In honor of Chinese New Year, let’s talk about bonsai.
Bonsai (pronounced bone-sigh) have a long and honored history in the Orient. And there are so many! Dwarfed fruit trees barely two feet tall that produce fruit. Ancient azaleas scarcely twelve inches tall that bloom every year. Roots of venerable evergreens clamber over tiny boulders to capture the essence of a tree clinging to the side of a cliff.
Bonsai are often sold in stores at this time of year. People are enchanted by them and succumb to temptation. Unfortunately, many of these bonsai are mass produced, and often already dying when sold. The other drawback is that most bonsai are outdoor plants. Indoors, in low light conditions, they become stressed and die. More about growing houseplants in my previous post, here.
So before you plunk down your money for a plant that most likely will not make it, why not experiment a little and make your own bonsai. It is fun and easy to start this venerable hobby.
You Can Grow It Yourself
Bonsai is a Japanese name that translates as “plant in a shallow pot.” It is not simply a shallow pot that makes it a bonsai, but also its artistic quality. Bonsai refers both to the plant itself and to the art of creating a miniature plant that appears to be a full sized plant growing in the wild.
The plant is kept small and compact by limiting its normal growth. This is done by careful annual trimming of branches and roots, and repotting, often back into the same pot. In addition to this annual care, tips must be nipped back on a regular basis, or the plant will get too large for its small pot.
To begin your bonsai, you need to select a plant from the list at the end of this article. Next, find a shallow container that will harmonize with the shape, color and texture of the plant.
Soil for bonsai should drain well, since you will water this shallow container daily – yet you do not want the soil to become waterlogged. Ideally use a cactus potting soil.
Patience is required for shaping your new bonsai as it grows. Pruning must be done gradually to help the plant find the shape you envision for it. Patience is a great virtue to cultivate, and cultivating bonsai can help you cultivate patience as well.
Plants for bonsai in the Southwest
For our area, select plants tolerant of low humidity, such as these evergreens:
Rocky Mountain juniper (Juniperus scopulorum)
red or Texas cedar (Juniperus virginiana)
mugo or mountain pine (Pinus mugo)
Japanese black pine (Pinus thunbergiana)
single-leaf pinyon (Pinus monophylla)
pinyon nut pine (Pinus edulis).
If evergreens don’t excite you, try arid-adapted plants with smaller leaves, like these:
pyracantha (Pyracantha species)
dwarf pomegranate (Punica granitum var. nana)
little leaf cotoneaster (Cotoneaster microphylla)
or woody herbs like rosemary or germander.
Caudiciform (swollen-trunk) desert plants make excellent bonasi. They have an ancient look even when barely six months old.
Adenium, also called desert or Karoo rose (Adenium obesum).
Baja and Sonoran fig (Ficus palmerii and Ficus petiolaris)
burseras (Bursera microphylla, B. linheimerii, and B. hindsiana)
and well over about 500 others, but that’s another topic.
Want to learn more? Look for my free lectures at your local Pima County Library branch, or at Tucson Festival of Books and other venues. At each event I will be signing copies of my books, including “Month-by-Month Guide to Gardening in Arizona, New Mexico, and Nevada” (Cool Springs Press). Note – If you click on this link it will take you to Amazon. If you buy the book, I will get a few pennies.
© Article is copyright by Jacqueline A. Soule. All rights reserved. Republishing an entire blog post or article is prohibited without permission. I receive many requests to reprint my work. My policy is that you may use a short excerpt but you must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Photos may not be used.