Thursday, December 21, 2023

A Very Bonsai Christmas With Julian Tsai - Bonsai Time Podcast Ep 23

I. Episode Summary & Links

            In this episode of the Bonsai Time Podcast, we have part 2 of a winter solstice/Christmas special featuring Ryan, Kelly, Kevin, and Julian Tsai. In Part 2, we discussed the history of the winter solstice and Christmas celebrations in Europe, Egypt, and America especially as it pertains to symbolic tree species associated with this time of year. We then go on to discuss and compare the merits of these historic tree species for bonsai.

The video version is available here:

The podcast version is available here. 

Guest Info:

Julian Tsai is a full-time professional bonsai artist based in Southern California. He was previously featured in our 4th episode which was recorded near the end of his apprenticeship in Japan.

Julain's website is

Sponsor Info: This episode is sponsored by the Grow Clothing Co. Grow Clothing has tons of creative plant and bonsai-inspired designs for T-shirts, hoodies, bags, water bottles, and more. They are always adding new designs so check them out at the links below and don't forget to use the discount code "BONSAITIME" for 10% off when you order by February 1st.

⁠Grow Clothing Co Website⁠

⁠Grow Clothing Co Facebook⁠

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II. Show Notes and Images

A. Christmas/Winter Solstice History of Trees - Script & Pictures

  1. History of Christmas tree species and their suitability for bonsai

    1. *Disclaimer* As we are discussing the history of the Winter-solstice and Christmas traditions and their intersection with various tree species, much of it is tied in with traditional beliefs around the Christmas holiday and Christianity. As we explain these roots, we are not intending to preach, we are only explaining this interesting history!”

    2. Garland & Wreaths

      1. HISTORY

Long before the advent of Christianity, plants and trees that remained green all year had a special meaning for people in the winter. Just as people today decorate their homes during the festive season with pine, spruce, and fir trees, many ancient peoples hung evergreen boughs over their doors and windows. In many countries, it was believed that evergreens would keep away witches, ghosts, evil spirits, and illness.”

In the northern hemisphere, ominous beliefs were also attached to the shortest day of the year. People from Egypt and throughout Europe believed the short daylight hours in winter were related to a god experiencing illness and that during the days when daylight got longer, the god was recovering. People hung evergreen plants such as conifers in the north as a reminder of the coming season of summer or palms and other plants in the south to symbolize the victory of life over death related to the god’s illness. Romans, Celts, and Vikings similarly celebrated with symbolic plants during this time of year.

Beyond just hanging garland, circular wreaths in particular enter history as decorations on houses symbolizing high status, high fashion for certain occasions (even being worn by Roman emperors), and they were also given to winners of the original Greek Olympics.

  1. Plants used

    1. Holly - its thorny leaves represent the crown of thorns worn by Jesus at crucifixion and the red berries represent his blood.

    2. English Ivy - as this species needs the support of other trees while it grows it is meant to symbolize how humans need God’s support also.

    3. Laurel - a wreath of laurel worn on the head is meant to symbolize victory.

    4. Rosemary - Thought to be the Virgin Mary’s favorite plant, Rosemary is used as it is believed to ward off evil spirits. It was also the most common garnish that wealthy people would place on the boar’s head when wealthy medieval Europeans ate their traditional Christmas dinner.

    5. Yew, Fir - evergreens were meant to symbolize everlasting life.

  2. Sources

    1. [quoting and paraphrasing from]


  1. Christmas tree

    1. HISTORY

In Europe…

Germany is credited with starting the Christmas tree tradition—as we now know it—by the 16th century when sources record devout Christians bringing decorated trees into their homes. Some built Christmas pyramids of wood and decorated them with evergreens and candles if wood was scarce.

It is a widely held belief that Martin Luther, the 16th-century Protestant reformer, first added lighted candles to a tree. According to a common version of the story, walking home one winter evening, Luther was awed by the stars twinkling amidst evergreens. To recapture the scene for his family, he erected a tree in the main room and wired its branches with lighted candles.

A traditional German Christmas tree, complete with lit candles!

In the USA…

In America, Christmas trees were slow to be adopted.

“ New England’s first Puritan leaders viewed Christmas celebrations as unholy. The pilgrims’s second governor, William Bradford, wrote that he tried hard to stamp out “pagan mockery” of the observance, penalizing any frivolity.” For example, ”In 1659, the General Court of Massachusetts enacted a law making any observance of December 25 a penal offense; people were fined for hanging decorations. That stern solemnity continued until the influx of German and Irish immigrants in the 19th century undermined the Puritan legacy.”

Even in the 1800s, “most Americans found Christmas trees an oddity. The first records of Christmas trees being cut for display comes from the 1820s in Pennsylvania’s German community, although trees may have been a tradition there even earlier. As early as 1747, Moravian Germans in Pennsylvania had a community tree in the form of a wooden pyramid decorated with candles. But, as late as the 1840s, Christmas trees were seen as pagan symbols and not accepted by most Americans.”

In more modern USA…

“By the 1890s Christmas ornaments were arriving from Germany and Christmas tree popularity was on the rise around the U.S. It was noted that Europeans used small trees about four feet in height, while Americans liked their Christmas trees to extend from floor to ceiling.

