Bonsai is the practice of growing single tree in pots. This practice was wide spread in China over a thousand years before it was referred to as pun-sai.
This art had specific specimens that had little or sparse foliage and it had rugged or gnarled trunks that resembled dragons or birds.
Though it is a Chinese tradition, the bonsai trees were taken up by the Japanese between the years 1185 to 1333, that is the Kamakura period, this Chinese culture was taken there by the then fast spreading Zen Buddhism. The culture is thought to have been introduced into Japan in the AD 1195, though debatable. The mentioned time could however be accurate in that there is mention of it in a Japanese scroll attributed to that time.
When this Chinese tradition was introduced into Japan, it was refined much than it had been in its original country. The bonsai trees were confined within the Buddhist monks and monasteries, but later on they were allowed to represent prestige and honor. The Japanese ideals and philosophy of bonsai represent the ancient beliefs on the harmony of the nature, man and the soul. By 14th century, bonsai was highly refined and this means that it must have been in existence many years before.
The words written in the Japanese scroll stated that finding pleasure and appreciating the plants was to love deformity. The contents of the scroll is not really known, whether it is a negative or positive statement. The plant however has been known to be appreciated among the upper class of Japan during the Kamakura period. The Japanese elite used to display the plants on special shelves during special occasions but it was also part of their lives.
In the 17th and 18th century, Bonsai was refined to a higher understanding and a refinement of nature; at this time the containers used were deeper than those used these days. In maintaining the bonsai removal of the unimportant parts of the plant was done. The removal of the unwanted was very symbolic of the philosophy of the Japanese. At this time all the Japanese wanted to have these plants that were obtained from the wild and refined into art.
Over time, Bonsai began to take on different styles, Bonsai artists introduced other forms and fused it with elements in bonsai plantings e.g. rocks and accent plants.
In the mid-19th century, Japan the art was heard of by the rest of the world. Soon there were exhibitions in Vienna, London. In 1900 the Paris World Exhibition was a stepping stone for the world to know about the plant and the art itself.
The upsurge in the demand and the lack of naturally-forming plants led to commercial production of Bonsai by training young plants to grow like Bonsai. Skewers, wire and bamboo were used to train the plants. The Japanese capitalized on this art, opening nurseries dedicated to growth and export of bonsai trees.
Japanese regard Bonsai as a symbol of their culture and ideals, the art is no longer reserved for the upper-class.
The Japanese however focus on using traditional native species like maples, pines and azalea for their Bonsai. In other countries though, there is no certain set standard for the plant.