Bonsai is the art of growing trees, or woody plants shaped as trees, in containers. Bonsai is sometimes confused with dwarfing, but dwarfing more accurately refers to researching and creating cultivars of plant material that are permanent, genetic miniatures of existing species. Bonsai does not need genetically dwarfed trees, but rather depends on growing small trees from regular stock and seeds. Bonsai uses cultivation techniques like pruning, root reduction, potting, defoliation, and grafting to produce small trees that mimic the shape and style of mature, full-sized trees.
The purposes of bonsai are primarily contemplation (for the viewer) and the pleasant exercise of effort and ingenuity (for the grower). By contrast with other plant-related practices, bonsai is not intended for production of food, for medicine, or for creating yard-sized or park-sized landscapes. As a result, the scope of bonsai practice is narrow and focused on long-term cultivation and shaping of one or more small trees in a single container.
‘Bonsai’ is a Japanese pronunciation of the earlier Chinese term penzai. A ‘bon’ is a tray-like pot typically used in bonsai culture. The word bonsai is sometimes used as an umbrella term for all miniature trees in containers or pots, but this article focuses primarily on bonsai as defined in the Japanese tradition. Similar practices in other cultures include the Chinese tradition of penjing.
Container-grown plants, including trees and many other plant types, have a history stretching back at least to the early times of Egyptian culture. Pictorial records from around 4000 BC show trees growing in containers cut into rock. Pharaoh Ramesses III donated gardens consisting of potted olives, date palms, and other plants to hundreds of temples. Pre-Common-Era India used container-grown trees for medicine and food.
The word penzai first appeared in writing in China during the Jin Dynasty, in the period 265AD – 420AD. Over time, the practice developed into new forms in various parts of China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam and Thailand.
At first, the Japanese used miniaturized trees grown in containers to decorate their homes and gardens. Around 1800, the Japanese changed the term they used for this art to their pronunciation of the Chinese penzai with its connotation of a shallower container where the Japanese could now style small trees.
The most common styles include formal upright, informal upright, slanting, semi-cascade, cascade, raft, literati, and group/forest. Less common forms include windswept, weeping, split-trunk, and driftwood styles.