Bonsai Portrayals in Other Words

The following is a list of known "major" bonsai references in contemporary fiction and verse. 

The Boy Travellers in the Far East: Adventures of Two Youths in a Journey to Japan and China
by Thomas W. Knox

(New York: Harper & Brothers)

      "The characters in 'The Boy Travellers' are fictitious; but the scenes that passed before their eyes, the people they met, and the incidents and accidents that befell them are real.  The routes they travelled, the cities they visited, the excursions they made, the observations they recorded -- in fact, nearly all that goes to make up this volume -- were the actual experiences of the author at a very recent date.  In a few instances I have used information obtained from others, but only after careful investigation has convinced me of its entire correctness.  I have aimed to give a faithful picture of Japan and China as they appear to-day, and to make such comparisons with the past that the reader can easily comprehend the changes that have occurred in the last twenty years."  (Preface, pg. 9)

      "Asakusa is famous for its flower-shows, which occur at frequent intervals, and, luckily for our visitors, one was in progress at the time of their pilgrimage to the temple.  The Japanese are great lovers of flowers, and frequently a man will deprive himself of things of which he stands in actual need in order to purchase his favorite blossoms.  As in all other countries, the women are more passionately fond of floral productions than the men; and when a flower-show is in progress, there is sure to be a large attendance of the fairer sex.  Many of these exhibitions are held at night, as a great portion of the public are unable to come in the daytime on account of their occupations.  At night the place is lighted up by means of torches stuck in the ground among the flowers, and the scene is quite picturesque.

(See Griffis for origin of this graphic.)

      "Frank and Fred were greatly interested to find the love which the Japanese have for dwarfed plants and for plants in fantastic shapes.  The native florists are wonderfully skilful in this kind of work, and some of their accomplishments would seem impossible to American gardeners.  For example, they will make representations of mountains, houses, men, women, cats, dogs, boats, carts, ships under full sail, and a hundred other [136] things -- all in plants growing in pots or in the ground.  To do this they take a frame of wire or bamboo in the shape of the article they wish to represent, and then compel the plant to grow around it.  Day by dav the plant is trained, bent a little here and a little there, and in course of time it assumes the desired form and is ready for the market.  If an animal is represented, it is made more life-like by the addition of a pair of porcelain eyes; but there is rarely any other part of his figure that is formed of anything else than the living green.  Our boys had a merry time among the treasures of the gardener in picking out the animate and inanimate forms that were represented, and both regretted that they could not send home some of the curious things that they found.  Frank discovered a model of a house that he knew would please his sister; and he was quite sure that Miss Effie would dance with delight if she could feast her eyes on a figure of a dog, with the short nose for which the dogs of Japan are famous, and with sharp little eyes of porcelain.
      "Fred cared less for the models in green than he did for some dwarf trees that seemed to strike his fancy particularly.  There were pines, oaks, and other trees familiar to our eyes, only an inch or two in height, but as perfectly formed as though they were of the natural size in which we see them in their native forests.  Then there were bamboo, cactus, and a great many other plants that grow in Japan, but with which we are not familiar.  There was such a quantity of them as to leave no doubt that the dwarfing of plants is thoroughly understood in Japan and has received much attention.  Doctor Bronson told the boys that the profession of florist, like many other professions and trades, was hereditary, and that the knowledge descended from father to son.  The dwarfing of plants, and their training into unnatural shapes and forms, have been practised for thousands [sic] of years, and the present state of the florist's art is the result of centuries of development."  (pp. 135-136)


Samantha at the World's Fair
by Josiah Allen's Wife (Marietta Holley)

(New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company)

      This author wrote a number of novels about the adventures of an elderly couple who lived on a farm in rural New York.  They are written in a faux rustic dialect, with intentional misspellings and poor grammar.  Satirical in nature, they were a platform for the author's progressive views.
      In this particular book, Josiah Allen and his wife, who tells the story, travel to Chicago to attend the Columbian Exposition in 1893.  There are detailed descriptions of many of the buildings and displays, including several references to dwarf trees: 
      "[In the Horticultural Building t]here wuz Japanese dwarf trees one hundred years old and about as big as gooseberries." (pg. 391)

