Chinese Elm Bonsai Tree – Care Guide [Comprehensive Advice]

The Chinese elm bonsai tree is a favorite of growers everywhere.  It is especially popular with beginners.  It’s fast-growing and easy to care for. 

Chinese Elm's Autumn Bloom
Chinese Elm’s Autumn Bloom

Although the Chinese Elm’s trunk develops slowly in a container, the branches grow very quickly.  Frequent trimming of the branches creates beautiful ramifications.  Many different styles can be created through pruning with little effort, making the Chinese Elm a great beginner bonsai plant.

Another plus is they can be either indoor bonsai, outdoors, or a little of both. Many people grow them indoors in winter and out in the spring and summer.

Caring for Chinese Elm Bonsai

The Chinese Elm (Ulmus parvifolia) is native to Asia. Most imported Chinese Eelm bonsai have been grown in a warm climate (southern China) which is important to remember when caring for this great plant.

Ancient Chinese Elm Bonsai
Ancient Chinese Elm – Semi-Cascading Style

Environment

The ideal location for a Chinese Elm bonsai is somewhere that provides full sun. It can handle partial shade as well, but this will hinder growth.

Leaving the plant outside during the summer is recommended to encourage new growth.

Chinese Elm Indoors?

It is fine to bring the Chinese Elm indoors during the winter months. They can handle some frost, but deep winters can kill them.

These are imported from different areas in Asia, and depending on the specific region determines how cold-hardy they are.

Chinese Elm Bonsai - Traditional Styling
Chinese Elm Bonsai – Traditional Styling

Watering

Do not let the soil get completely dry. Ensure to water the Chinese Elm immediately when the soil begins to dry. Also, do not overwater as it creates other issues (various diseases).

A great way to check if it is moist enough is to press your finger into the top of the growing medium. Is it squishy? Or is it dry like rocks? Make sure it feels like a moist cake. That’s the perfect texture and moisture level.

Fertilizer

Feed the Chinese Elm heavily during the growing season to promote health and growth. It isn’t picky either. Most generic plant fertilizers work fine.

Consider a combination of pellets and liquid fertilizer. Usually, this ensures balanced nutrition for the plant.

Chinese Elm bonsai tree, Ulmus, isolated on white
Chinese Elm Bonsai – Upright Styling

Pruning

One of the great things about the Chinese Elm is that its trunk thickens quickly if allowed to grow freely. It also does great with frequent trimming.

The best time to prune is late fall, and can be shaped very easily with any wiring technique.

Repotting

Make sure to re-pot the Chinese Elm bonsai every two years. As the plant gets older, the duration of its time in the same pot increases, but young Chinese Elms should be repotted every two years.

The best time to repot is the Spring, right before their growing season begins. Their roots are notorious for becoming a bundle. Be careful when pruning roots.

Chinese Elm Bonsai - Forest Styling
Chinese Elm Bonsai – Forest Styling (Courtesy of National Bonsai Foundation)

Propogation

Cuttings are the best and easiest way to propagate Chinese Elms for bonsai. Seeds can also work but take a much longer time and do not guarantee the efficacy of the new tree.

Pets & Diseases

If you allow the humidity to become low, spider mites can quickly become a problem. Moisture, such as frequent misting, can help alleviate this problem.

Chinese Elm Bonsai (Ulmus parvifolia) - Over Rocks Styling
Chinese Elm Bonsai (Ulmus parvifolia) – Over Rocks Styling

Chinese Elm vs. Japanese Elm (Zelkova)

The Chinese Elm is often confused with the Zelkova (often referred to as the Japanese Elm. An easy way to distinguish the two apart is to compare their leaves. The Chinese Elm has double-toothed leaves while the Zelkova has single.

Ulmus species and in particular Ulmus parvifolia/Chinese Elm are very often confused with Zelkova species in particular Zelkova serrata/Japanese Elm. Zelkova are classed as a seperate genus to Ulmus as they have fruits that are unwinged – as opposed to the winged fruits of UlmusZelkova also differ in that they have single-toothed leaves whereas Ulmus have double-toothed leaves.”

Harry Harrington – British Bonsai Artist

Chinese Elm Imports

Many imported Chinese elm bonsai are not of the best quality regarding styling. It’s best practice to buy your tree for the trunk and remove any branches that don’t work in your design.

Remember: Cut branches will quickly be replaced with new growth.

Air Layering Chinese Elm

Air layering an unwanted branch is a good way to add another elm to your collection.

This very “curvy” import became two very good bonsai starters.

An air layer (covered in foil) can be placed on a good branch to use as a new short, fat, informal upright. New elm plants are easily grown from cuttings and air layers. Even pieces of elm root, can be grown into bonsai!

Styles for Chinese Elm Bonsai

Forest plantings are just one of the many uses for elms. The roots of this tree tend to be very long and are perfect for root over rock and exposed root style.

Chinese Elm Bonsai – Forest Styling

The trunks are often straight when grown from cuttings and make good upright trees. While young, they can easily be wired into curved shapes and are suited to many bonsai styles.

Beautiful Upright Chinese Elm Bonsai
Beautiful Upright Chinese Elm Bonsai

Many bonsai growers like to expose the long roots, as seen in this tree, to create the neagari style.

Upright Chinese Elm – Over Rock Styling

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