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15 Different Types of Bonsai Trees (Common & Rare)


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Bonsai is an ancient living art form that creates unique and beautiful miniature potted trees that look like full-grown, mature trees.

They often remind me of trees I find in harsh environments that stunt their growth and twist their trunks and crowns, creating an incomparable magnificent look to each tree that just makes you pause to admire it.

The trick to their unique adult forms in miniature sizes is the shallow pots with special mediums combined with pruning, pinching, and wiring techniques to form them and keep them in those small pots.

There are so many different types of common and rare bonsai trees that can be grown in so many different types of beautiful and unique styles.

Literally, any tree or shrub can really be turned into a bonsai with the proper care and techniques. Some, however, take more patience and expertise than others.

Contents show

Different Styles of Bonsai

There are numerous different styles of bonsai trees, each with its own creative techniques. Here is a summary of the different bonsai styles so that you can recognize them.

Formal (Chokkan) and Informal (Moyogi) Upright Style Bonsai

The formal style is a natural form seen in trees growing in the wild with little competition. They have upright straight tapered trunks, and each branch from the bottom up is typically shorter than those below it.

The informal style also has a tapering trunk, but in this style, the trunk curves back and forth with branching at each turn.

Formal and Informal Bonsai Trees
Images by Krzysztof Ziarnek, Kenraiz, Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, (Formal Upright – Ficus salicaria), and Shisma, Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, (Informal Upright – Juniperus chinensis)- Combined by Lyrae Willis for Tree Vitalize

Slanting (Shakkan) and Windswept (Fukinagashi) Style Bonsai

The slanting style has normal-looking branches on both sides, but the trunk is angled, and the tree’s crown is displaced to one side with well-developed roots on the opposite side to hold it up.

The windswept style is quite similar but looks as though a prevailing wind from one direction has pushed the whole crown over to one side, with few or no branches on the ‘‘windy’ side, so it’s much less symmetrical.

Slanting and Windswept Bonsai
Images by Sage Ross, Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, (Slanting – Quercus agrifolia), and Cliff, CC BY 2.0,(Windswept – Rhododendron indicum) – Combined by Lyrae Willis for Tree Vitalize

Cascade (Kengai) and Semi Cascade (Han Kengai) Style Bonsai

This cascade style represents a tree hanging over a cliff, with the crown above the pot’s rim but the branches growing descending below the pot’s bottom. These are planted in somewhat taller pots to maintain their balance.

Similar to the cascade style, the semi-cascade grows upright and then downwards but never grows below the bottom of the pot like the full cascade style.

Cascade and Semicascade Bonsai
Images by Mark Pellegrini, Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, (Cascade – Juniperus procumbens), and Sailko, Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0 (Semi Cascade – Ficus formosanum) – Combined by Lyrae Willis for Tree Vitalize

Literati (Bunjingi) Style Bonsai

This style mimics trees in nature that are crowded by other trees facing fierce competition. The trunk grows crooked upward without branching until the top ⅓ or so of the trunk.

Literati Style Bonsai
Image by PierreSelim, Self-photographed, CC BY 3.0 (Literati – Ficus deltoidea)

Double-Trunk (Sokan) and Multi-Trunk (Kabudachi) Style Bonsai

Double-trunk bonsai are where two trunks grow out of the same root system or where a smaller trunk grows out of a larger trunk just above the ground.

Multi-trunk or clump bonsai is the same as double-trunk but with three or more trunks coming out of the same root system as a multi-trunked tree, forming a single crown.

Double Trunk and Multi Trunk Bonsai
Images by Claire H, CC BY-SA 2.0, (Double-Trunk – Portulacaria afra), and Sailko, Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, (Multi-Trunk – Ficus retusa) – Combined by Lyrae Willis for Tree Vitalize

Forest Style Bonsai (Yose Ue) and Raft (Ikadabuki) Style Bonsai

Forest-style bonsai are created from multiple trees that are planted in a staggered pattern to resemble a natural forest setting.

Raft style is created by laying a one-side tree horizontally on the soil, simulating a fallen tree whose branches grow upwards as new ‘trunks’ looking like a small grove of trees.

Forest and Raft Bonsai
Images by Samu desde Alpedrete, CC BY 2.0, (Forest Style – Chamaecyparis lawsoniana), and By Dake, Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5,(Raft Style – Acer palmatum) – Combined by Lyrae Willis for Tree Vitalize

Growing on a Rock (Seki-joju) and Deadwood (Shari or Sharimiki) Style Bonsai

Growing on a rock is where a tree has its exposed roots growing over a rock in search of nutrients and soil as they do naturally in very rocky terrain.

Deadwood style is where a trunk has part of its bark removed and often bleached with sulfur to mimic the sun-bleached deadwood often seen on old-growth trees.

Bonsai Growing on Rock and Deadwood
Images by cultivar413, CC BY 2.0,(Growing on a Rock – Pyracantha angustifolia), and Sage Ross, Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,(Deadwood – Juniperus californica)- Combined by Lyrae Willis for Tree Vitalize

Weeping Style Bonsai and Broom Style Bonsai (Hokidachi)

Weeping Style is where a tree is trained to create pendulous or downward bending branches, as seen naturally in a weeping willow.

The broom style is suited to deciduous trees with upright trunks that fork into multiple branches creating a rounded crown with numerous small branches.

Weeping and Broom style Bonsai
Images by Ryan Somma, CC BY-SA 2.0, (Weeping – Pinus densiflora ‘pendula’), and Sailko, Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, (Broom – Olea europaea) – Combined by Lyrae Willis for Tree Vitalize

Different Types of Common Bonsai

Each type of bonsai below has some specific growing instructions, either in addition to or that vary from the basic growing techniques that apply to most bonsai found at the end of this article.

If you want to try your hand at bonsai for the first time, please be sure to read that section too!

