The art of styling small trees has been practiced since about 700 CE in China. For many years after it originated, this art form was reserved for only the elite of society and had a strong connection with religion. The practice was first inspired by strange and contorted trees that were found in the forest. It was thought that, because these trees clearly were not created for a normal purpose, such as making lumber, they must be sacred, so they were carefully repotted and nurtured. This repotting practice evolved into Bonsai styling, using bamboo frames, weights, and brass wires to transform normal trees into what we now call Bonsai. The word Bonsai comes from the Chinese word pun-sai, meaning “tray planting."
The practice was adopted in Japan shortly after. By 1200 CE, almost everyone in Japan had multiple Bonsai trees. During this time, most of the modern techniques still used today were developed and Bonsai became deeply ingrained into Japanese culture. By the early 1700s there was a Bonsai show every year in the capital city, Kyoto.
A Bonsai tree is an heirloom that can be passed down through generations. The oldest confirmed Bonsai is over 1000 years old.
This tree is on display in the Crespi Bonsai museum in Italy.
The process of Bonsai is complex, and cultivation occurs over the course of many years. If started from a seed, it can take up to three years before the tree is ready to be styled. Bonsai trees are just normal trees that are potted in a way that keeps them small and then styled by pruning and wiring. Pruning is done with scissors (most commonly butterfly shears) and by hand. A tree needs to be pruned because trees like to grow their larges branches at the top to capture the most sunlight, which makes a tree look disproportionate and topheavy. Most of pruning involves cutting the top branches to a smaller size so branches underneath can grow bigger creating a nicer shape. Wiring is a way to alter the shape of the trunk.
Wiring is done by wrapping a wire around the tree and slowly bending it during growing season to create cascade effects like this one--
—and very contorted trunks like this 800 year old tree.