Everything You Need To Know About Meaning and Cultural Significance of Bonsai Trees

Once reserved for Japanese nobles, bonsai is now a popular and pleasant horticultural pastime around the world. Bonsai involves the careful cultivation of miniature trees and has been practiced for centuries. Combining horticulture with art, bonsai trees symbolize calm and harmony. Several tree species can be used for bonsai, each with its own distinctive symbolism. In this article, we’ll explore the meaning and cultural significance of bonsai trees and the symbolism of several popular bonsai varieties.


Bonsai Tree Meaning and Symbolism – The Essentials

Bonsai trees are part of an ancient tradition that encourages peace and serenity. Practitioners shape trees to depict scenes in nature, so bonsai also symbolizes nature and the circle of life in addition to natural harmony and balance. Bonsai trees are also associated with simplicity.


Etymology and Origin of Bonsai

Etymology and Origin of Bonsai

The practice of bonsai originated in China, known as penjing or penzai. However, the Japanese name bonsai has been adopted as a universal term across the world. Penjing emerged in approximately 700 AD during the Tang Dynasty in China but may have been practiced earlier.

Although penjing and bonsai are very similar practices, there is a fundamental difference. Penjing is an art form that focuses on creating miniature landscapes or natural scenes. Although penjing involves training and shaping miniature trees, other elements are also used. These include rocks and even small figurines or models.

Whereas penjing focuses on creating a complete scene involving a miniature tree, bonsai only involves nurturing the tree itself. The other elements that are used in penjing aren’t utilized in bonsai. In bonsai, it’s the shape and pruning of the tree that’s used to convey a particular message or meaning.

The word bonsai is the Japanese translation of the Chinese word penzai, which is another name for penjing.

The History and Origins of Bonsai in China

The History and Origins of Bonsai in China

Penjing is an ancient Chinese practice that would eventually inspire bonsai. Although the first official records of penjing date from approximately 700 AD during the Tang period, the main components of penjing originated much earlier.

During the 2nd Century BC, China’s trade networks expanded, bringing in aromatic herbs. To burn these herbs as incense, a unique type of burner was created. These burners were designed as stemmed cups that had perforated lids.

For decoration, these lids were often sculpted to represent sacred mountains or islands and included mythological figures. Some of these burners were made out of stone covered with moss or lichen, adding natural elements to these man-made miniature landscapes.

Creating miniature versions of magical or sacred sites was believed to increase their power. Having a small recreation of a sacred mountain could help the owner tap into the magical properties of the site.

The first known graphic or written reference to penjing comes from the tomb of Prince Zhang Hui, which was built in 706 AD. The images depict servants carrying penjing landscapes involving tiny rocks and fruit trees.

The first trees used in penjing were often deformed, knotted, or twisted. Because these trees couldn’t be used for “profane” things like food or timber, they took on sacred qualities. These trees were naturally dwarfed because of their defects, making them ideal for use in penjing landscapes.

Since the 16th Century, the practice was known as pun-tsai (penzai) which translates as “tray planting”. After the 17th Century, it was also called pun-ching (penjing) meaning “tray landscape”. Penjing is still practiced today.

The History and Origins of Bonsai in Japan

The History and Origins of Bonsai in Japan

Penjing was brought to Japan by a combination of Buddhist monks and Japanese students returning from their studies in China. But Japan soon began evolving its own distinctive potted plant traditions.

Zen Buddhist monks began cultivating penjing-inspired landscapes centered solely around trees. They believed that a single tree growing in a vessel could represent the complete universe. These trees were housed in deeper pots known as hachi-no-ki, which translates as “the bowl’s tree”.

Bonsai also became a vital part of Japanese life and literature. A play dating from 1303 AD called “The Potted Trees” told the tale of a poor samurai who encounters a traveling monk. To provide enough firewood, the samurai burned his three remaining potted trees. The monk, who was actually an official in disguise, rewards the samurai for his kindness.

These practices were originally reserved for samurai and other members of the upper class. But the wider public gradually took more of an interest towards the end of the 18th Century. From 1781, a contest to grow dwarf pine trees was held in Kyoto every year. Entrants from five provinces would grow one or two specimens for the contest.

