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 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 bonsai trees.
Here are nine popular tree varieties that make good bonsai specimens.
Nearly any tree variety grown as a bonsai will grow best in a special potting mix that 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 09
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 it is essential that they be planted in a 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 09
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 Pinus thunbergii (Japanese black pine), P. mugo (mountain pine), P. sylvestris (Scots pine), and P. parviflora (Japanese white pine).
- 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 09
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 09
Cherry trees are traditionally believed to signify friendship, and varieties such as 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 lack of light and grow best when grown outdoors in the summer months.
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- 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.
05 of 09
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. They require specialized care and expertise to grow properly as a 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 09
Ginseng Ficus (Ficus retusa)
Ginseng ficus is 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: Glassy green foliage and light brown bark
07 of 09
Weeping Fig (Ficus benjamina)
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 09
Dwarf Jade (Portulacaria afra)
Dwarf jade plant is a softwooded semi-evergreen shrubs 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.
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- Light: Direct light
- Water: Water sparsely
- Color Varieties: Dark green succulent leaves, light brown branches
09 of 09
The thick, knotted bark and striking, fruit-bearing flowers of the pomegranate tree have made it a popular type of bonsai tree. It’s 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