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Using Bonsai Accent Plants for Tree Displays

August 11, 2022Beginners, General, Plants, Styling

Bonsai accent plants and moss in a small round bonsai pot

A traditional bonsai practice is to use smaller accent plants to complement a tree on display. Let’s explore the characteristics of good bonsai accent plants, along with how to use and care for them.

If you’ve ever attended a bonsai exhibition, you probably noticed some of the trees being shown were not alone. A common practice within the hobby is to include a companion – or accent – item alongside the bonsai on display. In some cases, the companion item might be a rock or a figurine. More often, however, that item is an accent plant.

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Accent Plants in Bonsai

The use of bonsai accent plants comes from the Japanese tradition of displaying bonsai for a short time indoors in a special area known as a tokonoma. The purpose of including an accent plant is to provide contrast to the tree and add balance and visual interest to the overall display. In addition, accent plants often offer context by suggesting a sense of time or place.

A flowering azalea on display accompanied by a fern accent plant
The lighter foliage and pot of the accent plant complement the bright flowers and dark leaves of a blooming azalea bonsai.

Accent plants are always smaller than the bonsai they accompany, and, in most cases, they are not bonsai. Combination plantings, featuring several plants grouped into one container, are also popular companions for trees on display.  

Accents are commonly planted in small bonsai pots, but quite often they sport a more conventional or ornamental pot. Rocks, slabs, driftwood, or even sphagnum moss balls can also serve as containers for accent plants. In recent years, a trend toward more whimsical accent planters has emerged. 

There are no hard and fast rules for marrying accent plants to bonsai. Think of it more as an artistic decision on the part of the hobbyist and a reflection of whatever he or she wants to express. A tropical ficus might be displayed with a small stand of miniature potted bamboo to convey a sense of place. A dwarf iris in bloom in early summer might accompany a trident maple in full leaf, echoing the season.    

What makes a good bonsai accent plant?  

Any plant with small-leafed foliage can be a candidate for an accent plant. Dwarf varieties of common landscape plants are excellent choices. Minature hostasdiminutive irises, and small ferns are easily recognizable species that mirror the small dimensions of the bonsai tree they accompany and help create the illusion of scale.

Miniature hostas make good bonsai accent plants
A miniature hosta in a bonsai pot makes a wonderful accent plant.

Numerous varieties of mosses, grasses and ground covers are popular choices for accent plants. Small succulents, which come in a variety of shapes and colors, make attractive, low-maintenance accents.

Succulent accent plants in a small bonsai pot
Succulents make nice accent plants for bonsai.

Where to Find Appropriate Plants

Browse the aisles of your local garden center, and you are sure to find several suitable options for bonsai accent plants. Annuals such as moss rose offer fernlike foliage and small, colorful summertime blooms, while perennials like miniature hostas provide a more subdued look.  

Online sources for accent plants include bonsai specialty stores and fairy garden plant retailers. 

When shopping for accent plants, be sure to check the hardiness zone for the specimen you are considering. Unless you plan to bring them inside during the cold months, be sure the plants you purchase are winter hardy for your climate zone. Many of the plants sold for fairy gardens are tropical species that wouldn’t survive a winter outdoors.

No-cost Accent Plants 

Don’t overlook native plants that might be growing in your own backyard as sources for interesting companions to your bonsai. Wildflowers and even attractive weeds can serve as appealing counterpoints to native bonsai species. Plus, the best part is that they’re free!

Wild strawberries make lovely bonsai accent plants. They put out vining shoots, pretty little yellow blooms and, of course, small red berries. Wild violets, another readily available backyard species, make very pretty accents during the spring budding season. 

Virginia creeper, a five-leaved woody vine, makes a nice accent plant, especially in the fall when its leaves turn a fiery red. By the way, Virginia creeper also makes a good bonsai subject!

How to Use Accent Plants in Bonsai

When choosing an accent plant, consider the size of your tree, the type of tree and if there is a particular idea or feeling you want to convey. Again, there are no hard and fast rules – you may have no goal other than to put together a pleasing combination, and that’s just fine!

With that said, here are some general guidelines for accent plants that can help achieve that pleasing combination:

  • Aim for contrast. The splash of color provided by a flowering or colored accent plant provides contrast and adds interest when the bonsai being displayed does not have flowers or fruit.  Conversely, if you are displaying a tree in full flower, you will probably want to go with a more understated non-flowering accent plant. When working with understated accent plants, you can introduce contrast by using an interesting pot in a non-earth-tone color. 
  • Aim for scale.  The smaller the bonsai on display, the smaller the accent plant should be. 
  • Aim for proportion.  The accent plant should never compete with the bonsai for attention, but sit harmoniously close by.  It should complement and complete the overall look but never overshadow the tree.
  • Consider combinations.  Accent plant combinations range from the simple, such as a clump of dwarf grass surrounded by moss, to more complex plantings of several species.  Marrying several small plants of varying heights can result in a very attractive grouping to use as an accent. In fact, the practice of using group plantings as accents for bonsai is gaining in popularity.

Keep in mind that contrast, scale and proportion all interact with each other. An understated accent plant, such as a miniature green hosta in an earth-toned container might harmonize well with a smaller bonsai. Conversely, a flowering miniature geranium in a brightly colored pot used with the same bonsai might compete with the tree for attention. However, that same geranium planting might work well with a larger bonsai.

Small succulent accent plant in round pot
This tiny plant with its interesting pot and granite slab would work well with a smaller bonsai.

Caring for Your Plants

Accent plants generally reside in very small pots. Therefore, it’s a good idea to root-prune and repot them annually, preferably in early spring. At the same time, perform any needed pruning or clean-up work on the top growth. Water and fertilize them regularly through summer to keep them in good health. As cold weather nears, bring inside any plants that are not cold hardy in your temperature zone. Provide hardy species good protection for overwintering.

By combining these guidelines with your own preferences and creativity, you can create attractive accent plantings to accompany your bonsai.

This article covered the tradition and purpose of bonsai accent plants and the types of plants appropriate to use. It also discussed using them to compliment a bonsai tree on display and proper accent plant care. 

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