In the year 1515 Henry VIII invested Thomas Wolsey as a Cardinal and named him Lord Chancellor of England the first Congress of Vienna took place, as did the Battle of Marignano when the French army beat the Swiss and Havana was founded in Cuba.
About this time, somewhere in Japan, a man planted the seed of a fig tree, watched it grow to a seedling, trimmed its tap root and started training the sapling as a bonsai. When he died he passed the young bonsai tree to his son. Twenty generations later that bonsai tree is flourishing and is on display at the Bonsai Museum in Marbella.
Opened in 1992 this museum has a fantastic collection, the best in Europe, of bonsai from Japan, China and Taiwan together with a wild olive collection renowned worldwide, from Acebuche in Andalucia.
The tradition of bonsai actually started in China about 700 AD. There it was called pun sai. The goal was to create a landscape form in miniature and they were considered sacred because the twisted forms of the trunks and branches were reminiscent of the yoga positions which were in turn reputed to re-circulate vital body fluids and be the cause of long life.
About one thousand years ago the tradition spread to Japan. The Japanese at this time loved anything Chinese. It was the Zen monks who, finding beauty in severe austerity, developed their landscapes so that a single tree in a pot could represent the universe. The word bonsai, which is how the Japanese pronounced pun sai, to describe these techniques came about in 1800 when a group of students of the Chinese arts met at Osaka to discuss recent styles in miniature trees. Their trees became a matter of design rather than a mythical or religious interpretation.
Back in China they developed the concept of creating a full landscape in miniature with a number of bonsai trees in large, flat trays and even on slabs of slate. This idea developed into a miniature landscape within the full size landscape, often centred round an artificial rocky stream or small waterfall.
The bonsai trees at the Marbella museum, however you interpret them, are things of beauty and amazement. Many flower and even grow fruit. There are examples of the ‘landscape’ form and the centre piece of the museum is an artificial waterfall and stream with bonsai trees happily growing in crevices and shallow basins.