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Bonsai Trees: Symbolism and significance

The bonsai tree is a true Japanese art form that uniquely combines horticultural techniques and beautiful aesthetics. The art of the bonsai actually originated in the Chinese Empire and grew in popularity here before being imitated and adapted in Japan to become what we know and recognise today. Interestingly, ‘bonsai’ can be literally translated as ‘planted in a container’, though it’s the trees and how to nurture them that is the true fascination. Let’s take a look at this part of nature’s vast history and its role in Japanese culture.

Plant symbolism

The real purpose of bonsai is for each tree to act as a symbol of contemplation for those viewing them whilst also being an enjoyable past time. Unlike many other plant cultivation practices, bonsai are not intended for food or for medicine. Instead, taking care of these trees focuses on long-term cultivation and shaping the trees as they grow over time.
There are many styles and sizes of bonsai, as well as different ways of growing them. Over the years, bonsai trees have come to follow important aesthetic guidelines. They tend to be kept small, in proportion and symmetrical. Importantly, bonsai should still look natural, despite being so carefully nurtured.
The bonsai’s beauty extends further than that of its leaves. For tree’s being shown on display, the shape, colour, and size of its pot are chosen to complement the tree’s aesthetic. In fact, some bonsai pots are highly collectable, such as ancient Chinese or Japanese pots made in regions with experienced pot makers.

History of the tree

The history of the bonsai dates back to the 6th century where Imperial embassy personnel and Buddhist students from Japan visited and returned from mainland China, bringing ideas, goods and plants. These plants soon began to appear in Japanese writings and art. In the medieval period, these ‘dwarf trees’ were portrayed in handscroll paintings, becoming the earliest known to depictions of small trees that would later be known as the bonsai in Japan.
After the 1300’s Zen monks began to develop trays of landscapes so that a single tree in a pot, later known as bonsai, could represent the universe. As time progressed, everyone from military leader shoguns to the general population grew some form of tree or azalea in a pot or shell. By the late eighteenth century, a show for traditional pine dwarf potted trees was then held annually in Kyoto. Around the year 1800, a group of scholars of the Chinese arts gathered near the city of Osaka to discuss recent styles in miniature trees. Their dwarf trees were renamed as ‘bonsai’ in order to differentiate them from the ordinary ‘hachi-no-ki’, a more common potted tree.
Over the coming years, different sizes and styles of bonsai were developed, with catalogues and books about the trees, tools, and pots being published. As popularity grew, many early formal shows were held for this symbolic Japanese tree. Cultivation and caring methods also began to adapt with copper and iron wire replacing hemp fibres for shaping the trees.

Cultivation and Care

The most important part of the bonsai is care and cultivation. This tree requires techniques and tools that are specialised to support the growth and long term maintenance of the tree. Leaf trimming, pruning, wiring, clamping, grafting, defoliation and deadwood are all techniques used to cultivate and care for this symbolic plant.
Not only are the techniques important but the basic levels of care needed. Maintaining the long term health of a this tree requires specialist care. Watering must be regular and sufficient for the type of tree. Repotting must be carried out often using specially developed tools used for maintenance. Soil composition and fertilisation must be specialised to the needs of each tree as well as making sure that the bonsai is kept in the right light conditions both indoor and outdoor.
At Atelier Japan, we focus on true Japanese symbolism and history in all of our products. From the centuries-old techniques used by our expert makers to their modern takes on traditional craft, our collections of handcrafted tea, silverware, pottery, jewellery and fans are designed to bring meaning and heritage to your home. Visit Atelier Japan to be inspired by our collections.