5 Oldest Bonsai Trees In The World

Oldest Bonsai Tree

While bonsai is most associated with the Japanese, the practice originated in China. It had grown into an art form by 700 AD, and by 1333 AD the practice had been introduced to Japan. The Japanese took Chinese techniques and refined it into an even more obsessive, meticulous art.

Years of careful training is required to master the art of bonsai. Bonsai trees take years to form and train. In many cases the tree’s growth is even deliberately stunted to achieve the desired shape. They are extremely delicate; even the slightest amount of neglect can ruin or even kill a bonsai. Older specimens are priceless, cherished as heirlooms, museum pieces, and collector’s items.

The oldest specimens identified are believed to be at least 800 years old. It is impossible to accurately date a tree without damaging it, so the age of most bonsai trees is educated guesswork based on whatever records are available, the kind of tree, and the style of clipping. What’s more, many of the most spectacular specimens are in private Japanese collections and abroad, not accessible to the public.

Luckily some of the oldest specimens are on display or, at the very least, have been recorded for the sake of public knowledge. The five oldest of these are the Arnold Arboretum’s chabo hiba cypresses, the Akao Herb & Rose Garden’s red pine, the Yamaki pine, the Happo-en Garden Collection, and the Sandai Shogun no Matsu.

The Chabo Hiba Cypresses

At least 200 years old, the chabo hiba cypresses at New England’s Arnold Arboretum represent a tree species so ancient that it is practically extinct. Also called hinoki cypresses, the oldest bonsai in the world are believed to be chabo hiba specimens. Many chabo hiba specimens are one of two shapes. The “Nakasu” style is meant to mimic Mount Fuji in its conical form. “Jikka” form is meant to resemble a lakeside tree with branches overhanging the water.

The specimens at the Arnold Arboretum are part of the Larz Anderson Collection. During the Taft administration, Larz Anderson was an ambassador to Japan. He collected the bonsai trees, which his widow donated to the Arnold Arboretum following Anderson’s death. The seven specimens are believed to range between 150 and 275 years old.

Akao Herb & Rose Garden

Akao Herb & Rose Garden in Atami, Japan boasts not only one of the oldest but one of the largest bonsai specimens in the world. Over 600 years old, the red pine bonsai stands over sixteen feet tall and sprawls over thirty feet wide. Astoundingly, it is indeed in a “pot”, a massive planter bed installation that sits near the back of an immaculately raked zen landscape. Five green plumes sprout from the plant base instead of one massive spray, and a support structure had to be added for one of the plumes to keep it in-tact.

The Yamaki Pine

The National Arboretum in the United States boasts ownership of the Yamaki Pine, a specimen at least 375 years old that survived the Hiroshima bombing in World War II. The white pine was donated to the Arboretum by the Yamaki family as part of Japan’s Bicentennial gift. This miraculous specimen was only two miles from the detonation of “Little Boy“, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, and was completely unharmed by the blast. The variety of pine used is incredibly rare and prized for use in bonsai training.

The Happo-en Garden Collection

Happo-en, meaning “a garden which is beautiful from all angles“, is a combination garden & tea house in Tokyo, Japan. Happo-en has multiple specimens, several well over 200 years old. The oldest may have been around for as many as eight centuries.

Sandai Shogun no Matsu

The Sandai Shogun no Matsu, which translate to “third generation Tokugawa’s pine“, is a specimen that has been passed down through the line of Japanese emperors for at least 500 years.

The Sandai has been lovingly tended to by many emperors, but it derives its name from Tokugawa Iemitsu. Iemitsu obtained the tree when it was already at least 200 years old, but he had a love of horticulture so obsessive he neglected his duties as shogunate. It remains a part of the Tokyo Imperial Palace collection today, but sadly, it is not in its full glory. During World War II, the national bonsai collection was neglected. It will likely take years more to correct the damage done.