s all about technique, style and presentation. After five years or so, our trees were already looking the part, and quite magnificent.

“Seems a bit cruel, doesn’t it?” A friend would sometimes remark.

“Possibly”, I would reply, snipping away delicately with surgical scissors, “though I can’t imagine any other trees around here getting so much attention – or appreciation.”

Good question however, for when bonsai was first introduced to the west from Asia early last century, many people were openly shocked at the way these trees were being treated by their bonsai masters. It wasn’t until the 1930’s that opinions changed and bonsai was finally classified as an art form in the west.

Bonsai trees require a lot of attention, so it wasn’t long before we installed a dedicated gallery shelf and automated irrigation system around the patio. Truly a magnificent living art arrangement – and much admired.

Then one year, while we were on holiday, a good intentioned neighbour sprayed the patio cobblestones with herbicide. I guess the wind direction wasn’t in our favour and the rest, as they say, is history. Within a week, I watched helplessly as our beloved bonsai collectively curled up their toes and signed out.

That was almost 10 years ago, and I figured my bonsai days were over. Right up until now, actually.

Maintaining and nurturing a bonsai collection requires patience and dedication – and sure, there may be some extra challenges. But as I revisit this experience now, I’m also reminded of the rich rewards – the sense of guardianship, connection, and pure aesthetic pleasure.

It has been said that a bonsai tree symbolizes the keys to a lasting marriage and life: nurturing, patience, caring and growth.

Nothing surer then, this will be a winter of new beginnings. I’m eager to get some cuttings in early, climb back in the saddle and resume a most enchanting journey.

Whether you are green thumbed or not … bonsai is definitely worth a shot.