Bonsai trees have a lot of common misconceptions. Provided with the right care and growing conditions, these plants will reward you for years and years to come with their ornamental beauty.
Maybe you’ve looked at bonsai trees and thought you weren’t up to the task of growing them. That they would be too hard to prune, repot, or even water.
You might have tried to grow bonsai trees in the past and failed miserably. When you think of bonsai trees, you may remember how awful the last one in your care looked. Don’t despair.
We’ve put together a handy guide to help you in your bonsai growing efforts, as well as a breakdown of the most interesting bonsai trees you can grow.
You don’t need to be an expert. What you need is the right bonsai tree.
The type of tree is just as important, as getting the right type for your space – whether that’s indoor or outdoor – will mean that it will be a lot easier to care for.
There are more bonsai tree types than you think, and some require a lot more care than others.
There’s a bonsai tree for every space and lifestyle. It’s just a matter of finding the one for you.
The History Behind The Bonsai Tree
While many of us associate the bonsai tree with Japanese culture, bonsai is the Japanese version of the penjing or penzai art form in China.
Penjing is an art designed to mimic natural scenery as a whole, while bonsai focuses on growing small trees which look very similar to their full-size counterparts.
The earliest illustration of penjing was found in Qianling Mausoleum, with murals dating back to 706. In the 6th century, Imperial diplomats and Buddhist students would visit China, and brought back heavy influences of Chinese culture (see also Top 12 Flowers in Chinese Culture and Their Meanings), which would soon appear in their own art.
The earliest illustration of a bonsai tree appears in the 1195 scroll titled Saigyo Monogatari Emaki. The practice was reserved for the wealthy, and a bonsai tree was and still is a very precious gift.
It also aligned with the beliefs within Japanese Zen Buddhism, allowing for a further explosion of popularity.
It was only in 1604 that the art of the Bonsai attracted the attention of other countries. In the Philippines, Chinese immigrants were growing ficus trees on coral.
Bonsai trees started to creep into travel memoirs and reports from 1637, and were published in magazines, which stoked the fire for the practice.
By the late 1800s, bonsai trees appeared all over the world in Exposition fairs.
What You Should Know Before Getting a Bonsai Tree
Before you get a bonsai tree, there is one integral question you should ask yourself. Am I a complete beginner when it comes to plants? And then: do I know how to tell what a plant needs at any given time?
This isn’t to make you feel inadequate. It’s a stepping stone to pointing you in the right direction of your ideal bonsai tree.
If at least one of those answers was yes, you should get a bonsai that is more forgiving about the conditions it lives in. One that you’ll easily be able to tell if it’s happy or not.
This plant will also act as a living learning curve for you to learn the basics of caring for a bonsai.
Another vital thing to think about is where you live. What kind of climate you live in. It’s no use getting a mountain pine bonsai, for example, if you don’t live somewhere where winter exists.
You need to choose a bonsai tree that’s at least got a chance in your native climate in order for it to thrive.
Also, you need to consider your budget. The older the bonsai, and the rarer or the more popular the species, the more pricey it will be.
If you’re just starting out, it’s worth getting an affordable bonsai. That way, you won’t be completely devastated if it suffers.
Bonsai trees don’t have to be expensive. You can also try growing your own from scratch, if you have the patience to do so.
You can even grow them from cuttings of mature plants to speed up the process a little. Often, cuttings taken from mature plants will also significantly cut the waiting time for a bonsai tree to flower or fruit.
Types of Bonsai Trees and Plants You Can Grow
You’ll find a plethora of different bonsai trees that you can grow yourself. To make it easier, they’ve been divided into different types: indoor, outdoor, flowering, and even fruiting species.
Artificial Bonsai Tree
A fake bonsai tree. No, hear me out on this one. If you do a lot of travelling, or if you don’t have the time to look in on your plant to check how it’s doing, a fake bonsai (or a succulent) is a valid choice.
You don’t have to water these plants or worry about them outgrowing their pots or getting enough light, or looking completely different to how they came.
You can make your own artificial bonsai tree, which can make this “plant” more special.
Artificial bonsai trees are made out of numerous materials, but arguable one of the most interesting is a bonsai tree made out of wire, where the leaves are made out of beads.
Juniper Bonsai Tree
Juniper bonsai trees are among the most forgiving of more traditional bonsai trees.
They are plants which are easy to maintain, and they won’t die in protest if you forget to water them for a couple of days.
Juniper bonsai trees are also very flexible, which helps when it comes to trying to train your bonsai.
