US$1.3 million for a tree in a pot: What accounts for the beauty of bonsai?
The miniature trees are cherished in all seasons, blooming or bare. And they can be worth anything from US$20 to more than US$1 million – or even priceless.
To the uninitiated, bonsai trees are baffling: Why spend hours, even years, pruning, pinching and wiring a plant to produce the arboricultural equivalent of a miniature poodle?
For enthusiasts the world over, the ancient practice of crafting tiny replicas of mature trees brings contemplative communion with nature. With their abstract shapes, painterly textures and ethereal beauty, bonsai are also living, breathing works of art.
As such, they can be worth anything from US$20 (S$27) to more than US$1 million. The most expensive on record is a 300-year-old white pine that sold for U$1.3 million. But others, like the best artworks, are considered priceless.
Harry Turton, of the Omiya Bonsai Art Museum in Saitama, Japan, said that for security reasons he cannot reveal the value of this 150-year-old karin, or Chinese quince, in the museum’s collection. But he assured us it was worth a lot. It was named the first Kicho Bonsai – a title given only to exceedingly significant trees – by the Nippon Bonsai Association. Its “thick strong roots, forcefully uprising trunk and flickering branches” have graced the homes of several former prime ministers.
Bonsai, which translates as “tree in a pot”, is not a species of tree, as often thought. Any tree can become a bonsai: a California redwood, for example, could be grown inches high rather than hundreds of feet.
Bonsai originated in China 2,000 years ago, based on the Taoist belief that recreating landscapes in miniature gave magical potency. They were symbols of status and honour. In Japan, bonsai became entwined with Buddhist Zen philosophy, which finds beauty in austerity – a single tree in a pot could represent the universe. Zen Buddhists also believe that the inherent meaninglessness of existence can be countered with patience and discipline – crucial qualities in bonsai cultivation.
Wabi-sabi, or the acceptance of life’s transience and imperfections, is also integral to bonsai. The trees are cherished in all seasons, blooming or bare, with the most asymmetrical and prematurely wizened specimens the most venerated.
The oldest known specimen, the Ficus retusa Linn at the Crespi Bonsai Museum in Italy, is about 1,000 years old. No less impressive is the Yamaki pine, which, though a comparative sapling at just 400 years, survived the Hiroshima atomic bomb.
Its appeal is perhaps best explained by bonsai master Saburo Kato, who likened bonsai cultivation to child rearing: A never-ending and labour-intensive battle with the forces of nature, requiring perseverance, kindness and unconditional love.
By Rosalind Sykes © 2022 The Financial Times