When it comes to choosing a first bonsai tree, beginners can easily get overwhelmed by the wide variety of plants and trees that can be used for the hobby. In this article, we provide guidance on shopping by size and suggest a number of species commonly found in local garden centers that are good selections for those just starting in bonsai.
You’ve decided to delve into the world of bonsai, are excited to get started, and more than eager to acquire your first tree. But you may be wondering what kind of trees would be best for your first projects.
You could to purchase your first bonsai from a retail store or get a pre bonsai from a specialty supplier. However, if you plan to start with regular nursery stock, as we suggest beginners do, finding a particular species at your local garden center will be less important than the types of stock available in a certain range of sizes.
Nurseries and garden centers tend to sell outdoor varieties suited to the climate in their particular area. In temperate climates, many also maintain indoor areas where they keep tropical species. As we detail in our article about choosing nursery stock, you’ll browse the garden center for plants with small leaves, thick trunks and interesting structure. You’ll also concentrate your search among plants in smaller nursery pots.
Stick to Smaller Containers
We recommend that beginners starting with nursery stock try to limit their purchases to trees or shrubs in one-gallon containers or smaller for their first few projects. Limiting the size of containers does narrow the selection of species, so it’s best to approach the process with flexibility about the type of tree or shrub you bring home. Most garden centers have plenty of good prospects for bonsai. Choosing based on potential instead of being tied to a particular species actually makes the search more fun.
Why the emphasis on small containers? Smaller specimens are easier to style, root prune and place in a bonsai pot right away. A beginner’s first few trees should build enthusiasm for the hobby and serve as learning experiences in styling, care and training. With time and a few thriving trees under your belt, you’ll be ready to move on to bigger and more challenging stock!
Let’s look at just a few evergreen, deciduous and tropical species commonly found at nurseries that tend to be good choices for a beginner’s first bonsai tree.
Evergreens for Bonsai
A multitude of evergreen species, coniferous and others, are popular among bonsai hobbyists. Among the many choices, low-growing, compact and dwarf varieties work best for bonsai.
A classic example of a plant well-suited to bonsai is the dwarf Japanese garden juniper, Juniperus procumbens ‘Nana’. They work particularly well in cascade or a semi-cascade styles, where their graceful curves portray iconic bonsai form. Junipers make up a large proportion of trees sold commercially as bonsai and pre bonsai.
The Juniperus procumbens shrub’s slow growth, short needles and compact nature makes it an excellent subject for bonsai. Its tolerance for a wide variety of soils and growing conditions offers an advantage for those new to the hobby. Every bonsai collection needs at least one of these classic trees!
Another good species for beginners is mugo pine, Pinus mugo. This dwarf pine variety is a slow-growing and low-maintenance plant that tolerates a variety of growing conditions. It has short needles and a full appearance that work well for training as a bonsai.
When it comes to temperate evergreen bonsai, good subjects extend beyond just conifers. There are quite a few broadleaf evergreens, such as pyracantha, that make excellent bonsai.
Pyracantha, also known as “firethorn”, is a spiny evergreen shrub. It is commonly planted to climb walls to add visual interest to landscapes. Between its glossy foliage and abundant displays of red or orange berries during the fall and winter months, pyracantha delivers on the expectation. The varieties used most often for bonsai are. Pyracantha angustifolia and Pyracantha coccinea. Be sure to wear gloves when working with pyracantha to avoid the discomfort of skin pricks from the plant’s thorny spines.
Other evergreens to consider for bonsai include yews, boxwood, dwarf spruces, and holly.
Deciduous Choices for Your First Bonsai
Picking an outdoor deciduous species suitable for bonsai is only difficult because there are so many choices! A huge variety of deciduous trees and shrubs can be successfully grown as bonsai. We’ve highlighted three shrubs that make good initial projects.
