Most people think they know what bonsai trees are. Actually, the art of the bonsai tree is ancient, mysterious and pretty amazing. It came from China where herbalists traveled over the countryside accompanied by bushes and trees used for medicinal ingredients growing in tubs. The trees were pruned to keep their size manageable.
At some point, someone noticed that the miniaturized plants were beautiful and began to cultivate the plants and trees for decoration. That was thousands of years ago. For the Chinese, it evoked the philosophy of wabi-sabi, which does not translate exactly into English, but loosely it means a sense of serene melancholy. Eventually, the practice was picked up in Japan.
In Japan, the bonsai tree is shaped and pruned. The tree is grown outside and taken into the home for a time to represent the season. While any variety of trees can be used for bonsai, there are a few typical types of bonsai. These represent the silhouette that the tree is trained to take. The old bonsai tree art usually falls into the types of formal upright, informal upright, cascade, semi-cascade, raft, literati, and group / forest.
In the formal upright type, the tree is trained up and tapered with balanced branches. The informal upright can bend and twist slightly. The old bonsai tree art has a front side for the tree. The informal upright type should never bend away from the viewer. Cascade style bonsai trains the tree to grow down over the side of the pot, mimicking trees that grow over water or the side of a mountain. Semi-cascade does not grow down so far or only has a branch or two growing lower than the lip of its pot.
The raft style of old bonsai tree art is meant to imitate the growth of a tree that has fallen and the side of the tree has taken root and continued to grow. In this style the original root system is left intact. The side of the tree trained to take root has its bark removed and is placed against the soil. Often, the branches of the tree are trained to grow upward to mimic a forest.
The literati style is a very old bonsai tree style named for the scholars that practiced it. These trees are meant to copy trees struggling against harsh climates. The group or forest style features more than one tree, usually an odd number, grown in the same pot. Most often, they are the smallest of bonsai and all of the same variety. There is much more to the old bonsai tree art than just cute little trees.