Small shohin-sized bonsai are popular with both beginners and seasoned enthusiasts. Tropical bonsai are kept indoors during cold weather and can be worked almost any time of year. Combine the two and you have an ideal mid-winter project – tropical shohin bonsai.
On a recent February morning when the outside temperature at my Ohio home was 18 degrees, I decided it was a perfect time to tackle a bonsai project. Never mind that we’re a month or so away from prime pruning and potting season here. Tropical plants offer eager bonsai enthusiasts an opportunity to practice the hobby year-round!
Last fall, while browsing the tropical section of a local nursery, I came across a section of small plants in 4-inch grow pots labeled as “bonsai starts”. These 7-inch-tall pre bonsai were young and underdeveloped. On the plus side, however, it was obvious that they had been groomed in a manner consistent with training as bonsai.
Charmed by their cuteness, I decided that taking a couple of the $15 plants home would make for a fun tropical shohin-sized bonsai project. After evaluating the available choices, I selected a dwarf schefflera and a dwarf jade.
A Little About Dwarf Schefflera and Dwarf Jade
Both the plants I picked for this project make easy bonsai subjects. Let’s learn a little more about each of them before delving into their bonsai makeovers.
The Graceful Dwarf Schefflera
Dwarf schefflera, Schefflera arboricola, is a subtropical plant more commonly known as the Hawaiian umbrella tree. It features dark green shiny oval-shaped leaflets arranged around long stalks. The slight droop of the compound leaflets from the central stalk creates the characteristic umbrella shape.
Scheffleras do not produce hard bark. In bonsai, shaping them is achieved primarily through pruning techniques instead of wiring.
The umbrella tree’s tendency to produce aerial roots can make them quite interesting bonsai subjects. One of the most effective ways to use this plant in the hobby is to create a multi-trunk grouping, sometimes planted over a rock, that showcases those aerial roots.
Scheffleras are easy to grow and maintain, making them good choices for bonsai beginners. They prefer a humid environment, an important consideration for the development of aerial roots. Misting them one or more times each day can help provide the moisture they enjoy. So can keeping them in a water-filled humidity tray on top of a layer of rocks.
A word of caution is in order before bringing home a schefflera. The plant is poisonous to humans and animals if ingested, causing gastrointestinal issues and a variety of other problems. Those with young children or pets may want to think twice before choosing to work with this tree.
The Hardy Dwarf Jade
Dwarf jade, Portulacaria afra, is a woody-stemmed succulent native to South Africa. It is commonly known as “elephant bush”, probably because elephants enjoy snacking on it!
Although dwarf jade looks quite similar to the jade plant, Crassula ovata, the two species are unrelated. Both are popular bonsai subjects, but the small leaves and more compact growth habit of dwarf jade makes it a particularly good specimen for the smaller shohin category.
Dwarf jade is extremely low maintenance and a great choice for beginners getting started in bonsai. The greatest risk of failure with this plant is exposure to frost and too-frequent watering. During its natural dormant period in winter, it needs watering only once every month or so.
Creating the Schefflera Shohin Bonsai
The first order of business was to study the little schefflera. I needed to settle on a style and determine what angle would make the best front view. Both decisions were pretty straightforward. The plant had already been groomed to grow upright, and it presented well from only one angle.
One nice aspect of this particular plant was that the trunk had already turned from green and shiny to a dull grey color that resembled bark. This comes with age in schefflera and is very important in order for the plant to resemble a mature tree.
To shape the little plant, I trimmed off the longer stalks with the largest leaves. Over time, additional trimming will encourage the plant to form smaller leaves and result in a better proportioned bonsai.
With the foliage shaping accomplished, it was time to remove the plant from the nursery pot and work the soil from the roots. I was pleased to see that the schefflera was not pot-bound. The reasonably-sized root ball did not require a great deal of trimming.
Prior to working with the plant, I had selected a small brown unglazed bonsai pot that I anticipated would work, prepping it with screens and anchor wire. If I found the root ball wasn’t a good fit after being trimmed, I would need to move to a bigger pot.
Luckily, the pot and the little Hawaiian umbrella tree fit each other perfectly, with a nice amount of room for the roots to grow. I secured the tree in the pot and worked soil around its roots. Watering this new tropical shohin bonsai completed its makeover.
Making the Dwarf Jade Shohin Bonsai
This little jade had some interesting angles incorporated into its branching structure. I decided to root-prune and pot it first in order to set the front view. This would make decisions on trimming its rather sparse top growth easier.
I started by using a chopstick to brush away some of the soil at the base of the plant. I wanted to see if there might be a nice root or two that could be revealed during repotting. While I didn’t find any, the trunk below the soil line had a slight flair with some interesting texture. We needed to expose that!
Like the schefflera, the dwarf jade was not pot-bound. The root ball needed just a little trimming to be ready for its new pot.
For this tree, I chose a small red oval lotus-shaped pot. The color of the pot picks up the slight red tone in the immature branches of the dwarf jade. In addition, the grey stripe around the rim echoes the color of the lower main trunk.
Because the pot had some depth, it needed a thicker level of soil in order to raise the plant high enough to expose that trunk flair. Once I could place the dwarf jade into the pot at the desired level, it was time to secure the anchor wires, work soil into the roots and move on to trimming the top.
Although this dwarf jade plant had a number of long branches, the fleshy teardrop-shaped leaves seemed a bit sparce. I opted to trim back the branches, but kept most of them for now. I’ll give the tree a chance to fill out before trimming further.
Finishing the Paired Shohins
Working up these two little plants as tropical shohin bonsai proved to be both quick and enjoyable. Since they had been grown as pre bonsai, the training they received resulted in less pruning for me, both above and below the soil line.
While both plants display good basic form, they are still quite “young” looking for bonsai. They will need several years of development to become nice examples of the art.
I look forward to moving my new baby bonsai outside into filtered sunlight once the weather warms up. By spring, they will be well past recovery from repotting and poised for growth.
After their makeover, the plants are around six inches tall, well within the shohin category’s five-to-eight-inch range. I plan to keep training both these tropicals as shohin, so I’ll concentrate on pruning to refine their shape without much gain in height.
Looking for additional DIY bonsai project demos? Check out our articles on transforming a boxwood and a Japanese holly into bonsai.
This article highlighted the creation of two shohin-sized tropical bonsai from young pre bonsai plants. Both dwarf schefflera and dwarf jade make excellent bonsai subjects. Since the plants used in this project had received some bonsai training, both the top growth and the roots needed minimal pruning.