6 types of bonsai that are best for beginners

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Bonsai, a horticultural art originating in ancient China, is still a popular hobby today. A common misconception is that bonsai is a type of tree. In fact, bonsai refers to the craft or art of growing, shaping and caring for tiny trees.

Like their full-sized siblings, bonsai trees can survive for hundreds of years. Some even outlived their keepers. A Japanese white pine from the collection of the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum in Washington DC, for example, has been in formation since 1625, making it almost 400 years old.

Those looking to try their hand at bonsai should know that it takes time and patience to master the craft. With practice, however, it is possible to turn unwieldy saplings into works of art. The first step in this long and rewarding process is to choose the right tree, the one suitable for beginners. Here are the top contenders.

1. ficus

types of bonsai

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While most people associate bonsai trees with indoor displays, many varieties do better outdoors. This can make it difficult for those who live in colder climates to get into the hobby. Fortunately, some trees, for example the ficus, thrive in an indoor environment. The two varieties best suited to growing indoors are Ficus retusa and Ficus ginseng., both of which have visually interesting trunks. However, those living in USDA zones 10 and 11 can get away with growing most ficus species outdoors.

What makes ficuses so adaptable is their ability to respond positively to increasing restrictions. In bonsai, the selection of a small container is essential to limit the size of the plant. Because ficuses are happy in smaller containers, they are well suited for bonsai. They also forgive mistakes in watering and other types of care. Ficus plants, for example, are generally not afraid of the dry conditions of indoor environments. Just be sure to choose a sunny spot for your mini ficus.

2. Chinese Elm

types of bonsai

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This slow growing plant is perfect for bonsai beginners as it can keep content almost anywhere. Chinese elm trees do just as well indoors as they do outdoors and can survive outdoors in USDA zones 4 through 9. Just be sure to choose a spot with plenty of morning sun that gets shady l ‘afternoon.

Another reason this tree is ideal for bonsai art is that it is easy to prune and its slow growth makes shaping simple. The trees are also not very susceptible to pest infestations, with the exception of spider mites. But these little insects are usually easily controlled with a few applications of neem oil.

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3. Juniper

types of bonsai

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This needle-leaved tree is very attractive in miniature form. It is important to note, however, that junipers do not do well indoors. Instead, grow these trees outdoors in USDA Zones 4 through 9. Place them in a location where they can receive at least 4 hours of sunlight per day. Unlike other less hardy, bonsai-friendly trees, junipers can handle the cold.

As with other beginner-friendly bonsai trees, junipers are resistant to pests. However, spider mites and corn borers sometimes target them. Prevent infestations with regular pruning to keep the leaves from getting too messy. Juniper is also perfect for bonsai beginners as it tolerates over-pruning well. Although aggressive pruning can weaken them and cause browning, trees will eventually recover from pruning errors.

4. Cotoneaster

types of bonsai

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These trees, small at first, lend themselves well to the art of bonsai. Native to three continents – Asia, Europe and Africa – cotoneasters feature glossy green leaves and small, apple-shaped fruits that appear after a bloom of small white flowers.

To grow cotoneasters, choose a spot with full sun, either indoors or outdoors. Provide frost protection for container plants, although cotoneasters planted in the ground should tolerate frost fairly well. Most varieties are cold hardy in zones 5 through 8, but hardiness varies by variety. Unlike more difficult bonsai species, these trees are drought tolerant as long as dry periods are short. Also, since the branches of cotoneasters are flexible, they support shaping well via wires.

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5. Portulacaria

types of bonsai

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Portulacaria trees, also known as dwarf jade or baby jade, are excellent beginner bonsai species because they don’t need regular watering. If you have a habit of killing plants with your poor watering habits, this might be the right tree for you to try bonsai growing methods. Just be careful not to over the wateras these trees are susceptible to root rot.

When shaping portulacarians, avoid wires and stick to a neat size. Because they grow quickly, regular pruning is necessary to maintain an aesthetic shape. You can keep baby jades outside during the summer, but ideally they should be brought in when nighttime lows reach 40 degrees. In zones 10 and 11, it is possible to grow baby jade outdoors, but the succulent is also perfect for indoor environments.

6. Rosemary

types of bonsai

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Make edible art by choosing a rosemary plant for your bonsai hobby. Even better, when you prune your rosemary bonsai, you’re not only helping to maintain the shape of the plant, but you’re also cleaning up the herbs for dinner. Frequent watering is necessary for rosemary plants to thrive, but they are also vulnerable to root rot, so be sure to keep the plants in a pot with ample drainage.

To maintain the plant’s miniature size, remove new shoots that appear after the first set of leaves. Cutting off at least 25% of the roots will help prevent the plant from overgrowing its pot. You can shape the branches with wiring as long as they are young and flexible enough.

Another advantage of choosing rosemary as a small “tree” is that you can quickly start it from seed. Grow this herb in containers and bring it in before the first frost.

Other herbs suitable for growing bonsai include:

  • Thyme
  • Lavender
  • Oregano
  • bay laurel

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