Mad About Science: Bonsai

By Brenden Bobby
Reader Columnist

Have you ever looked at a bonsai tree and thought to yourself, “So what? It’s a tiny tree.”


Bonsai trees are tiny trees. They aren’t other plants masquerading as trees, nor are they a special breed of tree that is designed to be small. They are actual trees that are painstakingly trimmed and maintained to remain tiny for their entire existence.

Japanese bonsai tree in pot at zen garden. Courtesy photo.

Thousands of years ago, the neolithic Chinese people began the art of penjing (literally, “tray scenery”), creating miniature landscapes with rocks and tiny trees. Later on, these small-scale worlds would come to include intricate water features and showcase primarily in the gardens and homes of priests and wealthy individuals.

Sometime around 700 CE, the Japanese altered the art to focus solely on the tree. This sounds like a simplification of an existing artform, but with no other facets to hide behind, the perfection of the tree became the only focus for the observer. A minimalistic approach to art and culture focused and refined the medium, and put the discipline and attention to detail of the craftsman on center stage.

Bonsai took root — so to speak — in Japan around 700 CE, though it began to appear in official paintings and the artwork of noble life by the 12th century. The artform evolved a number of times in the centuries between, shifting from a focus on miniaturized landscaping to large ornate pots, until finally settling on the form we recognize today: a tiny tree in a tiny planter.

By the 17th century, bonsai had become a prolific art throughout Japan. To this day, a pine tree cared for by the island nation’s third shogun, Tokugawa Iemitsu (1604-1651), grows in the Tokyo Imperial Palace and is considered a national treasure. This tree is at least 500 years old, having outlived countless full-sized trees in the world and surviving through some of the most incredible events in human history.

Another bonsai tree lived through many of the events as the royal tree, including an intercontinental move and even an atomic bomb. In 1975, a Japanese white pine was gifted to the United States as a symbol of friendship on the 200th birthday of the nation’s founding. Twenty-six years later, the gifter’s grandchildren uncovered a shocking fact about the friendship tree — it had been planted just a few miles from the epicenter of the atomic blast that leveled Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945 in an historic attack by the U.S. The tree not only survived the blast, the aftermath and the immense turmoil of postwar Japan, but found its home in friendship with the very country that nearly wiped it from existence.

The oldest bonsai tree dwarfs the others in both size and life. The Crespi ficus — named for Luigi Crespi — found its eternal home in Milan, Italy, in 1986. Standing more than 10 feet tall and nine feet wide, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this is no bonsai tree, but a regular tree masquerading as something grander. 

Much of the woody structure of the ficus is actually its root system pushing the rest of the tree up from the largest bonsai pot ever created. The huge clay pot is wider than the tree and was fired as one piece — an astounding feat of craftsmanship for anyone who has ever fired pottery. Imagine the size of the kiln that created this historic monument. The tree is estimated to be at least 1,000 years old, and can now be visited for the price of a plane ticket and a €6 entry fee.

As is evident from the longevity of just these three trees, training a bonsai tree seems to create no long-term harm for the plant. On the contrary, bonsai trees are very carefully controlled during their training and growth to provide them with exactly the amount of resources they need so as to not outgrow their environment and struggle for resources.

Training a bonsai tree requires immense patience and skill. Numerous techniques have been passed down for more than 1,000 years to create a beautiful display. Many of these techniques are the same you would use when maintaining a fully sized tree, including leaf trimming and pruning, as well as other techniques borrowed from gardening such as guiding or warping the structure of the plant with wires, weights and tension cables. A mistake can damage or even kill a tree, rendering months or even years of efforts to create a beautiful piece of art completely ruined.

Training a tree is metaphoric. Humans strive for perfection and they may come close, but due to the unpredictability of nature, perfection is always just out of reach. The tree seeks to increase its chances of survival, while the artist seeks to control its growth and cultivate beauty. In the end, bonsai is a compromise of both for the enjoyment of all.

Bonsai trees are often grown outdoors and only briefly showcased indoors after they have been finished. They are often raised in temperate climates, and likely wouldn’t survive a North Idaho winter cycle due to their extremely shallow roots. However, indoor bonsai is popular in climates such as ours that would otherwise kill the tree after a single year. Indoor bonsai trees are much less hardy than their outdoor cousins and often aren’t judged the same way as traditional bonsai trees in competitions.

Bonsai competitions are prestigious events, with one event having taken place in Tacoma, Wash. annually. The most prestigious events take place in Tokyo, where world-class artists showcase their projects to international acclaim. Amateur bonsai artists may compete at an event at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum every February, so if you fancy yourself a bonsai enthusiast, consider joining and showing the world what you’ve got.

If you’re interested in exploring bonsai for the first time yourself, check out some books from your local library. Our nonfiction section has several books on bonsai, including some more functional tomes for growing indoor plants and miniaturized fruit trees.

Stay curious, 7B.

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