Bonsai a brief history

The previous article (Lighting for bonsai) was posted to give some idea to bonsai cultivators residing in the far north, of how to create a full spectrum lighting set up, to aid plant growth during the dark winter months. Nonetheless, as with all information it is prudent to start at the beginning, because when you know where you have come from it is easier to know where you are going. To remind you a book is being written about the knowledge gained from my years in bonsai cultivation and some chapters contain many pages. Some of these can be condensed, but others cannot because relevant information will be lost therefore, they will be posted in sections. So let us start at the beginning with a brief look at the history of bonsai horticulture.

Bonsai a brief history

The cultivation of miniature trees grown in containers can be traced back to the 6th century beginning in China – an art form known as PENJING. A little later diplomats and Buddhists from Japan visited China, returning home with many penjing samples. Other diplomatic missionaries were sent to China to visit the TANG court during the years 603 and 839.

In Japan’s historical Shōsōin, housing 7th, 8th and 9th century artifacts is an elaborate miniature tree display composed of a shallow wooden base, with carved wooden mountains and sand portraying a river. Small silver metal tree sculptures are placed in the sand to produce a table-top design of a tree landscape. This art form closer to the Japanese Bonkei display reflects the period’s interest in miniature landscapes.


The earliest illustration of a penjing is found in the Qianling Mausoleum murals at the Tang Dynasty tomb of Crown Prince Zhanghuai, dating to 706.


In 1299 recognizable bonsai appeared in hand scroll paintings like the Ippen shonin eden and the earliest know scroll to depict miniature trees, is the Saigyo Monogatari Emaki c. 1195. In 1309 during the Kamakura period, the Kasuga-gongen-genki scroll shows wooden tray and dish-like pots containing dwarf landscapes placed on wooden benches. Such novelties probably imported from China accentuated the owner’s wealth.

In addition, Chinese Chan Buddhist monks went to Japan to teach in the monasteries, and their activities included introducing leaders of the day to the various arts of miniature landscapes as accomplishments for men of taste and learning. The rhymed essay c.1300, Bonseki no Fu (Tribute to Bonseki) by priest and master of Chinese poetry, Kokan Shiren (1278–1346) outlined the principles for what would be termed bonsai, bonseki and garden architecture itself. Allowing the Japanese to use miniaturized trees grown in containers to decorate their homes and gardens.

Over the next few hundred years, landscape arrangements often included figurines that were there to add scale and theme. However, Japanese artists considered these as irrelevant as they were simplifying their creations in the spirit of Zen Buddhism. Furthermore, the term for dwarf potted trees was refereed to as ‘the bowl’s tree’ (鉢の木, hachi-no-ki). By using a deep pot, as opposed to the shallow pot denoted by the term bonsai.

Some Bonsai from the 17th century are still in existence for example, one of the oldest-known living bonsai trees thought to be at least 500 years old, is one of the National Treasures of Japan and is in Tokyo’s Imperial Palace collection. The tree a 5- needle pine Pinus pentaphylla var. Negishi known as ‘Sandai-Shogun-No Matsu’ was first trained as a bonsai in the year 1610 by the shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu a Hachi-No-Ki enthusiast. By the end of the 18th century, bonsai cultivation had become widespread developing much public interest.

In the early 19th century groups of scholars of the Chinese art of Penjing gathered in Itami, Hyogo (Near Osaka) to discuss recent styles in the art of miniature trees. Styles that had been previously called Bunjin Ueki, Bunjin Hachiue, were renamed ‘Bonsai’. This new term had the connotation of a shallow container in which the Japanese could now more successfully style small trees. However the term bonsai, would not become regularly used in describing their dwarf potted trees for nearly a century. Many others terms adopted by the scholars were derived from Kai-shi-en Gaden, the Japanese version of Jieziyuan Huazhuan. (Manual of the Mustard Seed Garden)

Through the latter part of the 19th century, Japanese participation in various international exhibitions introduced many in the western world to dwarf potted trees. In addition, immigrants from Japan arriving to North America’s West Coast and Hawaii Territory brought plants and cultivation experience with them. Furthermore, export nurseries, the most notable one being the Yokohama Gardeners Association, provided good quality dwarf potted trees for Americans and Europeans although the buyers lacked information and experience of how to keep the trees alive.

