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BONSAI Defined

Bonsai is a Japanese term for the the art of plants and trees in bonsai containers to create the illusion of dwarfed trees. Part horticulture, part art, bonsai is enjoyed by bonsai enthusiasts and practiced by bonsai artists all around the world. The plants are developed into designs that are suggestive of mature trees, miniature forests and landscapes.

Bonsai is a Japanese word meaning "tray growing." Today, we recognize a bonsai as a potted plant generally under 4 ft (1.2 m) tall which produces the illusion of a much larger and usually older tree found in nature.

BONSAI History

Bonsai is an art form with a rich history. As with many human endeavors stretching back two thousand years or more, the origins are cloaked in myth, truth, and mystery. There is some evidence that certain potted medicinal plants which came from India along with Buddhism to China in the first centuries C.E. may have then been blended with the native Daoist representations of the sacred mountains in miniature on trays in China.

It appears that the earliest trees were collected specimens of dwarfed and twisted plants. These were believed to hold special properties because they were neither readily available nor able to be used for ordinary purposes such as construction. Such old and twisted entities were “obviously” in touch with the magic present in the remote spiritual retreats of the mountains or deep forests.

Bonsai was further advanced upon its arrival in Japan, with the introduction of new techniques and its refinement into various bonsai styles. Today, we recognize Japan as the center of the bonsai world, where many influential bonsai artists and growers continue this tradition of refinement.

From China via Korea the cultivation of dwarf potted trees spread to the islands of Japan as part of the introduction of the different schools Buddhism after the sixth century. The dwarfed potted trees were originally brought over as souvenirs and miniature icons from monasteries on the mainland. In Japan, the care and design of these miniature landscapes developed along different lines with fewer rocks and more ideally refined trees.

Especially after the sixteenth century in China and eighteenth century in Japan, the art blossomed. The term “bonsai” actually only dates from the first half of the nineteenth century. Japanese enthusiasts of things Chinese were searching for a word to differentiate their miniature landscapes from the “hachi-no-ki” (“tree in a bowl”) which almost everyone in society had access to. These scholars chose the Chinese term “penzai,” using the Japanese pronunciation which is “bone-sai.”

Over the past century or so, perhaps because of Western political favoritism of Japan over China, interest in this fascinating art form has spread from Japan to other countries where bonsai techniques are applied to native plants. The more naturalistic, less “refined” Chinese styles (under the general name of “penjing” meaning “tray landscapes”) have only been shared worldwide beginning in the early 1970s.

Some one thousand books have been written on these gardening arts in about two dozen languages and there are over a thousand clubs worldwide devoted to the furthering of interest.

BONSAI Pronunciation

BONSAI in Japanese means BON= tray or container SAI = planting

Bonsai is pronounced "bone-SIGH"


The term bonsai is used either specifically to talk about trees styled in the Japanese manner or more generally to discuss any form of dwarf potted tree. The symbolic meanings of these trees have largely been replaced by the pleasures of creating and caring for these beautiful and often challenging horticultural subjects.