Bonsai maple at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.



Bonsai (pronounced BONE-sigh) is a cultivation practice that blends botany and art. While some people feel the end goal is a piece to admire and contemplate, there is no doubt that the planning, effort, ingenuity, and patience is cherished by practitioners. Bonasi's beginnings can be traced back centuries in ancient China. Called p'en tsi, the dwarfed trees have been a favorite of the Chinese aristocracy since before the birth of Christ. By around AD 1300, Japanese travelers had introduced the horticultural form into their homeland. Over centuries, the Japanese patiently refined growing techniques into an art form. The modern name, bonsai, is made up of two Japanese words: "bon" refers to a shallow dish, while "sai" indicates a tree or plant; bonsai translates into English as "tree planted in a tray."


A bonsai's appearance as a miniaturized scene may look like the plant has been allowed to follow nature's whims, but the truth is quite the opposite. Every decision—from plant type, to dish shape and size, to which snip to make—follow strict rules. For example, the choice of a container depends on the outline, size, and style of the end product.

Some bonsai are more than two centuries old. Others are actually young; the grower has carefully peeled the bark or scarred the trunk to give illusion of great age. A plant selected for a bonsai piece is carefully pruned, wired, and nurtured through time to reach its final form—and then just as carefully maintained. Since they are living plants, bonsai flora continues to grow, with its form guided by loving hands.


At the San Diego Zoo Safari Park a well-known (among enthusiasts) collection of bonsai can be seen at the Bonsai Pavillion near Condor Ridge.

Hosted and maintained by the San Diego Bonsai Club and San Pu Kai (another local bonsai organization), the gated garden has more than 20 different kinds of plants selectively stunted. Among the unique flora that have been carefully tended and shaped over many, many years is a California buckwheat plant believed to be more than 100 years old. Another bonsai was started from a piece of grape vine brought to the US as a cutting from Italy about 100 years ago.

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The first Bonsai Pavillion at the Park opened in 1982. The current space opened in 2011.


The bonsai artist decides whether to create a piece with an individual tree, a group planting, or a miniature forest.