Selecting a Specimen

Traditional Japanese bonsai are often varieties of pine, spruce, and juniper, but most types of woody trees and shrubs are adaptable to the process as well. Suitable plants can often be found in a standard nursery; sometimes, they are already growing in your yard. Look for a young, vigorous specimen with small, dense, richly hued foliage and an interesting feature such as a gnarled trunk or a misshapen branch. (It is said that the more twisted the trunk and roots, the more stories the plant will tell.) Look at the plant from all angles, opting for those with graceful, well-balanced branches. The trunk should taper gradually toward the top, and the lowest branches should begin about one-third of the way up the trunk and should be the thickest.

Bonsai artist Peter Adams of Sequim, Washington, advises beginners to start with juniper trees, as they are inexpensive, hardy, and the most straightforward variety to grow and care for. Referred to as the “modeling clay of bonsai,” Shimpaku (Juniperis chinensis) can be easily trained to hold a shape.

Also consider whether you want to keep the finished piece inside or out. In general, indoor bonsai (categorized as tropical plants) experience no dormancy period and stay fully leaved all year. They may be kept outdoors on warm summer days but must be brought indoors and placed in natural light—but not in bright, direct sun—during the colder months. Some of the most popular indoor varieties of bonsai are weeping fig (Ficus benjamina), willow leaf fig (Ficus salicifolia), pomegranate (Punica granatum), Chinese elm (Ulmus parvifolia), jade plant (Crassula ovat), and banyan fig (Ficus benghalensis).

Most bonsai, however, are hardy species meant to be displayed in outdoor gardens. They will live outdoors year-round, requiring protection only in subfreezing temperatures and high winds. Popular hardy varieties include Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria Japonica), cotoneaster (Cotoneaster), maple (Acer palmatum & A. buergerianum), pine (Pinus), yew (Taxus), larch (Larix), and dwarf Alberta spruce (Picea glauca “conica”).

“One of the biggest mistakes beginners make is keeping outdoor plants indoors,” Cheatle explains. “Many trees, such as larch, maples, pines, and junipers, require dormant periods and must be kept outside. You can bring them indoors for a short time for display—a week at most.”

If you don’t want to start from scratch, consider purchasing “pre-bonsai” plants. These are specimens that have been pruned at least once, giving you an idea of the shape the plant will take over time.