The early 20th century saw Americans decorating their trees mainly with homemade ornaments, while many German Americans continued to use apples, nuts, and marzipan cookies. Stringed popcorn was added to the trees' decoration after being dyed bright colors and interlaced with berries and nuts. Electricity brought about Christmas lights, making it possible for Christmas trees to glow for days on end. With this, Christmas trees began to appear in town squares across the country, and having a Christmas tree in the home became an American tradition.”

[the article goes on with lots of info about Christmas trees around the world and interesting facts about Christmas tree history but we will stop there].

  1. Sources

    1. [quoting and paraphrasing from]

  2. Xmas tree stats

  • 25-30 million Christmas trees are sold annually in the US.

  • The US Christmas tree industry employs over 100,000 people.

  • There are 350 million Christmas trees growing in the US.

  • Christmas trees take 4-15 years to grow to size but average out at 7 years.

  • 295,000 acres are dedicated to growing Christmas trees in the US.

  • The US Christmas market is worth $380 million.

  • Oregon is the number 1 Christmas tree-growing state in the US”.

  1. Sources



  2. Plants used - VARIES WIDELY BY REGION! I couldn’t even find statistics on which were most common in the US.

    1. Many conifer species including Pines, Firs, Spruce, and Juniper may be most common in the northern US.

  1. Yule Log

    1. History

“The custom of burning the Yule Log goes back to, and before, medieval times. Although the first recorded burning of a 'Christmas Log' was in poetry in 1648. The term 'Yule Log' is first documented in 1686, it was originally a Nordic tradition as Yule is the name of the old Winter Solstice festivals in Scandinavia and Germany.

Yule Logs could have started out an entire tree, or a very large log, that was carefully chosen and brought into the house with great ceremony. The largest end of the log would be placed into the fire hearth while the rest of the tree stuck out into the room! The log would be lit from the remains of the previous year's log which had been carefully stored away and slowly fed into the fire through the Twelve Days of Christmas. A smaller log might have been lit each evening through the 12 Days of Christmas. It was considered important that the re-lighting process was carried out by someone with clean hands. Nowadays, of course, most people have central heating so it is very difficult to burn a tree!

The ashes of Yule logs were meant to be very good for plants, but if you throw the ashes out on Christmas day it was supposedly very unlucky!”

  1. Species used

1. Oak, Birch, Cherry, Ash
  1. Sources


  1. Frankincense

    1. History

Frankincense is… “an aromatic gum resin obtained from an African tree and burnt as incense. Also called olibanum, gum olibanum.” “This ancient aromatic oleo-gum resin commonly is associated as one of the three precious gifts given to baby Jesus, along with myrrh and gold, by the three wise men in the New Testament. In Islam, frankincense resin has been widely used in mosques, ceremonies, spiritual gatherings, and herbal preparations. This aromatic treasure has been a popular incense in the Arabian peninsula as part of daily rituals to perfume clothes and indoor space to evoke positive mood during gatherings and other social activities.”

  1. Species of Tree

Frankincense trees (Boswellia species) are native to Somalia. These trees grow on rocky slopes in northeastern Somalia. Throughout history, Somalia has been a major exporting country for raw frankincense resin, especially Boswellia carterii and Boswellia frereana, making Somalia a major harvesting region for frankincense globally. 

The harvest process follows the traditional method. First, local Somali men make incisions in small sections of the Boswellia carterii tree, and let it ooze a milky-white sap for several weeks. They let the milky-white sap harden into resins, and scrape them by hand. They collect these in baskets, and then the local Somali women will clean and separate the leaves from the resin.

Boswellia genus members are pictured below.

Unknown Boswellia species in a pot. A potential future bonsai!
Unknown wild Boswellia species somewhere in the Horn of Africa.
  1. Sources



  1. Myrrh

    1. History

Myrhh sounds similar to Frankincense as it is “a fragrant gum resin obtained from certain trees and used, especially in the Near East, in perfumery, medicines, and incense.“ Myrrh was another element of the gifts brought by the 3 wise men when they came to meet Baby Jesus.

  1. Tree Species

Commiphora is the genus. These trees are also native to arid areas of Ethiopia and Somalia.

See the pictures below.

Unknown Commiphora species in the wild.
Unknown Commiphora species in a pot. Another future bonsai?
Another wild Commiphora. Possibly at a time of drought, hence the lack of leaves.
  1. Sources


  1. Christmasy Tree Species Draft for Bonsai

    1. Here we will go in a round-robin draft-style pick to explain and discuss the bonsai merits of each species. Pick as though your team is the only set of species you can use for bonsai! What could you give up vs What can’t you go without? In the end, you will have to defend why your team is the best set of species.

    2. Options: (see finished picked teams below)

    3. Julian’s Team

      1. Oak, Pine, Spruce, Myrrh/Frankincense, 

    4. Kelly’s Team

      1. Juniper, Rosemary, English Ivy, Laurel

    5. Kevin’s Team

      1. Fir, Cherry, Ash

    6. Ryan’s Team

      1. Yew, Birch, Holly

B. Tangent Pictures/Links

III. Episode Credits

Podcast Info:

The Bonsai Time Podcast is hosted, edited, & produced by Kevin Faris, Ryan Huston, & Kelly Lui. Learn more about the podcast at the links below. We expect to post new interviews and reflections monthly!

Your hosts can be found below:

Music by MIDICANCER. Find more music by them at the links below.

More Bonsai Projects by Ryan:

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