The main definition of bonsai as an outlet for both art and horticulture is quite wide.
There are many myths which are associated with bonsai. These not only provide
confusion for budding enthusiasts, but gives the pastime a bad name for anyone not
majorly experienced in the area. A bonsai is not a genetically dwarfed plant and is not
kept small by cruelty in any way. In fact, given an adequate supply of water, air, light
and nutrients, a properly maintained bonsai should outlive a full size tree of the same
species. The techniques of Bonsai are no more cruel than that of any other horticultural
endeavour. It is also common belief that bonsai are only a few centimetres tall. This is
untrue, although bonsai are small in comparison to their huge life-sized brothers, most are
over 25 centimetres tall and up to 1 metre in height.
To the Japanese, there is a link to many of the ideals that their society is based on. Zen
Buddhism – where the pastime originated, man, nature, elements and change all are
intertwined into this unique method of meditation and expression. To our world now,
bonsai is viewed as a hobby that allows a greater understanding and being with nature
and also a way to enhance our gardens.
Bonsai can be developed from seeds or cuttings, from young trees or from naturally
occurring stunted trees transplanted into containers. Most bonsai range in height from
5 centimetres (2 in) to 1 metre (3.33 ft). Bonsai are kept small and trained by pruning
branches and roots, by periodic repotting, by pinching off new growth, and by wiring the
branches and trunk so that they grow into the desired shape.
The bonsai with its container and soil, physically independent of the earth since its roots
are not planted in it, is a separate entity, complete in itself, yet part of nature. This is what
is meant by the expression "heaven and earth in one container". A bonsai tree should
always be positioned off-center in its container, for not only is asymmetry vital to the
visual effect, but the center point is symbolically where heaven and earth meet, and
nothing should occupy this place. Another aesthetic principle is the triangular pattern
necessary for visual balance and for expression of the relationship shared by a universal
principle (life-giving energy or deity), the artist and the tree itself. Tradition holds
that three basic virtues are necessary to create a bonsai: shin-zen-bi standing for truth,
goodness and beauty.
Given proper care, bonsai can live for hundreds of years, with prized specimens being
passed from generation to generation, admired for their age, and revered as a reminder of those who have cared for them over the centuries. Although these bonsai are extremely beautiful – meticulously cared for over the years and containing such a wealth of knowledge, age is not essential. It is more important that the tree produce the artistic
effect desired, that it be in proper proportion to the appropriate container, and that it be in good health.
Bonsai are ordinary trees or plants, not special hybrid dwarfs. Small leafed varieties
are most suitable, but essentially any plant can be used, regardless of the size it grows
to in the wild. In Japan, varieties of pine, azalea, camellia, bamboo and plum are most
often used. The artist never duplicates nature but rather expresses a personal aesthetic
philosophy by manipulating it. The bonsai may suggest many things, but in all cases
must look natural and never show the intervention of human hands (with the exception
of Chinese bonsai which in many cases depicts images of dragons and other influential
symbols of the culture at the time of origination). Grown in special containers, bonsai
are primarily kept outdoors (with the exception of some plants suited, trained and grown
indoors), although they are often displayed on special occasions in the tokonoma, the
alcove in the traditional Japanese rooms designed for the display of artistic objects or on
a polished stand.
Overall, bonsai are something that are quite personalised and there are no strict rules to
abide by if you undertake it merely as a hobby which to gain enjoyment out of. It does
not have to be an expensive commitment, but it is a commitment that requires a great
amount of time, patience, skill and endurance. Although things may not go to plan, don’t
give up. Remember that the Japanese bonsai masters were once beginners too and they
have surely had their share of trial and error.