An Artistic Bonsai Concourse was held in Tokyo in 1892 followed by the publication of a three-volume commemorative picture book. This demonstrated a new tendency to see bonsai as an independent art form. In 1903, the Tokyo association Jurakukai held displays of bonsai and ikebana at two Japanese-style restaurants. Three years later, Bonsai Gaho 1906 to c.1913 became the first monthly magazine on the subject followed by Toyo Engei and Hana in 1907 and Bonsai in 1921. By 1907, on the outskirts of Tokyo dwarf tree artists formed a little colony of twenty to thirty houses where from this centre their work finds its way to all parts of the world.

In 1910, shaping with wire was described in the Sanyu-en Bonsai-Dan (History of Bonsai in the Sanyu nursery). Zinc-galvanized steel wire was initially used. Expensive copper wire was only used for trees that had real potential. Between 1911 and 1940, mass-produced containers were exported from Yixing, China, and made to the specifications of Japanese dealers. These were called Shinto (new crossing or arrival) or Shin-water ware, these were made for increasing numbers of enthusiasts. Some containers, including primitive style designs, were also being made in Formosa.

The availability of expert bonsai training, was at first only in Japan, but gradually spread to other countries. In 1967 the first group of North Americans studied at an Ōmiya nursery finally returning home where they established the American Bonsai Society. Other groups and individuals from outside Asia then visited and studied at the various Japanese nurseries, occasionally even apprenticing under the masters. These visitors brought back to their local clubs the latest techniques and styles, which were then further disseminated. Japanese teachers also traveled widely, bringing hands-on bonsai expertise to all six continents.

By the beginning of the 1970s, these trends were beginning to merge. A large display of bonsai and suiseki was held as part of Expo ’70 and a formal discussion was made of an international association of enthusiasts. Three monthly magazines were started this year: Bonsai Sekai, Satsuki Kenkyu, and Shizen to Bonsai. In 1975, the first Gafu-ten (Elegant-Style Exhibit) of shohin bonsai (13-25 cm (9.84 in) tall was held as was the first Sakufu-ten. (Creative Bonsai Exhibit) This was the only event in which professional bonsai growers could exhibit traditional trees under their own names rather than under the name of the owner. It was organized by Hideo Kato (1918–2001) at Daimaru Department Store in Tokyo.

The First World Bonsai Convention was held in Osaka during the World Bonsai and Suiseki Exhibition in 1980. Nine years later, the first World Bonsai Convention was held in Omiya and the World Bonsai Friendship Federation (WBFF) was inaugurated. These conventions attracted several hundreds of participants from dozens of countries and have since been held every four years at different locations around the globe: 1993, Orlando, Florida; 1997, Seoul, Korea; 2001, Munich, Germany; 2005, Washington, D.C.; 2009, San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Bonsai has now definitively reached a world-wide audience. There are over twelve hundred books on bonsai and the related arts in at least twenty-six languages available in over ninety countries and territories. A few dozen magazines in over thirteen languages are in print. Several score of club newsletters are available on-line, and there are at least that many discussion forums. Educational videos and just the appearance of dwarf potted trees in films and on television reach a wide audience. There are at least a hundred thousand enthusiasts in some fifteen hundred clubs and associations world wide, as well as over five million unassociated hobbyists. Plant material from every location is being trained into bonsai and displayed at local, regional, national, and international conventions and exhibitions for enthusiasts and the general public.

The cultivation miniature trees in containers is not only an ancient art, its form and design originating from China has undergone many changes. For example, the classifications for tree sizing with each classification having subcategories of size, that tend to vary in exact specifics. Is because each individual bonsai is unique, some may or may not fit into each category, despite their exact size. This topic will be the next post so until then, BW, N.




Lighting for Bonsai

Lighting for Bonsai

Natural light produces a visible spectrum and is not only a source of energy, but also much needed information. Plants react to quality, intensity, duration and the direction of light. Because it is needed to aid photosynthesis necessary for germination, growth, inducing protective substances and changing from vegetative growth to fruit and flower.


The light visible to humans is 400 nm to 700 nm, a wavelength range called Photosynthetically Active Radiation (PAR) and much of the light that plants need is within this range. But will use other wavelengths for example, UV light (280 – 400 nm) is critical for optimal growth and far-red light (700-800 nm) is critical for flowering and fruiting. Known photoreceptors are most efficient in the blue and red area of the spectrum. Plants also reflect a significant part of light in the green area of the light spectrum, while absorbing a higher percentage of blue and red light as shown in the following illustration.


