Beautiful Bonsai: 30 Ideas for Growing Small Trees and Other Plants

The art of bonsai is more than 1,000 years old. Explore the trees, shrubs, perennials and vines you can use to create your own sublime miniatures.

Photo By: Eastern Leaf/www.easternleaf.com

Photo By: Courtesy of Bogan's Bonsai

Photo By: Eastern Leaf/www.easternleaf.com

Photo By: Courtesy Bogan's Bonsai

Photo By: Courtesy Bogan's Bonsai

Photo By: Eastern Leaf/www.easternleaf.com

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

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

Photo By: Courtesy Bogan's Bonsai

Photo By: Eastern Leaf/www.easternleaf.com

Photo By: William N. Valavanis/International Bonsai

Photo By: Photo and trees by Eric Schrader

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

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

Photo By: William N. Valavanis/International Bonsai

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

Photo By: Eastern Leaf/www.easternleaf.com

Photo By: William N. Valavanis/International Bonsai

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

Photo By: Photo by Eric Schrader

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

Photo By: William N. Valavanis, International Bonsai

Photo By: William N. Valavanis/International Bonsai

Photo By: William N. Valanavis/International Bonsai

Photo By: William N. Valavanis, International Bonsai

Photo By: Eastern Leaf/www.easternleaf.com

Photo By: Eastern Leaf/www.easternleaf.com

Pruning Bonsai

Jason Chan, bonsai artist, educator and owner of Eastern Leaf, says the idea that bonsai are hard to grow is a misconception. "It's really easy once you learn how the tree grows and how to control and shape it. Working with bonsai is a very peaceful experience." He's shown here shaping and spring-pruning a Japanese maple (Acer palmatum).

Bonsai Azalea in Bloom

"Most azaleas used in bonsai are Satsuki azaleas," says Barbara Bogan, a member of the Board of Directors of the American Bonsai Society and owner of Bogan's Bonsai. These plants (Rhododendron indicum) have evergreen leaves and summer flowers." This azalea has exposed roots. From the collection of Dave and Barbara Bogan of Indiana.

Japanese Maple Bonsai

Chan says bonsai differ from houseplants in having bigger root structures confined to little pots. "Watering is key," he says, and the pot must have good drainage. "The goal is to get all the roots watered." This Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) is shown after pruning.

Buttonwood Bonsai

The trunks of buttonwoods (Conocarpus erectus) often look like pieces of gnarled driftwood. If grown outside, these tropical trees should be moved indoors before the temperatures drop; they'll start wilting around 50-degrees Fahrenheit. From the collection of Dave and Barbara Bogan of Indiana.

Juniper Bonsai 'Shimpaku'

Because of its hard, resinous wood, Juniperus chinensis 'Shimpaku' is good for sculpting into advanced forms. These Japanese natives are best grown outdoors. Eric Schrader, of the Bonsai Society of San Francisco, says "All bonsai need to be protected from temperatures below 28-degrees Fahrenheit 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."

Juniper Procumbens 'Nana' Bonsai

This juniper is recommended for experienced bonsai artists. Chan trained this one into a semi-cascading style by working from the bottom to the top. He used heavy wire on a few branches to move them down and forward. Secondary branches were wired and arranged into layers to make the plant look more full.

Wisteria Bonsai

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

Fuchsia Bonsai

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

Japanese White Pine Bonsai

Nicknamed Bertha, this bonsai is a Japanese white pine (Pinus parviflora) believed to be over 100-years old. It was imported from Japan from the late Daizo Iwasaki's nursery, according to 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.

Twisted Pomegranate Bonsai

The goal in bonsai, Chan says, is to create a tree that looks aged in its pot. To do that, he explains, you must develop the branches and understand the growth habits of the tree so you can prune properly. A twisted pomegranate bonsai (Punica granatum) is shown here.

Flowering Pear Bonsai

Flowering pears (Pyrus spp.) need plenty of sunlight and water to bloom and produce fruit. If you're a beginner, look for a bonsai class or club for advice on its special fertilizer needs. Work with a dwarf pear if you want small-sized blossoms and fruits.

Literati Bonsai Style

Photographed in the spring, these Japanese black pines were trained in the literati style, which usually involves twisted trunks and a 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."

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 (Juniperus scopulorum) like this one are native to the western United States. Do not collect trees or other plants without the permission of landowners. Tree by Ryan Neil.

Japanese Flowering Quince Bonsai

'Chojubai' is a dwarf Japanese flowering quince (Chaenomeles japonica) 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.

Japanese Black Pine Bonsai

These seedling Japanese Black pines (Pinus thunbergii) 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."

Nippon Daisy Bonsai

This Nippon daisy bonsai, Chrysanthemum nipponicum, is a shrubby perennial, not a tree. It's from the collection of William N. Valavanis, whose teacher's father started it about 90 years ago.

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.

Trident Maple Bonsai

This Trident maple bonsai (Acer buergerianum) has three-lobed leaves as opposed to the five-lobed leaves of the more popular Japanese maple bonsai. It needs a dormant period but should not be exposed to freezing temperatures. It's known for its lovely fall foliage.

Japanese 'Katsura' Autumn Beauty Bonsai

While hard to find, 'Katsura' is a Japanese maple (Acer palmatum 'Katsura') valued for its spectacular fall color. Some gardeners say that the foliage on the trees smells like cotton candy or burnt sugar.

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.

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.

Chinese Juniper Bonsai 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."

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.

Hornbeam Bonsai

Hornbeams (Carpinus spp.) are hardwood trees native to Korea and are also known as ironwood. Its leaves turn red, yellow and orange in fall before dropping to reveal its branches. This tree should be protected from freezing, but shouldn't be kept indoors full-time.

Outdoor Bonsai Garden

Bonsai trees, which have shallow roots, need protection from freezing temperatures. Cold climate gardeners can move them into a greenhouse or cold frame. In milder climates, insulated foam covers placed around the pots may be enough.

Japanese Maple 'Deshojo' Bonsai

'Deshojo' is a Japanese maple (Acer palmatum), with fire-engine red leaves in the spring. In summer, they turn greenish-red and become red-orange in autumn. It's not an indoor tree and must be kept outside.

Scots Pine 'RAF' Twin Trunk Bonsai

This rare, twin-trunked Scots pine bonsai (Pinus sylvestris 'RAF') is from the collection of bonsai expert William N. Valavanis. "I grew this special plant from a young seedling," he says. "It has been completely container grown for over 45 years."

Chinese Elm Bonsai

Chinese elms (Ulmus parvifolia) are popular choices for bonsai beginners because they can often tolerant and recover from such mistakes as over or under watering. They can overwinter outdoors in mild climates, but if you purchased yours as an indoor bonsai, protect it from frosts and freezing temperatures.

Pyracantha 'Firethorn' Bonsai

Evergreen pyracanthas (Pyrancantha coccinea) have white blooms in spring followed by orange-red berries in fall. For best results, this plant should be wired when it's young and the branches are flexible; they quickly become brittle. Pyracanthas have thorns, so be careful when pruning and handling them.

Learn More: How to Create Indoor Bonsai Gardens

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