You’ve decided to enter the beautiful and zen-inducing world of bonsai. You’re probably eager and excited to jump right in. But wait – first there are a few things you need to know in order to have a satisfying, rather than frustrating, bonsai tree experience.
How to Choose the Right Plant
Bonsai isn’t a dwarf tree or a special breed of plant, it’s the art of forming a miniature tree with a cutting or a small plant of a regular species. There are several types that are good beginners:
- Ulmus parvifolia, or Chinese Elm – tolerant and hardy, slow growing and easy for beginners to care for, beautiful tiny leaves.
- Jade plant, aka Portulacaria afra – this succulent can be grown indoors and may be easily shaped into a traditional bonsai tree with appropriate pruning.
- Chinese juniper, or Juniperus chinensis – this evergreen juniper is a very popular bonsai plant due to its hardiness and the miniature pine tree look that can be achieved.
- Ficus – these tropicals (technically fig trees) are the plants people often think of when they think bonsai; they are easy to wire and actually grow fruit that is in scale with the size of the tree.
What to Look For
You obviously want to choose a healthy plant. Leaves should not be dead or wilting (except specific types which drop leaves at certain times of the year), and they should be relatively small in comparison to the size of the plant. Large leaves do not make for easy bonsai shaping. Check for pests and spots – these can indicate an insect infestation or fungal infection. Remember, a bonsai is just a regular plant or tree, which means it can suffer from the same maladies as anything in your garden.
The trunk should be solid and larger at the bottom than at the top. Trunks that are like telephone poles do not generally make good bonsai. The branches should begin about a third of the way up the tree and they should get smaller as they go up the trunk, not larger.
The Root of It All
If you can examine the root system, it’s a good idea to do so. The roots should be firm, spaced evenly, and should be gathered close to the tree – not spread all over or sticking out of the soil. A healthy root system is vital to the health of the bonsai. Root rot from improper watering is one of the main causes of bonsai death and even though a plant is alive when you buy it, that doesn’t mean it’s not in a slow demise.
It seems like a lot to take in before even getting to the fun part – the shaping and growing of your tree – but if you start with a good plant (or cutting or seeds) – you will have a much better chance of developing a bonsai that will give you many years of beauty and enjoyment.