Originally a practice of containerising ancient wild trees in China, Bonsai was exported to Japan around 500 years ago where it has become an art form. Regarded as a novelty in the West until the early 20th century, Bonsai has know been embraced as a serious horticultural art form by the Gardening Establishment here in Britain and the West as a whole. Gold Medals are regularly awarded to Bonsai exhibits at Chelsea and Tatton Park flower shows and a number of Bonsai auctions have now been held at prominent auction houses such as Sotheby's' in London.
The word bonsai comes from the Chinese words pun sai, meaning quite literally 'tree in a pot'.
The 'tree' can be a vine, a shrub or a tree. A common misconception for beginners is that the plants used for bonsai are 'dwarf' plants or even 'special bonsai plants'. Quite simply, bonsai are everyday shrubs, trees and vines. For this reason, they go through their normal seasonal phases, flowering, fruiting and shedding leaves.
Bonsai require the great outdoors in the same way that their 'untrained' garden counterparts do.
Plants have evolved over thousands of years to take advantage of natural light, wind, rain and seasonal changes. Cultivating them in the unnatural environment of our homes mean they have to cope with poor light and low humidity levels. Your tree may be able to 'exist' for a few months indoors but it will never thrive. Continual indoor cultivation for outdoor trees nearly always results in death unless the tree is given a position outside to regain its health. There are a few plants that will cope with indoor cultivation for short periods of time; often these are tropical species that require winter protection against the cold, but even tropical species need outdoor conditions after the threat of frost has passed in the Spring.
One important concept a beginner has to understand when undertaking the art of Bonsai, is that the plant retains its small stature through regular pruning, without which it will simply continue to grow until it no longer resembles a bonsai but an ordinary garden plant or tree. Though the roots of a bonsai are annually pruned, this is not to 'dwarf' it. Root pruning produces a small densely packed rootball that enables the plant to be planted in a suitably scaled container. Without root pruning the plant becomes pot-bound and loses its health and vigour. By the process of removing around 1/3 of the roots each year new soil can be introduced to the pot and room is given to allow new roots to grow.
Bonsai can vary in height from a few centimetres to a metre. There is no strict height limit. It is simply that the tree by cultivated in a pot and creates an image of an ancient tree in nature. A bonsai containing an Oak a metre high may seem large for a 'miniature' tree until you consider that Oaks will regularly reach 50 meters when left unpruned!
When first starting out styling and pruning your first trees you will discover there are many aesthetic 'rules' in Bonsai, however these should only be regarded as guidelines and you should try to observe and replicate the image of trees that are around you. Try to create a tree that inspires you whilst retaining the feeling that it could actually exist on the side of a mountain or deep in a valley.
A bonsai should create an image which makes it worthy of repeated inspection whilst retaining its natural beauty and shape.