In 1800, a group of Japanese scholars specializing in the Chinese arts coined the term bonsai. This referenced the style of growing dwarf trees in trays and was inspired by Chinese penzai. Bonsai was therefore separated from other forms of miniature tree gardening such as hachi-no-ki, which used deeper pots.

Bonsai rapidly grew in popularity as books and magazines about bonsai spread to the general public. New styles would evolve over the next decades, and several large bonsai shows during the 1900s helped bonsai become a global phenomenon.

After World War Two, this interest resumed thanks to a flourishing of bonsai shows and conventions. Now, bonsai is practiced by millions of growers around the world.

How the Shape of Bonsai Trees Impacts Their Meaning and Symbolism

How the Shape of Bonsai Trees Impacts Their Meaning and Symbolism

As bonsai evolved, several different styles began to emerge. Bonsai styles can roughly be grouped into five main traditions, each with different meanings.

Slanting

Slanting bonsai (Shakan) are trained to lean to one side. These bonsai represent scenes in nature where trees lean into the prevailing wind, creating a slanted appearance. Slanting bonsai trees symbolize patience, perseverance, and strength.

Formal upright

Formal upright bonsai (Chokan) are grown vertically, with each branch pruned to be shorter than the one below. They are used to depict natural trees that grow in open areas. These trees are incredibly healthy and free from stress. Formal upright bonsai can therefore symbolize harmony, health, and simplicity.

Informal upright

Informal upright bonsai represent old trees that have weathered the elements. These bonsai are typically grown in an S-shape. Informal upright bonsai are inspired by the weathered trees found in nature. These bonsai symbolize harmony, perseverance, and the cycle of life.

Cascade

Cascade bonsai (Kengai) bonsai are trained to trail or cascade their trunk in one direction like a waterfall. This forces the bonsai to grow unnaturally, making it a tricky discipline for bonsai practitioners. Cascade bonsai symbolize harmony and patience.

Semi-cascade

Semi-cascade bonsai (Han-kengai) are trained to grow slightly downwards and then level out. This creates the image of a wave rather than the waterfall shape used by full cascade bonsai. Semi-cascade bonsai also represent trees that grow on cliffs. These bonsai typically represent balance.

Other shapes

There are a few other bonsai shapes with their own symbolism. Windswept bonsai are similar to slanted bonsai. But while slanted bonsai grow against the wind, windswept bonsai grow with the wind. Windswept bonsai can symbolize resilience and the challenging condition faced by trees in exposed areas.

Double trunk bonsai is a rarely used shape that’s actually very common in nature. These bonsai have a main trunk and a smaller secondary trunk. Bonsai trained into this shape can represent balance and harmony.

What Do Bonsai Trees Symbolize Today?

What Do Bonsai Trees Symbolize Today?

Bonsai trees aren’t just stunning works of horticultural art – they’re also full of symbolic meaning. As a practice, bonsai helps the practitioner achieve a sense of calmness while tending to their bonsai. It’s easy to understand why bonsai trees symbolize harmony, peace, and serenity.

For centuries, bonsai has been used to mimic scenes involving natural trees to create a connection with nature. Bonsai trees can symbolize the harmony and simplicity of nature. They may also represent the natural circle of life.

Bonsai trees grow very slowly, and pruning the tree is a gradual process. This is designed to help the practitioner relax and focus on the small details. Bonsai can therefore symbolize patience and resilience.


One of the great things about bonsai is that almost any perennial tree or shrub that has woody growth can be used. However, several types respond to bonsai practices better than others. Each of these species also provides its own meaning and symbolism.

1. Ginseng Ficus (Ficus retusa)

Ginseng Ficus (Ficus retusa)

Ginseng ficus (Ficus retusa) is a member of the fig genus. This evergreen grows in the Malay Archipelago, which includes Borneo, Bali, New Guinea, and parts of Indonesia. Ginseng ficus is seen as an uplifting plant and also symbolizes positive energy and unity.

Ginseng ficus bonsai have light gray trunks with a smooth texture. In bonsai practice, smooth trunks symbolize simplicity, youth, and vitality. Ginseng ficus also represents abundance and new beginnings.

2. Fukien Tea Tree

Fukien Tea Tree

Fukien tea trees (Ehretia microphylla) are deciduous shrubs native to many parts of Asia and Australia. These trees are commonly known as Carmona retusa or the Philippine tea tree. These shrubs have reddish-brown trunks and produce delicate white flowers.

