The art of Japanese bonsai originates from the Chinese tradition of penjing — depicting artistically formed trees, plants, and landscapes in miniature. Bonsai trees are not grown for the purposes of food production, medicinal uses, or for creating landscape. They are meant to reflect nature and bring delight through their long-term cultivation to the grower. Bonsais are not a specific kind of tree, but rather a combination of techniques to create and maintain a version of a tree looking old but remaining miniature-sized. There is a variety of species that can be grown as Bonsai through a careful process of selecting seeds or cuttings, or more advanced methods, such as layering (interrupting the stream of nutrients from the existing root system to a tree or branch, so that it forms new roots at a certain point) and grafting (“melding” a stump and a graft together).
The banana “tree” is actually a fast-growing herbaceous flowering plant, and even more confusing, the banana “fruit” is botanically a berry. Archaeological evidence suggests the cultivation of the banana began as early as 8000 B. C. in Papua New Guinea, and in 1999 the oldest banana in the UK was found in a Tudor rubbish tip. Today, bananas and plantains — bananas used for cooking, constitute the 4th largest fruit crop of the world and are grown in every humid tropical region. A sturdy “tree” grows about one hundred pounds of bananas. Valued for their delicious taste and nutritional value, bananas can also be grown in containers for ornamental purposes.
Known for their health benefits, lemons have been cultivated for more than six centuries, and prior to the development of the fermentation-based processes, they were the primary commercial source of citric acid. The lemon tree is a small evergreen, native to Asia. Of all citrus trees, it is the most sensitive to cold and often has to be grafted to more vigorous rootstocks. As house plants, lemon trees are valued for their lush dark green leaves, white blossoms and citrus fragrance. They can be grown from seeds in containers and reach a height of about 3–5 feet. The most common variety of lemon grown in containers is the Meyer — a cross between a lemon and possibly an orange or a mandarin. It usually takes about 3–6 years for a lemon tree to bear fruit.
Orange trees were first cultivated in China around 2500 B.C. Bitter orange trees were brought to Europe by the crusaders in the 11th century but the sweet orange wasn’t introduced until the early 1600s. The orange is unknown in the wild state. Today, it is the most cultivated fruit tree in the world, usually grafted through a process called budding. Seed grown trees are susceptible to foot and root rot and usually have a short lifespan. It takes about 15 years for a tree grown from seeds to reach maturity and bear fruit. It is best that seedlings are grown, and grafted to a rootstock that can tolerate adverse conditions. Fruit develops more quickly on grafted trees than seed grown orange trees regardless of its size — from small dwarf varieties to 20-foot standard trees. In warmer spring weather, orange trees bloom in flowers with brilliant white petals, most of which don’t result in the formation of fruit as they usually fall off. The white blossoms used to represent chastity and purity and were worn by brides in the Middle ages.
All kinds of willows — be it the graceful weeping willow with arching stems swaying in the breeze, the whimsical pussy willow with the childish fuzzy buds, or the corkscrew willow with its spiralling stems, grow well on moist organic-rich soil in full sun. Legend has it that all willow trees in England are descendant from a cutting planted by the poet Alexander Pope. It is believed that he begged the twig of Lady Suffollk, who had received a parcel from Spain, tied with willow twigs. Even if not obtained by a royal mistress, the most popular methods of willow tree are still growing from cuttings or bare root trees — planted in a well-drained pot or directly into the garden soil.
Thriving in tropical climates with cool, dry winters and steamy, hot summers, mango trees are long-lived trees, with some specimens still bearing fruit after 300 years, that can grow up to be huge — up to 35 m and 15 m across. Cultivated in South Asia for thousands of years, the mango trees can be grown as houseplants and kept small with regular pruning. The dense lush foliage and the fragrant pink panicles that cover the whole tree when in full bloom are a sight to behold. The mango is the national tree of Bangladesh and the national fruit of India, Pakistan, and the Philippines. At weddings and other celebrations, Indian houses are decorated with mango leaves and mango paisleys are widely used in different Indian embroidery styles and Iranian art.
Cultivated for over 5000 years, olive trees have been valued for much more than their fruit. Olive oil, considered sacred, has been used in sacrificial offerings, as a medicine and beauty treatment, and the olive branch has long been a symbol of glory, peace, and abundance. Olive trees are short evergreens, native to the Mediterranean, Asia and Africa. Nowadays, it is possible to grow an olive tree or shrub virtually anywhere — they can be seen in Kew Gardens in London, potted in hotels across Paris and even grown outdoors in New York and Chicago. A potted olive tree requires advanced gardening techniques, while outside it has to be grounded for winter if temperatures drop to -5 C.
Yew trees have been grown as ornaments and widely used in landscaping. Relatively slow-growing, they reach a height of about 10–20 m, and have a reddish bark, and dark-green leaves. All Yews contain highly poisonous alkaloids known as taxanes. They are present in all parts of the plant, except for the arils, which are edible and sweet. Yews are very long-lived and the Fortingall Yew is considered to be the oldest tree in Europe, estimated at over 2000 years old. The Yew tree is symbolic of sadness and can be found in many church graveyards across England. They are mentioned in the poetry of Lord Alfred Tennyson and T.S. Eliot. The name of the Eihwaz rune represents the Yew tree, which is also associated with the “evergreen” world tree, Yggdrasil.
A symbol of victory and highest status in Ancient Rome, the aromatic bay tree is symbolic in Christian tradition as well — a bay laurel heralds the resurrection of Christ, and in the Bible the laurel is often the emblem of prosperity. The bay laurel is native to the Mediterranean region, but it also thrives in containers almost anywhere. Bay trees vary greatly in size and height, some specimens reaching 10–18 metres, while in the garden they are usually about 7.5m. The green glossy foliage can be cut into specific shapes. Bay leaves are used as a flavour powerhouse in cooking and the essential oil of bay laurel is used in aromatherapy to treat earaches and high blood pressure.
Widely used in landscaping for their exotic appearance, palm trees are also the source of many foods and common products, making them one of the most important plants in terms of economy, history and culture. Palm branches were given to champions and used to celebrate military success by the Romans. The palm tree symbolises the Tree of Life in Kabbalah and has a symbolic significance in other religions, as well. In Christianity, the Palm Sunday festival celebrates the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem and the palm branch is an emblem of the victory of the faithful. In Judaism, the palm is used to represent peace and prosperity. Today, palms are the universal symbol of tropical islands and vacations.