1. Juniper Trees (Juniperus spp)

Junipers - Sargent_Juniper_(Juniperus_chinesis_var._sargentii)
Image by Cliff, CC BY 2.0 – Juniperus chinensis var. Sargentii displaying red bark, scale-like leaves, and seed cones (‘berries’) in the cascade style.

Junipers are one of the most common and traditional types of bonsai and are popular for several reasons.

Their tiny scale-like or awl-shaped leaves are very suitable for bonsai, and their fibrous peeling reddish-brown or grayish-brown bark adds a nice touch.

They can tolerate heavy pruning, and their wood is very flexible, so they are ideal for beginners learning wiring techniques.

They are easy to maintain when grown outdoors in a dry soil mix, so they are good for those who may not remember to water daily.

Junipers are also popular for the range of bonsai styles they can be trained to. They work well in formal and informal upright, slanting, windswept, cascade, and semi-cascade styles. They also look especially nice in deadwood and growing on rock styles since this mimics them in their often harsh natural environments.

Identifying Features: Juniper trees have either scale-like leaves similar to those of cypress or false cedars, or they have awl-shaped leaves more like the needle-like leaves of firs or spruce. Their bark tends to be reddish-brown to grayish-brown and fibrous, peeling in long horizontal strips. When mature, female or monoecious trees develop pretty berry-like seed cones that are often glaucous blue to purple in color. Male seed cones are tiny, orange-brown, and found at the ends of shoots.

Juniper Morphology - Scale-Like Awl-shaped bark berrries
Images by Lyrae Willis, Own Work – for Tree Vitalize

Species Commonly Used: There are 67 currently accepted juniper species worldwide, and all can be used for bonsai. The more commonly used ones are:

  • Chinese Juniper Juniperus x media – a natural hybrid of Juniperus chinensis and Juniperus sabina that has both leaf types. Cultivars with only one leaf form, like Juniperus x media ‘Blaauw’, are popular for their bluish-gray scale-like leaves.
  • Needle or Temple Juniper Juniperus rigida – is used when junipers are wanted that display only awl-shaped leaves as this one never develops scale-like leaves.
  • Sabina or Savin Juniper Juniperus sabina – has looser and finer medium-green scale-like leaves and can also display awl-shaped leaves. It benefits from continual pruning of vigorous shoots.
  • Himalayan Juniper Juniperus squamata – has only awl-shaped leaves in various shades of green. Vigorous and fast-growing, easy to grow, but it tends to retain old needles after they have died.
  • Creeping Juniper Juniperus horizontalis – is a common variety with rich dark green to blue-green scale-like leaves and a creeping habit highly suitable for cascade bonsai
  • Common Juniper Juniperus communis – has sharp-pointed green awl-shaped leaves with strong white bands and a shrubby habit lending itself well to bonsai. Use nursery stock rather than wild specimens that tend to die after a few years.

Juniper Bonsai Care

Grow outdoors only in full sun, though those with only scale-like leaves may benefit from a little afternoon shade.

Know your USDA growing zone and read up on the USDA zone of your juniper species.

In winter, provide protection from frosts below 14 F.

In junipers with two types of leaves, you can pinch one type to encourage the development of the other.

Allow soil to dry between watering and mist leaves frequently.

Repot in mid-spring every 3 – 5 years using inorganic clay-based soils.

Wiring can be done at any time of the year.

2. Japanese Maples (Acer palmatum)

Japanese Maple - Bonsai_Japanese_Red_Maple
Image by Ryan Somma, CC BY-SA 2.0 – Acer palmatum cultivar displaying 5 – 7-lobed leaves and smooth gray bark in the growing on a rock style.

Japanese Maples are another very common and traditional type of bonsai, and are often affordable and tolerate pruning mistakes, so they are good for beginners.

They have been cultivated in Asia for hundreds of years, with over 1000 cultivars available.

When the weather is warm, daily watering is required, so these are unsuitable for those who may not remember to water.

Otherwise, they are fairly easy to care for and can be successfully grown both indoors and outdoors.

Leaves are palmately lobed, and cultivars come in numerous colors, including green, red, purple, bronze, or white or yellow variegated varieties.

In the fall, leaves turn brilliant reds, oranges, or yellow, providing a spectacular fall color show.

They work well in the informal upright, raft, multi-trunk, and growing on a rock styles, and certain varieties work well in the broom style.

Identifying Features: Japanese Maples have deciduous leaves that are 5, 7, or 9-palmately lobed (more lobed than most maples) and come in various colors. The bark is green to reddish when young, maturing to gray or grayish-brown, and smooth or shallowly to deeply grooved. When mature, these monoecious trees may develop small flowers and helicopter-like winged fruits called samaras.

Maple Japanese - Samaras leaves bark
Images by Lyrae Willis, Own Work (samaras and bark), and John Rusk, CC BY 2.0 (Japanese Maple leaves)- Combined and Text Added by Lyrae Willis for Tree Vitalize

Varieties Commonly Used:

  • Japanese Maple Acer palmatum – the type species is often the easiest to work with in bonsai and is a great tree for beginners. It has 5 – 7-lobed leaves that are green in summer and may turn yellow, orange, red, or purple in fall.
  • Red Leaf Japanese Maple Acer palmatum ‘Atropurpureum’ – is a popular tree with a bushy habit and 5 – 7-lobed, deeply divided, delicate-looking leaves that are red or purple during the growing season (may fade to green or bronze in bright sun).
  • Rough Bark Japanese Maple Acer palmatum ‘Arakawa’ – has very rough, corky-looking bark, and its 5-7-lobed green leaves are divided ⅔ of their length and turn yellow-gold in fall.
  • Deshojo Maple Acer palmatum ‘Deshojo’ – has crimson buds and leaves in spring that turn green, often with reddish edges by summer, then scarlet red in fall. Leaves are 5 – 7-lobed with lobes that narrow to a very fine-pointed tip.
  • Katsura Maple Acer palmatum ‘Katsura’ – has 5 – 7-lobed leaves that emerge orange in spring, turn green in summer, then turn brilliant orange and yellow in the fall, often edged with dark orange-red.
  • Kiyohime Maple Acer palmatum ‘Kiyohime’ – is a dwarf tree known for its extremely fine branching, making it popular for broom style bonsai. Its leaves are shiny green and tinged with red-orange in the spring.

