By Gary McGregor
Don’t you just love bonsai? The elegant little trees capture the imagination and look great in just about any setting.
The best are shaped and crafted over generations by bonsai masters who trim, style and maintain their trees with great care and attention to detail.
Bonsai are often pruned and wired into shape to create the desired look, whether it be windswept, upright, horizontal or slanting. Some are trained to grow over rocks, while others form part of fantastical miniature forests.
While I’m sure this is fun for bonsai fanatics, few of us can spare that much time. Luckily there are ways to get a basic bonsai look without all the work.
Here are five readily-available plants that look the part, but won’t hack into your spare time.
1. Jade plant (Crassula ovata): These popular succulents develop a brown stem, which begins to look like the trunk of a tree as the plant ages. Some Jades look like a small tree just as they are, or you can gently break off lower leaves to expose more of the “trunk”, while unwanted branches may be trimmed to encourage a more tree-like shape.
Jade plants have fleshy leaves and can become top-heavy, so choose a pot big enough to anchor the plant. If you plan to use a bonsai pot, it’s best to transplant while the plant is small.
Crassula ovata can become quite a chunky plant, with some garden specimens topping 2m, but keeping them in a pot restricts growth and they are easily pruned.
Another succulent worth trying is Portulacaria afra, which is also sometimes known as Jade plant, or Dwarf jade. Small leaves and reddish brown stems lend themselves to the bonsai look and they are hard to kill and easy to prune. P. afra can also grow 2m tall or more if not confined in a pot.
Both species need plenty of light, so place near a window if used as an indoor plant. The crassula flowers in winter, while the portulacaria may bloom in summer given the right conditions.
2. Dwarf White/Canadian spruce (Picea glauca): Great as a compact Christmas tree, or this conical species can be opened up and styled into a more horizontal look by removing some lateral branches and wiring others into the desired position.
But I love the natural cone shape and keep mine un-bonsaied and ready for Christmas tree duty. They don’t like to be heavily root-pruned so proceed with caution if you plan to move them into a more compact pot.
Often promoted as a living Christmas tree, the attractive deep green Christmas Star version of P. glauca has been bred to be slow-growing and is one to look out for each December (or wait until January when they can be a real bargain).
It needs plenty of light, but not too much direct summer sun. If you plan to bring yours indoors for Christmas, find a light-filled spot then return it to the outdoors once Christmas is over.
After a year or two, lightly trim any roots emerging from the drainage holes and refresh the potting mix. Move to a bigger pot at this stage if you want it to promote growth, or if the tree obviously needs a bigger container.
3. Parlor Palm (Chamaedorea elegans): You can’t bonsai these small palms, but you can use them to create a bonsai look. Fans of miniature gardens use them to create a tropical look and they are also popular as the central plant in a terrarium garden.
Being slow-growing, they can stay in the same pot for years and rarely grow beyond 1m tall.
Most Parlor palms you buy are actually multiple plants growing in the one pot. But they look more like an individual tree when displayed as a single plant or in small clumps. They can be divided and spread out across a bowl or dish planter to look like a tropical garden.
Take care when dividing because palms don’t like to have their roots disturbed. Trim dead stems off at ground level, but don’t prune healthy fronds.
While tolerant of most indoor conditions (they prefer good light and don’t like the cold), PP likes humidity, so consider displaying in an open bowl-shaped terrarium or mist occasionally with a spray bottle.
4. Boxwood (English box and other buxus species) are often used for hedging or topiary, but are also easily shaped into bonsai. Small leaves help with the bonsai look, and buxus are as tough as old boots, making them an excellent low-maintenance plant.
Look for older plants with a thick stem. If you like, lower leaves can be removed to expose more of the pale brown “trunk”, while branches are easy to trim. Box needs plenty of light, so keep near a window if using as an indoor plant, or place it on a balcony or out in the garden.
Boxwood is said to sometimes develop an unpleasant smell (I can’t say I’ve ever noticed this), so try moving yours downwind if this becomes a problem.
5. Pot-belly or Buddha belly fig: This mass-produced bonsai is often sold growing in a bonsai or compact pot. It’s usually a Ficus microcarpa (Chinese banyan, Indian laurel) or has been grafted with microcarpa foliage. The bulbous trunks are actually exposed roots, which the foliage grows directly from.
An indoor plant in most climates, the Pot-belly is considered low-maintenance, but does need regular watering, particularly in summer. Foliage will eventually need trimming, while a bigger pot will be required after a couple of years.
Microcarpa can become a big tree outdoors, so this is definitely one to buy as a finished product with the bonsai work already done.
Ficus benjamina is another fig used for bonsai, but you need some bonsai skills to keep them in shape.
Some Fiddle Leaf (Ficus lyrata) owners remove the lower foliage to create a tree shape, but with huge leaves these popular indoor plants don’t suit bonsai.
If you are feeling inspired to go “full bonsai”, here are a few points to consider:
True bonsai need ongoing trimming of roots and foliage, but choosing dwarf or miniature trees, shrubs, and other naturally-small species can slash this workload.
Most bonsai need to live outdoors. If you want an indoor plant, opt for something suitable such as a fig (ficus).
Bonsai pots have good and bad qualities. Being shallow, they can allow the bonsai to dry out quickly. But wide, shallow containers are more stable than tall pots and are unlikely to tip over and damage the plant.
Fertilizer is crucial for container plants, particularly bonsai. Fast-growing young trees need more nutrition than mature plants, but it’s important to ease off in winter when growth slows. Excess fertiliser can damage plants, so it pays to double check application rates.
Tree seedlings are sometimes sold as “bonsai starters”. I’ve seen these for less than $7, but they are in tiny pots and will dry out quickly. Slightly bigger trees with some basic bonsai shaping are still good value and have a better chance of surviving.
Trees traditionally popular for bonsai include Japanese maple (Acer palmatum), compact junipers such as Juniperus sabina, yews and other conifers, while the Australian Native Plants Society says some bottle trees, eucalypts, bottle brushes and banksias are among Aussie plants suitable for bonsai.
Jade is made for bonsai
It’s not a tree, but this crassula is beginning to look like one.