Remember “Gulliver’s Travels?” Do you ever wonder what it felt like to tower over your surroundings? Ok, forget about the little men with their arrows and ropes and uppity attitudes. Let’s just concentrate on the trees. Wander down the pathways of a Japanese garden and sooner or later you will come across tiny trees known as bonsai. Delicately sculptured, elegantly poised, they are perfect replicas of their larger cousins and yes, you do tower over them rather than the reverse.
Take advantage of the situation. This is your opportunity to see a tree the way a bird sees it, from the top down. We humans normally study the branches of a tree from ground level, or perhaps for the more daring or agile among us, from a perch within those branches that we’ve managed to climb to without breaking a limb of our own. But a bonsai tree lets us look down and study the symmetry of branches in a whole new fashion.
Though bonsai is normally associated with Japan, it is actually the Chinese that created this living art form. Thought to have come about in the Han Dynasty (206 BC to 220 AD) there are, as in many things Chinese, legends that surround the beginning of bonsai. A favourite is the tale of the emperor that created his entire empire in miniature inside of his courtyard so that he could gaze upon it at will.
Eventually Buddhist monks brought bonsai to Japan during the Heian period (794 to 1191). At first the art form was only practiced by the rich but the invasion of Japan by the Chinese in the 14th century changed all that. All classes began to take up the art of tending the tiny trees and plants and the art was refined and perfected into the bonsai tradition of today.
What makes a great bonsai? Many types of trees have been used to create bonsai. Two popular favourites are the Japanese Red Maple and the Chinese Elm. Both are fairly easy to care for and train. The Japanese Red Maple is known for its vibrant reds and greens, both in the leaves and the trunk and branches. The Chinese Elm adapts well to growing indoors. Its leaves decrease in size year after year which helps them keep in proportion to the trimmed branches. A full grown Chinese Elm bonsai is usually less than ten inches tall, perfect for taking an appreciative look from Gulliver’s point of view.