Maple Bonsai Care

Maples can be grown both indoors and outdoors. Outdoors protect it from direct sunlight above 86 F.

Maples are thirsty and require daily watering when the weather is warm.

If growing outdoors, know your USDA growing zone and the zone of your cultivar. In winter, they must be protected from frosts below 15 F.

Pot in a deciduous mix containing organic matter that is slightly acidic.

All hard pruning should be done in fall because, in spring, the sap flows too freely and can damage the tree.

Leaf-cutting can be done mid-summer to create smaller leaves, but only in healthy trees and never in the same year as potting.

3. Fig Trees (Ficus spp)

Fig Bonsai
Image by Sailko, Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0 – Ficus retusa displaying aerial roots, smooth bark, and simple leaves in the informal upright style.

Ficus or fig is one of the most common bonsai and is great for beginners and those who are not consistent with watering.

There are over 800 species of figs worldwide throughout the tropics, though a few species extend into the warm-temperate zone. This makes them suitable for indoor culture, where conditions are kept relatively warm and consistent.

They are popular for their unique trunk shapes and their ability to grow aerial roots. Aerial roots require a humid environment to thrive, but this can be achieved by placing their pots on top of a gravel tray with water in it.

Figs are often found in the informal upright or forest styles, but they also do well in formal upright, slanting, semi-cascade, double or multiple trunks, and growing on a rock with their aerial roots.

Identifying Features: Figs are usually evergreen trees or shrubs with usually alternate, simple, entire, and glossy green leaves. Trunks are often uniquely shaped with multiple intertwining trunks, auxiliary trunks, aerial roots, and other unique features. The bark is typically grayish to brownish and smooth, even when mature. The flowers are unique and produced inside a syconium – an urn-shaped fleshy structure that bears flowers inside of it that are pollinated by fig wasps.

Fig Bonsai -  leaf fruit trunk
Images by Lyrae Willis, Own Work – for Tree Vitalize

Species Commonly Used:

  • Chinese Banyan Ficus retusa var microcarpa – is a classic bonsai for its tolerance of hard pruning and poor growing conditions. It has large, oval, glossy dark green and somewhat leathery leaves that take well to reduction.
  • Narrow Leaf or Willow Leaf Fig Ficus salicifolia – has small, narrow leaves and works great for aerial root formation in humid conditions. It tends to drop its leaves if stressed, so conditions should be kept optimal.
  • Morton Bay Fig Ficus macrophylla – has glossy dark green leaves and small orange or red flowers and readily produces aerial roots if the humidity is kept high. It rarely drops its leaves and tolerates hard pruning.
  • Banyan Fig Ficus retusa – is appreciated for its vigor, bright glossy green leaves, and attractive, often curvy trunk. It will produce aerial roots if the humidity is high, and its leaves respond well to reduction.
  • Weeping Fig Ficus benjamina – is a common bonsai with glossy green leaves and a natural weeping habit. However, it tends not to take severe reduction well and can defoliate if stressed.

Fig Bonsai Care

Outside of the tropics only grown indoors where conditions are kept constant.

They do best on a bright sunny window sill, though they will tolerate lower light.

Best if not exposed to temperatures below 60 F or above 86 F, as both can lead to poor health.

Protect from cold drafts and any blowing air that will stress them or dry them out.

To increase humidity, place their pot in a gravel tray with water so that it sits above the water but benefits from the evaporation.

Only feed if healthy and when showing active signs of growth.

Hard pruning is best done in spring but can be done year-round.

4. Boxwood (Buxus spp)

Boxwood - Buxus_microphylla_'Compacta'_bonsai
Image by Daderot, Own work, CC0 – Buxus microphylla ‘Compacta’ displaying small, simple leaves, and surface roots in an upright formal style

Boxwoods naturally tend to have small dark green leaves that are very suitable for bonsai and respond well to further reduction.

They also have naturally short internodes and can withstand hard pruning, promoting back budding for denser growth.

They have a fibrous root system that is shallow and often produces surface roots, creating an interesting feature.

They are best grown outdoors but can be grown indoors in winter if they are kept in an unheated room.

Boxwoods are a group of about 70 species of shrubs and small trees found throughout Eurasia, Africa, and Central America, any can be used in bonsai.

Boxwood can be trained into any of the bonsai styles except for cascade. They do particularly well in informal upright, double or multi-trunk, and forest styles.

Identifying Features: Boxwoods are slow-growing evergreen shrubs or small trees with typically small, leathery, rounded to lanceolate leaves placed oppositely on the branches and small yellow-green monoecious flowers (separate male and female flowers on the same plant). The fruit is a small capsule, and the bark tends to be grooved (see Japanese Maple above) or cross-checked when mature.

Boxwood - Leaves Cross-checked bark
Images by I.Sáček, senior, Own work, CC0 (Boxwood leaves), and Lyrae Willis, Own Work (cross-checked bark) – Combined and Text Added by Lyrae Willis for Tree Vitalize

Species Commonly Used:

  • Japanese Box Buxus microphylla – has small elliptic, glossy dark green leaves that work well in bonsai. It is vigorous and can reach larger sizes fairly quickly.
  • Common Box Buxus sempervirens – very similar to above, with the main difference being that it is a much smaller and slower-growing species.

Boxwood Bonsai Care

Boxwoods are outdoor bonsai but can be grown indoors in winter in an unheated room with enough sunlight and adequate air circulation to ward off fungal diseases.

If leaving outdoors, know your USDA growing zone and the hardiness of your species. Those commonly used in bonsai tend to be hardy to 25 F.

