The art of bonsai has an ancient history and it is difficult to pinpoint just when it began. The origins of bonsai can be traced back through the history of the development of bonsai in Japan and earlier in China.
As with other forms of art, bonsai would have been developed from activities which were based on practical needs.
The idea of planting a tree in a pot would not occur spontaneously in a fully formed manner. It would evolve over a period of time from the influence of other ideas associated with the cultivation of plants. In particular the growing of plants primarily for their beauty of colour or form, combined with lack of space in which to grow them would have been the genesis of bonsai.
The origins of cultivated gardens go back many hundreds of years, to the area known as the Fertile Crescent in what is present day Iraq. The first recorded occurrence of gardens grown for the pleasure they provided would appear to be the magnificent Hanging Gardens of Babylon. These gardens were reputed to have been built around 600BC by Nebuchadnezzar II, and are considered to be one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
The hanging gardens featured trees and other plants growing in containers. Large containers certainly, but the people of that time obviously had the knowledge and the skill to grow plants in a restricted space.
It would seem unlikely though, that they practiced bonsai gardening in a form that would in anyway resemble the art of bonsai as we know it today. The first reference to what we term bonsai occurred in China during the Tang Dynasty, (618 – 907). It shows however, that the ability to grow plants in containers was developed as an established practice over 2600 years ago, well before the Hanging gardens were built.
One theory concerning the development of bonsai clams that herbalists wishing to transport herbs, began growing them in containers for this purpose. This would not provide a very practical solution, given the means of transport in those times. To carry a number of small earthenware pots containing plants on a horse or donkey, or even in a cart, would be most difficult. The practice of first drying the leaves or roots required and carrying them in that form provides a far easier and more efficient method of transport, a method still used to the present day.
The first examples of trees and plants being grown in small containers have therefore come from China. The idea, introduced into Japan around 1195AD, and further developed and refined by the Japanese became the beautiful art of bonsai with which we are familiar today.