16 Common Bonsai Tree Species to Grow

These types of bonsai trees are best for training into different shapes at home

Pine bonsai tree on pedestal with rock on top next to other bonsai and trees

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Bonsai is an ancient living art form that utilizes growing and training techniques to produce miniature trees that mimic the appearance of their full-sized counterparts. These techniques include heavy crown pruning, root pruning, and root confinement in shallow containers.

Nearly any perennial, woody-stemmed tree or shrub that produces true branches can be trained as a bonsai tree. However, some species are more well-suited to growing as bonsai than others. Some bonsai tree species are more popular due to aesthetic reasons (such as having small foliage or gnarled-looking bark), while others are popular because they are notorious for being low-maintenance and resilient when grown as miniatures.

Bonsai Tree Species for Beginners

If you are just getting started growing and training bonsai, you may prefer to work with varieties that are easiest to train. Here are common bonsai tree species for beginners:

  • Juniper: Tolerates heavy pruning and is ideal for learning wiring techniques
  • Ficus: One of the most common indoor bonsai tree types and best if you're not consistent with watering
  • Japanese red maple: Affordable tree that tolerates pruning mistakes of novice bonsai artists, but you'll need to remember to water it
  • Chinese elm: Great for learning pruning techniques; thrives indoors or outdoors

There are many types of species you can try out to create bonsai trees. Read on to find out more about the four species above for beginners and other popular flowering and non-flowering tree and shrub varieties that make good bonsai specimens.

Tip

Nearly any tree variety grown as a bonsai will grow best in a special potting mix that is usually marketed as a bonsai soil mix. This mix is really not a soil at all, but rather a mixture of hard Japanese akadama (a claylike mineral), pumice, and black lava, sometimes with some horticultural additives included.

  • 01 of 16

    Juniper (Juniperus spp.)

    A juniper bonsai tree sitting in a black bonsai pot.

     Loren Klein / Getty Images

    Juniperus is a large genus of over 50 evergreen coniferous trees and shrubs that are popular as bonsai trees. All species of juniper can be successfully grown as bonsai.

    Junipers are popular as bonsai for two main reasons. First, the small foliage fits nicely with the miniature aesthetic of bonsai; and second, junipers are hardy trees that can withstand aggressive pruning. Juniper bonsai trees do not do well when grown indoors, and they must be planted in dry soil.

    • Light: Bright, sunny light
    • Water: Allow soil to dry slightly before watering
    • Color Varieties: Needles can be yellow, pale green, or dark green (depends on species)
  • 02 of 16

    Pine (Pinus spp.)

    A pine bonsai tree planted in a grey pot sitting on a picnic table in front of a white wall.

      3000ad / Getty Images

    Pine trees are popular as bonsai because they are hardy and trainable. In fact, pine trees can be shaped into almost every known bonsai style. Pine trees are characterized by needles that appear in bundles of two to five, and bark that becomes scaly or flaky as it ages. Species that are particularly good for bonsai include Japanese black pine (Pinus thunbergii), mountain pine (P. mugo), Scots pine (P. sylvestris), and Japanese white pine (P. parviflora).

    • Light: Full sun
    • Water: Water when the soil looks dry
    • Color Varieties: Needles range from light green to bluish green to dark green (depends on species)
  • 03 of 16

    Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum)

    The bright red foliage of the japanese maple bonsai tree contrasts against its tourquoise pot and pale pink background.

    Aleroy4 / Getty Images 

    Japanese maples are deciduous hardwood trees famous for red-burgundy or green leaves that turn bright red, orange, or yellow in fall. The bark of young Japanese maples is typically green or reddish, turning grey or grayish-brown as it ages. 

    A warning to those bonsai enthusiasts who don’t have a lot of time to dedicate to the craft—Japanese maples require a lot of water, especially during the growing season. Depending on the temperature, they may require daily watering, possibly even several times daily.

    • Light: Sunny, partial sun
    • Water: Requires frequent watering (daily or more)
    • Color Varieties: Some varieties have red or yellow leaves from spring to fall, while others are reddish in spring, turn green in summer, then transform into brilliant reds, yellows, or oranges in fall.
  • 04 of 16

    Japanese Flowering Cherry (Prunus serrulata)

    A cherry bonsai tree with white cherry blossoms sits in front of green trees in thebackground.

     Carlo A / Getty Images

    Cherry trees are traditionally believed to signify friendship, and varieties such as the Japanese flowering cherry also make beautiful bonsai trees. These ornamental, deciduous trees are not only gorgeous, but they are easy to train because their branches and trunks are pliable and easy to shape. 

    While bonsai cherry trees can be grown indoors, they may suffer from a lack of light and grow best when grown outdoors in the summer months.

    • Light: Full sun
    • Water: Keep the soil consistently moist.
    • Color Varieties: Foliage is green or bronze; flowers can be various shades of white or pink.
    Continue to 5 of 16 below.
  • 05 of 16

    Cedar (Cedrus spp.)

