The ancient art of bonsai (literally translated as "planted in a container") has been practiced for well over a thousand years to create realistic interpretations of natural trees in miniature form. This manipulation of a living tree specimen is achieved through the use of restrictive potting, deliberate pruning, and shaping with bonsai wire. For the beginning bonsai enthusiast, there is much to learn, including how to buy a bonsai tree, how to care for bonsai, and how to form them. But the first decision is evaluating what kind of tree is the right fit for your growing environment and style goals. So what are the most popular types of bonsai trees to grow?
One of the most adaptable outdoor bonsai trees, Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) is a hardy yet beautiful deciduous tree with numerous cultivars that present a wealth of colorful fall foliage. This tree likes sunny spots, but will struggle with midday heat and might do well to be in light shade during those hours. Additionally, it is fairly frost hardy (though it should be protected from hard frost). The Japanese maple will benefit from leaf pruning every other year to keep leaf size small, and weekly low-nitrogen doses of bonsai fertilizer. It likes its soil to be well-watered, especially during the growing season.
Cotoneaster horizontalis, often called rock Cotoneaster or rockspray Cotoneaster (as it is popularly planted on rock in bonsai culture), is a great bonsai tree for beginners, or for anybody who might be intimidated by growing a bonsai. It features attractive leaf displays that change colors with the seasons; pretty white, pink, or red springtime blossoms; and bright red berries in the fall. In temperate growing zones, this low-growing shrub can be placed in full sun or part shade, but it does require protection from frost and extreme heat (though some cultivars will do better in hotter climates). It prefers dry soil, but don't allow it to completely dry out. Cotoneaster tolerates wiring in the spring before blossoming.
A stunning tree specimen, Indian laurel fig, or Ficus retusa, is another variety that is great for beginners—it recovers readily from pruning mistakes (mistakes that might permanently stunt other types of bonsai trees). It is a fabulous indoor plant due to its tropical origins and preference for bright, indirect light. In temperate climates it can be planted outdoors in partial shade or even sun. It has shallow root systems, and its trunk can be sculpturally twisted, which lends itself nicely to many breathtaking bonsai styles.
The common beech (Fagus sylvatica) has stunning autumn color on its naturally small leaves, the size of which are perfect for bonsai styling. The beech is a slow-growing tree that loves a bright outdoor location with no direct sunlight and moist but not wet soil. It may need to be brought inside during freezing temperatures in the winter. The beech can tolerate heavy pruning in spring, just after the new growth has hardened off, and will benefit from regular fertilizing in the spring and summer months.
If you're just starting out and aren't feeling super confident yet on how to grow a bonsai tree, a common boxwood bonsai (Buxus sempervirens) may be just what you need. Infinitely easy to care for and adaptable, it thrives in a variety of conditions and temperatures but loves partial shade best. It only really needs protection from extreme cold. Keep soil moist but not soggy, and feed regularly with bonsai fertilizer. Boxwood is tolerant of aggressive pruning, and can be easily shaped with bonsai wire.
One of the loveliest bonsai-friendly trees, the pomegranate (Punica granatum) is a deciduous semitropical tree of gorgeous aesthetic contrasts. Silvery aged bark mingles with bright green leaves and fiery red-orange fruiting blossoms. Eventually it may even bear fruit, which looks quite magical in bonsai form. Its shallow root system makes the pomegranate tree perfect for container planting. It can be kept outside in full sun, but bring it inside to a bright, sunny spot when temperatures drop below freezing.
With 70 different species, juniper is a popular type of bonsai tree due to its elegant form and adaptable growing habit. Some of the most popular juniper bonsai species are Japanese Garden Junipers (Juniperus procumbens nana), Chinese Juniper (Juniperus chinensis), the Common Juniper (Juniperus communis), the California Juniper (Juniperus californica), and the Sierra Juniper (Juniperus occidentalis). These evergreen shrubs are best suited for outdoor life and need protection from hot afternoon sun, as well as frigid winter temperatures. Junipers also possess the potential for deadwood styling, which is when portions of the tree die off, leaving silvered trucks and branches amidst living foliage. This is found in nature when trees are twisted, gnarled, and bleached by the elements.
Commonly called weeping fig or Benjamin ficus, Ficus benjamina is a versatile tree that does well as both an indoor or, in tropical climates, an outdoor bonsai. For anyone who has been daunted by how to grow bonsai plants, this is a perfect learning specimen. It features small, glossy evergreen leaves that, when left to their devices, will grow on long branches that trail to the ground (giving it the "weeping" nickname). Benjamina prefers six or more hours of sunlight a day, and needs its soil to be kept moist but not extremely wet. Its hardy nature and ability to recover from pruning accidents makes it an excellent choice for bonsai beginners.