Imagine a living work of art, a miniature tree that evokes a sense of tranquillity and harmony with nature. Such is the allure of the bonsai tree, an enchanting creation that captures the hearts of nature enthusiasts and artists alike. Bonsai, derived from the Japanese words bon, meaning tray or pot, and sai, meaning planting, or to plant, is a centuries-old practice of growing and nurturing trees in shallow containers, transforming them into exquisite living sculptures.
The history of bonsai can be traced back to the ancient China and other areas in East and Southeast Asia, where it was originally known as penjing. Penjing is a Chinese word for a landscape or scene (jing) in a pot, and is often used to denote miniature landscapes. Penjing incorporates natural elements like rocks, water, figurines, and occasionally other plants in a container with the tree(s) to mimic the pristine vegetation. The Japanese later adopted and improved this art, elevating it to a level known today as bonsai, which focuses on a single or more trees of the same species.
The ancient art of bonsai involves meticulous shaping and pruning suitable trees to achieve a desired aesthetic while maintaining their natural growth patterns. Through a careful combination of natural and controlled cultivation techniques, arborists (specialists in the care of trees) instill a sense of age, beauty and harmony in these miniature trees. This is a delicate balance that requires horticultural knowledge, artistic sensibility and patience, all of which are imbued in the ethnocultural traditions of East Asian societies and passed down from generation to generation. Despite the fact that bonsai trees are not grown for food or medicine, their care requires commitment, attention to detail and a great deal of time. This may have been one of the cultural practices intended by the Chinese and Japanese alike to teach resiliency, patience, persistence and consistency.
The bonsai process begins with selecting a suitable tree species that can thrive in a container environment. On average, bonsai trees grown from seed will take 10–15 years to mature, with most tree species requiring about 30 years to be considered a fully mature bonsai. As is the case with a variety of tree species, bonsais can outlive humans who planted them! The lifespan of a bonsai tree depends largely on what species it is and the care it receives. The oldest known bonsai is Ficus retusa, commonly called Indian Laurel, which was acquired from Taiwan and is currently displayed in the Crespi Bonsai Museum in Italy. It is estimated to be over 1000 years old!
In South Africa, the most popular bonsai are exotic species, as many enthusiasts want a bonsai that makes them feel connected to tropical climates, which are difficult to find in the country. Common choices include the Chinese Elm (Ulmus parvifolia), Cork Oak (Quercus suber), Chinese Juniper (Juniperus chinensis) and trees of the genera Bougainvillaea and Ficus. There are also several local tree species that South Africans grow as bonsai, including Acacias, Kei Apple (Dovyalis caffra), White Stinkwood (Celtis africana) and Weeping Boer-bean (Schotia brachypetala). The majority of South African adopted bonsai species are hardy and capable of withstanding arid conditions. However, each species has its own distinct characteristics and requirements. It is, therefore, necessary to research each species to understand its particular needs. It is important to note that a great deal of horticultural skill is needed to succeed on the journey to bonsai mastery.
Most bonsais, like other trees, grow best in semi-shade, preferably outdoors in the garden, where they receive plenty of sunlight. However, some species enjoy full sun, while others prefer full shade with natural light, and some can survive several months indoors despite being deprived of natural light and ultraviolet radiation. Nevertheless, like most trees, bonsais enjoy seasonal weather variation. Therefore, the fundamental technique used to create bonsai is based on the prior knowledge of the tree cultivation, with perpetual pruning and shaping of branches and roots to help maintain the tree’s size and shape, while wiring allows the artist to guide its growth, creating the illusion of a full-sized tree in miniature. Watering and fertilising are also important aspects of the bonsai care. They are crucial for maintaining nutrients and moisture as bonsai trees are restricted to what is available in their containers. However, overwatering can lead to root rot, while underwatering can cause dehydration and damage to the tree tissues and organs. Adding appropriate nutrients ensures that the tree receives the nourishment it needs to flourish. A carefully planned watering, fertilising and pruning schedule are vital to sustaining the tree’s health.
Beyond its artistic allure, bonsai holds great cultural and philosophical significance. In Japanese culture, bonsai represents the harmony among man, nature and the divine. It symbolises patience, contemplation and the appreciation of the fleeting beauty of life. Recently, bonsai trees have captured the interest of many and gained popularity worldwide, including various parts of Africa. Bonsai trees are often displayed in homes and gardens, providing a connection to nature and a source of serenity. It is also believed that its appearance can induce physiological relaxation.
New market opportunities have emerged for small-scale business owners and artisans all over the world in response to the recent increase in bonsai demand. This also calls for the need for associations to govern and regulate the market space. The African Bonsai Association (ABA), established in the 1980s, was among the 32 founding countries in April 1989 at the inaugural meeting of the World Bonsai Friendship Federation (WBFF) in Osaka, Japan, where a drafted constitution was presented. Since then, the ABA has been representing Africa and will do so at the 10th World Bonsai Convention, which the WBFF will be hosting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in August 2026. The South African Bonsai Association and two other South African groups, the Eastern Bonsai Society and Bonsai Addicts, work together to host regional conferences. Meetings such as the Fifth African Bonsai Convention, hosted in Pretoria in October 2019, present information on our indigenous South African bonsai tree species, popularize the industry and attract both local and international tourists, thus generating revenue.
There is a high demand for bonsai worldwide, including Africa, with some trees selling for thousands of dollars. For instance, the Sargent Juniper bonsai on display at the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum in Northeast Washington, DC, United States, cost $350 000 (equivalent to over 6.5 million Rands). The naturally serene appearance of this exemplar also inspired the Museum’s logo. Bonsai trees have not just generated employment opportunities in the artisan industries but have also significantly influenced the cultural fabric of many societies in the world by infusing a divine harmony between humanity and nature.
Eurya emarginata (Japanese common name: Hama-hi-sakaki) bonsai on display at the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum at the United States National Arboretum, Washington, DC, USA. This bonsai tree has been trained to this shape since 1970. It was donated to the Museum by Susumu Nakamura. Photo by Ragesoss, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2555389.
This Pomegranate (Punica granatum) bonsai is about 50 years old and is displayed at the Bonsai Museum in Pescia, Italy. Photo by Sailko, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=72786081.
Chinese Elm (Ulmus parvifolia) bonsai, about 100 years old. It is displayed at the Bonsai Museum in Pescia, Italy. Photo by Sailko, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=72786092.
Sargent Juniper bonsai (Juniperus chinensis), also known as Shimpaku Juniper in Japan. Displayed since 1976 at the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum, United States National Arboretum, Washington, DC, USA. Photo: https://www.bonsaiempire.com/blog/expensive-bonsai.
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