They prefer partial shade throughout the growing season since too much sun will scorch their leaves.

Repotting is done every 2 – 3 years in midsummer rather than spring.

The bark is thin even if it looks mature, so be careful when hard-pruning or wiring.

The wood is quite hard, so it is best to train when the branches are young and more pliable.

5. Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster spp)

Cotoneaster_bonsai
Image by Mike, CC BY-SA 2.0 – Cotoneaster microphylla displaying glossy green simple leaves and small red apple-like pome fruits in an upright formal style

Cotoneaster, pronounced “cot-own-e-aster”, not “cotton-aster”, is a very affordable bonsai, making it a great starter for beginners.

They tend to be very easy to grow as long as their simple care instructions are followed.

They are also easy to shape into a number of styles, including informal upright, growing on a rock, double trunk, slanting, cascade, and semi-cascade.

There are at least 300 species and botanical varieties of Cotoneaster worldwide, native to temperate Asia, Europe, and northern Africa.

Do not dispose of the cotoneaster without making sure it is completely dead. Many species escaped cultivation thanks to the fruits loved by birds and have become very invasive.

Identifying Features: Most cotoneasters are shrubs with small, simple, dark green glossy leaves with entire margins on short stalks arranged alternately on the twigs and are either deciduous or evergreen. They have small white or sometimes pink or red flowers in spring, followed by red, orange, yellow, or black pome fruits that look like very miniature apples.

Species Commonly Used:

  • Cotoneaster Cotoneaster cashmiriensis or C. microphylla var cochleatus – is a compact evergreen shrub with glossy dark green leaves that are elliptic and 0.4” long. It has single white flowers in summer followed by round dark red fruits.
  • Cotoneaster Cotoneaster adpressus – is a small deciduous shrub with pink flowers that appear in early spring and 0.4” long, dull green leaves that turn red in fall.
  • Rockspray Cotoneaster Cotoneaster horizontalis – is a spreading deciduous shrub with rounded to elliptic dark green 0.4” leaves that turn red in the fall. It produces pairs of white flowers in late spring that are tinged with pink.

Cotoneaster Bonsai Care

Cotoneaster does best outdoors in full sun.

Provide protection when temperatures drop below 23 F, regardless of their hardiness.

Feed sparingly every two weeks. Cotoneaster is not a hungry plant and doesn’t do well when over-fed. If you have hard water, use an acidic fertilizer.

These should be repotted every spring as the new buds start to grow.

Be sure always to use a fast-draining bonsai soil mix.

6. Chinese Elm (Ulmus parvifolia)

Chinese_Elm_(Ulmus_parvifolia)
Image by Cliff CC BY 2.0 – Ulmus parvifolia displaying reduced simple elm leaves with characteristic mottled exfoliating bark in a slanting style.

The Chinese Elm is popular with bonsai enthusiasts for many reasons. It will thrive both indoors and outdoors, it responds well to pruning and is great for beginners learning pruning techniques.

They develop thick trunks with exfoliating bark that contrasts nicely with the fine growth of twigs at the branch tips.

Their already somewhat small leaves are well suited to bonsai and can be reduced. They are semi-deciduous and may or may not keep their leaves indoors in winter, depending on the temperature.

However, they require more water than other bonsai, so this is not a good choice if you cannot water frequently.

They are often made into the slanting and windswept bonsai style because they thrive with lots of airflow around their branches. They also do well in informal upright and semi-cascade styles.

Identifying Features: Chinese Elms have distinctive exfoliating bark in mottled gray and brown with narrowly egg-shaped pea green slightly hairy leaves that are 1 – 2” long, short-stalked, and arranged alternately on the twigs. They produce small clusters of bisexual flowers followed by brownish elliptic winged fruits (samaras, but one-seeded and roundish, unlike maples).

Chinese Elm Bonsai Care

Indoors – keep on a cool sunny windowsill in the winter with a humidity tray if necessary. Place outside in May after the frosts have ended. Bring indoors in the fall after the leaves drop.

Outdoors – once acclimatized, they are frost-hardy in USDA zones 4 – 9.

Plant in a moist, well-draining soil mix with 25% organic matter.

Keep the soil evenly moist, checking daily but only watering if necessary. Outdoors in summer or during strong growth, they may need more frequent watering.

Elms require repotting and root pruning each early spring. Trees overwintered indoors can be repotted in fall after the leaves drop but before being brought inside.

It is best to do hard pruning in later summer or fall.

7. Beech (Fagus spp)

Beech - Japanese_Beech_(Fagus_Crenata)
Image by Cliff, CC BY 2.0 – Fagus crenata displaying wavy-edged simple leaves and smooth gray bark, growing in a multi-trunk style

Beech trees make lovely bonsai for their characteristic smooth light gray bark, their beautiful simple green leaves, and their lovely forest tree aesthetic.

They are outdoor bonsai trees that need protection from cold winds even though frost-hardy in nature.

While beech can take pruning well, they require more diligence with pinching to reduce internode length. They also require more water than other bonsai, so they are not generally recommended for beginners.

Beech trees are well-suited to the formal and informal upright styles, slanting, double trunk, and make fantastic forest-style bonsai.

There are twelve currently accepted species of beech, all native to temperate Europe, Asia, and North America. Any beech tree could potentially be used for bonsai.

Identifying Features: Beech has simple, usually egg-shaped leaves that are often wavy-edged, may have toothed margins, and are placed alternately on the branches. Leaves may remain on the tree in fall after browning, protecting the characteristically long thin buds throughout the winter. Tiny monecious flowers appear with leaves in spring, followed by burr-like triangular capsules known as beechnuts or mast. Beeches are often confused with hornbeams, but beech bark always remains smooth when mature, while hornbeams develop silvery veins or shallow grooves.