Fukien tea trees are associated with courage and love. Their growth characteristics make them ideal for growing into informal upright style bonsai. This bonsai shape is associated with harmony and perseverance.

3. Cherry Blossom

Cherry Blossom

As Japan’s national flower, cherry blossoms are an excellent traditional choice as a bonsai. Known as sakura in Japan, these blossoms are internationally beloved for their beautiful scented pink flowers.

Cherry blossoms don’t bloom for very long, making them a potent symbol of mortality and the circle of life. These fleeting flowers encourage viewers to live in the moment, an attachment that’s key to bonsai philosophy.

As bonsai, cherry blossoms also represent renewal, rebirth, and female strength.

4. Cedar

Cedar

Cedars (Cedrus spp.) are another popular choice for bonsai. They are coniferous shrubs and trees from the pine family. Cedars are famous for the spicy scent of their wood. These trees can be easily shaped into most bonsai styles.

Cedars typically have thick, ridged bark, which represents wisdom and old age in bonsai symbolism. These trees can live for centuries and symbolize longevity and immortality. Cedars also represent protection and strength.

5. Dwarf Jade Bonsai

Dwarf Jade Bonsai

The dwarf jade plant (Portulacaria afra) is a shrub-like succulent that’s well suited to bonsai. However, it can often be confused with the jade plant (Crassula spp.).

Dwarf jade plants are native to South Africa. These succulents have small, fleshy leaves and reddish-brown trunks. They can grow relatively quickly and demand regular pruning for bonsai. Dwarf jade plants symbolize good luck, wealth, and prosperity. They are also beautiful symbols of friendship.

6. Flowering Apricot

Flowering Apricot

Also known as Japanese apricot or plum blossom (Prunus mume), flowering apricots create beautiful bonsai specimens. These trees have pink, red, or symbolic white flowers that bloom in late winter and spring. Flowering apricots are also celebrated for their pungent, sweet scent.

Flowering apricots are welcome symbols of the start of spring. These trees symbolize elegance and purity. Flowering apricots also symbolize faithfulness. As bonsai, flowering apricots have rough bark that represents wisdom and old age.

7. Juniper

Juniper

Juniper (Juniperus spp.) is one of the most popular bonsai species. These coniferous shrubs and trees belong to the cypress family. They are easy to prune and grow relatively slowly.

Junipers have light gray trunks that can become gnarled and weathered. In bonsai symbolism, gnarled, old wood represents old age and wisdom. Juniper bonsai also symbolize protection and purification.

Growing in some of the world’s most inhospitable environments, junipers also symbolize power, resilience, and strength.

8. Pomegranate

Pomegranate

Pomegranates (Punica granatum) might not be well-known as bonsai plants, but they’re actually very suitable. Pomegranate trees are native to the Mediterranean and the Middle East and are known for their large fruits.

Pomegranates have grayish-brown smooth bark when young but gradually become gnarled over time. Young pomegranates symbolize youth and vitality, while older specimens represent old age and wisdom. In China, pomegranates also symbolize fertility. Ancient Greek myths also associate the pomegranate with death and mortality.

9. Oak

Oak

Oak trees (Quercus spp.) are widespread across the world and have been linked to several different cultures throughout history. Oaks respond well to bonsai pruning and their strong trunks provide an excellent foundation for shaping bonsai.

These trees are widely associated with wisdom, longevity, and strength. Oaks can easily live for centuries. These trees have rough, gnarled bark that represents old age in bonsai symbolism. Oaks can also represent good luck and healing.

10. Pine

Pine

Pines (Pinus spp.) are one of the most traditional trees used in bonsai. Dwarf pines were grown for bonsai competitions in Japan as early as 1781. Pine trees are evergreens and many species can retain their needles. Pines make excellent bonsai trees because they can easily be trained into most shapes.

Pines have scaly, rough bark and so are associated with wisdom. Pine also symbolizes faithfulness and virtue. In Chinese culture, pines represent longevity, conviction, and stability.

11. Azalea

Azalea

Flowering shrubs like azaleas can make excellent bonsai specimens. Azaleas are members of the Rhododendron genus and are native to parts of Asia, North America, and Europe. Their slow growth habit makes them ideal for bonsai.

