The Chinese word pun-sai, which became bonsai in Japanese, means “container-grown tree.”
The art of bonsai was introduced to Japan from China around the 10th century. The first bonsai were grown in Chinese shapes.
With the arrival of Zen Buddhism in the 12th century, bonsai gradually evolved to reflect the aesthetic principles of simplicity and sobriety.
Today, there are five basic shapes, with a number of variants:
- informal upright
To create these styles, the Japanese use metal wire to give each tree a particular shape – to sculpt it, just as everyday materials can be turned into works of art.
Satsuki azaleas (Rhododendron x obtusum) can also be made into superb bonsai, thanks to their splendid blooms. This group of plants has been cultivated for many years and numerous hybrids have been created.
The Japanese word Satsuki means “blooming in the fifth month.” These azaleas do indeed bloom in the fifth month of the old lunar calendar.
They produce spectacular blooms, sometimes covering the entire plant and masking all the leaves. Different varieties bloom in shades of white, pink and purple. A single plant may bear flowers with multiple markings or hues, making for an extravagant show!
Penjing from Northern China
Miniature trees, or penjing, from Northern China are distinguished by their curved trunks with elegant, sometimes exaggerated or anthromorphic lines. Their leaves are often arranged in layers or cloud shapes.
Penjing, which are generally less well known than Japanese bonsai, are intended to represent a tree in its natural setting, but on a much smaller scale.
Unlike a bonsai, which is a single tree or a forest in a container, a penjing evokes an entire landscape by including elements ranging from ponds to stones and figurines.
The Northern Chinese penjing collection was donated to the Montréal Botanical Garden by the Shanghai Botanical Garden in 1980.
Growers in Shanghai have perfected age-old techniques to alter penjing’s appearance. They frequently use grafting and carve the trees’ trunks, for instance. They also use copper wire, unlike growers from Southern China. The use of metal wire dates back to the 18th century in China. This is a technique commonly used now by bonsai growers in Japan.
Penjing can be anywhere from several centimetres to seven metres tall. A penjing is said to be miniature when it can fit in a person’s hand. The penjing given to us by the Shanghai Botanical Garden are displayed mainly in the Springtime Courtyard in the Chinese Garden. The miniature specimens are sometimes displayed in the Garden of Weedlessness in the exhibition greenhouses.
Penjing from Southern China
The Lingnan style of penjing from Southern China is distinguished by the thick, sturdy tree trunks. These trees are pruned hard, leaving apparent scars, and creating sometimes very angular shapes. Hong Kong trees belong to this school.
This method was developed in the late 19th century by four experts in the art of growing miniature trees in containers, who were inspired by works by the Sung school of painting, which originated in Southern China.
Most of the specimens in the Montréal Botanical Garden’s collection of penjing from Southern China are from the Man Lung Penjing collection, the personal collection of Wu Yee-sun, an internationally acclaimed expert from Hong Kong.
The penjing donated by Mr. Wu were all grown and shaped using techniques developed by the master himself, based on traditions handed down from his ancestors.
These trees were collected in the wild in mainland China and carefully chosen for their exceptional features. They evoke the spectacular landscapes where they were found and give an impression of enduring strength and maturity.
The Lingnan technique can be described as “grow and clip”. The trunk and branches are pruned so as to encourage new twigs and buds to appear. The direction of these new shoots and the size to which they are allowed to grow combine to create the desired effect. This technique is suited to the long growing season in Southern China and the wide variety of fast-growing tropical and semi-tropical trees.
Mr. Wu emphasizes a natural aesthetic, with meticulous attention to each detail. Nature remains his primary source of inspiration, and purity of style his ultimate goal.
Bonsai growing is very popular in Vietnam. The tropical trees used are usually native or naturalized species collected in the wild. Their shapes, especially the elegantly curved trunks, show a Chinese influence, while the proportions of the trunks and the smooth, fluid branches tend to reflect Japanese esthetics.
The bonsai displayed occasionally in the Reception Centre were donated to the Montréal Botanical Garden by Dr. Quoc Kiet Tang in 1999. This is the largest and most diverse collection in North America.
North American bonsai
The art of bonsai has become especially popular in North America since the 1950s.
North American bonsai growers were initially influenced by Japanese esthetics, but quickly developed their own shapes reflecting those of trees that grow in the wild here.
This collection is on display in the Frédéric Back Tree House courtyard from late May to mid-October.