Whether you plan to buy a bonsai tree, grow bonsai starters or begin with pre-bonsai … this list of basics will help you select and/or create good subjects.
- Healthy Plant – This may seem obvious, however, from time to time we find sickly plants that are nicely shaped. Sometimes we want to save them! No matter how tempting, buy trees that are healthy. Look for appropriately green leaves or needles (depending upon the time of year), stability in the pot and lack of pests. A yellowing evergreen, a plant wobbly in the pot and/or misshapen or damaged leaves are all signs of potential problems.
- Trunk – The thicker the trunk the older your tree will look. Appearance of age is more important that actual age. Bonsai that are basically small rooted cuttings or seedlings, are more than a long term proposition. Unless it is a rare plant, it is often a waste of money. Short or tall, a proportionately heavy trunk makes a tree look older.
- Taper – Taper means the trunk is widest at the bottom and narrows towards the top. Branches should also narrow toward the tip. Trunks and/or branches shaped like ‘poles’ rarely become good bonsai.
- Proportion – Leaves, fruit and flowers must be in scale with the overall size of your bonsai. If you want to buy a bonsai tree that will remain small, large leaves and flowers will make it appear more like a bush or shrub than a tree. Although there are techniques to reduce the size of leaves, fruit and flowers rarely do. (Those same flowers may be fine on a larger bonsai of the same species.) See the flowering bonsai page.
- Dead branches and scars are often created to show signs of age. If you find a good tree without them, they can always be created. However, if they are already present you have a head start. If you are selecting a tree that has driftwood, be sure it looks natural.
- Nebari – is a Japanese word that refers to surface roots that spread away from the base of the tree trunk. That flare is highly valued and adds to the look of age. This Ficus bonsai by Ed Trout is an excellent example of good nebari. (Notice the lack of criss-crossing roots.)
- First Branch – When you buy a bonsai that is an upright plant, a good first branch is important. That first branch is approximately one third the way up the tree. It should also be the heaviest branch on the bonsai. If all or most of the big branches are in the top of a plant, consider another plant. This ‘first branch’ rule may not apply to other styles such as bunjin or literati style. If all or most of the big branches are in the top of a plant, consider another tree.
- Proportion – Leaves, fruit and flowers must be in scale with the overall size of your bonsai. If you buy a small bonsai tree, large leaves and flowers will always make it appear more like a bush or shrub than a tree. Although there are techniques to reduce the size of leaves … fruit and flowers rarely reduce. (Those same flowers may be fine on a larger bonsai of the same species.) See the flowering bonsai page.
Before You Buy a Bonsai Tree
Avoid the Misconceptions!
Remember, a little bonsai in a little pot will never grow into large bonsai. Part of being in a small pot, is to keep it small. Bigger is not always better.
Just because a particular plant is popular as bonsai – such as juniper – not every juniper will necessarily make a good bonsai subject!