Bonsai born in 1399 for sale

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SIX CENTURIES ago, as Richard II was being forced to abdicate in favour of Henry IV in 1399, the seed of a yew tree germinated on a mountainside in Japan. Some 200 years later, the tree, which had never grown very tall, was harvested and added to a Japanese nobleman's bonsai collection.

That 600-year-old tree is expected to fetch at least pounds 50,000 at auction next month, the first bonsai sale in London since 1900. Mark Hill, of Sotheby's, said the 3ft-tall tree was a rare and wonderful example of the art of bonsai.

"Bonsai trees live outside and are brought inside on special occasions," said Mr Hill."Most bonsai are grown specially from seeds but this was a natural specimen which had been stunted in the wild, either by the weather or animals eating the foliage. It was about 200 years old when it was found but it was never going to grow any taller. Now you aren't allowed to dig up wild trees so that makes it even more special. It is also a very beautiful example of bonsai and its great age adds to its mystique."

The tree became famous throughout Japan last century when it was placed in the Emperor Meiji's hotel room in Hokkaido, where he had travelled on his annual visit to inspect the herring catch. Apparently, the beauty of the yew caused him to smile and from then it was known as the Emperor's tree.

The word bonsai means "tray cultivation" and its aim is to capture the essence of the natural world in miniature. The trees are not dwarf species that have been bred to stay small. They would grow to their natural size if left in the wild.