      "All of the north part of the [Wooded Island where there was a building displaying goods from Japan] is a marvellous show of their skill and ingenuity in landscape gardenin', and dwarf trees, and the wonderful garden effects for which they are noted." (pg. 403)

       "[There were houses in the Japanese village a]nd the little gardens round the housen looked curious as a dog, and curiouser, with trees and shrubs dwarfed and trained into forms of animals and so forth." (pg. 406)

       <Per Craig Cowing in personal e-mail to RJB on Dec. 15, 2003, who also sent photocopies to RJB of the title page and pp. 390-407.>


"Petey Burke and His Pupil," from "People We Pass By"
by Julian Ralph

(Harper's New Monthly Magazine, Vol. 91, Issue 544, September 1895)


      Includes these lines:
Petey's father -- long gone from this earth -- had been an upper servant in a nobleman's house in the old country, and his respect for good-breeding was so strong that it descended in full force on his children.  The consequence was that Petey Burke grew up to be the tidiest lad in the Barracks colony -- always in black, and as neat and sober as an undertaker.  And his sister Norah (a pretty, stunted little thing, like a dwarfed tree of Japan) seemed to the boys of the block as exquisite as a confection.  (pg. 61)
    Originally on this web site as


The Motor Maids in Fair Japan
by Katherine Stokes

(New York: Hurst Pub)

     One in a series of children's tales of four famous travelers and their chaperone, always off somewhere in their Red Motor Car, "The Comet."  Four passages are noted in the Project Gutenberg edition of this book:

      "Billie made a superhuman effort not to laugh, while Mary stooped to break off a spray of azaleas and Elinor examined intently a stunted pine tree planted in a big green jar near the path."

      "Japanese gardeners are very fond of cultivating these dwarf trees.  Some of the tiniest are said to be of great age.  The arrested development contorts the venerable branches into strange twisted forms but they put forth blossoms and foliage with systematic dignity."

       "The 'riksha had drawn up at the piazza and the two runners, after the personage in fancy dress had descended, lifted out a very aged and no doubt extremely costly dwarfed apple tree growing in a green vase, and a lacquered box."

       "'Walt!' he said, disappearing into the hall and reappearing in a moment with an aged, gnarled dwarf apple tree growing in a green vase, and a lacquered box beautifully inlaid with mother-of-pearl."


"Slow Sculpture"
by Theodore Sturgeon

Galaxy Magazine,
February issue, pp. 34-53

     This science fiction short story concerns a self-exiled scientist, a woman seeking health and understanding, and one fifteen [sic] foot tall bonsai.  Part of Sturgeon's lifelong exploration of the theme of human love, this tale includes some brief but insightful commentary on the art of bonsai -- despite the size of the technically misnamed subject tree, which is not further identified than as "a cypress or juniper."

     Best line: "It is the slowest sculpture in the world, and there is, at times, doubt as to which is being sculpted, man or tree." (pg. 49)

     The story was subsequently voted Best Novelette of 1970 by the Science Fiction Writers of America.  It has since been included in several anthologies.  See Nebula Award Stories Six, edited by Clifford B. Simak (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc; 1971; pp. 1-28)  or The Best of the Nebulas, edited by Ben Bova (1989, pp. 402-418).  Also excerpted inBonsai Journal, ABS, Fall 1970, pp. 9, 13, and Bonsai Magazine, BCI, October 1976, pg. 265.  In 2009 reissued as the title story in Volume XII: The Complete Stories of Theodore Sturgeon published by Random House.


The Bonsai Tree
by Meira Chand

(New Haven, CT: Ticknor & Fields.  228 pp.)

     This novel deals primarily with the conflict between traditional Japanese society and the encroaching modern world, with interesting background on the underside of the Land of the Rising Sun. 

     Bonsai is used as a metaphor for the traditional shaping/enculturation of the Japanese, particularly on pp. 226-228.


The Eternal Spring of Mr. Ito
by Sheila Garrigue

(New York: Bradbury Press.  162 pp.)

