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Juniper Bonsai: Small-leaved Gems with Big Bonsai Potential

February 10, 2022Beginners, General, Plants

semi-cascade juniper bonsai

Junipers have gained a reputation as some of the most common – and most iconic – species used for bonsai. This article focuses on the characteristics that have earned juniper bonsai their well-deserved popularity.

Most bonsai practitioners, if asked about their favorite trees, would place junipers high on the list. Many new hobbyists start with one as their very first tree. Let’s take a look at junipers and why they are among the darlings of the bonsai world.

A Bit About Junipers

Junipers are coniferous evergreens that are native to Europe, Asia and North America. The 50+ species of juniper range from low-growing, sprawling shrubs to medium-sized trees.  

The foliage color of junipers spans the spectrum from golden-green to dark blue-green.  Their small leaves can be either needle-like or scale-like, although the scale type of foliage is more common. Some varieties have needles in their youth, changing over to scales as they mature.  

Juniper berries – which are actually not true berries, but the plants’ compact, fleshy cones – have a long history of medicinal use. They have anti-inflammatory, anti-viral and antiseptic properties and have been used to ward off disease and to treat certain illnesses .

In addition to fighting illness, juniper berries have a variety of culinary uses. Most notably, they are the primary flavor component in gin. The berries have also been used for flavoring meats, sauces, baked goods, sauerkraut, and even beer.

Junipers are extremely popular among bonsai enthusiasts, particularly the low-growing species. Many varieties are used as hardy, low-maintenance landscape plants.

From root to tip, junipers offer bonsai hobbyists a package of desirable characteristics that aid in the development of beautiful trees: 

  • Foliage:  Junipers’ small leaves make it relatively quick and easy for the bonsai artist to style a mature-looking tree. The tiny leaves help by providing the necessary scale for the tree to look mature at any size.
  • Bark: The red-brown bark of most juniper species offers a pleasing contrast to the green or blue-green foliage. In addition, the bark of many junipers naturally starts to exfoliate, or peel in vertical strips, when the tree is still young. This provides attractive texture and contributes to a more aged look.
  • Trunks and Branches: Junipers often boast interesting trunks with curves and twists. These features add natural visual interest perfect for bonsai. Their tendency to have many leader branches offers choices when it comes to styling. Junipers are favorite subjects for special bonsai techniques such as jin and shari. Both techniques involve creating a dramatic, aged effect by peeling areas of bark to expose the wood beneath.  
  • Roots: Their fine, fibrous root system handles pruning well. In addition, surface roots develop easily on junipers, adding visual appeal.
Jin and shari on juniper bonsai
The jin and shari on this juniper bonsai add drama and visual interest.

For bonsai beginners, what are the advantages of juniper?

Junipers are hardy plants that generally recover quickly from root and branch work. Since most of the species used for bonsai are native to arid mountain environments, they can tolerate an occasional delay in being watered.

Coniferous trees such as junipers naturally form finer root systems than most deciduous species. With young junipers, root pruning usually involves just combing out all the fine roots and giving the root ball an even “haircut”. In contrast, the initial root pruning on deciduous trees sometimes involves large fibrous roots with relatively few feeder roots. This makes decisions about what to trim more difficult. 

For the beginning hobbyist, perhaps the biggest advantage of junipers is their foliage. Their small-scale leaves make it easier to create a well-styled bonsai from even a small specimen. Beginners can enjoy an early “win” by creating an authentic-looking bonsai almost instantly. 

Juniper needles
The fine needles of juniper.

While a number of juniper species are commonly used for bonsai, three of the most popular are:

  • Juniperus chinensis (Chinese juniper);
  • Juniperus sargentii (Shimpaku juniper);
  • Juniperus procumbens ‘nana’ (dwarf Japanese garden juniper).

What are good styles for juniper bonsai?

Junipers work well for a variety of bonsai styles, depending on the type of juniper and its growing habits.

Probably the most iconic style when we consider junipers for bonsai is the cascade. Indeed, cascade bonsai, with their dramatic, yet gracefully curved branches are among the most beautiful examples of the art. The creeping types of juniper, such as Juniperus procumbens, work well in the cascade style.

Junipers and other conifers are especially well-suited for windswept bonsai. In this style, all branches and foliage point in the same direction, reminiscent of a tree living in a windy sea shore environment. The juniper’s small-scale foliage allows for precise trimming and shaping to achieve the windswept effect. In contrast, deciduous trees can be more challenging to train in this style since most have larger leaves that naturally point in various directions. 

The small leaves of junipers also make them excellent subjects for bonsai group plantings or the raft style of bonsai. Group plantings consist of individual trees planted together as a group to create a small grove or forest. In the raft style, the bonsai hobbyist trims a tree to have branches only on one side, then plants the tree laterally. Each branch is then styled as an individual tree in this small forest planting.

What kind of care do juniper bonsai need?

Junipers are hardy plants that make fairly low-maintenance bonsai. Junipers should live outdoors year-round. During warm months, situate them in a sunny spot. Most junipers are quite cold-hardy, but it is a good idea to give them some winter protection when temperatures dip below 15 degrees F.

To control growth on juniper bonsai during the growing season, hand-pinch long shoots. Trimming juniper foliage with scissors or bud shears tends to yield brown unsightly edges where the cuts are made. Apply fertilizer granules or pellets monthly during the growing season to keep the tree well nourished.

Foliage on the inner part of the tree will turn brown and die if it doesn’t receive enough light and air. Wiring and fanning out the foliage pads of a juniper bonsai can help preserve that inner foliage.

What are some potential problems for juniper bonsai?

One common issue with juniper bonsai, particularly for beginning hobbyists, is overwatering. Junipers thrive in the low-moisture conditions found high on mountains. Too much water can cause the foliage to turn yellow or brown and eventually kill the tree.

Spider mite infections represent another frequent concern. It’s a good idea to inspect your junipers regularly for these miniscule red mites. An infestation can easily go unnoticed until it reaches the point of causing damage. 

To check for spider mites, shake the foliage while holding a white piece of paper underneath. If your tree has spider mites, a few should fall onto the paper and be easy to spot. If you find mites, try controlling them by spraying with insecticidal soap.

Interested in acquiring stock for a juniper bonsai? Prior to shopping, check out our articles on choosing nursery stock and selecting pre bonsai. With suitable styling and a minimum of care, a juniper bonsai can provide years of enjoyment throughout all seasons. 

We’ve explored the many reasons why juniper species make excellent bonsai. From their diminutive foliage, attractive trunks and bark, fine root structure and hardy constitution, junipers deserve their popularity as bonsai subjects.

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