Since we do not know -- and possibly, cannot know -- "exactly" what inspired the first dwarf potted trees over 1400 years ago, we can speculate based on our experience and what might have triggered us.  The bottom-line, as my friend Cliff Broyles puts it, is that that hypothetical Tree #1 "looked good."  It was shaped in such a way that it interested someone in attempting to retrieve it -- or simply re-create it.
        The knowledge of one or more of the following could have then been combined with some reference to the story of  Fei Jiang-fang:

        Someone speculated about what physical processes naturally stunted the growth of a tree seen in the mountains or elsewheres in the wild and, after trial-and-error, began to re-create the effects in containerized plants.  (I know: boring.)  Or, was the re-creation of the dwarfing process inspired by a dream?  (Yes, that's a little better...)

        An old, twisted tree, found in the wild, had recently been uprooted or was very near to being uprooted -- it was a recent avalanche or flood or earthquake survivor, perhaps.  A traveler carefully gathered it up and successfully repotted it in a small container, possibly the only vessel he had.  Seeing that it grew fairly well in cramped quarters, the tree might have just been left in that.  (Or did the tree just happened to have been rescued during a dormant period and given in a timely fashion to an actual gardener who coaxed it "back to life"?)

        An old tree was found growing on/in a smallish rock which could be brought back whole or broken up so that just the important piece could be carried to a garden in town and there cared-for as a special novelty.  Other trees were then attempted in this style.

        A wind-blown seed took root in a small pocket in a rock or other stunting feature in a refuse pile/artificial mountain at a palace park construction and, when later found, was so auspicious that the tree was then successfully transplanted into a small container.

        A wind-blown seed took root in an out-of-the-way but moisture-provided soil-enriched pocket of a larger rockery already set up in a garden.  The resulting dwarfish specimen, which may not have been noticed for a few years, was eventually successfully transplanted into a small container.

        A seed took root in an overlooked container with a handful of soil in it -- a discarded pen dish even? -- and because it received just enough moisture to survive, the plant grew but stayed stunted in its confined quarters.  The resulting miniature was then discovered and cared-for in its original portable home.

        During a landscaping renovation or remodeling of a temple or other sacred site, a naturally dwarfed tree -- or a large-trunked specimen which had been cut-away or pruned down and was seen to be attractively-shaped -- was discovered and then successfully transplanted into a small container.

        A naturally stunted sport was discovered in a nursery and despite every effort, the tree would not grow bigger.  It was cultured nevertheless as a special item and propagated.

        Some of the "second generation" versions of boshanlu (magical mountain incense burners) which were made of stone carried lichens, mosses, and other small plants which thus furthered the illusion of being a magical miniature landscape.  These became the most highly prized, sought after, and re-created portable vistas.

        Livestock-grazed or firewood-pruned saplings were successfully retrieved from a pasture or other setting, height-shortened but trunk-fattened from several years of herbivore and/or human-pruning.

        Caravan travelers coming to China successfully transplanted a naturally dwarfed tree they found along the way.  The specimen was then gifted to an imperial family gardener on the caravan's arrival to the Middle Kingdom.  The travelers may have known of the Chinese interest in odd-shaped stones/miniature landscapes and were happy to bring a present which "upped the ante," so to speak.  As a further nod to possible partial foreign input of the idea of dwarfed potted trees, any of the above other ways might have been the source of the first dwarf tree or, perhaps, a little more likely, just the story of their being was conveyed and then acted upon by the Chinese who re-created and replicated the results.

        Some of these trees resembling old survivors were eventually matched with Daoist concepts of sacred twisted unusable vs. profane straight practical, and then trees meeting those former standards became more prized and re-created.  Other less "wonder-filled" trees might also be occasionally kept and experimented upon -- possibly to further learn how to make "wonder-filled" magical miniature landscapes.  And the auspicious nature of certain types of trees would also have focused attention on which miniature specimens to treasure.

        Consider also the thoughts in this post "On the Origin of Bonsai Appeal to Man."


Inspired by a talk the night of 06 Jan 2010 between RJB and son Andrew.

