Many of us have just started to notice bonsai trees. These miniaturized little trees that are oddly shaped suddenly seem to be popping up everywhere. Although they are currently enjoying a sudden burst in popularity the bonsai tree is hardly a new invention. The history of bonsai is in fact long and steeped in culture.
Although Japan is given most of the credit when it comes to the history of bonsai, historians believe that the first culture to actually practice growing miniaturized trees were the Chinese. Many historians believe that the appeal of the bonsai tree to this ancient culture was because the pot grown tree was so gnarled and bare of leaves that the potted tree looked more like a medieval animal then a tree. This gnarled shape would have made a bonsai garden the perfect place to sit and tell fairy tales. When the small potted trees were being cultivated in China they were called Pun-sai.
The Kamakura Period
The Japanese portion of the history of bonsai started some time during the Kamakura period. The Kamakura potion of Japan’s history was when Buddhism was rapidly gaining appeal throughout Asia. The Kamakura period lasted from 1135-1333. When Japan adopted the Chinese habit of planting small trees in pots the history of the bonsai tree entered a whole new era.
The Japanese weren’t content to grow a few oddly shaped trees of indeterminate species; they wanted their beautiful and ornamental trees to also be potted. At first the small gnarled trees were only seen in the gardens of Buddhist temples, but as the history of bonsai evolved the trees gradually appeared in the gardens that were tended by aristocrats and royalty as well. At the end of the Kamakura period the growing of bonsai trees was a respected Japanese art.
Several centuries after the Kamakura period ended, little had changed in the history of bonsai. It was still a symbol of Japanese culture. It was commonly found in gardens and some of the aristocrats often brought their small potted trees inside for brief periods of time. Sometime during the 17th or 18th century the bonsai tree, which until then had been exclusively a luxury that only the very wealthy or religious temples could afford, found its way into the gardens of the lower class.
The next big change in the history of bonsai trees came in the middle of the 19th century. It was during this time period that Westerners were allowed to enter Japan. For the first time ever travelers were able to appreciate the unusual beauty of the bonsai tree. Interest in the miniature trees was so great that they were even exhibited in the 1900 World Fair that was held in Paris.
Today bonsai trees can be found in houses and gardens all over the world.