A Brief Introduction to Bonsai

A Brief Introduction to Bonsai

In this article we will cover acceptable translations of the word bonsai, a description of the concept and goals of the process, and a brief historical account based on early representations discovered in China and Japan.


There are several valid translations that include:

  • potted tree
  • tree in tray
  • tray planting
  • tree in container

The word and concept is Japanese, and emerged from the longtime cultivation of potted trees in Japanese culture and history. The aesthetic form and technique(s) of bonsai as it is commonly practiced around the world are a direct product of the innovation and development for centuries in Japanese culture.

The concept and goal of the bonsai process is to create an idealized form of nature in miniature. Most bonsai practitioners learn about their trees and how they grow so they can prune and shape their trees to look older and more mature.

In addition, many people who have a bonsai tree enjoy the simple ritual of ongoing care and shape maintenance. Once the initial shape of the tree is established, the tree can be lightly pruned back to shape as it continues to develop. 


The earliest representations of bonsai come to us indirectly in the margins of important historic documentation. Most notably, images of bonsai and tray plantings can be found on early scrolls and wall paintings in China and Japan.

The earliest known depiction of potted trees resembling bonsai dates back 1300 years to the walls of the tomb of Prince Li Xian in Shaanxi, China. The depictions show potted trees being delivered as gifts to the Prince. It is important to note that the pursuit of miniaturized landscapes is believed to have developed even earlier, based on discovered pottery and earthenware. It is thought that miniaturization of landscapes developed in tandem with religious and spiritual pursuits as a way of moving closer to universal forces and elements ie.: water, fire, wood, metal, and earth.

In India, there are accounts of potted miniature trees aiding Ayurvedic practitioners as early as the 12th century. The miniaturization of trees and plants known to possess medicinal properties made it possible for transport over large landmasses and to remote areas. 

In Japan, bonsai was introduced near the start of the Kamakura period (1185–1333) and became a popular household pursuit by the 1600-1800's. The practice, techniques, and materials most commonly employed today around the world are a direct product of the innovations developed in Japan for the last 700+ years. 

 The art spread around the world beginning in the late 1800's and early 1900's as they made their way to world fairs. The devastation and subsequent military presence in Japan during and after WWII also contributed to the subsequent education and dissemination of practice and knowledge around the globe.

Since WWII, many people interested in the pursuit of bonsai have traveled to Japan to apprentice at world renowned gardens. Several important members of the bonsai community in Japan, such as Yuji Yoshimura, have traveled to teach bonsai internationally. 

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