    A cedar bonsai tree sits in front of a white stucco wall.

    Cliff / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

     

    The rough, ragged bark of cedar trees has made them a popular choice among bonsai enthusiasts. Cedar trees are evergreen conifers that grow short needle clusters along their branches, providing an opportunity for very dramatic bonsai styles. Impressive drama aside, cedars are not ideal for beginners. Cedar bonsai trees require specialized care and expertise to grow properly as bonsai and are best-suited for experienced growers.

    There are four cedar species frequently grown as bonsai: cedar of Lebanon (Cedrus libania), Cyprus cedar (Cedrus brevifolia), Himalayan cedar (Cedrus deodara), and Atlas cedar (Cedrus atlantica).

    • Light: Direct sun
    • Water: Allow the soil to partially dry between waterings
    • Color Variations: Dark green needles
  • 06 of 16

    Ginseng Ficus (Ficus retusa)

    Several rows of ginseng ficus sit in black and white pots - their twisted aerial roots exposed.

    Bulgnn / Getty Images 

    Ginseng ficus is a tropical bonsai tree species. However, it's considered to be an excellent species for beginner bonsai enthusiasts because it is a very hardy and forgiving tree. These broadleaf evergreen trees are characterized by unique-looking aerial roots and oval-shaped dark green leaves.

    Ginseng ficus makes a low-maintenance bonsai tree, and it doesn't require as much light as other popular bonsai varieties. It grows well indoors as a houseplant since it thrives in warm climates and bright, indirect light.

    • Light: Bright, indirect light
    • Water: Keep soil moist
    • Color Varieties: Glossy green foliage and light brown bark
  • 07 of 16

    Weeping Fig (Ficus benjamina)

    A bright green ficus benjamina sits in a brown pot in front of a bright white wall.

     Photohomepage / Getty Imges

    The beautiful, umbrella-like canopy of the weeping fig makes it a popular choice for bonsai. Its twisted surface roots are another alluring feature that lends well to bonsai styling. 

    Besides its appearance, Ficus benjamina is a hardy, resilient tree making it perfect for bonsai training. It adapts well to growing indoors and is often grown as a houseplant year-round.

    • Light: Part sun
    • Water: Water frequently
    • Color Varieties: Glossy green leaves and light-brown bark
  • 08 of 16

    Dwarf Jade (Portulacaria afra)

    A small dwarf jade bonsai tree sits on a wood table in a maroon bonsai pot in front of a lime yellow wall.

    / Getty Images

     

    The dwarf jade plant is a semi-evergreen softwood shrub that makes an excellent bonsai tree for beginners. Dwarf jades look very similar to the more common jade variety (Crassula ovata), however, the smaller foliage of the dwarf jade makes it the preferable choice for bonsai growing.

    Dwarf jade bonsai trees grow well indoors but need direct sunlight for most of the day. They can also be successfully grown outside but cannot tolerate freezing temperatures.

    • Light: Direct light
    • Water: Water sparsely
    • Color Varieties: Dark green succulent leaves, light brown branches
    Continue to 9 of 16 below.
  • 09 of 16

    Pomegranate (Punica granatum)

    A gnarled, leaning pomegranate bonsai tree with a red fruit leans across the photo. it is in a blue pot.

     SharonCobo / Getty Images

    The thick, knotted bark and striking, fruit-bearing flowers of the pomegranate tree have made it a popular type of bonsai tree. Its naturally gnarled, ancient appearance is perfect for the bonsai aesthetic.

    Pomegranate bonsai trees can be grown outdoors year-round in warm climates, or grown indoors for part of the year. They should be protected from freezing temperatures and frost.

    • Light: Bright direct light
    • Water: Water regularly
    • Color Varieties: Glossy green leaves; may flower with orange-red blooms that produce edible fruit
  • 10 of 16

    Dwarf Boxwood (Buxus spp.)

    Chinese boxwood bonsai in small brown rectangular pot

    MarcBruxelle / Getty Images

    Dwarf boxwoods are popular shrubs and they also are good choices for bonsai plants since they respond well to pruning.

    One type of dwarf boxwood, the littleleaf boxwood (Buxus microphylla), also known as 'Kingsville Dwarf', grows 12 to 18 inches high, perfect for bonsai and miniature gardens. Harland boxwood (Buxus harlandii) is another good shrub for a bonsai, but it can grow a little taller, to 2 to 3 feet if not pruned. Yet another dwarf boxwood variety is the Korean (Buxus sinica var. insularis) with a height of 2 feet.

    • Light: Full sun to partial shade
    • Water: Somewhat drought-tolerant; let dry slightly between waterings
    • Color varieties: Small, rounded, glossy, or leathery green leaves and insignificant green or yellow flowers
  • 11 of 16

    Azalea (Rhododendron spp.)

