Mass market retailers commonly stock small plants labeled as “bonsai” and intended primarily for gift giving. Let’s take a look at how well plants like these stack up to accepted standards for bonsai.
While browsing at my grocery retailer recently, I came across a scene that would be sad to any bonsai practitioner. The indoor flower and houseplant area had a display of small potted plants they were selling as “bonsai”. Although the labels that proudly proclaimed them as bonsai neglected to identify the species, the plants were spindly, needle-leaf ficus and strangely shaped juniper cuttings. The rustic-looking round and cube-shaped planting pots were tall for their small footprint. Proportionally, they were very different from the shallow, more tray-like presentation associated with most styles of bonsai.
I eyed the $13 price tag, thinking how that same amount of money could purchase a small juniper from a garden center with change left over. That, and about an hour’s worth of trimming, shaping and potting, would yield a far more authentic-looking bonsai.
Problems with Mass Market Bonsai
Unfortunately, trees like these sold at mass market retailers have several strikes against them prior to being purchased by a bonsai novice or a well-meaning gift-giver.
Here are five reasons why I recommend that you just keep walking if you encounter these types of trees for sale:
1. They have received little or no bonsai training or styling.
Plants sold in this manner might . . . might . . . qualify as pre-bonsai at best. Often, they are simply rooted cuttings or young trees with little-to-no training or styling as bonsai. The junipers I encountered were nothing more than randomly shaped rooted cuttings. They would need years of care and training before beginning to resemble a properly-styled bonsai.
2. Their gravel may have already doomed them to their grave.
A sad but common practice with these mass market “bonsai” is to mix clear glue into the gravel dressing the top of the pot. This creates a fused topping which will remain in place during shipping and retail display. How does water get through this cement-like topping to hydrate the tree? Many times, it doesn’t. Purchasers often take home a stressed, water-deprived tree that declines quickly in its new environment.
3. Their soil is suspect.
Those new to the hobby or those buying the plant to gift often don’t know about the specific soils used in bonsai. The humus-rich growing mix used in most mass market “bonsai” is not conducive to development of the root structure that bonsai need to survive in small pots.
4. They don’t come with enough information.
You probably won’t know from the label what type of tree you have or its care requirements. The trees I saw for sale included ficus and juniper. Ficus is a semitropical suitable for indoors, while juniper thrives in a temperate climate and should be kept outdoors. However, the attached labels did not indicate the species of tree. Both labels were, in fact, identical. The short paragraph of care instructions directed that the bonsai be placed outdoors most of the time. Since these were on sale in January in Ohio, anyone purchasing the ficus and following the instructions would quickly have a dead “bonsai”.
5. Are they in a proper pot? Probably not.
A bonsai’s pot should work to help keep the tree healthy, in addition to functioning as an integral part of the overall presentation. The “bonsai” trees I encountered lived in pots with a miniscule drainage hole about 1/8” wide. A proper bonsai pot would have had a much larger drainage hole. The hole would be covered by screen to allow the soil to drain freely and prevent overly moist conditions.
One plus is that these trees were in clay pots. Be aware that plastic pots are commonly used for mass market “bonsai”. Plastic bonsai pots should be used with caution because they can bake the plant’s roots during hot summer days in the sun, harming or even killing the tree.
From a presentation standpoint, the pots containing these trees were disproportional to accepted standards. They were at least as tall as they were wide, fitting neither the shallow tray pot profile most commonly used or the tall, slender profile of the cascade pot.
A Gift of Mass Market Bonsai
Now you know to avoid purchasing these types of trees, but what if someone close to you, aware of your interest in bonsai, naively gifts you with one?
After first graciously thanking the gift giver for his or her thoughtfulness, assess the health and hydration of the tree. Does the foliage appear green, supple and healthy? Or, is it lackluster, yellowing and/or falling off the tree when you touch it? Anything other than green and healthy indicates an issue ranging from lack of water to improper care to disease.
Next, check the soil. If your gift is suffering from glued-on gravel, immediately remove and discard the fused gravel topping. If the soil under the gravel is dry, deeply water the tree and hope you did it before the roots dried out completely.
Assess the pot and the primary soil mixture. Does the pot have sizable holes so that water drains freely? If you find no holes, repot at the first opportunity. A straight, humus-rich potting soil is not the best medium for bonsai. First, it tends to retain too much water. Second, it doesn’t encourage the fine root branching we like to see in bonsai specimens. If you find this type of soil, it doesn’t constitute a potting emergency, but water carefully until you are able to repot.
Consider Species, Stress and Style
Next, identify the species of your tree and its care requirements. Even if you only know it is a juniper but not which specific type of juniper, you’re ahead of the game. Think about where within your indoor and outdoor living space might be the best place for your tree to live.
Realize, too, that the tree has experienced recent stress from shipping, sitting in the store, then coming to your home. It needs time to recover and acclimate to its new environment. If your plant is a juniper, you live in Ohio and you receive it in early April, you might be able to place it in its permanent outdoor location right away. If you receive it in August, you might need to keep it outside in a partially shaded area for a while, then gradually move it to full sun. In January, you might need to keep it in an attached garage – cool but out of the harsh weather – until the worst of winter has passed.
Finally, think about what bonsai style would suit your tree. You may wish to let it grow more before doing any styling. But you might find that a little wire, trimming and shaping can go a long way to making your gift look more like a real bonsai. You might even impress your gift giver with your bonsai skills!
A Sad Postscript
Three weeks after I first saw the group of little trees, I visited the store and was browsing near the plant section again. From a couple of aisles over, I noticed that about one-third of the original group remained on display. The plants left were all junipers. The foliage looked faded, so I approached for a closer look.
I touched a plant, and instead of supple needles, encountered brittle, prickly ones that immediately broke off. The soil underneath the gravel was bone dry. The poor trees probably hadn’t been watered in the three weeks since I first saw them sitting there. They were so far gone that it was unlikely immediate watering would have revived them. I felt sorry for the little trees and irritated at the store for not taking care of them. I could only hope that the store personnel would pitch them before any more unsuspecting customers purchased what were essentially dead plants.
We’ve examined five reasons that mass market retailers are generally not the best source for quality bonsai. Plants available from these outlets often suffer from poor styling, the wrong type of soil, and pots with inadequate drainage. We also covered steps you can take to improve the health of a mass market tree if you receive one as a gift.