6 Types of Bonsai Trees That Are Best for Beginners
Find out which trees are ideally suited for this art that captures nature’s beauty in miniature.
Bonsai, a horticultural art that hails from ancient China, is still a popular hobby today. One common misconception is that bonsai is a type of tree. In fact, bonsai refers to the craft or art form of cultivating, shaping, and maintaining tiny trees.
Like their regular-size siblings, bonsai trees can survive for hundreds of years. Some have even outlived their caretakers. A Japanese white pine in the collection of the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum in Washington D.C., for example, has been in training since 1625, making it almost 400 years old.
Those seeking to try their hand at bonsai should know that it takes time and patience to master the craft. With practice, though, it’s possible to turn unwieldy saplings into works of art. The first step in this long, rewarding process is picking the right tree, one suitable for beginners. Here are the top contenders.
While most people associate bonsai with indoor displays, many varieties actually do better outside. That can make it challenging for those living in colder climes to get into the hobby. Thankfully, some trees—for instance, ficus—thrive in an indoor environment. The two varieties best suited for indoor growing are Ficus retusa and Ficus ginseng, both of which have visually interesting trunks. Those who live in USDA Zones 10 and 11, however, can get away with growing most ficus species outdoors.
What makes ficus trees so adaptable is their ability to respond positively to growing restrictions. In bonsai, selecting a small container is key to restricting plant size. Because ficus trees are happy in smaller containers, they’re well suited to bonsai. They’re also forgiving of lapses in watering and other types of care. Ficus plants, for instance, typically don’t mind the dry conditions of indoor environments. Just make sure to choose a sunny spot for your mini ficus.
2. Chinese Elm
This slow-growing plant is perfect for bonsai beginners because it can stay content almost anywhere. Chinese elms also do well indoors and out, and can survive outside in USDA Zones 4 to 9. Just be sure to pick a spot with lots of bright morning sun that turns shady in the afternoon.
Another reason this tree is great for the art of bonsai is that it’s easy to prune, and its slow growth makes shaping uncomplicated. The trees are also not very susceptible to pest infestations, with the exception of spider mites. But these small insects are typically easy to control with a few applications of neem oil.
This needle-leaved tree looks mighty attractive in miniature form. It’s important to note, though, that junipers don’t do well indoors. Instead, grow these trees outdoors in USDA Zones 4 to 9. Place them in a spot where they can get at least 4 hours of sun per day. Unlike other, less hardy bonsai-friendly trees, junipers can handle cold weather.
As with other beginner-friendly bonsai trees, junipers are pest-resistant. However, spider mites and webworms sometimes target them. Prevent infestations with regular pruning to keep leaves from getting too messy. Juniper is also perfect for bonsai newbies because it takes well to over-pruning. Although aggressive pruning can weaken them and cause browning, the trees will ultimately recover from pruning mishaps.
These trees, small to begin with, are well suited to the art of bonsai. Native to three continents—Asia, Europe, and Africa—cotoneasters feature glossy green leaves and small apple-shaped fruits that appear after a bloom of little white flowers.
To grow cotoneasters, select a spot in full sun, either indoors or outside. Provide frost protection for plants in containers, although cotoneasters planted in the ground should tolerate freezing weather quite well. Most varieties are cold hardy in Zones 5 to 8, but hardiness varies across varieties. In contrast with the more challenging bonsai species, these trees are drought-tolerant as long as the dry periods are short. Additionally, because the branches of cotoneasters are flexible, they take well to shaping via wires.
Portulacaria trees, also known as dwarf jade or baby jade, are excellent beginner bonsai species because they don’t need to be watered regularly. If you have a history of killing plants with your bad watering habits, this may be the right tree for you to try out bonsai growing methods. Just be careful not to overwater, because these trees are susceptible to root rot.
To shape portulacaria trees, avoid wires and stick to careful pruning. Because they grow quickly, regular pruning is necessary to maintain an aesthetically pleasing shape. You can keep baby jades outside for the summer, but ideally, they should be brought in when the nighttime lows hit 40 degrees. In Zones 10 and 11, it’s possible to grow baby jade outdoors, but the succulent is also perfect for indoor settings.
Make some edible art by choosing a rosemary plant for your bonsai hobby. Best of all, when you prune your rosemary bonsai, you’ll not only help maintain the plant’s shape, but you’ll also net herbs for dinner. Frequent watering is necessary for rosemary plants to thrive, but they’re also vulnerable to root rot, so make sure to keep plants in a pot with sufficient drainage.
To maintain the plant’s miniature size, remove new growth that appears after the first set of leaves. Trimming at least 25 percent of the roots will help prevent the plant from outgrowing its pot. You can shape the branches with wiring as long as they are young and supple enough.
Another advantage of choosing rosemary as your tiny “tree” is that you can quickly start it from seed. Grow this herb in containers and bring it in before the first frost.
Other herbs amenable to bonsai growing include:
- Bay laurel