It’s remarkable to think about how much the world has changed since the oldest bonsai trees in the world were seeds. From paradigm-shifting inventions to devastating human conflict, to the rise of our globally connected world, these trees have seen and survived it all.
With so many years under their belts (or pots, rather) it’s no wonder the world’s most ancient bonsai have interesting stories. This list of oldest bonsai trees takes a look at a few of the most fascinating specimens. But first:
How Long Do Bonsai Trees Live?
While most will not grow old enough to earn a spot on this list, bonsai trees often enjoy longer lives than they would in the wild. Unlike trees growing naturally, bonsai environments are carefully controlled so they receive adequate sunlight, water, nutrients, and protection from the elements.
Without this meticulous care, your bonsai would quickly deplete the resources available in its shallow container and die. But in the right conditions, a bonsai tree can easily live to over 100 years-old. Some can even live for centuries, all the way up to a thousand years!
Long-Living Bonsai Species
While longevity is largely determined by the care a tree receives and the environment in which it is grown, some species have a longer life expectancy than others. If you want to start a tree with the best chance to be passed on for generations, consider the following varieties:
Growing one of these species is no guarantee. But with the right care, the specimen you start today could be a contender for this list of oldest bonsai trees way, way down the road. Now, let’s take a look at the competition!
The 7 Oldest Bonsai Trees In The World
Oldest Bonsai Tree #1: The Crespi Ficus
The oldest bonsai tree in the world is said to be over 1,000 years old! Called the Ficus retusa linn, this bonsai lives in the Crespi Bonsai Museum in Milan, Italy. A testament to dedication and loving daily care, the 10-foot-tall specimen dazzles with a network of dense aerial roots and a perfectly balanced silhouette.
This Crespi ficus was transported to Italy in 1986, after more than a decade of negotiations between the current and previous caretakers—a blink in the life of this ancient tree. Not only is it believed to be the oldest bonsai tree in the world, it’s planted in the world’s largest bonsai pot, which was made and fired in a single piece.
This Crespi ficus is the crown jewel of an impressive collection of over 200 eye-catching bonsai trees. While others have attempted to purchase the bonsai from Crespi, this beloved tree is staying put and will continue to inspire visitors to the museum’s sunny arboretum for years to come.
Oldest Bonsai Tree #2: The Bonsai Who Lived
The second bonsai on this list survived one of the most harrowing experiences in human history to become an international symbol of friendship and peace.
This nearly 400-year-old Japanese white pine was planted just miles away from where American forces dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, during World War II. Remarkably, the tree survived both the blast and the ensuing turmoil.
In 1975, bonsai master Masaru Yamaki presented the tree to the United States as a 200th birthday gift. Given as a gesture of cultural connection, the U.S. was unaware of the tree’s connection to Hiroshima until two of Yamaki’s grandchildren made the connection in 2001.
Today, the tree is housed at the United States National Arboretum, and stands as a reminder of endurance and the power of peace.
Read more: This National Geographic article reveals the whole story.
Oldest Bonsai Tree #3: The Dwarf Giant
Bonsai trees are still trees—and they just keep growing! It takes precision and care to keep them small, and determined bonsai will still find their way upward with time. That’s why the oldest bonsai trees are often as tall or taller than humans. But as long as they are tended to using bonsai principles and are planted in a shallow container, they’re still considered bonsai.
The 600-year-old “Pine of the Phoenix” is a prime example of a gorgeous, gigantic bonsai. Housed at the exotic Akao Herb and Rose Garden in Japan, this mammoth specimen clocks in at 16 feet tall and 30 feet wide. This makes it one of the tallest, oldest bonsai trees in the world.
While it’s not as mobile as some of the other trees on this list, it doesn’t need to be! The tree is displayed in the middle of a gorgeous raked zen garden landscape and sprawls across its massive container. It’s one of the most popular attractions in the garden, so we don’t think it’s going anywhere.
Oldest Bonsai Tree #4: The Million-Dollar Bonsai
Bonsai can range in price from $20 at your local big-box garden center to hundreds, even thousands of dollars. And as they age and outlive the people who have given them a (human’s) lifetime of care—their dollar value skyrockets.
Many of the oldest or rarest specimens (like the Crespi ficus or Hiroshima pine) are virtually priceless, and will likely never be sold again. But every now and again, a prized specimen hits the market and the crowd goes wild.
When these valuable trees are sold, it isn’t cheap; to date, the most expensive bonsai is this 800-year-old bonsai pine—it sold for 1.3 million dollars!
Oldest Bonsai Tree #5: The Royal Pine
Bonsai originates from “pun-sai,” an ancient Chinese art form originally reserved for members of the elite classes. As the practice migrated to Japan and evolved into bonsai, it grew in popularity throughout the entire population—from peasant farmers to Japanese emperors.
One of the oldest bonsai trees in the world was tended to by a line of emperors for over 500 years. This tree is known as the Sandai Shogun no Matsu, or “third-generation Tokugawa’s pine.” In the 17th century, the beloved bonsai was obtained by Tokugawa Iemitsu, the third shōgun of the Tokugawa dynasty.
Today, this royal specimen is displayed in the Tokyo Imperial Palace collection and is designated a Japanese national treasure for outstanding workmanship and cultural value.
Oldest Bonsai Tree #6: The Wild Specimen
Throughout history, countless bonsai have been harvested from the wild as saplings. With the right care, these trees become miniature replicas of the natural world from which they came. The second oldest bonsai tree on this list is believed to have a similar genesis; it was collected in the Japanese forest nearly 1,000 ago.
Today, this beautiful Juniper bonsai tree lives in the Omiya Bonsai Village in Omiya, Japan. There, it is a jewel among the countless bonsai collected by “the Sacred Land of Bonsai” over nearly a century in operation.
Oldest Bonsai Tree #7: Comfy in the Pot
Last on the list of oldest bonsai trees is a centuries-old cypress that is said to have been planted in the same pot for over 200 years. The long life span of the bonsai is particularly impressive, as cypress bonsai trees require exacting, painstaking care. You can find this bonsai housed at the Arnold Arboretum at Harvard University in the United States.
How Long Does It Take A Bonsai Tree To Grow?
Unfortunately, you won’t be around once your new bonsai gets old enough to make this list. But with dedicated care (and patience!), a tree you start today will mature in just five to seven years. As you grow in your practice, you might just nurture a tree that will inspire for generations.
Explore this list of bonsai resources to get started off on the right foot!
- Location: Learn how to pick the right placement for your bonsai, and plant it in the best bonsai soil.
- Nurturing: Trees have needs too! Learn how to water appropriately, fertilize, and control pests and disease.
- Maintenance: It’s one thing to keep a tree alive, it’s another thing to create a bonsai. Ongoing maintenance includes proper repotting, wiring, and keeping your bonsai small.
- Teamwork: You’ll have to pass your bonsai off someday—why not invite a young person in your life along for the ride from day one?
Bonsai Tree Symbolism And Meaning
While the word bonsai translates literally into “grown in a container,” it symbolizes much more than that. Throughout the ages, bonsai has been practiced as a way of bringing us closer to the universe—thus bringing us closer, delightfully, to ourselves.
To truly understand bonsai, you must understand the deeper symbolism behind the practice. This guide to bonsai meaning will tell you everything you need to know.
Did we forget one of the oldest bonsai trees? Share its story in the comments below!
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