Cotoneaster, a commonly sold deciduous shrub, is an excellent choice for beginners. A member of the rose family, cotoneaster makes an interesting bonsai. It blooms with small flowers in the spring, followed by red or black berries and colorful foliage in the fall. An added bonus for beginners is that this hardy, tough shrub offers ease of care. Cranberry cotoneaster, Cotoneaster apiculatus, and “Little Gem”,Cotoneaster adpressus, are two compact deciduous varieties to consider. There is a huge selection of cotoneasters – deciduous, semi-deciduous and evergreen – that make good subjects for bonsai.
Another deciduous shrub to consider for bonsai is burning bush. Burning bush is a popular landscape plant, prized for its brilliant fall color. Tiny flowers in spring give way to small berries in the fall. Many varieties of this plant have corky ridges or “wings” on their branches, providing visual interest during winter months.
Burning bush is quite hardy and grows well under a wide range of conditions, making it a good choice for bonsai beginners. While the regular variety is successfully grown as bonsai, a dwarf variety such as “Little Moses”, Euonymus alatus ‘Odom’, is a great choice for its compact form and growth.
Lilac is yet another shrub often available in smaller containers that makes a nice bonsai. In addition to their fragrant blossoms, dwarf varieties of lilac such as Syringa pubescens subsp. patula ‘Miss Kim’ boast a compact size and dense branching structure that make them good bonsai subjects.
Other shrubs to consider include spirea, forsythia, and potentilla, just to name a few. Trees such as maples, oaks, beeches, birches, and many more make excellent subjects for deciduous bonsai.
Tropicals for Bonsai
There are many wonderful choices for bonsai among tropical species. While those in northern climates need to bring them indoors for the cold months, tropical bonsai are a great addition to any collection.
Among the seemingly infinite varieties of ficus, a number of the smaller-leaved dwarf tree-type ficus make attractive bonsai. In addition to the common Ficus benjamina, some of the popular varieties used for bonsai include Ficus retusa, Ficus microcarpa, and the banana-leafed fig, Ficus maclellandii. Hardy and fast-growing, ficus boasts gracefully drooping branches and a tendency to maintain a classic tree shape. While ficus are good for beginners and offer mostly easy care, they don’t thrive in low light conditions. They can be picky about indoor placement and often temporarily drop their leaves when moved to a different location.
The dwarf schefflera, or dwarf umbrella, tree, Schefflera arboricola makes an interesting bonsai. Also known as the Hawaiian umbrella tree, it has smaller leaflets and is substantially shorter in height at maturity than its larger cousin, Schefflera actinophylla. One of dwarf schefflera’s best features for bonsai is its tendency to put out arial roots. These add interest to the overall visual of the tree and can be used to create a banyan-tree effect. Dwarf Schefflera tolerates low light and low humidity better than some other species. This makes it a good indoor choice for those in cooler climates.
The jade plant, a succulent that is popular as a houseplant, also makes an attractive, low-maintenance bonsai. Jade plants, Crassula ovata, have woody-looking trunks that often develop a scaly appearance with age. This feature, along with their small oval-shaped leaves, gives them a tree-like appearance that works well for bonsai.
An unrelated but similar-looking plant known as “dwarf jade” makes an excellent bonsai subject as well. Also known as “elephant bush”, Portulacaria afra, is more compact and has smaller leaves than the jade plant.
Other popular tropical and subtropical plants commonly used for bonsai include Fukien tea, serissa, Chinese elm and bougainvillea.
A Word of Caution
If you have small children, pets, or folks with allergies in your household, take extra care when choosing plants for bonsai, landscaping or indoor display. Surprisingly, many commonly used indoor and outdoor plants have some degree of toxicity for humans and/or animals.
With many plants, issues arise only if the plant is ingested and/or if someone comes in contact with its sap. Some of the species highlighted in this article as good bonsai subjects fall into one or both categories. They include juniper, pyracantha, cotoneaster, euonymus, ficus, schefflera, and jade.
We recommend that you always research information about a species and make an informed decision about whether to bring it home. There are many sources of information online, including a site with helpful charts from The University of California.
We’ve highlighted 10 trees and shrubs that make good choices for your first bonsai. Featured plants include easy-care evergreen, deciduous and tropical species. Most are commonly stocked by nurseries and garden centers in the smaller sizes that work well for beginners.