Green Mound Juniper Bonsai Tree
This is the most common Juniper tree grown as a bonsai. They’re adaptable to most climates, and require little maintenance. The foliage itself is very easy to cut back.
They will thrive outdoors, so long as they are protected from strong sunlight, making them a good option for beginners.
Needle Juniper Bonsai Tree
The Needle Juniper bonsai, the Himalayan Juniper, or Juniperus squamata is a very easy plant to grow as a bonsai tree. They are relatively easy to shape, which makes them another good choice for beginners.
Indoor Bonsai Trees
If you fancy bringing a small facet of nature indoors, an indoor bonsai is the perfect choice.
Whether you don’t have any outside space, or you’ve run out of space, it’s easier to control the growing conditions inside, making it more likely that your bonsai tree will thrive.
Acacia Bonsai Tree
While Acacia bonsai trees need a lot of light, they hate direct sunlight, so North-facing windows are probably best for this species, as the full sun isn’t very strong in the morning hours.
They will need watering very regularly. Probably every day, depending on the conditions of your house. Just be careful you don’t overdo it.
Bonsai Money Tree
Also known as Pachira aquatica, this is a popular plant used in the practice of feng shui, as it’s thought to bring a wealth of good luck into the house.
These bonsai trees are often braided at the trunks, though this can cause problems in money trees that are allowed to grow bigger, as the trunks can often crush each other.
Baobab Bonsai Tree
One of the most recognizable trees on the planet, the Baobab makes a striking display in both its native Africa and growing as a bonsai.
These trees are rarely grown in a bonsai form, you’re more likely to find a Ginseng bonsai, which is a little easier to grow.
Boxwood Bonsai Tree
A boxwood is a good choice for anyone impatient in wanting to see their bonsai tree grow. They are resilient and fast-growing, and they need protection from harsh winters.
It’s worth noting that boxwood suffers from box blight, a terrible fungal disease which affects boxwood that lives outside.
Boxwood also need a lot of water, as they hate drying out completely.
Brazilian Rain Tree Bonsai Tree
These beautiful trees are a sight to behold. The leaves themselves fold up in darkness, and unfold when it gets light again. In the right conditions, this plant will produce an abundance of fragrant flowers.
It likes moist soil, and warm temperatures and bright light. You’ll need to protect it from any extreme light or heat, as well as cold.
Buddha’s Ear Bonsai Tree
When you think of an Alocasia, you probably think of huge, tropical plants with beautifully large leaves.
While this is true, and especially true in the wild, Alocasia cucullata is a type that you can grow as a bonsai tree. It won’t look like a traditional bonsai tree with a thick, twisted brown trunk, but it will be unusual.
They need moist soil and indirect light in order to grow well.
Buddhist Pine Bonsai Tree
Podocarpus macrophyllus will grow in both indoors and outdoors, but it will fare better inside. When the soil feels dry, it’s time to water.
Cactus Combo Bonsai Tree
If you don’t feel you have time for a more traditional bonsai tree, a cactus combo bonsai is probably the best option.
This refers to several cacti grouped into a display in one pot, which mimic their natural appearance in the wild.
It’s worth stressing that they need very little water. See Types of Cacti for more information and care tips.
Cedar Bonsai Tree
If you want a bonsai tree that will grow tall fairly quickly, you could do worse than a cedar bonsai tree. If you live somewhere with much cooler temperatures, they should be kept indoors.
If it’s moderately warm where you live, you can grow them outdoors.
Desert Rose Bonsai Tree
While technically a succulent, this beautiful plant is often grown as a bonsai not just for its unusual trunk but for its fragrant blooms.
Like most succulent plants, you can pop them outside in summer, and keep them somewhere sunny indoors through the rest of the year.
Ficus Bonsai Tree
Ficus bonsai trees are among the most affordable, the most recognizable, and they are very easy to care for. Also known as Ginseng or Retusa, these plants feature thick, fleshy trunks which are usually S-shaped.
In order for a ficus bonsai tree to thrive, it needs plenty of bright light and warm temperatures, which is why it’s a good choice for an indoor bonsai tree.
Jade Bonsai Tree
There are two plants which share the name Jade Tree. The first is Portulacaria afra, which is native to Africa, which looks more like a tree out of the two.
It has tiny circular leaves, and prefers less watering than other trees. There’s a lot of choice when it comes to deciding what form you want the trunk to take, as it is easy to train.
Crassula ovata is a succulent, and has a more unusual appearance for a bonsai tree. It has much larger fleshly leaves, and the “trunk” tends to be thicker.
This plant will need to be indoors and in full sunlight, as it cannot stand a lot of water.
