Half a century ago, dwarfed trees were scarcely known outside Japan. Today, they have gained world recognition and the word "bonsai" has become part of an international vocabulary. A noted Japanese author writes that the cult of "the small" has long been part of the Japanese cultural heritage, due in part to the demands placed upon space by the mountainous terrain of a small and heavily populated island country. Early in Japanese history, patrons of the arts did indeed begin to prize "potted trees" but for centuries these remained trees stunted by nature, occasionally tinkered with, but never guided from the start by human craft. The situation is now quite different and the western world is privileged to share in this cultural experience.
The word "bonsai" literally translated means "tray planting." In common with all nouns in the Japanese language, there is no distinction between singular and plural. Thus, one specimen is a bonsai, or many are bonsai, and the word is pronounced "bone-sigh" rather than "bon-zi."
The cultivation of bonsai depends on careful selection of suitable cultivars, skillful root and canopy pruning, and training by wiring the trunk and it's branches into the desired shape. Regular attention is required thereafter, since a bonsai is a growing art in progress. The ultimate aim is to produce a tree of perfect proportion and in harmony with its shallow container so that the whole can be seen and displayed as a living work.
Indoor bonsai began as a purely American idea in the late 50's as students of bonsai were provided with the classic Japanese species of Pine, Chamecyparis, Maple, Azalea and Zelkova. It soon became clear that many of these students were apartment dwellers who did not have outdoor cold frames for overwintering hardy trees and that it was necessary to give them tropical or sub-tropical woody plants -- which could survive central heating -- on which to work and thereafter maintain.
This is exactly how I got hooked on bonsai. I purchased the tree that I worked on from my instructor and took it home. Watch out! That's how it begins -- first you have one and "it's so cute"; then another because "this one has flowers"; then a third because "the shape is so eye catching." Before you know it, I was teaching the craft to my family and friends. At this point, things were going along smoothly but because there was so much more I wanted to learn, I joined a bonsai club, and then a second bonsai club. At our monthly meetings, I met people who had many more trees than I did and types of trees that I never even heard of. My small collection became a large collection and shortly thereafter a huge collection. The next step was clear....take the show on the road! Yes, we (my wife and I) took them to street fairs, craft and flower shows and finally to malls. You can imagine how difficult it is lugging around 5000 pounds of trees, setting up and breaking down a display -- sometimes for two or three days in a row.
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