How to Cultivate and Care for Bonsai Trees

Learn these botanical basics to fully succeed at planting and caring for your bonsai tree.
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Woman With Bonsai Plant

Woman With Bonsai Plant

Bonsai is said to be an art form, but you still have to have some botanical basics to be successful. Bonsai is essentially a tree in a tiny tray; you can even train other types of plants.

Pruning, bending, tying and repotting all help keep the tree compact. Interestingly, if you were to take a bonsai tree and plant it in the landscape, it would grow into a regular-sized tree again. That, of course, defeats the purpose of the art but points out an important aspect. Bonsai are not houseplants. "They grow in nature outdoors, so you really need to keep them in their natural environment," says bonsai expert Dolly Fassio.

Many kinds of plants can be trained to be bonsai. Dolly suggests beginning with a one-gallon, container-grown plant purchased from a reputable nursery, preferably one that specializes in bonsai. "You need to get a tree that's easy to take care of in your area so you know that it will live in your environment."

There are five basic bonsai styles:

  • The formal upright style highlights a straight trunk
  • The informal upright style is curved and moving
  • A slanted trunk flows gracefully to one side, and a variation of this style is called "windswept" for obvious reasons
  • A half- or semi-cascade drapes over the pot
  • A full cascade drapes beyond the pot's rim.


The tree itself will often dictate the bonsai style. But don't forget its container. The bonsai pot should blend with the tree and add value and interest. Containers vary in size and price.

15 Bonsai Ideas

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Bonsai Azalea in Bloom

"Most azaleas used in bonsai are Satsuki azaleas," says Barbara Bogan, Executive Secretary of the American Bonsai Society. These plants (Rhododendron indicum) have evergreen leaves and summer flowers. "(This) is an exposed root azalea." From the collection of Dave and Barbara Bogan of Indiana.

Photo By: Courtesy of Bogan's Bonsai

Buttonwood Bonsai

The trunks of tropical buttonwoods (Conocarpus erectus) often look like pieces of gnarled driftwood. If grown outside, they should be moved indoors before the temperatures drop below 50 to 60 degrees F. From the collection of Dave and Barbara Bogan of Indiana.

Photo By: Courtesy Bogan's Bonsai

Shimpaku Juniper Bonsai

Because of its hard, resinous wood, Juniperus chinensis 'Shimpaku' is a good choice for sculpting into advanced forms. These Japanese natives are best grown outdoors, so they're exposed to the natural change of the seasons. Eric Schrader, president of the Bonsai Society of San Francisco, says "All bonsai need to be protected from temperatures below 28 degrees, and from freezing winds. Winter protection should take the form of a cold frame for most species, or a space heated to between 32-36 degrees for the duration of the winter."

Photo By: Courtesy Bogan's Bonsai

Wisteria Bonsai

This Chinese Wisteria bonsai is a show-stopper, with long racemes of fragrant, purple flowers. Japanese wisteria can also be trained as bonsai. Tree by Andrea Burhoe.

Photo By: Photo by Eric Schrader / Courtesy Bonsai Society of San Francisco

Fuchsia Bonsai

Fuschia aren't traditionally grown as bonsai, but they're easy to train. While a bonsai gardener can control the size and density of a fuchsia's leaves, its flowers will be regular size. For smaller flowers in scale with the leaves, try 'Lady Thumb', 'Tom Thumb', or F. microphylla.

Photo By: Photo by Eric Schrader / Courtesy Eric Schrader and Bonsai Society of San Francisco

Japanese White Pine

Nicknamed Bertha, this bonsai is a Japanese white pine, believed to be over 100 years old.  It was imported from Japan from the late Daizo Iwasaki's nursery," says bonsai expert Barbara Bogan. (Iwasaki was a renowned bonsai collector.)  From the collection of Dave and Barbara Bogan in Indiana.

Bonsai with Fall Color

To develop their best fall colors, Japanese maple bonsai need a sunny location, but their leaves can burn in full sunlight. Choose from many types, including rough-barked, red leaved and dwarf cultivars. From the collection of Dave and Barbara Bogan in Indiana.

