I like to think I have a green thumb. Although I live in a flat with no garden, I have a little collection of succulents that I’ve managed to keep alive (although with varying degrees of success) as well as some other houseplants that seem to be thriving with all the sunshine we’ve had recently. I’ve been considering getting a bonsai tree, so have been doing a bit of research and have learnt that they are more work (and money!) than I previously thought.
Bonsai literally means tray planting and is a Japanese art form that was inspired by Chinese penzai. In the 6th century Buddhist students and imperial diplomats would visit China and many brought back miniature trees planted in colourful pots. The Tōdai-ji temple in Nara has a decorative tree display from the 8th century, that has miniature trees sculpted from silver, that make a small-scale mountain landscape. Paintings and plays from the 12th century onwards begin to feature what we would recognise as bonsai, miniature mature trees planted in shallow containers.
I was interested to learn that there are very specific aesthetics for bonsai, and that guidelines exist that should be followed. These guidelines are heavily influenced by Zen Buddhism and wabi-sabi – the idea that beauty lies in the imperfections and impermanence of nature.
Bonsai trees should resemble mature trees, and as such have trunks with dark, rough bark and visible roots. The branches should begin a third of the way up the trunk and decrease in size as they reach the top of the tree. The container should appear small in comparison to the size of the tree. The leaves or needles should be in proportion with the rest of the tree, although flowers and fruit can be oversized. Some bonsai trees also have deadwood. Its exactly what it sounds like – an area of the tree where the bark has been removes and the wood underneath is dead and bleached. This is sometimes and aesthetic choice, to mimic a natural tree that has been damaged during its life, but can also be as a result of disease or pest infestation.
That brings us back to the original question: why are bonsai trees so expensive? To give a simple answer – time! Just because bonsai are tiny, doesn’t mean they grow any more quickly than normal trees. In fact, most ‘starter’ bonsai trees are about 10 years old. That means for 10 years someone has had to water, fertilise, prune, and repot this tiny tree. That’s why you are unlikely to find a good bonsai tree for under £50. And that’s for a tree that will need years of work; wiring branches so they grow in the correct positions, pruning branches growing in the wrong places and generally keeping the tree in top condition. In 2011 a white pine bonsai tree that was over 800 years old sold for $1.3 million at a bonsai exhibition in Japan – it remains the most expensive bonsai tree ever sold.
I think I might get a bonsai tree and try the art for myself. Who knows, in 800 years my ancestors may be able to sell it for millions!
This is a fascinating video about Bonsai master Chiako Yamamoto – I highly recommend you watch it.
I also recommend Bonsai Releaf on YouTube who restores neglected bonsai. He only has two videos, but they are both brilliant.