Beech - Fagales Fagaceae Fagus grandifolia - leaves & trunk
Image by Lyrae Willis, Own Work (Fagus grandifolia showing leaf detail and smooth bark) – for Tree Vitalize

Species Commonly Used:

  • Japanese Beech Fagus crenata – has simple, dark green egg-shaped leaves with wavy edges growing to about 3” long. The bark is silvery-gray and smooth. This one requires long warm summers to thrive and will not do as well in northern areas.
  • European Beech Fagus sylvatica – has simple egg-shaped leaves with wavy edges that may be entire or somewhat rounded-toothed where the veins end; they grow to 4” long but will take to reduction. The bark is gray and smooth.
  • American Beech Fagus grandifolia – has large, thin green leaves up to 5” long that are sparsely toothed where veins end; these are retained all winter until the new growth pushes them off in spring. The bark is silver-gray and smooth.

Beech Bonsai Care

Beech trees will grow in full sun or partial shade.

Beech requires generous amounts of water and should be checked daily during the growing season, but only water if necessary.

In winter, they will need protection if the temperature drops below 23 F, regardless of hardiness.

If you pinch out the tips after the first or second leaves emerge, it will reduce the internode length.

Hard pruning should be done in mid-summer to speed wound healing.

8. Pine (Pinus spp)

Pine - Japanese_White_Pine_bonsai
Image by Sage Ross, Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0 – Pinus parviflora displaying reduced upright needle-like leaves, thick trunk with scaly plated bark, in a slanting style.

Pine trees are both common and traditional in bonsai but can be difficult to care for and train, so they are not recommended for beginners.

Pines have their own characteristic growth that differs from other bonsai, which should be understood to ensure success when styling a pine.

Pines can be trained into all known bonsai styles, but given their usually upright natural state, they are very well-suited to formal upright styles.

Pine leaves are needle-like in form and grow in bundles of usually 2 – 5. Those pines with long or curved needles are especially challenging to style in bonsai, but those with shorter needles work well.

Pines are hardy trees and should only be grown outdoors.

There are 111 currently accepted extant species of pine trees found throughout the northern hemisphere. Many species are suitable for bonsai.

Identifying Features: Pines are evergreen coniferous trees with needle-like leaves that are bundled in groups of usually 2 – 5, known as fascicles that are then attached to the branches. Leaves may be long, short, brittle, flexible, straight, or twisted.

Pine - Fascicle Comparison ponderosa white lodgepole
Image by Lyrae Willis, Own Work – for Tree Vitalize

The bark is gray, brown, reddish, or almost black and can be grooved (see Japanese Maple), cross-checked (See Boxwood), scaly, or exfoliating. They are monoecious, producing male pollen cones and female seed cones on the same tree, though in bonsai, generally only pollen cones are seen.

Pine pollen cones and bark
Images by Lyrae Willis, Own Work – for Tree Vitalize

Most Commonly Used Species:

  • Mountain Pine Pinus mugo – has two upward-pointing bright green, 1 – 3” long, rigid leaves per bundle, short greenish-yellow to purplish pollen cones, and scaly brown-gray bark.
  • Japanese Black Pine Pinus thunbergii – has two dull to shiny green, 2.4 – 4.7” long, rigid leaves, with gray-black thick rough, scaly, flaking bark.
  • Japanese White Pine Pinus parviflora – has 1.4 – 2.2” long, slightly curved blue-green leaves with a whitish lower surface, in bundles of five, with attractive dull gray to gray-purple bark that is grooved with scaly plates.
  • Scots Pine Pinus sylvestris – has distinctive exfoliating flaky brown-red bark that often appears blistered, plus two rigid 1.2 – 2.8” long blue-green or sometimes yellow-green leaves per bundle.

Pine Bonsai Care:

Pine bonsai is an outdoor-only tree that should get as much sun as possible during the growing season to keep needle length short and prevent leaf drop.

Pines are hardy, but check your USDA growing zone and the USDA zone of your pine species.

Pines do not like permanently wet soil, so a fast-draining mix should be used. In bonsai, they also do not like to dry out completely. Check regularly and water as necessary. Misting will also improve their vigor.

Pruning techniques for pine bonsai are more complex, so I will leave that to the experts.

9. Apple Trees (Malus spp)

Malus bonsai
Image by Tangopaso, Self-photographed, Public Domain – Malus spp displaying simple leaves, smooth gray bark, and small red crab apples in an upright informal style.

Fruiting trees can sometimes be difficult to grow as bonsai, but they are incredibly rewarding for their beautiful flowers and fruits.

Apple bonsai should only be grown outdoors since they are hardy trees.

Crab apples are the most commonly used for bonsai, and they will develop beautiful fragrant flowers followed by small fruits in various colors.

Domestic apples are more challenging to grow and get to produce fruit, so they are used less often in bonsai.

There are usually only a handful of Malus species used in bonsai, but countless cultivars exist and can be chosen for flower and fruit color and production.

Apple trees are suited to informal upright, slanting, semi-cascade, double-trunk, and multi-trunk bonsai styles.

Identifying Features: Apple trees are deciduous trees with simple oval to elliptic leaves that are usually finely toothed and arranged alternately on the branches. They usually develop white to pink five-petaled pretty flowers borne singly or in small clusters, followed by characteristic pome fruits (apples) of various sizes and colors. The bark starts out smooth and usually grayish but may become grooved (see Maple), cross-checked (See Boxwood), or scaly (see Pine) when mature.

Apple Flowers leaves Rosales Rosaceae Amygdaloideae Malus domestica - leaves w flowers
Image by Lyrae Willis, Own Work (Malus domestica – flower and leaf detail typical of the genus) – for Tree Vitalize

Species Commonly Used:

  • Nagasaki Crab Apple Malus baccata or Malus cerasifera – is probably the most common apple used in bonsai for its prolific white flowers that are pink in bud, followed by abundant red to yellow, roughly ⅓” fruits. Leaves are green and 1.4 – 3.2” long.
  • Common Crab Apple Malus sylvestris – has simple leaves up to 2” long, pink-tinged white flowers followed by greenish-yellow red-tinged fruit less than 1” wide.
  • Halls Crabapple Malus halliana – has simple glossy green 1.4 – 3.2” long leaves that are often purple-tinged and pink flowers followed by often sparse small purple fruits less than ⅓” wide.
  • Toringo Crab Apple Malus toringoides – has unusual leaves that are 3 – 7-lobed and up to 3.5” long, with creamy white flowers followed by red-tinged yellow fruits to ½” wide.