     The fate of a 200-year-old bonsai tree is decided by a young girl and an old Japanese Canadian gardener who resists being imprisoned in an internment camp after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  Young adult.

    <Not yet reviewed.  Suggested by Daniel Avrin in post to rec.arts.bonsai newsgroup, November 12, 1999> 

    See review at


Pewzer and Bonsai
by Marcia Vaughan and Megan Gressor

(Sydney; London: Hodder and Stoughton.  ISBN 0340366397.  82 pp.)

     Children's stories in English by American writers.

     <Not yet reviewed.>


Cats of the Temple
by Brad Leithauser

(New York: Alfred A. Knopf. ISBN-10: 0394741528 ISBN-13: 978-0394741529), pg. 14

     The poem "In a Bonsai Nursery," from Part 3 of 'Dainties: A Suite," can be seen at
Poetic License: Essays on Modernist and Postmodernist Lyric  by Marjorie Perloff (Northwestern University Press; 1990) on pg. 10.


by Terry Pratchett

(Jan. 1, 1987, Trafalgar Square, ISBN 0575061677, hardcover; February 2001, Harper Prism, ISBN 0061020680, reissue edition paperback.)

     "In the book, MORT, the title character takes a spin as Death's apprentice.  Yes, THE Death (black cowl, skeleton features, scythe, hourglass, etc.)  While Mort is attending to the demise of one of his, ahem, 'clients,' Death's horse, Binky, waits around outside while making a late lunch of someone's 500 year old bonsai.  Is it possible to shudder with horror at the same time as you are laughing uproariously?">

     <Not yet reviewed.  Suggested by Daniel Avrin in post to rec.arts.bonsai newsgroup, February 04, 2002>

     (Well, duh, if Death cut the tree down wouldn't it just regrow?  Bonsai need a special way to be "sent south." -- RJB)


In the bonsai garden
by Padraig Rooney

(Dublin: Raven Arts Press.  ISBN 1851860320.  64 pp.)

     English poetry.

     <Not yet reviewed.>


The Shanghai owner of the bonsai shop
by Hilary Davies

(London: Enitharmon. ISBN 1870612868 (cased) ; ISBN 1870612566 (pbk).  82 pp.)

     English poetry.

     <Not yet reviewed.>


Dark Swan
by Kathryn Lasky Knight

(New York: St. Martin's Press.  ISBN 0-312-10961-X.  214 pp.)

     A Calista Jacobs mystery.
     "House-sitting while her own home is being remodeled, children's book illustrator and sometime amateur sleuth Calista Jacobs is hard at work on her next book, a retelling of the classic story The Emperor and the Nightingale.  Serendipitously, her new Beacon Hill neighbor, Quintana "Queenie" Kingsley, cultivates bonsai, the perfect landscape for the fairy tale.  Making sketches every day while Quintana works on her plants, Calista gets a peek at the narrow world of the Boston brahmins.  And when Calista discovers the older woman's murdered body, she feels compelled to investigate..."

     <Not yet reviewed.>


in Late Summer Break
by Ann B. Knox

(Watsonville, CA: Papier-Mache Press.  ISBN 0-918949-65-3.)

     Pp. 120-128.
     A widowed woman and her two adult daughters come to grips with choices, expectations and letting some things just be.

     Best lines: "Bonsai isn't just decoration; the trees need tending, watering.  You accept them for what they are -- growing things.
     "...You make the tree more fully itself." (pg. 126)

     <Read, but not yet fully reviewed>


Master of Many Treasures
by Mary Brown 

(Riverdale, NY: Baen Publishing.  ISBN 0671876937.)

     " . . . . I had sat there [in a garden in an odd Buddhist monastery] during the day a couple of times, on one of the two stone benches, amid pots of exotic plants, ivies, and those tiny stunted trees so beloved by the people of this land.  Pines, firs, even cherry trees were bound and twisted into grotesque shapes no higher than my hand, yet it is said that they were as much as one hundred years old!
     "I wondered vaguely if it hurt them to be twisted so unnaturally, and whether it would be a kindness to dig them all up secretly and replant them in the freedom of unrestrictedsoil many miles away.  Or were they so used to their pot-bound existence that they would perish without special nurturing?"

