Brazilian Rain Tree Bonsai

The Brazilian Rain Tree (Pithecellobium tortum) is a hardwood native to various regions of Brazil that is great for bonsai. It has distinctive compound leaves and thorns depending on the variety. It is an attractive specimen year-round with white plume-like flowers during the growing season.

Brazilian Rain Tree Chloroleucon tortum bonsai tree grows in a botanical garden.
Brazilian Rain Tree (Chloroleucon tortum) bonsai tree.

Caring and Pruning

This plant loves water but dislikes continuous wet soil. An appropriate bonsai soil for this plant is a well-draining composition.

How often should I water my Brazilian rain tree?

Water the Brazilian Rain Tree once a day during the growing season while limiting watering during the off-season to every five days.

Wiring

Do not wire this plant for shaping. Its branches do not respond well to it and may die off. If you want to try to wire this plant, only wire young branches, and take the wire off within four weeks. You will experience die-offs, but this will heighten your chances of success.

Brazilian Rain Tree Pruning – Courtesy of Jelle

Maintaining Aesthetic

To thicken the main stems, prune offshoot branches often (especially during the summer). This plant grows vigorously, so don’t be afraid of pruning. Reducing side branches is a great practice while bonsai training the Brazilian Rain Tree.

Why do Brazilian rain trees leaves turn yellow?

Yellow leaves are an indication of too much water and/or stress. The Brazilian Rain Tree often becomes stressed when moving from outside to inside, during shipping, and any abrupt changes in environment.

Can the Brazilian Rain Tree be Grown Inside?

This tree can be kept inside during the winter and outside during the summer. Make sure to prevent any exposure to frost, in fact, take the bonsai inside the home once temperatures get as low as 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

Budi Sulistyo – Brazilian Raintree Bonsai

Do Brazilian Rain Trees Lose Their Leaves?

It is common for this tree to lose its leaves. It often happens during shipping and the transition from the growing season to winter.

It is common for this tree to drop its leaves when moving the Brazilian Rain Tree from outside to inside for the winter. Do not be overly concerned, as this is normal.

Transitioning from Growing Season

When transitioning the Brazilian Rain Tree back outside (after winter), slowly expose them to full sunlight. Do not place them in a full-sun position immediately, as this will shock the plant. First, place them in a partially shaded area and ease them into full sunlight over two weeks.

These plants do like full sunlight as well as partial shade. The best sunlight for this plant is the last half of summer days.

Brazilian Rain Tree Potting – Courtesy Nigel Saunders

Pruning

Begin pruning heavily once the tree has begun its growing season. The bud from every node which makes their growth thicker and predictable, allowing you to make pruning decisions easier and quicker.

Direction Pruning

One of the best pruning techniques for the Brazilian Rain Tree is directional pruning. At first, this easy method requires the bonsai artist to imagine the tree’s general flow or shape. After that, look toward every node of the plant, pruning the offshoots that do not head in the direction you want. This will thicken the lower structure of the plant while maintaining the flow and direction you desire.

Pro Tip: Because die-off is so common with this species, leave a small stub or portion of branch above where the nodes are. This will help alleviate die-off. During the next pruning session, once the pruning wound has healed, then cut to the node to complete the pruning.

Brazilian Rain Tree Bark

It is common for this tree to shed its bark over time. This unique ability often scares bonsai enthusiasts because the colors can be striking. White, brown and darker colors can all be present along the trunk, which is normal and gives a striking aesthetic.

Propagation

Root cuttings and air layering are common ways to propagate the Brazilian Rain Tree.

Brazilian Rain Tree Experts

The words Brazilian rain tree bonsai and the late “Jim Moody” are frequently spoken in the same breath. The first of these rain trees used as bonsai in the U.S. was grown from seed by the late Jim Moody of Jupiter, FL. The seeds were brought to him in 1978 by his sister-in-law. She was a nurse at the American Embassy in Brazil.

Jim Moody

When Jim saw what a beautiful tree developed from his seeds, he began propagating it from cuttings. For many years no one knew the scientific name and it was called by many names. It was often called the “mystery tree.”

The most recent botanical moniker is Chloroleucon tortum. Jim is shown here telling a group about how he kept his bonsai in shape. By his own admission, Jim was not a “traditionalist.” He shaped the tree “his way.”

Jim’s way was perfect to display the amazing trunk.

The tree is still alive and has been in training since 1975.

As Jim told me many years ago:

“It wasn’t long before my tree had such a beautiful flat and twisting trunk that I decided to develop all the stock in our nursery from cuttings off that particular tree.”

Jim Moody passed away in 2003, and his grandson Alan Carver carries on the tradition of growing bonsai of the raintree. It has become a tropical bonsai favorite around the world.

Expert Opinion – About the Tree

In tropical regions, many legumes are used as bonsai subjects. With approximately 12,000 species available, there is a myriad to choose from.

Although many of the leaves in this ‘pea’ family are often large, they appear small because the leaflets, in most cases, are tiny in comparison. Chloroleucon tortum, sometimes still referred to as Pithecellobium tortum is the legume commonly known as Brazilian rain tree (aka raintree).

The flower is a creamy white, mimosa-like puff, not particularly showy, but fragrant.

(Because they are so fast growing, we often prune the buds before the flowers appear.) Therefore, many rain trees do not bloom as bonsai.

The Fabulous Brazilian Rain Tree Trunk

Raintree bonsai – C. Michelson
Raintree bonsai – C. Michelson

In its homeland of Brazil, the Brazilian rain tree grows along the coast of Rio de Janeiro and “snakes” low across the sand.

Many are old and gnarled from the heat of the sand, lack of nutrients, and the sea breeze.

Once they were collected for bonsai. Today these natives are on the Critically Endangered list.

This tree is commonly styled as an upright bonsai outside of Brazil. The bark is very smooth, light in color, and exfoliates. What makes it a unique bonsai is the trunk’s tendency to twist, flatten or become fluted or occasionally even triangular in shape.

If your tree never develops these odd characteristics (and sometimes they don’t), the smooth, muscular trunk is still quite handsome.

Developing Rain Tree as Bonsai

Brazilian Raintree by Jim Smith
Brazilian Raintree by Jim Smith

This plant is easily propagated from cuttings, seeds, and air layers. Once the initial trunk and branch shape is established, clip-and-grow is the best way to develop a Brazilian raintree.

The alternate, compound leaves of the somewhat zigzag branches are perfect for styling by directional pruning techniques.

Wiring is very difficult because the green branches grow so quickly. And then there are the thorns to be concerned with.

The only other “fault” is the tree sometimes has a reverse taper at the base of the trunk. Look carefully before you purchase.

Frequent trimming of new growth during the growing season will encourage the density of canopy that represents an old tree. During the spring and summer (at least) weekly pruning is a must!

Further Comments on Raintree Care

Brazilian Raintree
Brazilian Raintree

Although they grow in the full sun in nature, Brazilian rain tree bonsai seem to appreciate some shade during hottest days of tropical summers (in bonsai containers.) Outside the tropics, give them very bright light year round and protect them from frosts and freezes.

Keep them evenly moist and trim frequently.

On a trip to Montreal (for a demonstration and several workshops,) I was surprised … the most requested subject for the workshops was Brazilian Rain Tree.

Why? Because they do so well as indoor bonsai.

Note: The mature wood is very hard, never force a tool to cut, use a small saw when necessary. Do not cut too close to the trunk as there is often dieback. Never use a concave cutter on this tree.

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