Earlier this week, some bonsai trees were stolen from their owner in New South Wales, Australia. You’d think that the theft of some plants would be pretty unremarkable (Not my ferns, take anything but my ferns!), but these bonsai were estimated to be worth between $5,000 and $8,000 dollars.
Several thousand dollars seems like kind of a sizable pricetag for what is essentially is just a bunch of trees, but bonsai are often so much more than that.
Even though the only exposure most people probably have to bonsai are boxed kits in gift stores, true bonsai isn’t that kitschy. In fact, if you look closely, you’ll see that bonsai have qualities that easily make them worth it.
What makes bonsai trees so unique is the level of care put into them Obviously, raising a bonsai tree is a lot of work, taking constant care to make sure that the soil, climate, etc. are all just right, all the while continuing to shape and prune the tree to look perfect.
Timothy Takemoto uses the word “surnatural” when talking about how the Japanese shape the plants. (Think of sur as in surreal). The Japanese, generally speaking, tend to prune and clip their plants in a way that makes it seem more “natural.” “More natural than nature” — talk about an oxymoron.
This is pretty different from the way a lot of western cultures tend to their plants. With western culture, you tend to think of shrubs trimmed to look like animals or other shapes that plants don’t generally grow into. As Takemoto says, “
[Western culture] attempts to impose conceptions and regularity on nature, [Japanese culture] attempts to remove those aspects of nature that appear to be conceptual or regular.”
It’s not just the incredible amounts of care and precision that make bonsai so valuable. Some bonsai can grow to incredible ages too, often against all odds.
You would think that such trees would be finicky, but it turns out that despite their miniature size, they can be quite hearty. One bonsai, declared a National Treasure of Japan, has been around for nearly 600 years, and has been in the care of shoguns and emperors. It’s mind-boggling to think about what kind of conversations it must have been privvy to.
There’s one bonsai that completely one-ups all others in terms of heartiness and longevity: the Yamaki pine. Named after the latest of one of its many caretakers, Masaru Yamaki, the Yamaki pine has seen its share of hardships.
It’s been around since at least 1625. Before the world wars, before the car and bicycle, before the American Civil War or even the United States of America, there was the Yamaki pine.
Not only is it coming up on 400 years old, but the Yamaki pine has also survived one of the most devastating events in recorded history: a nuclear bomb. One August 6, 1945, the Yamaki pine was sitting about two miles away from ground zero but miraculously, it was shielded from the blast by a wall.
It seems incredible that, despite the intense radiation that obliterated the residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the relatively small Yamaki pine has fared well in the 70 years since.
While the bonsai stolen in Australia probably aren’t nuclear bomb survivors that have lived hundreds of years, it’s still easy to see why they’re valued at thousands of dollars. Maybe in hundreds of years, when we’re all riding around in autonomous, Google flying cars, these minature trees will still be around.