Apple Bonsai Care

Apple bonsai are outdoor plants that require full sun and good air circulation.

Check your USDA growing zone and the USDA zone of your chosen species to ensure success.

They require frequent watering, especially when fruiting. Check regularly and water as necessary.

Feeding should be done in early spring until flowering, then cease feeding until the fruit is developed.

Fruiting weakens the tree, so at least every other year, remove the flowers when they finish blossoming to prevent fruiting that year.

Repotting is done each early spring, just before the buds open, in a deeper pot than used for most bonsai.

Pruning is done in spring, then left until late summer, when it should be done again to encourage flowering the following year.

10. Dogwood Trees (Cornus spp)

Dogwood - Flowering_Pink_Dogwood_Bonsai
Image by Institute for Hamburger Studies, CC BY-SA 2.0 Cornus florida cultivar displaying showy petaloid bracts with notched tips and smooth bark in a slanting style.

Dogwoods make beautiful bonsai trees for their attractive flowers, fruits, and fall colors.

Some species have flowers that appear to be a single flower but, in fact, are an inflorescence made of four large colorful petal-like bracts with numerous small flowers located in the center.

Other species have inflorescences of small white or sometimes yellow flowers that are less showy but still pretty.

Their deciduous leaves turn shades of red, orange, or maroon in the fall for a lovely fall color display.

They usually produce colorful fruits that, in some species, are even edible.

As bonsai, they are grown outdoors and generally require a lot of sun. Since they require winter dormancy, they must be left outdoors in a protected location during winter.

Dogwoods are suited to informal and formal upright styles, slanting and semi-cascade.

Identifying Features: Dogwoods are deciduous trees or shrubs with usually broadly elliptical to egg-shaped leaves that are oppositely arranged on the branches, often with small flowers in clusters surrounded by four usually very showy petal-like bracts or with small white or yellow flowers in inflorescences, all are followed by red, blue, or sometimes yellow fruits that are drupes or sometimes strawberry-like aggregates. The bark is often grayish and is grooved (see Maple), cross-checked (see Boxwood), or exfoliating (see Pine).

Cornus flowers and drupes
Images by Lyrae Willis, Own Work – for Tree Vitalize

Species Used:

  • Kousa or Japanese Dogwood Cornus kousa – is a small tree or multi-stemmed shrub with exfoliating mottled bark, inflorescences with four very symmetrical long-pointed showy white petal-like bracts, and 1” strawberry-like fruits. It requires more frequent pruning than other species.
  • Cornelian Cherry Cornus mas – has elliptic leaves, mottled bark, bright yellow flowers in small inflorescences, and relatively large, edible, sour cherry-like drupes.
  • Japanese Cornel Cornus officinalis is very similar to the Cornelian Cherry but has rough brown flaking bark and smaller and narrower cherry-like drupes.
  • Flowering Dogwood Cornus florida – has abundant inflorescences with showy petal-like bracts easily identified by their notched tips, plus cross-checked bark. Available in many gorgeous varieties of pink and reddish cultivars.

Dogwood Bonsai Care

Dogwoods are outdoor plants, so know your USDA growing zone and check the zone of your chosen dogwood species.

Repot every 1 – 2 years in spring as the leaf buds grow.

Trim new shoots after the flowers fade.

If you are not fruiting it, then remove the dead flowers; fruiting too often can reduce vigor.

Different Types of Rare Bonsai Trees

Each type of bonsai below has some specific growing instructions, either in addition to or that vary from the basic growing techniques that apply to most bonsai found at the end of this article.

If you want to try your hand at bonsai for the first time, please be sure to read that section too!

11. Baobab Bonsai (Adansonia digitata)

Baobab Bonsai trees
Images by Bonsai Plants Online and Bernard Gagnon – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Combined by Lyrae Willis for Tree Vitalize – Adansonia digitata displaying its unique thick trunk with a crown of branches at the top in bonsai and natural form.

Baobabs are quite rare as bonsai trees, but this may change in the future.

They are unique trees with exceptionally thick bare trunks that suddenly terminate in a crown of short branches at the top.

Baobabs are in the Adansonia genus of the Mallow family, with eight currently accepted species. Generally, only the more common African Baobab, Adansonia digitata, is used in bonsai.

African Baobab is native to warm and sunny sub-Saharan Africa. When grown as bonsai, you need to maintain similar conditions. They can be grown indoors year-round or outdoors in summer but must be brought indoors before temperatures begin to drop too low.

Once established, they are very low maintenance. And being from a semi-arid climate, they only need to be watered a handful of times each year, making them suitable for people who like to travel.

Identifying Features: Baobabs have unique bare thick trunks that rarely narrow towards the crown and instead suddenly terminate in a cluster of short branches at the top. They have compound leaves with 5 – 7(9) leaflets per leaf and produce unique showy white flowers on very long stalks with large white petals and countless stamens with an extended style and stigma; they smell of rotting flesh.

Baobab Bonsai Care

Baobab bonsai must be grown indoors in all seasons except summer and must be brought indoors before the nighttime temperatures drop below 54 F.

They require lots of direct sun. If you do not have direct sunlight, you will need a grow light.

Only water once per month during the growing season and cease when dormant. Overwatering will rot their roots.

Fertilize only when watering but use half the amount recommended for other bonsai.

When repotting, always root prune and use a well-draining soil mix with some organic matter.

Pruning can be done as necessary at any time. Wiring is generally not required.

