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Get Creative with Kokedama

Bring a bit of Buddhist Japan into your home with these green, living plant sculptures that have a history dating back almost 2,000 years.

| January/February 2020

Photo by Adobe Stock/Margaryta Vakhterova

The Japanese art of kokedama developed out of a long tradition first known in China as “Penjing” or “Penzai.” Dating back nearly 2,000 years, Penzai is the art of pruning miniature trees, shrubs, and plants into aesthetically pleasing shapes. It often involved creating entire miniature landscapes in a small tray. Taoist monks in China are thought to have first practiced this art form; they believed that shaping and keeping trees and other plants miniature imbued them with a magical energy.

As Taoist monks migrated to Japan, they brought the Penzai tradition with them. The tradition was adopted by the Japanese as bonsai, and quickly spread from monasteries and temples to the homes of royals and the wealthy. The trend became so popular that in the medieval era, even common people kept bonsai trees in their gardens.

The intentional shaping of natural trees into art objects perfectly reflected the Japanese aesthetic of refinement. As Japanese culture embraced bonsai, it took a place of honor in homes and in the culture. By the 18th century, exhibitions and competitions for bonsai creations spread throughout Japan, and new techniques emerged that furthered the many unique shapes of these tiny trees. Experimentation with flowering trees, minimalist trimming, and even the use of termites to scar and then heal a bonsai gave rise to much creativity.

Photo by Getty Images/Mattis Kaminer

Kokedama takes its name from koke, which means “moss,” and dama, which means “ball,” and is sometimes called “the poor man’s bonsai.” This is because it’s the combination of three bonsai planting techniques: nearai, bonsai, and kusamono. For example, the nearai-style bonsai involves growing a tree in a small pot so the roots take the shape of the pot. The tree would then be displayed bare, without its pot, but now having an interestingly snarled and imperfect shape. Tray planting, or bonsai, remains the iconic image of a miniature Japanese tree in a low, horizontal tray. Kusamono are bonsai-like displays of wild grasses and flowers in unique pots or moss balls.

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