    <Not yet reviewed.  Suggested by Jim Lewis in post to rec.arts.bonsai newsgroup, November 19, 2001>


by Tasni_m Kaus_ar

(Na'i_ Dihli: taqsi_mka_r, Maktabah-yi Ja_mi'ah.  134 pp.)

     Short stories in Urdu.

     <Not yet reviewed.>


1997 - 99
Circle of Magic
by Tamora Pierce

(Scholastic Press)

     A quartet of fantasy novels set in Emelan, a fictional realm in a pseudo-medieval and renaissance era.  It revolves around four young mages, each specializing in a different kind of magic, as they learn to control their extraordinary and strong powers and put them to use.  (It is followed by another quartet, The Circle Opens, which takes place four years later, and the standalone book The Will of the Empress, which takes place several years after that.)

     Briar has plant magic and his teacher is Dedicate Rosethorn, who is also a plant mage.  Briar can make plants grow very quickly and move them to any form, like creating a snare from a vine.  Rosethorn taught him how to make medicines and restore them to their full potential when they had expired.  He also enjoys and makes money by caring for shakkans (similar to bonsai), trees kept small which usually store magic in the way the plant looks.

     The Shakkan is a miniature tree of only little more than a foot of height.  The art of growing miniature trees was developed by Yanjingyi gardeners over a period of a thousand years.  They have the ability to store and over time build up magic from his owners and can be shaped in different ways to concentrate strength.  The seed or clipping has to agree to being shaped and kept small, otherwise he won't prosper.  The imperial palace of Yanjing has the largest collection of shakkans, followed by Empress Berenene's greenhouses.  Shakkans are very valuable, being priced at at least ten silver astrels the piece.  They are based on bonsai trees, which Tamora Pierce, the author, is fond of.

     Briar Moss stole a 146-year-old pine shakkan from Dedicate Crane, who falsely assumed that the tree was only 130 years old, in his first year at Winding Circle.  This shakkan soon became accustomed to Briar, missing him when Briar was in quarantine in Urda's House and the shakkan remained at home at Discipline cottage.  The plant preferred Briar's touch to Rosethorn's, which surprised Briar.  When Briar and Rosethorn travelled to extend Briar's education they took his shakkan with them.

     Shakkan styles: Bunjingi -- also called "calligraphy form," shaped with a long trunk and a few upper branches.  Cascade Style -- shaped with the trunk bent cleanly to the side.  Windblown Style -- shaped with a more upright trunk.

    <Not yet reviewed.  Suggested by Shelly Hurd in post to rec.arts.bonsai newsgroup, May 09, 2000.>


Bloody Bonsai
by Peter E. Abresch

(Aurora, CO: Write Way Publishing; First Edition.
ISBN 1-885173-34-2.  239 pp.)

     A James P. Dandy Elderhostel Mystery that takes place during a four-day bonsai workshop.  The chief murder weapon: the jinned branch of a bonsai. 

     Best line: "That was the original purpose of bonsai, to create not a copy, but a remembrance of God's handiwork." (pg. 158) 

     A few minor loose ends remain at story's end, but overall a pretty nice read.  Quite satisfactorily covers the information which would be given in such a workshop.


The bonsai grower
by Sheena Blackhall

(Aberdeen: GKB Books.  ISBN 095265542X. 108 pp.)

     English poetry.

     <Not yet reviewed.>


The Bonsai Bear
by Bernard Libster

(Illumination Arts Publishing Company, Incorporated;
ISBN 0935699155.)

      "A Japanese artist attempts to use bonsai cultivating techniques to control and limit the growth of a young bear, not caring that he is denying the animal his proper place in nature."

     Ages 5 to 12.

     <Not yet reviewed.>


"The Bonsai Tree"
by Morag McDowell

(Southern Ocean Review, New Zealand's first on-line International Literary Magazine, 15th Issue, 12th April, 2000)

     An online short story. 

     Uh, different. 


