A 'Potted' History of Bonsai and Penjing

A scene from 'Hachi-noh-ki'

The history of growing plants in containers dates back at least as far as the time of the Pharoes, however its to the Chinese we look for the origins of bonsai with the art of penjing being practiced for over a thousand years. The earliest records date from the Tang Dynasty (618-907) and by the Song Dynasty (960-1279 ), penjing was at an advanced artistic level.

It was during the Yuan dynasty 1280-1360AD, that Japanese traders and officials living in China, returned home with penjing as mementos and presents.

In the Japanese theatre style of 'Noh' plays, one, dating from the fifteenth century, "Hachi-no-ki" (Tree in the container) tells the tale of a man prepared to sacrifice his last three bonsai as firewood, to warm a priest he had given shelter to on a winters night. The illustration at the top of the page shows a scene from that play.

Bonsai in the West

For a period of about 250 years Japan was closed to outside contact. When this period of isolation ended, amongst the first westerners to explore the country was Philipp Franz von Siebold, who was responsible for the introduction of many Japanese plants to the west. He wrote in his Flora Japonica:

"The Japanese have an incredible fondness for dwarf trees and with reference to this the cultivation of the Ume, or Plum, is one of the most general and lucrative employments of the country. Such plants are increased by in-arching, and by this means specimens are obtained which have the peculiar habit of the Weeping Willow. A nurseryman offered me for sale in 1826 a plant in flower which was scarcely three inches high; this chef d'oeuore of gardening was grown in a little lacquered box of three tiers, similar to those filled with drugs which the Japanese carry in their belts; in the upper tier was this Ume, in the second row a little Spruce Fir, and at the lowest a Bamboo scarcely an inch and a half high. "

In 1819, John Livingstone, a Surgeon with the East India Company's medical service in China, was elected a corresponding Member of the Royal Horticultural Society. His description of the propagation of bonsai by cutting and layering, was published in 1822, although he seems not to have been impressed by the trees.

"However much a correct taste may depreciate the art of dwarfing Trees and Shrubs, no doubt can be well entertained that the subject possesses some attractions to physiologists, since it may, in several respects, extend our information regarding the laws of organic life

Air layering is the general method now practised in China for obtaining by far the greatest number of fruit trees and shrubs. It is extended also to many of the forest trees which they cultivate; and it is a preliminary step in the formation of nearly all their dwarf trees and shrubs.

Of the origin of the practice no record seems to have been preserved. It was probably very remote, since we see, on the oldest specimens of porcelain, the same figures of dwarf trees that the Chinese admire at the present day"

The same process of propagation by cuttings is so modified, that, instead of a full-formed beautiful tree, the bough is tortured into a grotesque dwarf.

Dr. Morrison informs me, that the Chinese call dwarf trees Koo-Shoo, ancient trees; and that they express the rearing of them, by terms signifying bending down, or repressing ancient trees, which means much the same as dwarfing.

Since the opening of Japan to western contact, the art of bonsai, although still to some extent shrouded in mystery, became more widely known in the west, with bonsai first exhibited at the World fair in Paris in 1878, then in London in 1909.

After the end of World War II, Bonsai grew in popularity in the west, with soldiers and businessmen returning from Japan with an interest in the art.


For a long time I and my friends had heard stories of early advice that bonsai should be grown in a scooped out orange peel, well alongside is a copy of an article which advocates this and I was gobsmacked when I read it. It dates as I understand it from the early 1900s. Thanks to Bryan Albright for letting me copy it and by the way DO NOT DO ANYTHING YOU READ IN THIS ARTICLE, IT WAS WRITTEN BY A MORON!!

Allen. C. Roffey Sunday, June 17, 2018 10:41