12. California Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens)

Redwood_bonsai
Image by Jeffrey O. Gustafson, Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0 – Sequoia sempervirens displaying needle-like leaves and fibrous bark in an upright formal style.

California Redwood is an interesting bonsai in part because such a small tree is made from such a massive giant!

In nature, they are the tallest living trees on earth at up to 380.1 ft tall with a trunk diameter of up to 29 ft.

They are also one of the longest-living organisms on earth, with some of them living to 2000 years old or more.

As bonsai, they are gaining in popularity for their ease of training. Their branches can easily be trained using lighter gauge wires, so they are suitable for beginners. They also develop very strong trunks and back-bud readily.

They are gorgeous elegant trees that must be grown outdoors.

Sadly this beautiful giant is Endangered in the wild due to habitat loss and widespread historical logging for its valuable lumber.

Identifying Features: California Redwood has both needle-like and scale-like leaves (see example in Juniper above) of variable lengths from ¼ – 1” long that are dark green above with blue-white bands on their lower surfaces. Those grown as bonsai are more well-watered, so they generally have only needle-like leaves rather than scale-like leaves that are more adapted to drier climates. They have distinctive, very thick red-brown fibrous bark and are monoecious, producing both male and female cones on the same tree.

California Redwood Bonsai Care

California Redwoods should be grown outdoors year-round.

They are hardy to USDA zone 7 – 9.

They can be repotted in spring or fall and will tolerate fairly heavy root pruning.

They require a moderate amount of watering, so check regularly and water as needed. Moist and humid conditions are favorable, so mist often.

They should only be fertilized once a month to prevent burning the leaves.

Pruning can be done throughout the season as the leaves grow. They back-bud readily.

13. Giant Sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum)

Giant Sequoia Bonsai compared to normal sized tree
Images by Yugen Bonsai, and Dietmar Rabich, CC BY-SA 4.0 – Sequoiadendron giganteum displaying the thick flared trunk in bonsai and in nature.

Giant Sequoia is quite rare as bonsai.

In nature, they are nearly as massive as the Redwood, and together, they are the two largest trees on earth.

They are a slow-growing, ancient tree, with confirmed individuals being over 3200 years old.

Their longevity translates into slow growth. One of the reasons it is rare as a bonsai is that they take so long to become one.

They are also demanding in their water needs and cannot be allowed to dry out. The wood is also brittle and can break easily if not carefully wired. They are not recommended for beginners.

They look very attractive in the upright formal style with their pretty leaves, and their attractive reddish-brown flared trunks once fully mature.

This impressive giant is also Endangered due to habitat loss, historical logging, fire suppression, and climate change.

Identifying Features: Giant Sequoia has evergreen awl-shaped ⅛ – ¼” long leaves (see example in Juniper above) arranged spirally on the shoots. It is a monecious tree producing male and female cones on the same tree. They have more columnar trunks with red-brown fibrous bark that is flared and ridged on the lower trunk where it is the thickest.

Giant Sequoia Bonsai Care

Giant Sequoias are grown outdoors and placed in full sun until midsummer.

They are hardy to USDA zone 6 – 9.

They require consistently moist soil to thrive, but not wet soil. They must be checked daily and misted often to simulate the mountainous cloud forests they are adapted to.

Pruning can be done throughout the season as the leaves grow.

14. Dragon’s Blood Tree (Dracaena cinnabari)

Dragon's Blood Bonsai
Image by AmazonDracaena cinnabari displaying the unique upturned crown with leaves at the ends of branches only.

The Dragon’s Blood is a truly uniquely beautiful and rare bonsai.

Not to be confused with the plant with the same common name, from the same genus, Dracaena draco, which is much more commonly grown as a houseplant and occasionally as a bonsai, but it looks very different.

Dragon’s Blood trees are not actually trees but very large succulents more closely related to asparagus than any other tree.

They are very unusual-looking with very densely branched upturned crowns looking like umbrellas.

They are endemic to the Socotra archipelago, part of Yemen, where they are Vulnerable.

Their cultivation is uncommon, but more seeds are becoming available online. Be sure you are getting the right species and not the common houseplant.

Identifying Features: Dragons’ Blood trees are unusual-looking trees with densely packed upturned crowns resembling an umbrella with many small branches. It has sword-like leaves at the ends of the branches only, creating a unique appearance. It produces clusters of small white or green flowers followed by small green berries that turn black and then orange when ripe.

Dragon’s Blood Bonsai Care

Dargon’s Blood bonsai are grown indoors since they are hardy in USDA zones 10 – 11 only.

They should be placed in a bright spot with direct sunlight and kept away from all air vents.

They are naturally drought-tolerant but should not be allowed to dry too much since they have fewer roots and are more sensitive in a bonsai form.

They should be repotted as necessary using a mix with 25% organic matter.

15. Butterfly Bush (Buddleja spp)

Butterfly Bush - Buddleja_indica_(bonsai)
Image by Cbaile19 – Own work, CC0 – Buddleja indica displaying somewhat oak-like leaves typical of its species, plus grooved plated bark, in an informal upright style.

Butterfly Bush is a fast-growing shrub whose grooved and plated bark looks really old when still very young and looks beautiful as a bonsai.

Many species have beautiful flowers that attract bees and butterflies.

They are grown indoors or outdoors, depending on the species, and are suitable for bonsai for a number of reasons.

They have a high survival rate after being removed from the wild.

They bud everywhere, allowing for your choice of style. Branches grow fast and bend easily with wiring. The bark can also be carved to create interesting textures.

Butterfly Bush best suits the informal and formal upright, slanting, deadwood, and forest bonsai styles.

Buddleja is a genus of over 140 species native to Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Any could theoretically be trained into a bonsai.

Identifying Features: Butterfly Bushes are mostly shrubs that may be evergreen or deciduous, with mostly lanceolate leaves from 0.4” to nearly 12” long arranged oppositely on the branches. Flowers are dioecious (separate male and female plants) or bisexual, arranged in rounded heads (American) or looser inflorescences (panicles – Asian), and color varies from pastel pinks and blues to vibrant yellows and reds. They are generally nectar-rich and attract abundant bees and butterflies.

