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Choosing Pre Bonsai: 3 Tips for Picking a Quality Tree

November 07, 2020Beginners, Plants

Pre-Bonsai Japanese Maple

Bonsai hobbyists often purchase pre bonsai in order to acquire additional trees and grow their collections. Let’s examine some things to look for when choosing which pre bonsai to buy. 

Buying a pre bonsai can be a great way to jump-start or add to your bonsai collection, whether you are a novice or a more experienced bonsai practitioner.

What are pre bonsai? They are simply young trees or shrubs that have received some preliminary training using bonsai techniques. This early training prepares the plants to be sold specifically for further development into mature bonsai.

A quality pre bonsai offers the opportunity for instant gratification that isn’t always possible with nursery or field-collected stock. A well-grown pre bonsai should be ready to style, root-prune and transplant into a bonsai pot, yielding a young, but fairly authentic-looking, bonsai. 

While I recommend that beginners concentrate their efforts on lower-risk nursery stock, pre bonsai are also a good option. Choosing a few pre bonsai to add to the collection can provide enjoyment and help advance learning and skill development. Just be prepared to pay more for pre bonsai than for nursery stock.

Choosing Your Pre Bonsai Wisely

Unfortunately, many of the plants being sold today as pre bonsai – or even bonsai – are young, underdeveloped, minimally trained specimens. Before buying any plant sold as a pre bonsai, know what characteristics suggest good bonsai potential.

When buying a pre bonsai, picture a continuum between raw nursery or field-collected stock and a mature bonsai tree. Aim for a plant that sits somewhere in the middle. Accomplishing that goal involves paying attention to three main things – the trunk and branch structure, the top-growth, and the size of the pot.

Tip 1: Aim for a Little “Junk” in the Trunk 

A key characteristic of bonsai and good pre bonsai is a relatively thick trunk that tapers from bottom to top. Keep in mind that pre bonsai are usually fairly young plants, therefore they will tend to have thinner trunks with less pronounced taper than more mature specimens. However, avoid plants with no taper and definitely pass over anything afflicted with reverse taper. Reverse taper occurs when the trunk is thinner at the bottom than it is higher up on the tree.

Above the trunk, the tree should have a hierarchical branch structure with at least the larger branches displaying some taper.  You can expect a well-developed pre bonsai to have received some judicious pruning during its short life. It might even appear to be semi-styled.  I recommend choosing a tree that you can easily envision training in one of the traditional bonsai styles. When the tree’s trunk and branch structure offer potential to be styled one or more ways, the transition from raw stock to bonsai-in-training is easier.

Most pre bonsai do not undergo wiring. If you are considering buying one that has been wired, make sure the wires have not left unsightly marks. Wire that has been left on too long will irreparably damage a tree.  

When trying to decide which of several plants to purchase, evaluate the candidates side-by-side. Compare the trunk, branch structure and foliage of each plant to appraise which offers the best potential styling options.

Tip 2: Look for Lush Top Growth

Pre bonsai typically have an abundance of foliage and a bushier appearance than a more mature specimen. If you are purchasing it during the growing season, and it hasn’t undergone a recent pruning, the plant may even appear overgrown and a bit unruly. No worries, though, as plenty of top growth offers flexibility for making styling choices to suit your creative vision. 

As you narrow down your selections, examine the foliage on each plant closely. Make sure that any tree you purchase appears healthy with no signs of pests or disease. 

Tip 3: Pay Attention to the Pot

Like nursery stock, pre bonsai are generally sold in standard plastic pots.  A good pre bonsai grower pays attention to developing a compact root system, so the growing pots will be smaller than a typical nursery pot housing a plant of the same size. The smaller growing pot should enable you to transplant to a properly sized bonsai pot either right away or sooner than you might be able to do with untrained stock.

Often, the soil will be a combination of bonsai soil and a richer potting mix. This combination nourishes the top growth while helping develop proper root structure.  

What to Avoid When Shopping for Pre Bonsai

As a general rule, avoid buying pre bonsai from retail establishments that do not specialize in bonsai. As I mentioned earlier, many plants sold as pre bonsai are very young, and have received little or no training. Often, they aren’t much more than dense balls of foliage on top of spindly trunks and branches, but their purveyors are pricing them at a premium. Develop a discerning eye when you evaluate plants for purchase – your bonsai collection will benefit from your being choosy.

Don’t forget that regular nursery stock is another great way to obtain trees to train as bonsai. In another article, I cover tips for choosing nursery plants.

What about starting a bonsai from seed?  It is common these days to find grow-your-own bonsai “kits” that purport to provide all you need to grow a bonsai from seed.  While this can certainly be done, it takes years to develop a seedling into a respectable-looking bonsai. Most bonsai practitioners would agree that it is far more satisfying to start with a plant that is several years old and already large enough to be able to shape and style. 

In Summary . . .

Pre bonsai are welcome additions to any collection. They offer the hobbyist the advantage of achieving sound styling and traditional potting sooner than methods such as starting from nursery stock or field collecting.  When choosing pre-bonsai, look for a tree or shrub in a smaller pot that has a trunk with some taper, a solid tapering branch structure, and a good amount of foliage. 

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