Hawaiian Umbrella Bonsai Tree
Also known as Schefflera arboricola ‘Luseane’, this bonsai tree does best indoors. It also doesn’t demand a lot of care, making it a great choice for beginners and busy people alike.
Hornbeam and Beech Bonsai Tree
While the hornbeam and the beech are two very different trees, they’re often grouped together as the care requirements are the same.
They both need protection from full sunlight and extreme temperatures. The best practice is to keep them indoors, with occasional rests outdoors.
Jacaranda Bonsai Tree
These are captivating trees that make great bonsai trees. In their native habitat, they bloom with purple flowers, though this will be harder to mimic the right conditions.
A Jacaranda is a more challenging bonsai tree, as it doesn’t grow well indoors, but it cannot stand colder environments.
Norfolk Island Pine Bonsai Tree
Also known as Araucaria heterophylla, this tree makes a lovely bonsai.
It can be grown indoors or outdoors, but you’ll need to be mindful of the dry atmosphere of your house, which pines particularly don’t do well in.
It may also need a period of dormancy to mimic a natural winter.
Weeping Willow Bonsai Tree
This is a more intermediate to advanced bonsai. While it’s difficult to get the care and the pruning right, this bonsai tree is one of the most beautiful.
Outdoor Bonsai Trees
If you’d like a bonsai tree that would be happier outdoors, there are lots of different types to choose from.
Bamboo Bonsai Tree
Bamboo bonsai trees are very rare. Bamboo is one of the fastest growing plants in the world, so it’s only a suitable option for those who are more experienced with training plants to become bonsai trees.
Birch Bonsai Tree
Birch bonsai trees need a lot of water to keep them happy and healthy. They also need full sunlight which promotes its steady, reliable growth.
Buttonwood Bonsai Tree
Buttonwood bonsai trees require direct sunlight and regular watering in order to thrive.
Chinese Elm Bonsai Tree
One of the most popular bonsai trees, the Chinese Elm needs to be outdoors in order to thrive properly. They will also absorb a lot of water, but be careful not to overwater them.
Ginkgo Bonsai Tree
This is a bonsai tree with much larger leaves that almost resemble butterflies. Like the Chinese Elm, it’s not possible to care for it properly indoors. The leaves will also change color depending on the season.
Hinoki Cypress Bonsai Tree
While not a true Cypress tree, the Hinoki Cypress is a lovely bonsai tree in its own right. You will need to put more effort into these plants though, as they need regular pruning.
They prefer direct sunlight and regular watering.
Bald Cypress Bonsai
Taxodium distichum, or the Bald Cypress, hails from Mexico, Guatemala, and the southern US. This plant needs full sun and requires almost daily watering.
Japanese Black Pine Bonsai Tree
The Japanese Black Pine, or Pinus thunbergii, is a very hardy tree which will grudgingly go without water for around a few weeks at a time, if not done too often.
Japanese Maple Bonsai Tree
One of the most popular bonsai trees you can buy, the Japanese Maple or Acer Palmatum is a hardy species which will provide excellent color, especially in the autumn months.
Larch Bonsai Tree
Larch bonsai trees are very beautiful plants, and their textured bark adds another level to the bonsai art form, making them look like huge, ancient trees.
Liquidambar Bonsai Tree
Like the name suggests, the leaves turn a shade of amber in the autumn, but they also change color from season to season.
It also has the benefit of being a relatively low maintenance bonsai.
Oak Bonsai Tree
Oaks are a good option for bonsai, as they thrive in quite a few different climates, which helps because they need to stay outside.
They prefer full sun, but they’ll also grow in partial shade. Like many bonsai trees, you should dial back the watering schedule in winter.
Premna Bonsai Tree
The Premna can be grown indoors or outdoors as a bonsai tree, but it requires the most amount of sunlight possible. As it’s native to Asia, you’ll need to bring it inside in the winter.
Redwood Bonsai Tree
Redwood grows extremely tall in the wild, so having a redwood bonsai tree is a novelty in itself. They make good bonsai trees with their rough bark and upright trunks.
They need full sun for most of the year. If it’s an especially fierce summer, they will benefit from some protection. You’ll need to keep a careful eye on the watering situation, as they need a lot to survive.
Spruce Bonsai Tree
One of the easiest bonsai trees to propagate, spruce trees are also relatively easy to care for, so long as you protect them from cold, and give them plenty of sunlight.
Trident Maple Bonsai Tree
This Acer isn’t for beginners, as you’ll need to keep a constant eye on it, as it is high maintenance.
This plant won’t survive indoors, and it needs protection from direct sunlight, as it will scorch the plant.
