The word "bonsai" comes from the Japanese words "bon" (pot) and "sai" (tree) and
literally means "tree in a pot". Most individuals
who use the term bonsai are referring to the
tree, but from the name, it is clear that the pot or
container is essential to complete the bonsai
In bonsai, the container or pot is almost
always ceramic. The pot must be carefully
matched to the tree in size, style, color and
"gender." The pot should complement the tree
and not draw attention to itself rather than the
tree or the total composition. Inexpensive pots
are used for initial training but nicely trained
trees deserve nice pots. Trees grow and
change in style, so as a tree matures, the
"perfect pot" may change. As a result, there is a saying in the bonsai community that
one can never have too many
pots. The corollary is that one
never has the right pot for a
given tree after a restyling.
There are several bonsai
styles that do not employ
ceramic pots. Those include
single trees or forest plantings on
rough stone slabs or, more
recently, synthetic slabs from
ciment fondue or fiberglass.
Trees clinging to rocks are
another familiar theme in bonsai;
the stone may or may not be
placed in a ceramic pot or
suiban. Chinese penjing often
employs marble slabs carved
into shallow oval or rectangular
Bonsai is often viewed as a
very traditional art bound by
many rules instituted or codified by the Japanese. These traditions are an important
underpinning of bonsai and it is wise to understand the rules and why they exist. There
are many books that will guide the beginner through the intricacies of bonsai. All art is
based upon balance and composition, but bonsai includes the additional aspect of a
living and growing organism. To understand the rules is critical, but bonsai is also an
evolving art, not only in the growth of its trees, but also in the evolution of its artistry.
Very traditional styles can stand side by side with modern or even abstract works. See
the wonderful article "Bonsai Containers as Ceramic Art" by Fred Aufschläger for a
description of bonsai and pot styles and how they relate to one another.
Tiny contemporary pot.
A huge classic pot.
Modern pot as
The Art of Bonsai Pottery
by Steve Ittel