Species Commonly Used:

  • Oak Leaf Buddleja Buddleja indica – is an evergreen shrub with smooth dark green 1 – 2” long leaves that are more variable in shape than most of the genus, from oak-like to rounded. It is grown more for its trunk and leaves than its small inconspicuous yellow-green flowers. It does poorly when temperatures drop below 50 F, so it must be brought indoors before then.
  • False Olive Budleja saligna – is an evergreen shrub with willow-like leaves ½ – 6” long, vertically grooved bark, and honey-scented white flowers in large terminal heads. It’s frost-tolerant and hardy in USDA zones 7 – 9.

Butterfly Bush Bonsai Care

They must be grown in full sun indoors or outdoors to encourage miniaturization.

Many are frost-hardy, while others are not at all. Check your USDA growing zone and read up on the zone of your plant.

When repotting, use a mix with 25% organic soil and a deeper pot than most bonsai.

Constant pinching of leaves is necessary for leaf reduction and small twig development.

When pruning, it is important to seal the cuts to prevent infection.

Be careful with wiring, as the branches will bend and break easily.

Basic Growing Techniques For Bonsai Trees

Bonsai have similar requirements to their life-sized counterparts, but extra care is needed because of their miniature size and small pots. Regular watering, repotting, and location changes are necessary for your bonsai to thrive.

Following is a list of very basic bonsai tips.

Consult the individual tree requirements for tips specific to your tree.

Indoors or Outdoors

People often think because they look like houseplants, they can be grown indoors, but most cannot.

Many bonsai are hardy outdoor trees that should never be grown indoors. Others can be overwintered indoors but should be allowed to spend the summers outdoors.

A few tropical ones can be kept all year round indoors.

Never place a bonsai straight outdoors in winter, as they will need the fall to acclimatize for the coming winter.

Always assume you will need to protect your hardy outdoor trees from freezing winds in the winter. Even if very frost-hardy naturally, freezing winds can damage the sensitive roots contained in those shallow pots with little protection.

Pots and Repotting

Generally speaking, bonsai are repotted every two years once established. Some require annual repotting, and others can wait several years.

Bonsai pots are usually shallow small pots with good drainage holes. It is very important to use a bonsai pot that keeps the roots small and ensures drainage.

Certain trees or styles require deeper bonsai pots.

Generally speaking, you should not change more than ⅓ of the soil when you repot.

Never plant in regular potting soil, as this can cause the roots to rot.

Bonsai soil is not really soil. It is a mixture of hard Japanese akadama (a granular clay-like mineral), pumice, and black lava. Specific mixes then contain other additives, like clay or compost, depending on the tree it is for.

Basic all-purpose bonsai soils are used for most bonsai. Deciduous trees do best in a deciduous bonsai mix that usually has some organic matter. Junipers and certain other coniferous trees do best in a basic bonsai mix with clay in it.

Sunlight

The amount of sunlight a bonsai can handle varies between species.

Generally, full sun is required by most, except during the hottest summer days when most bonsai need some afternoon shade to protect them from leaf scorch.

Therefore, you generally need to move your bonsai’s location as the seasons change.

Water

The amount of water a bonsai needs varies significantly from tree to tree.

Since they are kept in small shallow pots with fast-draining soil, they all need to be watered much more frequently than their life-size counterparts.

It is important to consult the individual tree information for its requirements.

Fertilizer

Feeding is generally done every two weeks during the growing season. This is important because the soil mixes they are grown in lack nutrients.

In spring, high nitrogen fertilizer is usually given, then quickly switched to a balanced feed given until the end of the growing season following the instructions on the fertilizer.

Some require less than recommended, so check your tree’s requirements.

If you have very hard water and you have a tree that is not adapted to that, or for most coniferous trees in general, it is good to give them an occasional replacement (not additional!) dose of acidic fertilizer.

Some bonsai enthusiasts recommend starving trees to encourage miniaturization, which can lead to a weakened tree. Many advanced bonsai enthusiasts say that miniaturization can be done with proper pruning techniques without starving the tree.

Leaf Trimming and Defoliation

Leaf trimming and defoliation is the selective removal of leaves from branches and trunks done throughout the growing season.

This is often done to remove larger leaves while leaving smaller leaves to encourage the reduction of leaf size.

This can also be done with plants like junipers that display two types of leaves to encourage only one type to grow.

Never pinch off all the leaves on a tree or on a single branch, as this can damage or kill the tree.

Pruning

Pruning is done to the branches to keep the tree small in size and help develop the various bonsai styles.

Pruning new growth can typically be done throughout the growing season as needed.

Hard pruning is generally done in spring or fall, but generally do not remove more than ⅓ of the tree leaves at any time. Some respond better to harder pruning than others.

Roots are usually pruned when repotted. Generally speaking, stick to the ⅓ removal rule for roots as well.

Wiring

Wiring is done to achieve specific bonsai styles by shaping the trunk and branches. Wiring is best done on younger branches that are more pliable.

Depending on the hardness of the wood and the tree’s age, wiring can be done on some older branches as well.

Some trees require the wiring to be left on the entire year, but most trees can have the wiring removed after 2 – 4 months.

Famous Ancient Bonsai Trees

Bonsai trees can sometimes live to incredible ages.

One in the Tokyo Imperial Palace Collection is almost 500 years old and is considered a national treasure in Japan.

A tree that is over 800 years old is owned by master Kunio Kobayashi, who is one of the most well-known Bonsai artists in the world.

A White Pine Bonsai almost 400 years old, owned by the Yamaki family for multiple generations, is famous for having survived the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima.

I hope you enjoyed learning about the ancient living art of bonsai trees. Maybe now you will want to try your creative hand and green thumb at this beautiful art form!

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