The Bonsai Tree Meaning, History & Benefits

japanese bonsai tree

Introduction to the Art of Bonsai

Developed and highly praised in the Country of the Rising Sun, the art of bonsai has spread all across the globe, turning the once rather restricted discipline into an appealing and relaxing hobby anyone can enjoy.

To have a good understanding of what Bonsai is, we first need to know the meaning and history. Originating in the Chinese empire, Bonsai is a fascinating and unique art-form combining Asian aesthetics and horticultural techniques.

While the art of bonsai has long been associated with Japan, it actually originated first in China, and then spread eastward to Korea and then Japan. The art of bonsai was spread by Buddhist monks who wished to bring the “outdoors” inside their temples.

700 years ago, during the Kamakura period, the Japanese would copy the art-form, creating a style that is distinctively Japanese. They would grow single trees, though, instead of creating landscapes as the Chinese did.

We now know this as the Bonsai tree. The literal meaning of Bonsai is “planted in a container.”  

Bonsai has evolved and developed along different lines in China and Japan. Chinese bonsai is still very much in the ancient tradition, and can often appear “crude” to the uninformed.

On the other hand, the Japanese styles are more pleasing and naturalistic. The Japanese trees are for the most part more refined and better groomed. Both types have their own individualistic charms and admirers.

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bonsai tree meaning

History of Bonsai in China

Approximately five thousand years ago, the Chinese would use earthenware and created basins or flattened bowls. Then throughout the Chinese Bronze Age, about 1000 years later, they would become the selected shapes for recreating religious and political ceremonial bowls in bronze.

Over 2,300 years ago, the Chinese Five Agents Theory then rolled off the idea of the strength of miniature replicas for their earth, fire, metal, water, and wood theories.

Under Han the Emperor, more than 2500 years later, imports of new aromatics and incenses would take place, thanks to the open trading with China’s neighbors.

From that, a new vessel design would be created: incense burners shaped like mountain peaks. These would rise above and became the symbol of the Immortal’s abode, which was a popular idea that there were mythic Islands where the Blessed resided.

Meaning of Bonsai

Bonsai refers to any tree or shrub that has been miniaturized by careful pruning and tying of branches. Bonsai is not a species of tree but an art form that reflects the connectedness of life and a respect for the beauty of nature.

These tiny trees, displayed in ceramic containers that artists choose especially for them, mimic the mature trees found in nature.

The shape of the bonsai is as meaningful as its size. Different shapes have different meanings:

  • Formal Upright – tranquil and strong
  • Informal Upright (a curved trunk) – steadiness through change
  • Slanting (an angled trunk) – stable under stress
  • Semi-Cascade (a trunk that bends horizontally) - staying strong in a time of hardship
  • Cascade (trunk curving down with branches below the container) - change through challenges

real bonsai tree

The Goal of Growing A Bonsai

The purpose of growing a Bonsai tree is to create a miniature size of a real tree. Genetically, they are not dwarf plants, and in fact, you can grow any tree into a smaller version.

Initially, it was only society’s elite that would practice pun-Tsai, using native-collected specimens.

The trees were a generous gift throughout China. When the Japanese adopted the tree during the Kamakura period, as they did with many of the cultural trademarks of the Chinese, the Bonsai would become a part of Zen Buddhism.

bonsai meaning

The Bonsai Tree Benefits

Bonsai plants are considered one of the best indoor plants for homes and offices, not just because they enhance the aesthetic appeal, but also because they have multiple health and psychological benefits.

Here are a few benefits of the bonsai plants:

  • Bonsai plants are known to be a great stress reliever. That’s why there are so many office desks being adorned by it. It relaxes our breathing and many people enjoy growing it as a wonderful hobby.
  • Bonsai plants will make you patient and physically active, as it requires proper care, watering, fertilizing and trimming. It gives us the chance to learn one of life’s most important lessons — work hard, be patient and it shall bear fruit for you.
  • One of the many reasons why bonsai plants are one of the best plants for homes or offices is that they help in purifying the air in their surroundings.

All in all, by having a bonsai plant around, you can stimulate your balance and creativity while also boosting your immunity.

Also, it wouldn’t be wrong to say that the bonsai plant is the plant of hope, because it teaches you that the grass is green where you water it.

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Some Recommended Beginner Plants

Ficus Bonsai Tree

One of the easiest bonsai trees to care for and maintain is the Ficus. They come in a variety of sizes and do not require a lot of light to do well. They are strong and can also grow very quickly.

Chinese Elm Bonsai Tree

The Chinese Elm is one of the most common choices for indoor bonsai. They are easy to maintain due to their small leaves, and again, they are fast growing.

Juniper Bonsai 

Juniper is another bonsai tree that is easy to maintain as it is one of the traditional species of bonsai, making it ideal for a beginner. It comes in small, medium, and large sizes. 

Where to Buy a Bonsai Tree

Finding quality Bonsai trees for sale can be a real quest, as there are literally hundreds of shops that sell Bonsai trees. There are hundreds of nurseries specialized in selling Bonsai trees worldwide as well. Prices of Bonsai trees tend to vary widely from shop to shop and from country to country.

Cheap trees (around $20) are available at garden centers around the world, but the availability of trees of higher quality is much more limited.

And trees of the highest quality (very old trees that have been kept for generations, often in Japan) are very rare. With strict import restrictions, the flow of these quality trees from Japan to the US and Europe is limited.

Most tree species need to be bare-rooted and quarantined for months (even years). The bare rooting is a high risk for old trees, only few tree species can withstand this. It's simple economics - with limited availability, prices go up.

Bonsai Trees to Buy

Most inexpensive Bonsai trees are grown in China where they grow them from cuttings to plants of up to 6 feet (2m) tall in just 3-5 years time.

When the trunks have grown thick enough, the 6 feet (2m) tall plant is chopped to just a few inches, after which another year is spent to allow the tree to grow a few new branches.

Letting a tree grow tall and then chopping it is the fastest way to get a thick trunk, but obviously, the scar will always be visible. The trunk will also have no tapering.

The price of Bonsai depends a lot on how much time is invested in that specific tree. The fast way of growing Bonsai is less expensive, but the result is not as attractive. The combination of a thick trunk with tapering is expensive, as it takes much more time to grow.

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