What trees lend themselves to the art of bonsai?
Jane Saunders, Portland, ME
A wide variety of plants can be used for bonsai, as long as they can tolerate heavy pruning.
Photo/Illustration: Janet M. Jemmott
Arthur Joura, bonsai curator at the North Carolina Arboretum, responds: A plant needn’t be a tree to be used for bonsai. A bonsai is a plant grown in a container or on a slab and kept small through specialized cultivation techniques. Bonsai can be made from trees, shrubs, vines, and even herbaceous plants. The main criteria for selecting a plant for bonsai is its ability to tolerate regular pruning of both crown and roots and its adaptability to being grown out of the ground. Some common groups of plants that work well for bonsai include maples (Acer spp. and cvs.), hornbeams (Carpinus spp. and cvs.), boxwoods (Buxus spp. and cvs.), junipers (Juniperus spp. and cvs.), and figs (Ficus spp. and cvs.).
Starting your own bonsai from scratch is possible, but it is challenging. The best strategy is to start simply. Many people begin by going to their local nursery and purchasing a young, potted, woody plant that is being sold for landscape use. Junipers are a common choice for this purpose. Look for a plant that has an interesting trunk line and as many branches coming out of the trunk as possible. More branching means more options when deciding how to design the bonsai. Pruning is the primary method of shaping the bonsai, so be prepared to cut off substantial parts of a plant’s limbs and foliage. Of course, if too much is removed, the plant can suffer or die, so it is best to be conservative when starting out. Once you cut it off, you can’t put it back.
You can save yourself time and frustration by reading an instructional book, watching a video on the subject, or taking a bonsai class. A particularly useful book is The Complete Book of Bonsai by Harry Tomlinson. My favorite bonsai video is one that was produced by University of North Carolina Television and made here at The North Carolina Arboretum. It’s called Bonsai: Nature Reflected and is available by mail from the arboretum (www.ncarboretum.org).