Bonsai Trees That Which Flower and Produce Fruits
While bonsai trees are graceful and rewarding to take care of, flowering bonsai trees and fruiting bonsai trees are on another level entirely.
If that sounds like something you’d be interested in, we’ve included just some of the trees that you can grow as bonsai trees.
Apple Bonsai Tree
Apple bonsai trees will maybe produce a couple of fruit during the season, but it will be a sight to see. They need nearly daily watering, (always check the soil beforehand) and plenty of fertilizer to help them produce fruit.
Clusia rosea, or the apple bonsai, needs to be grown indoors, somewhere where they can get the full benefits of the sun.
Azalea Bonsai Tree
Best grown outdoors, when an azalea bonsai tree flowers, it’s both a proud moment and an unforgettable display.
As they have adapted to grow in partial shade, you’re best growing them away from direct sunlight, but somewhere outdoors.
Bahama Berry Bonsai Tree
One of the more unusual bonsai trees you can grow, the Nashia inaguensis or Bahama Berry tree, is fairly high maintenance. It produces a lovely fragrance and bright yellow flowers.
It also has the name “I Dry, I Die”, which means you’ll need to be careful about letting this plant dry out. It needs all day sunlight where possible. The flowers are also followed by berries.
It’s worth noting that this plant is fairly brittle, so you’ll need to be careful if you’re training it from a young plant.
Black Olive Bonsai Tree
Sadly, black olive bonsai trees are not the olives you’re thinking of. Unfortunately, they’re not edible. They are quite delicate plants, but they have a high heat tolerance.
The branches of this plant are filled with spines, so you’ll need to be careful when pruning them back.
Bird Plum Bonsai Tree
Sageretia theezans, or the bird plum, loves as much shade as you can give it, especially if you’re growing this outside.
They’ll need plenty of water, but like most shade plants, it’s very easy to overwater them.
Bougainvillea Bonsai Tree
One of the most profusely blooming bonsai trees you can get, Bougainvillea bonsai trees are among the most beautiful. They need full sunlight in order to produce flowers.
Bromeliad Bonsai Tree
One of the most diverse-looking plants you can grow, they need full sunlight and moist soil, though they don’t do well in colder temperatures.
Brush Cherry Bonsai Tree
Eugenia myrtifolia, or the brush cherry, will happily grow indoors or outdoors, so long as you water it regularly. It produces petite white flowers which are followed by red fruit.
Cape Honeysuckle Bonsai Tree
This is a plant that’s rarely grown as a bonsai, as they are tricky to care for. If you’re up to the challenge, Tecoma capensis, or the Cape honeysuckle, produces vivid flowers.
Celtis Bonsai Tree
Celtis or Hackleberry bonsai trees need to be grown outside, in at least partial shade. It also needs plenty of water on a regular schedule.
Citrus Bonsai Tree
Citrus bonsai trees encompass both orange and lemon trees, and the fruits will be smaller than those on a normal tree. They need a lot of water, and some heat in order to survive.
Cherry Blossom Bonsai Tree
One of the most popular bonsai trees, when cared for properly, cherry blossom bonsai trees need protection from full sun, and colder temperatures.
While they’ll happily grow outside for most of the year, you’ll need to bring them in during winter.
Chinese Pepper Bonsai Tree
This is a rarer form of bonsai that’s recently gained more popularity recently because it’s relatively easy to grow.
Zanthoxylum piperitum, or the Chinese Pepper bonsai, needs a lot of water to produce its spicy fruits.
Crabapple Bonsai Tree
One of the best flowering and then fruiting bonsai trees you can grow, this is a lovely and ever-changing bonsai that prefers to be outside.
It needs as much full sun as you can give it, and plenty of water.
Cotoneaster Bonsai Tree
Cotoneaster bonsai trees will grow well outside in full sun, and eventually produce red fruit.
Crepe Myrtle Bonsai Tree
Crepe Myrtle, or Lagerstroemia indica, produces heavily scented pink flowers, and needs direct sunlight in order to grow properly.
Dogwood Bonsai Tree
The dogwood bonsai tree, or cornus florida, needs plenty of air circulation and sunlight in order to produce its white flowers.
Dwarf Pomegranate Bonsai Tree
This bonsai tree produces red flowers rather than pomegranates, but these lovely plants need a lot of water, fresh air and sunlight.
Firethorn Bonsai Tree
If you’re after a bonsai tree with dark foliage, this is the species for you. It requires a lot of water, and produces small red fruits.
