Even if you possess only elementary knowledge of the art of growing bonsai trees, you know how these trees, although miniature, in the vast majority of cases, outlive their “normal” versions since their life span can be anywhere from a hundred to several hundred years. In this article, let’s take a closer look at the oldest bonsai tree in the world.
It is precisely this characteristic that attracts many to embark on the adventure of growing a bonsai tree and creating a lifelong occupation.
Now, imagine for a minute that we could live forever. Would there be an end to the bonsai adventure, provided we gave the tree the care it needs? In other words, is there a maximum to the life of a bonsai tree?
Unfortunately, we cannot answer the question of what the maximum is because, fortunately, all the bonsai trees, considered the oldest in the world, are alive and set new records on a daily basis.
So, we’ll give you a list of the nine oldest bonsai trees in the world! The age of those at the top of the list will probably shock you but hopefully won’t throw you into despair for looking unreachable. If you have a bonsai of your own, don’t give up; who knows, maybe in the far, far future, yours will find itself on a list like this!
9. Compact Hinoki Cypress – ‘Chabo-hiba’
Age: 285 years
First on our list of the oldest bonsai trees in the world is the compact Hinoki cypress. This bonsai tree, located in the Arnold Arboretum in Boston, USA, is “only” 285+ years old. Its Japanese name, ‘Chabo-hiba’, which is often used in English sources, can be translated as compact or dwarf cypress.
The compact Hinoki cypress was brought to the USA by the American ambassador to Japan, Larz Anderson, who collected and maintained bonsai specimens during his official stay in Japan.
His wife, Isabel, donated 30 bonsais to the Arboretum after Larz passed away, while the rest of his collection came into possession of the museum in 1949 after her death.
Besides the 285 years old ‘Chabo-hiba’, four more old compact Hinoki Cypresses are found in the Arboretum, with the youngest being 160+ years old.
8. Yamaki Pine
Age: 397 years
Yamaki pine is the most famous bonsai specimen in the world because it survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in 1945, at least in the mainstream media.
Although not as shocking as the survival of the bombing, the story of how it came to be known that this tree is a survivor of the bombing is also fascinating.
In 1976, the Nippon Bonsai Association gifted 53 bonsais to the United States of America for its two-hundredth anniversary. Part of that collection was, at the time, a 351-year-old white pine bonsai tree. It was donated by bonsai master Masaru Yamaki, a resident of Hiroshima and a survivor of the atomic attack.
Until 2001, the only people who knew the history and age of this bonsai were the Yamaki family, who had cared for it for centuries. However, that year, Masaru’s two grandsons decided to visit the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum at the United States National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., to see the bonsai about which they had heard many stories throughout their lifetime.
After they found their grandfather’s bonsai, they talked to the museum staff and told them all about the tree’s past, after which it was determined that this bonsai was indeed a precious specimen with a long history. As of 2022, Yamaki pine is 397 years old since it is believed that it was shaped into bonsai in 1625.
7. Sandai Shogun No Matsu Bonsai
Age: 500+ years
Most bonsai trees from this list were possessed by some powerful and wealthy people at some point or another, but only Sandai Shogun No Matsu can boast about the fact that it was cared for by true royalty for centuries. It is also probably the most elegant bonsai tree on the list.
The exact year when this five-needle pine became bonsai is not known, but what is known is that Tokugawa Iemitsu acquired it sometime in the 17th century when it was already over 100 years old. He was the third shogun of the Tokugawa Shogunate, a dynasty that ruled Japan for nearly 300 years. The name of the bonsai references this since its Japanese name, Sandai Shogun No Matsu, roughly translates to third-generation Tokugawa’s pine.
From the moment Tokugawa Iemitsu obtained it until it was added to the Tokyo Imperial Palace collection, where it is still today, this bonsai was owned only by Japanese emperors who passed it down from generation to generation. As a result, Sandai Shogun No Matsu bonsai is considered a Japanese national treasure, and today it’s more than five centuries old.
6. Red Pine Bonsai
Age: 600+ years
Including this bonsai tree feels a bit like cheating, but it can be classified as a bonsai tree, and it is quite a fascinating one, so why not? Rules are meant to be broken (every once in a while?).
We’re talking about the gigantic bonsai red pine, whose dimensions are: 16 feet in height and 30 feet in width. Yes, you just read bonsai and 16 feet and 30 feet in the same sentence. But what makes this specimen a bonsai is the fact that it’s in a pot, which is typical for all bonsai trees.
Being some 600 years old, it’s not the oldest, but it’s probably the biggest bonsai tree in the world. Those interested in seeing it in person can do so by visiting the Akao Herb and Rose Garden in Atami, Japan.
5. Shimpaku (Japanese Juniper)
Age: 700 years
The first of the two bonsai specimens coming from the famous bonsai nursery Mansei-en is the Shimpaku, Japanese juniper, and its age is over 700 years.
In Japanese, this bonsai is called Garyo, which translates to Reclining dragon. The name was given because of a specific trunk that rises from the pot by twisting left and right, thus imitating the mythical creature’s body shape.
To make things even more interesting, the original creator shaped a part of a trunk that extends to the side like the jaws of a dragon.
All this work around Garyo, and especially around its trunk, means it’s a pretty delicate plant, which is why it still requires special care to keep it in the same form.
