Bonsai growers treat trees as their children for a reason – Quartz

Caring for small trees isn’t exactly like raising small people, but bonsai trees evoke extraordinary emotions in their growers. And pot-grown minis have a lot going for them. These little trees are arboreal haiku, horticultural poetry, representing an art form, a philosophy, a tradition and all of nature itself.

“Bonsai trees are like our children,” Fuyumi Iimura told The New York Times (paywall). Iimura and her husband Seiji run a fifth-generation bonsai shop in Kawaguchi, a town near Tokyo.

The couple lost seven small trees worth $90,000 to thieves last month, including a four-century-old 33-inch Shimpaku that they have maintained for 25 years. “These are our children who have lived for 400 years. I now feel like our limbs have been taken away and I miss them every day,” she said.

The couple are desperate to get their trees back and fear thieves will take care of them in the meantime. After all, care is what makes these little growths so special.


Water Jasmine bonsai in Malaysia.

Bonsai are trees or shrubs that grow in a pot and, therefore, are stunted. However, their small size only enhances their elegance and beauty. Through careful pruning and wiring, the miniatures are shaped over the years with as much care as a statue, brought to life as tiny representatives of one of the world’s greatest living beings. They are works of art, maintained and imagined by man, made of nature. And in the process of maintenance, the trees and the producers bond.

The Iimuras are not the only bonsai enthusiasts to have reacted emotionally to a theft. In 1978, Susan Berv of Great Neck, Long Island lost eight trees to a thief suspected of being a bonsai expert and involved in similar crimes in three localities. She told the New York Times (paywall): “[T]These plants were like children to me. I spent years raising them. Everyone has their own personality. »

The love expressed by these growers who have lost their bonsai reflects the unique place of these trees in the history of horticulture and the care that the practice requires. Growers don’t just plant a tree in a pot and hope for the best. “Bonsai trees are a long-term commitment…and most take at least a decade to create,” Julian Velasco, the former curator of the Brooklyn Botanical Garden’s bonsai collection, told the AP in 2014. Some can hardly go a day without some kind of care.”

Reuters/Stefan Wermuth

Bonsai at the Chelsea Flower Show in London.

For lovers of small trees, this commitment is part of the pleasure of their practice. It places producers in a long and venerable tradition, rooted in China in the year 200. Don’t you know or the cultivation of “potted trees” spread to Japan around the 6th century, where the practice became known as bonsai, and most likely accompanied Zen Buddhism on its journeys from China.

A 1971 History of Bonsai (pdf), published by Harvard University, explains the relationship between Buddhist philosophy and horticultural practice. “With Zen comes the perfection of miniature and the associated ideals of self-discipline and emulation of Nature. Potted trees kept small could serve as objects of contemplation as well as decoration. In other words, the Bonsai trees weren’t just cute little guys, these little trees served as an expression of Zen and an object of meditation.

In 1095 bonsai cultivation began to appear in Japanese literature, where it was considered “an elegant activity for samurai”. And in the 19th century, the British traveler Marie Stopes observed in her diaries of a visit to the house of the Japanese Count Okuma, “He also has a fine collection of dwarf trees, and I saw one of his gardeners prune a mighty forest of three-inch-tall pines growing on a promontory jutting out to sea in a porcelain dish.

Reuters/Simon Dawson

Bonsai for sale at Japan House in London.

The Brooklyn Botanical Garden has one of the most impressive bonsai collections outside of Japan, including approximately 350 shoots and a 300-year-old white pine bonsai. Many Americans first encountered bonsai after World War II – the conflict between nations then sparked an interest in Japanese culture. The art of the small tree quickly took hold in the United States and the California Bonsai Society was established in 1950. The American Bonsai Society was established in 1967 and regularly holds conferences for growers, teaching the practice and putting featuring bonsai trees.

It is an ancient art form, now practiced all over the world, which follows principles of design much like, say, painting. Yet this requires a deep understanding of nature and engagement with it. Mother Earth provides the raw materials with which an artist will work. In his 2009 book transformative mission, Robert Stevens writes about the art and science of growing bonsai, explaining:

A good bonsai design should be artistically beautiful, with compelling horticultural cues, and should convey a thematic message… The components of bonsai composition are roots, trunk, branches, foliage pads, crown, container and accessories (rock, grass, moss, ground etc). Composition is the placement or arrangement of these components in a unified way in the work, resulting in a creation that is aesthetically pleasing to the eye and gives a sense of harmony to the viewer.

Stevens notes that the same principles that apply to art, architecture, and design are important in bonsai. Each producer must consider balance, emphasis, simplicity, contrast, proportion, space, unity, movement and rhythm. The bonsai artist, however, unlike the painter, works with materials dictated by the nature of the growth. The grower’s job is to study the tree carefully and continually, molding its shape over the years so that it conforms to his individual artistic vision while appearing natural, an idealized miniature representative of a traditional pruning tree. normal.

In this sense, there is a resemblance between the cultivation of bonsai and the education of children. Just as parents use nature’s raw material, education and their own notions to create children who they hope will be more perfect humans, bonsai trees attempt to encourage only the finest in their trees and reshape the mundane – bark, branches – into extraordinary expression.

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