Creating a lighting environment for bonsai is not that difficult if given some thought, but it should be on a cost effective basis and easy to construct and maintain. There are various methods already in use including domestic (Household) lighting and that which is used in professional horticulture production.

Domestic lighting has gone through an enormous change since traditional incandescent bulbs were removed from the market and replaced with energy-saving bulbs. Three main types of regular light bulb are CFLs, (Compact fluorescent lamp) Halogen and LED. (Light emitting diode) All which have different values in their lighting properties for example. Watts and Lumens – the brightness of incandescent bulbs was measured in Watts, which is a measure of power for example, 40W, 60W and 75W. But measuring watts in energy saving bulbs is a less useful measure of brightness, because new bulbs use a lot less power to produce the same amount of light. Thus, their output is measured in Lumens and the higher the number of Lumens, the brighter the light.

light-bulb-brightness-comparison-369885 copy

Incandescent – (which still can be found) are usually clear or opaque having a tungsten filament inside. These bulbs emitted a warm yellowish glow and were common in domestic use, but to the consumer the cost ‘at-the-wall’, meaning the amount of power consumption was not considered cost effective. Moreover, their ability to provide enough light for plant growth was minimal at best, because they were unable to produce the light wavelengths that plants require.

CFLs – have a wide range of sizes and outputs and are considered to be four times more efficient than incandescent bulbs. The typical luminous efficacy of fluorescent lighting systems is 50–100 Lumens per watt, several times more than incandescent bulbs with comparable light output and are more cost effective. However, some CFL lighting can be expensive, because they require a ballast to regulate the current through the lamp, but lower energy cost offsets the higher initial cost.

As mentioned in the introduction various lighting set-ups were tested in a 2-year trial to test their efficiency in Bonsai cultivation. The image below shows a lighting fixture containing 2 x 13W – T5 CFLs producing 3000K delivering 980 Lumens.

light stand1

This system showed that the angle and spread of light positioned (8cm above the leaf canopy) produced the best PAR. Although some of the smaller plants had to be elevated in order for the light to penetrate the lower leaf area. In short, this type of CFL lighting inexpensive ‘at-the-wall’ does work to some degree, but it is only white light not full spectrum, which is needed for strong growth. Nonetheless, CFL bulbs are now available in warm/red (2700 K), full spectrum or daylight (5000 K) and cool/blue (6500 K) versions. The usable life span of CFL compact or tubed ‘grow lights’ is approximately 10,000 hours producing 44-80 Lumens/watt, depending on the wattage of the bulb and manufacturer. 

To find an alternative solution other lighting sources were investigated including Halogen, HID, (High Intensity Discharge) HPS, (High Pressure Sodium) and LED, (Light Emitting Diode) but the main priorities were and are (a) it had to be full spectrum and (b) cost effective. We now take a brief look at their capabilities.

Halogen – is similar to incandescent in colour and quality, as both use a tungsten filament and there’s little difference between the two in the amount of energy used depending on the bulb’s wattage. Halogen’s are significantly brighter, but like incandescent are unable to produce the blue and red wavelengths. In addition, halogen light is more expensive to run than other energy savers and with an expected life span of less than two years, a halogen bulb is unlikely to pay for itself before it needs replacing.

HID lamps are able to out-perform all other lamps in their Lumen-per-watt efficiency and produce a color spectrum that is comparable to the sun. Such lighting systems including metal halide, high pressure sodium and conversion bulbs are available from an array of manufacturers in: 150W, 250W, 400W, 600W and 1000W. The most popular of this range and most electrically efficient as far as light produced are the 600W HID lights producing 7% more light on a watt-for-watt basis. However, all HID lamps work on the same principle, the different types of bulbs have different starting and voltage requirements, as well as different operating characteristics and physical shape. Because of this, a bulb will not work properly unless it’s using a matching ballast, even if the bulb will physically screw in. Mismatched bulbs and ballasts will stop working early, or may even burn out immediately.

HPS – lights are also used as a single source of light throughout the vegetative and reproductive stages and can be used as an amendment to full-spectrum lighting during the reproductive stage. They emit light in the yellow/red parts of the spectrum suitable for promoting flower and fruit. But if they are used for the vegetative phase as in Bonsai development meaning root, stem and leaf, the plants grow slightly more quickly, but will have longer internodes losing compactivity.

HPS lights have a long usable bulb life, and six times more light output per watt of energy consumed than a standard incandescent grow light due to their high efficiency. But, in the northern hemisphere during periods of the year where sunlight is scarce, metal halide lights are needed. To produce blue and violet wavelengths in balancing the light spectrum for proper growth.

