Bonsai trees may not be easy to care for but can last for centuries if properly cared for. Although each specie determines how best to care for it, some of the oldest Bonsai trees date from 1,000 years ago. Their care has been passed down generations.
Bonsai trees are the Japanese version of the traditional Chinese art of Penjing or Penzai. The two, however, have their differences. The Penjing uses traditional techniques to produce pure natural scenery in small pots that imitate the exquisite shapes of real-life scenery. On the other hand, the Japanese ones grow small trees that mimic the shape of real-life ones.
What are the oldest bonsai trees?
In the 6th century, students from Japan visited mainland China to study the Penjing types and returned with many Chinese ideas and goods, including container plantings. Over time, these container plantings began to appear in Japanese writings and figurative art. So, what are the common types of bonsai trees? Below are some of the oldest ones:
1. Chabo-Hiba Cypress
- Age: 175-275 years old
- Location: Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA
Chabo–Hiba is among the 36 plants in the Arnold Arboretum Bonsai and Penjing Collection. Larz Anderson, the ambassador of the US to Japan at that time, introduced different species of trees to the United States in 1913. Among the plants are six Chabo-Hiba trees ranging from 175 to 275 years old, and as a result, they are recognised as the oldest bonsai trees available in America.
2. Hinoki trees
- Age: 232 years old
- Location: Boston, MA, USA
Hinoki trees have spent over two centuries in the same pot. They are found at Arnold Arboretum, Harvard University, as part of the Lars Anderson Bonsai Collection. Hinoki tree is one of the massive types whose bushes require movement as part of its upkeep and care. Therefore, having one alive for this long time is an outstanding achievement.
3. Yamaki Pine
- Age: 390 years old
- Location: Washington DC, USA
The 390-year-old bonsai tree's true history was uncovered in 2001. The Yamaki Pine type resides in the US National Arboretum. It was donated to the United States by Masaru Yamaki in 1976 as a 53-specimen gift for its bicentennial. Yamaki is one of the bonsais that survived the atomic bomb in Hiroshima, Japan, during World War II.
4. Sandai Shogun no Matsu
- Age: 500 years old
- Location: Tokyo, Japan
The Sandai Shogun no Matsu is a five-needle pine. It is considered one of the National Treasures of Japan. The tree is thought to be over 500 years old, making it expensive. It was named after Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu, who got it when it was like 200 years old.
Since then, it has been passed down for care by Japan's emperors for over 500 years. Sandai Shogun no Matsu is currently displayed in the Tokyo Imperial Palace collection.
5. Red Pine Bonsai
- Age: 600 years old
- Location: Atami, Japan
The red pine is located at the Akao Herb & Rose Garden and is believed to be the biggest bonsai tree globally. It stands at over 16 feet tall and 30 feet wide.
The size makes it not to be a typical type but still qualifies under this category for being contained in a pot. Due to its massive size, support had to be added to hold up one of its main branches.
6. Shimpaku Juniper
- Age: 700 years old
- Location: Tokyo, Japan
It is located in the Mansei-en nursery, owned by the Kato family. The Japanese Shimpaku Juniper is a needled dioeciously evergreen. It is naturally irregular vase-shaped, and it has been trained to have a coiled trunk and branches.
The Shimpaku has attractive year-round foliage, and its dark green needles are soft to the touch. As a result, it is among the easiest to cultivate.
7. Unnamed Bonsai Tree at ShunkaEn
- Age: 800 years old
- Location: Tokyo, Japan.
This species is one of the largest of its kind placed in Tokyo, Japan. Kunio Kobayashi, a bonsai master for over 30 years, owns it. He has been practising the art and opened the Shunkaen Bonsai Museum in 2002 to spread Japanese culture.
8. Unnamed Bonsai Tree at ShunkaEn
- Age: 800 years old
- Location: Omiya
It is one of the most expensive bonsai trees globally and one of the two trees that Kunio Kobayashi owns. Interestingly, Kunio won the prestigious Prime Minister award in Japan four times because he came up with the idea of opening the Shunkae Museum in 2002.
9. Juniper Bonsai
- Age: 1,000 years old
- Location: Omiya, Japan
The Juniper is located in the Mansei-en nursery. The Kato family owns the nursery, and it is also known as The Sacred Land of Bonsai. The tree was collected from the wilds of Japan and tamed in the nursery.
Mansei-en is one of six gardens that make up the Omiya Bonsai Village. It is the oldest garden located in the village and has been under the Kato family since the 19th century. Nevertheless, it officially opened to the public in 1925.
10. Ficus Bonsai
- Age: 1000+ years old
- Location: Parabiago
The Ficus is believed to be the oldest existing globally, with over 1,000 years of existence. It is found at the Crespi Museum in Italy. Luigi Crespi, the founder of the Crespi Museum, gained its ownership in 1986 after ten years of failed ownership grants. He and Alberto Lavazza are the significant caretakers of the tree.
Before then, the tree was under the care of Chinese masters, and during its first years in Italy, it was shaped by Japanese bonsai master Shotaro Kawahara. Crespi Museum was founded in 1991, and the Ficus was placed in a glass pagoda and became the museum's centrepiece.
Frequently asked questions
- How old can bonsai trees get? It can easily live to over 100 years old under the right conditions. Others can even live for centuries up to a thousand years!
- How much does a 100-year-old bonsai cost? The prices vary widely from shop to shop and from country to country.
- What is so special about a bonsai tree? The trees have long been respected in the ancient art of Feng Shui for their ability to draw life energies into a room, sharing them gladly with all who pass through.
- Are bonsai trees good for indoors? The trees should be placed outdoors, where they are exposed to the four natural seasons just like normal trees are.
- How often do you water a bonsai tree? Once a week or so (when the topsoil feels completely dry), immerse the entire plant in a bucket or basin of water.
- Should I mist my bonsai tree? Yes, an indoor plant can benefit from misting because heating and air conditioning lower the humidity levels to surface-of-the-moon conditions in your home.
The oldest bonsai trees have stood the test of time and are admired through records to symbolise care and dedication. Some of them survived the atomic bomb in Hiroshima, Japan, during World War II. Others are a result of generations of hard work and patience.
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