The Intricate Art of Bonsai Trees

Spend some time with these tiny trees

By Google Arts & Culture

Japanese White Pine “Thousand-year Pine”, BonsaiOriginal Source: The Omiya Bonsai Art Museum, Saitama

Years of careful craft go into the creation of Bonsai trees - the miniature, living artworks that mimic the shape of full-size trees. In fact, bonsai has been practised in Japan for over 1000 years, becoming one of the most highly appreciated arts.

Flowering Cherry Bonsai (2010-03-31) by Rebecca BulleneBrooklyn Botanic Garden

Bonsai developed from the classical Chinese art of Penjing, or the creation of miniature landscapes. Both these art forms provide entertainment for their creators and objects of contemplation for their viewers.

Still Life with Bonsai, Suiseki, and 'Stroking Ox' (19th century) by Keisai EisenLos Angeles County Museum of Art

Bonsai trees of varying sizes and styles have been used to decorate livings rooms, studies, gardens, and palaces. They're held on a par with calligraphy, paintings, and classical music. But how exactly do you train a pear, or a peach, or a pine tree to grow barely two feet tall?

By Gordon ParksLIFE Photo Collection

The process begins with a suitable source; usually a cutting or small sapling of any woody-stemmed perennial. The most popular are fruit and pine trees native to the landscape of Japan: peaches, apples, elms, juniper, conifer, and spruce.

Bonsai Trees (1946) by Alfred EisenstaedtLIFE Photo Collection

The key to stunting the plant's growth is a small pot, often with only a few centimetres of soil. The roots and leaves of the plant are trimmed with great care, and over time the tree adapts to its tiny home.

By Alfred EisenstaedtLIFE Photo Collection

It's not just about creating any old small plant, though. Bonsai requires a keen eye and a sense of aesthetics. The aim is to create a pleasing scene in which the artist's intervention is hidden. It should appear entirely natural, even if it's in miniature form.

Bonsai Trees (1946) by Alfred EisenstaedtLIFE Photo Collection

Ingenious tricks are used to create the impression of gnarled, twisted trunks, as in this tree. Copper wires and clamps can guide branches and pin them in place, all in order to create a convincing impression of an aged tree.

By Alfred EisenstaedtLIFE Photo Collection

After years of growth, the result is a beautiful living sculpture. Treated well, bonsai trees can live to be just as old as full-size trees. In fact, there are a handful of trees that are proven to be almost 1000 years old.

Pinus parviflora (Five-needle pine, goyomatsu) named Higurashi (Daily Life)Original Source: The Omiya Bonsai Art Museum, Saitama

Just as certain paintings and sculptures are internationally famous, so are some bonsai trees. This tree is named Higurashi, or 'Daily Life'. It exemplifies the koshoku, or 'aged patina' style. At over 450 years old, it is considered to be the finest bonsai tree in Japan.

Pinus parviflora (Five-needle pine, goyomatsu)Original Source: The Omiya Bonsai Art Museum, Saitama

There are various names for the different shapes of bonsai trees. Fukinagashi, 'Wind Blown', suggests a trunk leaning over as if being blown by a strong wind, as seen in this bonsai pinus parviflora.

Pinus parviflora (Five-needle pine, goyomatsu) named Uzushio (Swirling Tide)Original Source: The Omiya Bonsai Art Museum, Saitama

The white areas of dead wood are known as shari, literally, 'relics'. The degree of shari is one of the central concerns of bonsai connoisseurship. This tree, named Uzushio, 'Swirling Tide', is a particularly prized example.

Dwarfed Trees & Plants In Fokeyo Nursery (1946) by Alfred EisenstaedtLIFE Photo Collection

In the past 80 years, bonsai has spread beyond the borders of Japan to become a truly global art, with practitioners found from Germany to Puerto Rico. But all can trace their roots back to the delicate art, cultivated on the Japanese islands nearly a millennium ago.

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