History of the Enduring Indoor Bonsai Tree
The roots of the miniature indoor bonsai tree stretch back in time to at least 700 A.D.. The historical proof for this comes from a painting in the tomb of Chinese Prince Zhang Huai that shows servants carrying a miniaturized landscape and a small plant in a pot. Except for such occasional archeological evidence, much of the ancient history of the bonsai is told through legend. An Emperor of the Han Dynasty, 206 B.C.–220 A.D, is alleged to have been so obsessed with the horticultural art form that he imposed the death penalty on anyone who kept bonsai outside his own royal court. Other myths interpreted trees as omens of good fortune, hence the serpentine roots and trunks of the bonsai were associated with life forces and the dormant energy of sleeping dragons that they resembled.
In all probability, indoor bonsai-style gardening has been around even longer in one form or another. The Chinese word penzai, meaning “tray scenery” appeared in writings during the Jin Dynasty at least 300 years earlier, and Ramses III, the Egyptian pharaoh, had containerized trees growing in his temples around 1200 BC.
The art of bonsai cultivation as it is known today came to Japan sometime before 1195 A.D. The bon can be translated to English as “tray” and the sai means “plant.” Bonsai literally means “a plant of the tray,” and that is about as good a definition as any. A looser translation is simply “potted plant.” A bonsai is a dwarfed ornamental tree or shrub grown in a tray or shallow pot. “Bonsai” is both the singular and the plural form.
When the art of bonasi was introduced to Japan, it quickly caught on among the Buddhist monks. Observing life in miniature was compatible with Zen doctrines of seeking intuitive enlightenment. The mysteries of the great forests could be reduced to a microcosm in a tray by their window. Unlike the earlier Chinese bonsai versions that had often sculpted trees into the shape of dragons or birds, the Japanese Buddhists strove to achieve the illusion of a timeless, natural looking tree.
For nearly 300 years the secrets of bonsai cultivation were kept within the Buddhist monasteries, but eventually the small trees were coveted by the aristocracy and growing bonsai became the hobby of the wealthy class. As Shintō and Buddhist practices entwined, bonsai were introduced as evergreen elements in household shrines.
By fourteenth century Japan, bonsai ownership had trickled down to the general population. Over time the diminutive plants became not only part of the spiritual culture, but also an important part of a family’s heritage as the bonsai passed between generations. Many of the bonsai grown during this period were tended outdoors and were brought inside only for special occasions.
In the twentieth century, several things happened that first spread, and then further boosted the popularity of bonsai. In the aftermath of World War II, Japan opened on the world stage after centuries of national isolation. Soldiers who had served in the Pacific arena brought bonsai back across the ocean as gifts for their loved ones. Later, as leisure time increased in American culture, a surge of reptilian monster and martial arts movies brought images of Japanese gardens and bonsai trees into our homes and sparked an interest in the techniques of bonsai cultivation.
Today, indoor bonsai has split into separate and distinct forms. The essence of classical bonsai cultivates a healthy miniature version of a mature tree. Classic bonsai is about time, space and one’s outlook on life. It is in harmony with the cycles of warm sunlight and cool dormancy needed for survival. The spirit of modern bonsai incorporates new styles, new training techniques and uses more diverse species as specimen plants. It is about form and structure and making a statement. Modern growers do not hesitate to use scientific techniques, fertilizers, fluorescent lamps and genetic engineering to produce dwarf plants that are suited for manipulation.
Growing indoor bonsai has become a world-wide activity that shows every promise of remaining popular far into the future. Although some of its ancient spiritual attributes have been demystified, bonsai gardeners remain connected with the timeless natural elements of water, air and sunlight.