The word "bonsai" is borrowed directly from Japanese, and literally means "tray planting." The word refers to both the art ("Jack has been practicing bonsai since the '60's,") and the product of the art ("That maple makes a fine bonsai.") Like deer and sheep, it is both singular ("My wife got me a new bonsai,") and plural ("Dave has 15 bonsai in his collection.")
Pronounce it BONE-sigh by English rules and you'll be close enough to the Japanese pronunciation as makes no never mind. If you know Spanish pronunciation rules, pronounce it bónsay and you'll be exactly right.
To be a bonsai, a plant must meet three criteria:
- It must be alive.
- It must be growing in a container or on a slab, not in the ground.
- It must be shaped, by the human hand and/or natural forces, to be the image of a full-sized tree in a natural setting. (Please note I said "image," not "scale model.')
A Brief History. The best evidence indicates that bonsai arose in China, before 200 B.C. One plausible scenario is that bonsai developed from the custom of presenting potted plants as temple offerings; the first bonsai pots may have been flawed or damaged incense trays. Even today in China, often the only difference between a pot intended for bonsai and one intended for incense is the presence of drainage holes in the former.
Buddhist monks carried the art to Japan, sometime between 700 AD and 1200 AD on our calendar. The Japanese adapted bonsai to their culture, then proceeded to develop and refine it, till it became a true art form rather than just a pastime.
The first exhibitions of bonsai in the West came in the late 19th century. But it did not really catch on in the US and Europe until after World War II, when many Western servicemen took an interest in the art home with them. Today bonsai is practiced on every inhabited continent, and regional expressions of bonsai are developing (cheered on by many Japanese.) There are a number of fine collections outside Japan, including that of His Majesty King Juan Carlos of Spain. (I knew I liked him!)
Is "bonsai" a kind of tree, like "pine" or "maple?" No. Remember that a bonsai is a living image of a tree, growing in a container. Many different species and genera of trees and shrubs are used, and as bonsai has spread around the world, more have been added. Tolerance of hard periodic pruning is the most important factor in determining whether a woody species will adapt well to bonsai culture.
The American bald cypress has turned out to work so well for bonsai that it is widely used now in Japan, and the Japanese have given it a poetic name: "falling-feather pine." Other North American species that adapt well to bonsai include ponderosa pine and Black Hills spruce. European contributions to the repertoire include Scots pine, hedge maple, and English yew. Many wild figs (Ficus species) work superbly well for bonsai, as do a number of other trees and shrubs from the Earth's tropical belt.
How can I judge whether I would enjoy the art of bonsai? If you can keep houseplants alive and thriving, most likely you can keep a bonsai alive. On the horticultural side, bonsai can be thought of as container gardening with a long-lived woody plant. The artistic principles are, for the most part, shared with other visual arts: line, form, proportion, use of color and texture, and so on.
The best way to learn bonsai is to take lessons from a qualified teacher; but those can be hard to find in the US, especially outside the big cities. Joining a bonsai club is the next best way; you may even meet an experienced member who is willing to be your mentor. There are on-line bonsai fora, which can be very helpful; and there are now a number of good bonsai books and magazines in English. I plan to offer some lists of resources.