    A blooming pink azalea bonsai on display

    DebraLee Wiseberg / Getty Images

    Azaleas are flowering shrubs, but some miniature versions, typically referred to as "greenhouse azaleas," are meant to be houseplants. Dwarf varieties can grow just shy of 3 feet tall.

    One particular azalea, Satsuki (Rhododendron indicum), is ideal for bonsai but it's also considered strictly an outdoor flowering plant. Without pruning it can grow several feet tall, but with pruning it is a lovely foot or so high with pink springtime blooms.

    • Light: Full sun to partial shade; dappled shade
    • Water: Frequent watering
    • Color varieties: White, pink, red, orange, peach blooms
  • 12 of 16

    Chinese Elm (Ulmus parvifolia)

    Chinese elm bonsai tree outdoors in backyard

    TraceyAPhotos / Getty Images

    The Chinese elm, also known as lacebark elm, is a popular choice for those beginning bonsai since the tree is easy to grow indoors or outdoors though it needs heavy pruning. It has a rounded shape and its distinctive multi-colored bark in shades of brown, gray, green, and orange exfoliates for visual interest. A Chinese elm bonsai will stay around 10 inches to 2 feet tall.

    • Light: Full sun
    • Water: Drought tolerant, but needs less frequent and deeper waterings
    • Color varieties: Small green leaves, insignificant blooms, and exfoliating light and grey bark
    Continue to 13 of 16 below.
  • 13 of 16

    European Beech Tree (Fagus sylvatica)

    Fagus sylvatica bonsai tree with yellow and orange leaves in Japanese garden

    Daderot / Wikimedia Commons / CC0

    In the landscape, beech trees grow tall with thick, lush canopies and striking shades of bark, and bonsai versions are every bit as lovely. The European beech (Fagus sylvatica) is ideal for bonsai because of its smooth grey bark and broad, but small leaves.

    You'll enjoy the tricolor beech tree (Fagus sylvatica 'Roseo-Marginata'/'Purpurea Tricolor') with its variegated leaves that may include many shades of green, pink, and white, with a color often edging the leaves, that create a dramatic bonsai.

    Other beech tree options include the American beech (Fagus grandifolia) with large, but thin leaves that look breezy as a bonsai, and the Japanese white beech (Fagus crenata), in demand as bonsai for its smaller, thicker foliage.

    • Light: Full sun to semi-shade
    • Water: Water whenever the soil is dry
    • Color varieties: Green, yellow, purple, pink, white, or red leaves, white or gray bark
  • 14 of 16

    Fir (Abies)

    Douglas fir bonsai tree with small green needle branches

    Cliff / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0

    Many fir (Abies) trees from the genus are often chosen for Christmas trees, and they make perfect bonsai specimens, as well. They are part of the pine tree family (Pinaceae) but fir trees deserve their own place on the bonsai map. One caveat: fir trees aren't always suited to container culture so they have to become acclimated.

    A popular tree from this genus to bonsai is the Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga). The foliage is dense and the branches are well proportioned for bonsai. The younger branches on Douglas fir can be easy to train since they are very flexible versus older, breakable branches.

    • Light: Full sun to partial shade
    • Water: Does not like droughts or wetness, requiring water when the soil is just about dry
    • Color varieties: Green or blueish-gray needle-like leaves
  • 15 of 16

    White Oak (Quercus alba)

    Quercus robur bonsai with yellow-green leaves

    Sailko / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

    Though the white oak tree (Quercus alba) grows to epic heights in the landscape, it can also make a handsome, sturdy bonsai specimen. Even as bonsai, it will have its signature gnarled, aged trunk and the propensity to live indefinitely.

    A white oak tree may not be too easy for beginner bonsai artists. Other types of oak trees make better bonsai trees to start, such as the English oak tree (Quercus robur). It's a perfect bonsai for autumn leaf peepers and you don't even have to leave home to see the changing fall colors.

    • Light: Full sun
    • Water: Deep, infrequent watering only when soil is dry
    • Color varieties: Dullish green and shapely rounded lobed leaves with rough gray trunks
  • 16 of 16

    Flowering Crabapple (Malus spp.)

    Flowering crabapple bonsai with small white flower buds

    bullantmultimedia / Getty Images

    Most flowering crabapple species make beautiful fragrant flowering and fruiting bonsai. They flower in the spring and produce small dangling round fruit in the fall. It's safe to taste the tiny apple fruit of your bonsai if you're tempted.

    There are numerous ideal crabapple species for bonsai. Try ‘Sugar Tyme’ for its pinkish white flowers and profuse red fruit and weeping types like ‘Red Jade’ for its drooping form that bursts with white flowers.

    • Light: Full sun but not in direct, harsh heat
    • Water: Frequent watering to keep moist, not soggy
    • Color varieties: Oval serrated leaves come in greens to purples, with pink, red, or white flowers, and reddish to orange fruits