Azalea bonsai is associated with beauty, passion, and femininity. Their vibrant flowers create a beautiful display that can last for several weeks. Azaleas are also used to represent wealth and abundance, making them ideal gifts.

12. Japanese Maple

Japanese Maple

Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) is another quintessential bonsai species. These small shrubs and trees grow in Japan and other parts of Asia. These plants are ideal for creating cascading bonsai shapes.

Japanese maples typically have orange, red, or yellow leaves. Specimens with red foliage can symbolize beauty and elegance. In Japan and other Asian cultures, the Japanese maple is also associated with peace and harmony. These popular bonsai specimens also symbolize calmness and serenity.

13. Beech

Beech

Beech trees (Fagus spp.) are native to temperate regions of Asia, Europe, and North America. Beech trees usually have smooth gray or silver bark, which represents youth and vitality in bonsai philosophy. As bonsai trees, beech specimens can take a while to establish thick trunks.

Many cultures believe that beech trees symbolize ancient or ancestral wisdom. Beech trees are also associated with longevity as they can live for centuries.

14. Japanese Flowering Cherry

Japanese Flowering Cherry

Japanese flowering cherry trees (Prunus serrulata) are cultivars of the Oshima cherry tree. These small specimens make good bonsai trees. They are often cultivated for their pink or white flowers. Oshima cherry trees have been cultivated for centuries to make hybrids like the Japanese flowering cherry.

Like other cherry trees, the Japanese flowering cherry is a symbol of spring. This association also means that these trees represent renewal and rebirth.

15. Weeping Fig (Ficus benjamina)

Weeping Fig (Ficus benjamina)

Weeping fig trees (Ficus benjamina) are part of the fig or mulberry family. These trees have drooping branches full of glossy oval-shaped leaves. This makes weeping fig trees excellent for bonsai practitioners who want to create a cascading shape.

Weeping fig trees have smooth gray bark, representing youthful energy and vitality in bonsai practice. Weeping fig bonsai also symbolize peace and unity. In some cultures, these trees also represent abundance and wealth.

16. Chinese Sweet Plum Bonsai

Chinese Sweet Plum Bonsai

Chinese sweet plum (Sageretia theezans) is a flowering evergreen shrub from the southern regions of China. It’s a well-known bonsai variety and responds well to pruning. These trees have smooth bark, which represents youth and vitality.

Chinese sweet plum also symbolizes health and protection. These energetic trees also represent renewal and new life. Chinese sweet plum trees are also associated with creativity and can be good specimens for beginner bonsai practitioners.


Bonsai Tree Meaning FAQs:

How long do Bonsai trees take to reach maturity?

Most bonsai trees take between 10 and 15 years before they reach maturity. However, this can depend on the exact species. Some can take up to 30 years.

How long do Bonsai trees live for?

Many bonsai trees can live for up to 100 years. Certain varieties and well-kept trees can even live for centuries. The world’s oldest bonsai tree is over 1,000 years old.

What are the benefits of Bonsai trees?

Bonsai trees provide several benefits and can help reduce stress or purify the air. Bonsai practice also helps calm practitioners, helping them live in the moment and appreciate nature.

What do Bonsai trees mean spiritually?

Bonsai trees symbolize spiritual meanings such as balance, harmony, patience, and wisdom. Bonsai trees can also represent nature and the circle of life.


The Final Word

Bonsai trees can be a pleasure to grow, but they also have some beautiful symbolic meanings. The art of bonsai represents balance, peace, and harmony. Bonsai trees can be grown to reflect scenes involving real-life trees. These symbolize natural balance and the circle of life. Bonsai trees can also represent virtues like patience and wisdom.

If you’re ready to start your bonsai journey, or looking to add to your collection, see our in-depth guide to the best specialist bonsai tree delivery services.


Author

I’ve long been fascinated with the world of flowers, plants, and floral design. I come from a family of horticulturists and growers and spent much of my childhood in amongst the fields of flowering blooms and greenhouses filled with tropical plants, cacti, and succulents from all over the world. Today, my passion has led me to further explore the world of horticulture, botany, and floristry and I'm always excited to meet and collaborate with fellow enthusiasts and professionals from across the globe. I hold a BSc degree in Plant Sciences and have trained professionally at leading floristry schools in London and Paris.

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