Summer 1900: Fifty million people swarmed Paris for the World’s Fair Exposition. Themed “A Century in Retrospect,” the fair covered architecture, technology, science, and art. Visitors rode the first escalator, admired Rodin sculptures, and were wowed by a demonstration of newfangled wireless telegraphy. Masses of impressionable Europeans and Americans also discovered, for the first time, the ancient Eastern art of dwarfing trees, called bonsai. The art form was imported from Japan, a country that had been closed to foreign visitors from 1635 until the mid-19th century. After hundreds of years of global isolation, everything Asian evoked curiosity. After the fair, the exquisite, diminutive bonsai became all the rage in New York City.
Meaning “shallow tray plant” in Japanese, bonsai are intentionally stunted trees that, in nature, grow hundreds of times larger than their miniature container replicas. Because of their beauty, small size, and relative ease of upkeep, bonsai maintained their popularity outside of Asia. The art garnered even more attention after World War II, when soldiers returned home from Japan with their prized bonsai in tow.
“Now, Portland has some of the finest bonsai in the United States,” says Lee Cheatle, past vice president of the Bonsai Society of Portland. “This area has excellent growing conditions, including ample sunshine and ideal temperatures during the long growing season, from April through October.”
If you’d like to try your hand at this ancient art, here’s a primer on how to choose, train, and grow your own bonsai.