Although the word bonsai itself is Japanese (literally translated “plant in a tray”), its origins can be traced to China, where the practice was much simpler than the art-form we know today. About 2300 years ago, the Chinese jettisoned their Taoist belief in the Five Elements Theory (wood, earth, water, fire, and metal) into “pun-sai” – the practice of cultivating dwarf trees in small containers. It took over a thousand years but eventually, somewhere around the 12th century, the art of pun-sai made it to Japan just as Zen Buddhism was spreading throughout the orient. At some point the trees broke free of their monastery homes and began to have exposure in important Japanese circles.
The Japanese ran with the concept, developing and refining it over the centuries into something like what we know today. The unique plants came to be revered and would be brought out among the elite on special occasions. The humble trees were embraced by Japan because of their representation of the bond between man, spirituality, and nature. After WWII, Americans were exposed to the art-form when people from all walks of life were exposed to Japanese culture and traditions. Its popularity then spread to Europe and across the world.
As bonsai became popular in the Western world, so did misconceptions about the fascinating little trees:
- Myth: bonsai is a specific species of miniature tree. In fact, bonsai is not a species; the little “plants in a tray” can be formed from a wide range of trees and shrubs – almost any perennial, woody cultivar can be coaxed into a suitable bonsai. In fact one of the most popular flowering bonsai is the azalea. www.DallasBonsai.com features a wide variety of appropriate trees.
- Myth: bonsai are indoor plants. This myth was partly propagated – or exacerbated – by the movie “The Karate Kid”, in which Mr. Miyagi had an indoor bonsai. There are a few species that can be kept indoors but the vast majority need to be outside most of the year.
- Myth: bonsai are like cacti and can be ignored most of the time, requiring little to no watering or care. These little trees are a commitment – there’s no doubt about it, they need to be monitored, watered, pruned, trained, and sometimes nursed back to health.
- Myth: eventually they become “full grown” and will remain their miniature size for the life of the tree. In fact, they will continue to grow – albeit slowly – and need trimming and pruning.
- Myth: a bonsai should look very old – the older and more gnarled the better! The truth is that the tree should look however its owner desires. Yes, traditionally scars and other signs of age have been attractive to bonsai artists, but they certainly aren’t necessary – your tree should represent whatever you want it to.
Rumors abound about this ancient mysterious art-form, which may just make it all the more captivating to our imaginations!
You can find potential bonsai trees (pre-bonsai) at nurseries if you know how to look for potential and the qualities you want for a bonsai. Buying nursery stock is one of the best ways to acquire new trees if you have the patience and eye for it. It can be exhausting searching through nurseries and you will end up with material you realize is only suitable for experimentation!
Whether you’re a beginner or an expert grower, knowing how to approach shopping at a nursery for bonsai material is extremely important.
Picking the perfect tree
Make sure you choose a tree that fits your needs and abilities. Don’t buy a tree just because the branches look nice already, when the trunk and nebari are non-existent. If you’re just starting out you will do best with a tropical like a Ficus that can survive indoors and outdoors.
Healthy is Happy
Always assess the plant to see if there is any decay, fungus, or other health problems. There’s no reason to start off your growing with an unhealthy bonsai. That said, don’t be afraid of buying that ugly bush in the corner that’s 80% off.
Nebari are the visible roots above the soil. You want to start with a tree that already has strong nebari.
Strong branches help to balance the tree and allow for any modifications. Try to pick a tree that has strong branches where you want them in the finished tree.
Look for a strong, thick trunk with taper. You want a trunk with a realistic aesthetic that you can shape to fit the final image you have for the tree.
Where to look?
We recommend you avoid places like Home Depot or Lowes, and the large chain nurseries. The small nurseries in your area often have the best stock and are more likely to have the weird and awkward stock that will make a great bonsai!
Check out this video from National Geographic – “The Art of Shaping a Bonsai” featuring Ryan Neil
While all trees behave and react differently to a variety of situations, there are certain bonsai trees that are much more suitable for beginners due to their ability to withstand harsher environments and pruning. Below is a list of 8 bonsai trees that can be a great fit for beginners!
- The Ficus Bonsai
A beautiful and popular bonsai that is often grown indoors, the ficus is a great start for anyone’s bonsai collection.
- The Jade Bonsai – The Jade Bonsai requires a lot of light, but is a beautiful tree that exudes movement and grace in it’s trunk and small jade leaves.
- The Juniper Bonsai
A great outdoor plant for beginners, the Juniper can be easily manipulated and pruned to take on a variety of beautiful effects.
- The Chinese Elm
A bonsai with excellent root systems, the Chinese Elm is great for rock plantings, and withstanding thorough pruning. They can be grown indoor and outdoor and react magnificently to temperature changes.
- The Dwarf Schefflera
While the name be hard to pronounce, caring for this bonsai isn’t. The Dwarf Schefflera is a stunning umbrella tree that is grown specifically indoors, and therefore easy to care for by beginners.
- The Money Tree
A water chestnut tree made into a bonsai, the Money Tree brings wealth and good fortune to its owner. Beginners to the bonsai community will have no trouble caring for this symbol of prosperity.
- The Trident Maple Bonsai
The brilliant trees have stunning orange foliage in the fall and are an absolute staple in any bonsai lover’s collection. While they are not the easiest tree to handle, beginners will be rewarded for their gorgeous nature.
- The Golden Gate Ficus
This fast growing tree thrives in indoor habitats and is perfect for beginners. It’s trunk has gorgeous movement and flow, making an excellent choice as anyone’s first bonsai tree.
No matter how well you groom, tend, or grow your bonsai, the health of the tree will always be the most important aspect of a strong bonsai. Knowing these ten steps goes a long way in ensuring your bonsai stay its healthiest and happiest.
- Providing the Proper Light
Bonsai trees desperately need light to grow and stay healthy. Make sure your bonsai is always near an appropriate source of light.
Making sure your plant has the right fertilizer is just as important as applying it correctly. Read and follow all instructions thoroughly so you do not harm your plant.
Keeping your bonsai clean of any dust, debris, or bugs is crucial to its health. This is especially true for outdoor bonsais, where the elements are far more unpredictable.
- Safe Soil
Like larger trees, bonsai often drop elements from themselves back into the soil. It is important to keep the soil as clear and free from any blooms, fruit or leaves, to make sure your bonsai is growing in clear, clean soil.
While repotting can be tricky, it is important to repot your bonsai to ensure it does not become dependant on its pot. Many pots contain elements that when ingested by the tree can become harmful.
- Spotting Disease
It can be difficult to spot tree diseases, but they occur in bunches, and often. Every bonsai owner should have a book or tool they use to help spot harmful diseases to their plants.
- Careful Pruning
Pruning is an essential part of caring for your bonsai, yet it can also be harmful. Take great care when pruning to limit any damage or harm to your plant.
- Fresh Air
While many bonsai trees are grown outdoors, indoor trees need proper ventilation. Keeping your bonsai in a stuffy area can do severe damage to the tree.
- Aerating the Soil
Like your bonsai, your soil needs oxygen as well. Aerating your soil allows the nutrients and fertilizer to grow and help your bonsai do the same.
- Be Attentive!
Our last step is simple – give your bonsai the proper attention it deserves by checking on it often and regularly. Any diseases can be easily stopped before they start with simple day-to-day care.
For more tips on how to keep your bonsai at it’s best, we recommend you explore our blog!