1      Richardson, S.D.  Forestry in Communist China (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins Press; 1966), pg. 155, "Originally, only four tree species were grown in penzai";

Hu, Yunhua  Chinese Penjing, Miniature Trees and Landscapes (Portland, OR: Timber Press; ©1987 Wan Li Books Co., Ltd., Hong Kong), pg. 134, and Li, H. L.  Chinese flower arrangement (Philadelphia, PA: Hedera House; 1956), pp. 6,63-73; (plus descriptions adapted from Sunset Western Gardening Guide).
Later the trees used were referred to as the "Four Gentlemen," "Seven Virtuous Ones," and "Eighteen Scholars."  This was in the longstanding and almost obsessive Chinese tradition of grouping and naming seemingly-like objects in the universe.

The "Four Gentlemen" consisted of the plants identified today as:
        Caragana sinica (a shrub or tree of the pea family),
        Buxus sinica (a boxwood, an evergreen shrub or small tree),
        Jasminium nudiflorum (the Winter jasmine which blooms nearly all winter in mild places, before the deciduous leaves unfold on the viny shrub), and
        Juniperus chinensis (the Chinese juniper).

The "Seven Virtuous Ones" were:
        Pinus taiwanensis (a pine),
        Juniperus communis (the common juniper),
        Ulmus parvifolia (the Chinese elm, a very small-leaved, fast-growing evergreen or deciduous tree, depending on winter temperatures and variety, from southern and central China),
        Acer (an unspecified maple),
        Ilex (an unspecified holly),
        Gingko biloba (with broad fan-shaped green leaves which suddenly turn gold in the fall, but not known until the eleventh century?), and
        Sageretia theezans (Chinese bird plum, an evergreen shrub native to southern China, with small green leaves and a leathery multicoloured trunk).

The "Eighteen Scholars" included:
        Prunus mume (the Japanese flowering apricot or plum, considered the longest-lived of flowering fruit trees, it blooms as early as January in mild winter areas or as late as March where cold),
        Prunus persica (the peach),
        Damnacanthus indicus (Damnacanthus),
        "Jie qing" (a name no longer used today, it is not possible to determine which species the name referred to),
        Lycium chinense (the matrimony vine, a vigorous shrub),
        Rhododendron simsii (the Indian azalea),
        Juniperus squamata (a slow-growing low juniper),
        Chaenomeles cathayensis (a flowering deciduous quince, among the earliest blooming shrubs each year),
        Chimonanthus praecox (the wintersweet, a deciduous shrub whose 1" flowers, made up of yellow outer sepals and striped purplish-brown inner ones, bloom all winter in the south and are very fragrant),
        Nandina domestica (the Heavenly Bamboo, an evergreen or semi-deciduous shrub reminiscent of bamboos in its lightly branched, cane-like stems and delicate fine-textured growth, its white flowers turning into shiny red berries if the plants are grouped),
        Camellia japonica (the common camellia, a large evergreen shrub or small tree which is an outstanding container plant),
        Podocarpus macrophylla (the Yew Podocarpus, an evergreen shrub or tree whose leaves resemble the Taxus yew but are longer, broader and lighter in color, and which also does well in containers),
        Malus micromalus (the Kaido crabapple, it has fragrant single pink flowers which are profuse in April),
        Bambusa multiplex var. nana (the Bamboo of Filial Piety, a clumping variety),
        Lagerstoremia indica (the Crape Myrtle, a slow-growing deciduous shrub or tree with crinkled crepe-like 1-1/2" flowers throughout the summer in rounded, slightly conical clusters at the end of branches),
        Punica granatum (the pomegranate, a deciduous tree or shrub with showy flowers, and some varieties of which yield the many large-seeded fruits),
        Serissa foetida (Tree of a Thousand Stars, a thin, spreading evergreen shrub, perhaps only to two feet in the wild, which produces profuse tiny blooms), and, finally,
        Gardenia jasminoides (the cape jasmine or common gardenia, an evergreen shrub with glossy bright green leaves and double white highly-fragrant flowers which grow and bloom best with summer heat).

See also this grand listing of plants used.

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