Yen Shei and the American Bonsai
by Jennifer Anna (Author), Karen Hallion (Illustrator)

(Blue Works.  ISBN 1590920465.  200 pp.)

     Pronouncing her name for everyone is the least of Yen Shei's troubles when her family moves from their apartment in Chinatown to a house in suburbia.  She misses the Wong Market, where she used to buy ricepaper candy; Lou's books, where she used to read manga; the New Luck Restaurant and Little Mann Theater.  But on her first day of fifth grade at her new school, Yen Shei meets teacher Kris D'Laine and starts to think about community and family in new and different ways.  Ms. D'Laine helps Yen Shei understand that even though we all seem very different, we're actually much the same.
     Full-color interior artwork by Karen Hallion.  Each book comes with two paper lanterns for readers to create and a set of bonsai and lantern stickers.  All books are handmade and autographed by the author.


One Leaf Rides the Wind
by Celeste Davidson Mannis (Author), Susan Kathleen Hartung (Illustrator)

(Viking Juvenile.  ASIN B001I8MCQ8.  32 pp.)

     As a little girl wanders through a Japanese Garden, she passes one leaf, two carved temple dogs, three miniature bonsai and so on, each introduced via a lilting haiku.  Gentle, restful tones depict the garden, which can be seen as a whole in the final illustration so young readers can work out the route and find everything all over again.  Both the poetry and the fact that each item is accompanied by some cultural background make this more than just a straightforward counting book.


"Ampalaya, Bonsai, Atbp."
by Reuel Molina Aguila

(Faculty Center in the University of the Philippines in Diliman, September 25, 2003)

     An anthology of his plays, essays and futuristic fiction.  His last play, "Bonsai," is about fighting oppression.  Using this unique Japanese art as a symbol, he tries to make the reader understand that a corrupt society cannot be changed by keeping one's mouth shut.


by Marge Piercy


     "A Work of Artifice"


"Bonsai Poems"
by Pam Laskin

(The One Three Eight, Autumn 2006)

     I. Dwarfed.  II. Losses.


by Alejandro Zambra

(Melville House.  1612191681; 978-1612191683.  90 pp.)

     Winner of Chile's Literary Critics' Award for Best Novel, this short first work "is an appealing miniature, a novella that, despite its brevity, feels airy and full.  It is a love story, of sorts." (the complete review's review)
    "Just as referring to a 'bonsai' as a 'bonsai tree' is misrepresentative, Emilia and Julio's relationship shouldn't be considered bound to conventional storytelling techniques, but instead to the stylistic form in which it appears in this critically acclaimed novella.  For Alejandro Zambra's lovers -- and the mercurial space between them -- are both the subjects and symbols of Bonsai: their rendering an advancement of this innovative work's themes of redefinition and of continuance.  Bonsai is a fast read, its stark and unpretentious prose responsible for articulating the necessary 'container' in which Emilia and Julio's love must be housed in order to thrive.  Although its appearance may belie shallowness, this vessel is sustaining.  Like a bonsai, this miniature literary 'replica' exists 'on a precipice' of life and art -- love the intersection.  Yet Bonsai shouldn't be considered a mere imitation of continuation, of life force infused into objects that are rendered valueless when removed from their pots.  Much as Julio realizes that 'caring for a bonsai is like writing,' Zambra's text and the relationship between his characters ('who are not exactly characters, though maybe it's convenient to think of them as characters') becomes indistinguishable." (the Bookslut's review)


by Nassim Assefi

(Wilmington, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company. ISBN-10: 0151012938 ; ISBN-13/EAN: 9780151012930), pg. 134

     One particular letter to Jasmine from Alexander in Paris, who is there "for a week to cover the world's largest bonsai exhibition to date" for Better Homes and Gardens.  A few of his observations are listed in the first two paragraphs.

RJB is aware of other works which use bonsai as a metaphor for a variety of life situations, positive and negative.  These will be listed here as time permits.  Anyone who knows of additional literary references to bonsai is asked to please e-mail  Contributor acknowledgment will be posted.  Please include as many details as possible.  Thank-you!

Pre-1945 articles
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