"To appreciate and find pleasure in curiously curved potted trees is to love deformity." - Translation of Ancient Chinese Scroll From Kamakura Period
The quote presented above talks about the ancient Japanese perspective about creating bonsai trees. In this age of miniaturization, the smaller and more compact things are, the more they are preferred. That may be the reason for the current popularity of these trees. With urban lifestyle, it is difficult to have a tree around, when you live in compact apartments, in multistoried towers. Potted bonsai trees solve that problem. You can have a miniature version of your favorite tree, right in your home. Every such tree is a piece of art. If you think that these trees are a recent innovation, you'll be surprised to know that the tradition of growing them, dates back hundreds of years to ancient China.
A Brief History
Let us first deal with some etymological questions that arise. In Japanese, 'Bonsai' means 'Tray cultivation'. The word has an origin in the Japanese pronunciation of a Chinese word called 'Penzai', which also means 'Tray Plant'.
Let me also clear out a major misconception about these trees and also talk a bit about their growing techniques. Bonsai is often used as an umbrella term for all kinds of miniaturized trees, that are created through various techniques. Traditional growing techniques should not be confused with 'Dwarfing' of trees, which involves genetic manipulation. The trees are not created through genetic manipulation, but are grown from natural seeds of trees. Various techniques like grafting, defoliation, potting, pruning, and root reduction are used to create them. They are made to mimic the shape and form of adult fully-grown trees, through artificial techniques.
There are many types and styles. Juniper bonsai trees are especially popular all over the world. Placed in special planting pots, they hold the pride of place in the hearts and homes of many people around the world.
Now, let us trace back the origin of this technique of creating miniature replicas of trees, by diving deep into history. The origin of these trees dates back a thousand years to ancient China. It began as a practice of growing trees in pots and developed into an art form. In these early Chinese versions, foliage on the potted trees was very sparse. Their gnarled appearance was made to represent the shapes of dragons from myths and legends of old. They were pieces of art, supposed to represent harmony between heaven and Earth. To the Chinese, trees were some of the highest expressions of nature's art. They revered it through creation of this potted plant art form. To grow a bonsai tree was an exercise in bringing peace and tranquility to the mind of a person. That is what happens in the practice of every art form.
Around 12th century, through the spread of Zen Buddhism in Japan, the Chinese bonsai tradition spread there, through monks who set up their monasteries. From the Buddhist monks, the art of growing them spread to the Japanese aristocracy and later the upper class. The growing techniques evolved over time, becoming an evolved and highly-respected art form, by the fourteenth century. However, the techniques were still crude and modern pruning techniques were developed in Japan in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In fact, the eighteenth century saw the peak of this art form in Japan. Techniques further evolved to create miniature landscapes along with the trees.
Finally, when Japan broke out of its long isolation from the world, and opened its doors to it, in the nineteenth century, travelers from the west were introduced to bonsai. They saw miniaturized versions of aged and mature trees placed in ceramic pots. Slowly, the word spread and in the Paris world exhibition in 1900, this art form was finally unveiled to Europe and the whole wide world.
Since then, there has been no looking back. Today, the art of growing bonsai trees has spread far and wide, and these types of trees are now available in most countries and cultures. The history of these trees shows us that this art had its birth in China, it grew in Japan, and then matured as an accepted horticultural art form, over its travel to the whole wide world.