The art of growing bonsai (bone-sigh) has been around since the Han Dynasty
in China between 206 BC and 220 AD where it was called Penjing. Widely accepted
as miniature landscaping in China, the bonsai soon made its way to Japan where
the name was given that translates to “tray planting.” From what we know, during
the Han Dynasty, an emperor created an entire landscape in his courtyard that
consisted of valleys, hills, rivers, lakes, and trees to represent his empire.
With that, he could gaze out over the empire from his palace window. The bonsai
was a part of that landscape and it was said that anyone other than the emperor
owning a miniature landscape would be put to death.
The earliest bonsai was discovered in the tom of Prince Zhang Huai of the Tang
Dynasty in 1972. Also discovered in the tom were two wall paintings that showed
servants carrying what appeared to be bonsai. In fact, one of the wall paintings
showed a miniature landscape while the other had a pot containing a miniature
tree. Over the years, the bonsai grew in popularity. However, the Japanese would
get the credit for the bonsai when Buddhist monks brought them to the island.
Then the bonsai made its way to the United States where it went on exhibition in
1878. From that time forward, the bonsai has stolen the hearts of many.
As far as the oldest bonsai tree on record, we first learn that dwarf trees live
longer than trees of the same species growing in natural conditions, primarily
because of the stress and environment of which they are exposed. In fact, some
of the top bonsai growers cut as much as 30% to 50% of the tree’s new growth
back, as well as 25% to 30% of the root system. Then there are the branches that
must be tied and trained. Although some people view this as abuse, this type of
treatment is actually important care for the tree. For instance, pruning induces
rejuvenation of the roots and shoots while slowing down the aging process.
Because of this type of incredible care, the oldest bonsai is a small, Hinoki
Cypress that was under cultivation when George Washington was five years old in
1737. This particular tree was purchased in 1913 by Larz Anderson when he served
as ambassador to Japan. In 1937 when he passed away, his widow donated the
oldest bonsai tree known to man along with his entire collection to the
Arboretum. Unfortunately, his massive collection was not cared for properly and
by 1962, all but 27 of the bonsai died. On the good side, the Arboretum designed
a redwood lath house for displaying the bonsai collection, keeping them in
suspended animation during the winter months.
Then in 1969, a woman by the name of Constance Derderian was brought on to care
for the collect. Having studies bonsai in both New York and Japan, she was an
expert. However, when she retired in 1984, a man by the name of Del Tredici came
aboard. Del knew that the oldest bonsai tree along with the other bonsai needed
special care. However, he also knew they were tougher than most people thought.
He reflected over the life of the oldest bonsai tree, stating, “These trees have
been through hell and back over the course of their long lives. They’ve been
through wars, revolutions, and long periods of neglect, and they’re still
kicking. That’s something that gives me great hope and confidence.” With that,
the world’s oldest bonsai tree now has the attention it so deserves and
continues to thrive!