Fuchsia Bonsai Tree
Fuchsia bonsai trees are among the most captivating. The flowers come in many colors and shapes. You’ll need to keep a fuchsia bonsai outside, and prune it often.
Fukien Tea Bonsai Tree
A good beginner bonsai, the Fukien tea bonsai tree doesn’t have a lot of demands. It produces small white flowers.
Grapevine Bonsai Tree
If you ever wanted to grow your own grapes, but you don’t have a greenhouse, a grapevine bonsai will be an adventure. They preferably need to be outside, but they also need to be warm.
Hibiscus Bonsai Tree
A very captivating bonsai tree, Hibiscus sinensis produces orange and red blooms, provided they get a lot of water and plenty of sun.
Magnolia Stellata Bonsai Tree
One of the prettiest magnolias suitable for bonsai trees, Magnolia stellata need full sun and plenty of water.
Privet Bonsai Tree
A bonsai that’s relatively easy to grow, they tolerate hard pruning, and need direct sunlight in order to bloom with white and pink flowers.
Rosemary Bonsai Tree
A rosemary bonsai tree isn’t for beginners. It’s difficult to get the right amount of sun, water, and air circulation in balance, but if you manage it, you’ll enjoy both its culinary uses and its fragrance.
Wisteria Bonsai Tree
One of the most beautiful bonsai trees, wisteria is easy to grow from stem cuttings, and needs direct sun in order to produce its gorgeous flowers.
Yew Bonsai Tree
Yew bonsai trees need direct sunlight until the weather gets too harsh for it, then it will benefit from some shade.
How to Grow Bonsai Trees
Whichever type of bonsai tree you choose, whether that’s a purely ornamental bonsai tree, a flowering bonsai or a fruiting bonsai, the methods of growing them are the same.
You can grow them from seed, or you can get one that’s already been trained into a bonsai.
Whichever type you choose, the first few weeks are vital to establish the plant comfortably in its new environment.
General Care and Maintenance
The care you’ll need to give your bonsai tree largely depends on what species you’ve gone for. You’ll always need to check the soil before you water, to make sure you won’t overwater.
The best way to do this is once a week. Some will need pruning back regularly, and some you’ll need to only cut back growth in a specific season.
You’ll also need to repot your bonsai tree every couple of years – if it’s a fully grown bonsai – in order to trim the roots and prevent it from being pot bound.
Younger plants grown as bonsai won’t need their adult pots until they are at least a year old.
Bonsai Trees: Frequently Asked Questions
What do Bonsai Trees Mean?
Bonsai trees symbolize peace achieved through diligence and hard work, and the sense of well-being you can get out of caring for something living and seeing it thrive.
It’s also believed that those who practice the art of bonsai is someone who actively seeks to maintain a sense of balance within their lives.
Bonsai trees also symbolize patience when it comes to the slow-growing species. Some will even take six or seven years to flower or fruit.
How do You Prune a Bonsai Tree?
When and how often you should prune your bonsai tree entirely depends on the species, as each has specific requirements.
Some will only need pruning every few years, some every six months, and others every year.
Why are Bonsai Trees Small?
Bonsai trees are meant to represent large trees, as closely as possible, in all but one aspect: their size.
This is a challenging prospect, as most of the species grown as bonsai trees have evolved to grow to a certain height, which is much bigger. It’s only through careful maintenance that they stay as small as they do.
How Long does a Bonsai Tree Take to Grow?
This largely depends on the species. Some are fast-growing, some seem to take an age.
Generally, if you’re growing a bonsai from seed, they’ll take a year to get robust enough to call their forever pot home.
Broadly, most bonsai trees will be mature after six years. Some types will not flower until they mature, and the same goes for fruiting bonsai trees.
There’s a reason why bonsai trees also symbolize patience!
As you have seen throughout this article, there are many plants which you can train into bonsai trees, even those that flower or fruit.
The possibilities are endless, and you’ll find the perfect one for you, with the care requirements suited to your lifestyle.
If you fancy a big challenge, there are species that take more work but also are more ornate than others.
If you want to start off with something simpler, there are species suited to that as well.
Bonsai trees are a great way to explore your creative side, as well as stretching your problem-solving skills, to see exactly what the plant needs from you and when.
They strike a careful balance between adding a lovely aesthetic to any space and acquiring the knowledge to care for them properly.
Bonsai trees, if cared for properly, can live for hundreds of years, making them truly special plants, which have even made it into wills.
Bonsai trees also make a great gift for plant and art lovers alike. The learning curve may be a little longer and a little steeper than, say, caring for succulents, but that doesn’t mean that every step of the way is not worth it in itself.