Photo By: Courtesy Bogan's Bonsai

Literati Bonsai Style

Photographed in the spring, these three Japanese black pines were trained in the literati style. Literati is a Latin word indicating refinement and elegance; the style doesn't have specific rules, but typically involves twisted trunks and few, relatively sparse branches. "Literati style is also known as bunjin," says Schrader, named for "the cultural elite in Japan and China...They developed a sparse and elegant style in bonsai that was different than the traditional, powerful image. Think of a bunjin tree like a fine whiskey - it should have a strong character that is subtle, and typically it is not well-appreciated by those who have not developed a taste for it."

Photo By: Photo and trees by Eric Schrader

Rocky Mountain Juniper Bonsai

"Trees collected from the wild can make some of the most rugged bonsai," says Eric Schrader, president of the Bonsai Society of San Francisco. Rocky Mountain Junipers like this one are native to the western United States. Tree by Ryan Neil.

Photo By: Photo by Eric Schrader / Courtesy Bonsai Society of San Francisco

Japanese Flowering Quince Bonsai

'Chojubai' is a dwarf Japanese flowering quince that blooms in spring and sets small fruits in fall. "These small bonsai flower profusely and have small leaves and wonderful age in the bark and branching," says Schrader.  Tree by Michael Hagedorn.

Tiny Japanese Maple

"The spring growth...can be just as beautiful as (the) fall colors" on this tiny Japanese maple, says Schrader. Tree by Eric Schrader

Photo By: Photo by Eric Schrader / Courtesy Bonsai Society of San Francisco

Chinese Juniper Bonsai

Juniper bonsai are characterized by twisting trunks and deadwood sections, like this mature Chinese juniper (Juniperus chinensis). Deadwood can occur by natural means, or it can be created by various techniques to give the tree character and an aged appearance.

Photo By: Photo by Eric Schrader / Courtesy Bonsai Society of San Francisco

Chinese Juniper in Training

"Bonsai take many years to create," says Schrader. "This tree was trained from a small cutting to this point. While growing the trunk or working on the larger structure, using oversized containers allows the plant to grow more quickly."

Photo By: Photo by Eric Schrader

Japanese Black Pine Bonsai

These seedling Japanese Black pines sparkle when they catch drops of morning dew. "One of the most popular species for bonsai, Japanese Black pine grows vigorously in many climates," says Schrader. "Growing from seed is the best way to create a high-quality tree and can take as little as 10 years."   

Photo By: Photo by Eric Schrader / Courtesy Bonsai Society of San Francisco

Japanese Garden Juniper

Japanese Garden junipers are evergreen shrubs or trees commonly grown as bonsai and sold at nurseries and garden centers. "The size of the trunk is very important to a bonsai composition, lending character to this composition," says Schrader.

Photo By: Photo by Eric Schrader / Courtesy Bonsai Society of San Francisco

The foundation to bonsai is the soil. Bonsai trees need a special soil because they're confined to small pots. Use volcanic mixes containing pumice, fir bark and lava rock for a well-draining soil. The roots hit the sharp edges of the pumice and form more hairlike roots. Fine hairlike roots are better for the tree's health than large roots, says bonsai enthusiast Fred Fassio.

All bonsai need to be repotted periodically. Eventually the roots will grow in and fill the pot. At this point the tree is root-bound and can't absorb enough moisture. Repotting is an art form itself, and this Asian skill calls for Asian tools. Upon pulling the plant out of its pot, Fred uses a chopstick to separate the roots. It's best to repot during the tree's dormancy period since cutting the roots actually encourages new growth. Cut off approximately one-third of the roots from the bottom and around all the sides of the rootball.

In nature, a taproot anchors the tree in the ground. With bonsai, wire does the trick. Thread wire through small holes in the pot. Next, add some soil around the rootball and gently twist the tree downward into the soil to get as much of it into the tree's roots as possible. Tighten the wire over the tree's larger roots, clip away the wire, and tighten it again securely. If the roots are properly wired in the pot, you should be able to pick the tree up by the trunk, and it won't come out of its pot.

Add a few more scoops of soil over the roots and use a chopstick to push the soil down into the tree's roots. This eliminates air pockets that can damage or even kill the tree. The finishing touch is a layer of pre-moistened moss; this helps to add beauty and maintain moisture.

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