LED technology has been introduced into the grow light market by designing diodes to produce specific light wavelengths – the red and blue parts of the spectrum. NASA has tested LED grow lights for their high efficiency in growing food in space for extraterrestrial colonization. LED uses almost 90% less energy than other traditional grow light formats making them the most energy-efficient type of lighting. However, they are usually more expensive to buy, but can last up to 25 years depending on the manufacturer and in the long term they are the cheapest option available.

LED grow lights are usually composed of diodes incased on a ‘heat-sink’ with built-in fans. Which do not usually require a separate ballast and can be plugged directly into a standard electrical socket. The diodes used in early LED grow light designs were 1/3 watt to 1 watt in power however, higher wattage diodes such as 3 watt and 5 watt are now commonly used. Nonetheless, with any technology new to a particular market (Horticulture) one has to be aware of what is ‘good’ and what is ‘bad’. The reason for this consensus, is that not all individual LEDs or indeed LED light fixtures are reliable. Moreover, the claims made by some manufactures regarding PAR output and wattage, are exaggerated and some have included white LEDs in their lighting modules. Adding white LEDs in to a full spectrum lighting set-up serves no purpose, because plants do not use this wavelength.

Before considering purchasing a grow light for Bonsai, you should think of both current needs and those of the future. Time spent on research will help you find the correct lighting device, that is within your budget and also cost effective ‘at-the-wall’. Top rated LED Grow Lights are more expensive than HPS, HID or CFL systems and by understanding your limits you will be able to make the best decision.

Another factor to consider is the ‘size of the grow space’ – both the height and area (foot print) of your grow space is important. Whatever your choice of lighting system you will need a certain size light in order to cover the area. Many manufacturers provide a “core coverage” the amount of grow space that the light is capable of covering for example.

60cm x 60cm Grow Space = 1 x 180 watt to 240 watt lamp

60cm x 100cm Grow Space = 1 x 300 watt to 400 watt lamp

60cm x 150cm Grow Space = 2 x 180 watt to 240 watt lamps

150cm x 150cm Grow Space = 4 x 180 watt to 240 watt lamps (or equivalent)

150cm x 200cm Grow Space = 3 x 300 watt to 400 watt lamps (or equivalent)

These numbers give an approximation of how to scale up the grow area. With larger areas the lights must be placed correctly to ensure that maximum coverage is attained with no gaps as this will have an effect on plant growth.

The solution – considering the many options available and taking into account the grow area (90cm x 90cm) and cost effectiveness ‘at-the-wall’, the decision was to opt for LED. There are many LED ‘grow lights’ on the market from single bulbs to large fixtures. But for this research the choice was the Mars Hydro 3W series, a 132W true watt panel housing 48 LEDs with independent vegetation and flowering control. The unit was installed on the 27/01/2016 and in this short space of time plant growth has greatly improved. Further up dates on plant development will be posted. Bw – N.

Bonsai with GL


Bonsai is a ‘living’ art where we try to create what we see in nature albeit in miniature form. Achieving this aim can give much pleasure and satisfaction when undertaken correctly and is only as difficult as one makes it. But having said this, the most important requirement when dealing with ‘live’ material is ‘patience’.

Having written a considerable amount on bonsai some of which will be posted on this blog for example, procurement, wiring, pruning, soil composition and pots or containers. It seemed appropriate to start with the issue of lighting especially for those whom reside in locations that have long dark winter months.

My bonsai collection does include specimens from lower latitudes, which will not survive the cold temperatures and have to spend the winter inside. And because of the very short day light hours, growth and development is restricted. Two years previously an experiment was conducted using various lighting setups to compensate for the lack of natural light and to enhance growth, each having different results. But although the results were important, the main concern was what the cost ‘at-the-wall’ (the power consumption) would be as the lights were on for a minimum of 12 hours per day for 5 months.

Although the experiment is still on-going, the results are promising and can probably be the solution to your lighting problem if you have one. The article is 20 A4 pages long, probably rather too large to submit here. Nonetheless, the main points will be posted here in a few days. N.

Hello to all

– I have created this blog (my first one), because I get a lot of inquiries regarding bonsai horticulture. After some consideration I decided to share my knowledge to assist those whom are at various stages of expertise. Therefore, I will be posting new information and tips on a weekly basis. Feel free to ask questions and/or comments. And I will do my best to respond.