As we already said, the Reclining dragon is located in the Mansei-en bonsai nursery, which is one of the six bonsai gardens comprising the Omiya Bonsai village in Saitama, Japan. This nursery is the oldest of the six bonsai gardens in the village and was first opened for public access in 1925. The Omiya bonsai village is sometimes referred to as the “Sacred Land of Bonsai” since it has countless bonsai trees.
4. Million Dollar Bonsai
Age: 800+ years
All the plants on this list attract attention with their antiquity. Some of them captivate them with an, even for bonsai, unusual appearance. But only one can pride itself on the fact that it is one of the most expensive bonsai trees of all time (depending on the source, this bonsai is anywhere between first and fourth place).
We’re talking about a white pine tree that was sold some ten years ago at the International Bonsai Convention in Takamatsu, Japan, for an astonishing 100 million Japanese yen, which at the time was equal to 1.3 million US dollars. Naturally, the news of the sale spread quickly; soon enough, this tree became widely known even by non-bonsai enthusiasts, and it was named the Million dollar bonsai.
However, what most people missed or simply didn’t find interesting enough is the reason why this tree is making an appearance on our list. With an estimated age of more than 800 years, this bonsai is the fourth oldest bonsai in the world.
3. Shunkaen Nursery Bonsais
Age: 800+ years
Although bonsai initially originated in China in a slightly different form, it was the Japanese who popularized this combination of horticulture and art. So, it is understandable why almost all specimens of old(est) bonsai trees come from Japan. They have the history but also the know-how, after all.
At the Shunkaen Bonsai Museum in Tokyo, Japan, there are not one but two bonsai trees estimated to be over 800 years old. These white pines are not only some of the oldest living bonsai trees but also some of the most expensive ones since their values are in the six and possibly even seven-figure range.
The two specimens, whose exact origin is unknown, are managed by Kunio Kobayashi, a respected bonsai master and owner of the museum/nursery at the same time. Kunio, who has been passionately engaged in the art of creating, shaping, and maintaining bonsai trees for more than 40 years, opened the museum in 2002, and since then, it has been possible to see hundreds of bonsai trees created by himself and his apprentices.
2. Juniper Bonsai Tree
Age: 1,000+ years
When we talk about our ancestors, old times, history, and things of that sort, our only evidence is some records that we have never seen with our own eyes and legends passed down from generation to generation whose truthfulness can’t be really checked. And the vast majority of buildings that would have told us the story of past times have disappeared somewhere along the way, either by our or nature’s fault.
Precisely because of this, being able to witness something that has existed in this world for more than one millennium is an experience that should be greatly appreciated. The juniper bonsai tree, whose age was confirmed by carbon dating, is the second oldest bonsai tree in the world and just one of two bonsai trees older than 1,000 years. It is located in the aforementioned Mansei-en bonsai nursery in Japan.
But, what perhaps sets this bonsai tree apart from others on the list is the wildness of its shape. Although we have already seen some trees with irregular shapes, the juniper bonsai tree surely wins in the category of twistedness and weirdness.
It was taken from the wild forests in Omiya and brought to the bonsai garden. In ancient times, when people in the Far east began to practice the art of shaping trees into their miniature versions, the best specimens were those plants whose growth was already stunted by natural causes and that, therefore, naturally began to take on a bonsai look, so it’s no wonder that this particular juniper tree was chosen.
1. Ficus Bonsai Tree
Age: 1,000+ years
We have reached the end of our list: the world’s oldest bonsai tree is the Ficus retusa Linn, whose age is well over 1,000 years.
But it’s not just the age that makes this specimen stand out. The width and height of the tree, which are somewhat large for a bonsai, as well as the pronounced and unreal-looking roots, make this tree an extraordinary one not only in bonsai but also in the entire plant world.
Another thing that makes the ficus bonsai tree unique is its pot – it’s the largest bonsai pot in the world.
Ficus retusa Linn was bought by Luigi Crespi in 1986, but it took him ten years to convince the Chinese, who had taken care of this stunning bonsai for centuries, to sell it to him. Japanese bonsai master Shotaro Kawahara was in charge of managing and caring for the tree after the purchase.
Ficus retusa Linn was first presented to the public in 1991 as a part of the Crespi Bonsai museum, the world’s first permanent bonsai museum. It is still on display there, along with more than 200 bonsai trees but also antique pots, books, and manuscripts from the Far East. So, if you’re a bonsai lover, it’s well worth the visit!
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the most traditional bonsai tree?
Two plants can be considered the most traditional bonsai trees because growing them is not an exact science.
The first and, for the majority of people, the most common/popular bonsai tree is the pine tree. If you’ve carefully read this article, you’ve surely noticed that most of the entries on the list are pine trees. That’s because they’re tough plants and easily shapeable plants.
The other answer and another plant with a couple of representatives on the list is the juniper tree. They’re hardy, easy to care for, and have small and attractive foliage.
Can you turn any tree into a bonsai?
If we define a tree as a plant with a woody trunk, then yes, you can turn any tree into a bonsai.
Why are bonsai trees so special?
Shaping a tree into a bonsai is a job that requires a lot of effort, patience, and knowledge. Even a “regular” bonsai that you can buy in a gardening center requires some five years to shape.
The ones from our list or the ones looking like the actual mini version of the normal trees? Dozens of years. That requires a lot of dedication and time for “just” one plant. And even if you are ready to fully dedicate yourself to growing a single specimen, you need knowledge that cannot be obtained just like that.
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