To the newcomer all bonsai are unusual. Anyone with an abiding interest may find that the repetition of working with the same old species, in a limited number of styles, becomes jaded in time.
If we look beyond our indigenous species and traditionally used shrubs and trees, there are thousands of other species that are of great interest. Many of these can be used to create excellent unusual bonsai. They provide a welcome diversion, a talking point and give constant interest.
Contrary to popular belief, bonsai are not always trees. The word itself consists of two parts – bon being a shallow dish and sai is a noun meaning “grow”. Read the early Japanese literature and you will find that many plants are used. Perennials, annuals, grasses, herbs, cycads and even cacti feature. Things which many of us consider to be “accent plants” are described as bonsai themselves in books such as “The Essentials of Bonsai” by the editors of Shufonomotu.
If you are willing to put in the necessary effort, many unusual species can be grown from seed. This is an absorbing pastime in itself but does demand patience and something of a green thumb. I often see letters from readers who cannot get tree seeds to germinate. My seed trials are successful with over 90% of species sown and most failures can be attributed to older seed which has lost its viability. The trick is always in providing the correct conditions for growth. Seed sowing ‘rules’ are complex, as every species has differing requirements. Detailing the issues of dormancy, stratification, temperature, humidity and germination inhibitors would take me another article or two! Basically you must read the instructions or failing that, use common sense. Try to provide the conditions that the particular seed would enjoy in nature.
The seedlings above are all just a few days old and have been germinated under glass in spring.
Seed suppliers such as Chiltern Seeds, supply a catalogue of thousands of species which is conveniently annotated with the suitability of species for bonsai. While this is helpful, don’t feel that just because one isn’t marked as a suitable species that it cannot be tried.
Many of these are satisfying as they are easy to cultivate and bring greater diversity and an element of light-heartedness to any collection.
Herbs can make surprisingly good bonsai but tend to be short lived, compared to trees. Woody stemmed herbs are worth growing for their flowering, scent and the usefulness of the prunings in the kitchen! They appreciate good drainage and a gritty open soil.
Rosemary – A Mediterranean woody stemmed herb that lives for a relatively long time. It has needle like aromatic leaves and craggy fissured bark. The limbs are brittle, so any shaping should be done while the new growth is soft or by clip and grow. It is very easy to propagate from cuttings of sideshoots taken with a heel in summer.
Thyme – A shrubby herb with tiny aromatic leaves, attractive flowers and dark woody stems. Many species and cultivars are available as herbs or alpine plants – Best suited to mame. It is also easy to propagate from cuttings of softwood or semi-hardwood in summer.
Certainly unusual as bonsai subjects in the West, but Cacti have been used in Japan for many years. Choose species that remain small, as larger ones will rapidly outgrow their pot. Their requirements vary but generally a frost free winter period, with literally no water, is the most important consideration. Allow the soil to dry out between thorough waterings in the summer. Some can stand full sun all year, but many will burn if not given partial shade at the height of summer. A sunny windowsill, porch or conservatory are ideal locations. Use a gritty, well drained potting mixture. Many will flower profusely, given these conditions and require little feeding. Repot every few years trimming the roots by about one third, to allow space for fresh soil. Withhold water completely after repotting, for a week or two, before reintroducing gradually. The spines are delicate and some, being barbed, can inflict nasty wounds. Wrap the body of the plant with folded paper or card to protect your hands, and the plant from damage, while repotting. The shape of cacti with multiple growing points can be controlled somewhat, by judicious removal of parts not required. New growths will often sprout from many of the aureoles (cactus equivalent of leaf scars, where the spines arise from). Use a scalpel or similar sharp blade to remove any unwanted growth. The scar soon dries out and should become inconspicuous in time.
The aim when growing a cactus for bonsai is to emulate their growth in nature. They often appear weather-beaten and are not the pristine, cactus collector’s specimen that most people strive for. Less water in summer results in slower growth and frequently a more rugged, aged appearance.
Specialist cactus nurseries abound and they will be happy to advise on suitable small growing species. Any of the following with small growing bodies – Opuntia, Mammilaria, Rebutia.
These water storing plants are mostly from arid, desert-like areas. Many survive drought and could be valuable in centrally heated rooms.
Crassulas are evergreen with succulent stems and leaves and a tree like habit. They are suited to indoor culture in a bright, frost free spot. They can be styled as Informal Upright, Twin trunk, or Clump and are suitable for medium and large sizes.
Propagation is easy from cuttings. Allow the cut surface to dry out and callus before planting in sharp sand. Water minimally until rooted. Leaf cuttings are also easy. Just detach a whole leaf and place it on the surface of dry sand until roots appear. Again, water minimally until established. Position in full sun, in a warm location. A winter minimum of 10°C (50°F) is best.
Crassula arborescens JADE PLANT, MONEY TREE This is quite a common house plant and is frequently found in the cacti and succulents section of garden centres. If you can manage to keep one as a house plant then they are no more difficult to bonsai. It has smooth, rounded, silvery, red-edged leaves, and pale-pink flowers in autumn or winter. A thick and somewhat woody trunk develops in time. To encourage branching keep nipping off the growing points as they extend during the growing period. It buds back very well, issuing small new leaves from almost every leaf scar on the branches or trunk.
Other suitable Crassula’s include Crassula ovata ‘Crosby’s Dwarf’ DWARF JADE TREE, Crassula tetragona SUCCULENT PINE, and Crassula sarcocaulis. The latter is a dwarf, evergreen succulent which forms a tree shape with grey-green, small, pointed leaves and beautiful clusters of pink flowers in late summer. Tolerates moderate cold if kept dry, otherwise winter protection is needed. Minimum 5°C (41°F).
These are deciduous succulents with thick or bottle shaped trunks and papery, peeling bark in rings. They are best suited to greenhouse culture. Propagate from cuttings or seed. Water plentifully in summer but keep dry for the rest of the year. A winter minimum of 10°C is best. C. bainesii, C. crameriana, C. elephanthopus, C. juttae & C lazaare all similar in their requirements.
Sedum frutescens & Sedum oxypetalum. Deciduous, succulent shrubs. Both form a thick trunk with a papery, flaking bark. Thin, tubular, bright green leaves. Easily grown. Best suited to greenhouse culture. May be grown as Formal upright, Informal Upright, Slanting, Twin Trunk or Clump. Water abundantly while in growth in summer. Keep dry for the rest of the year. Frost protection is required. Winter minimum 10°C (50°F). Propagate by cuttings in summer, kept dry for a day or two to callus over and then insert in dry sand. Water minimally once roots have formed.
Cycads and other “Fossil Trees” are deeply appreciated by some bonsai artists, including the Japanese. The culture and care of these fascinating plants is another one of those areas that takes up whole books. They are slow from seed, but utterly fascinating. Even the first leaf evokes a feeling of prehistory as these plants are found as fossils from the age of the dinosaurs. They are one of the few indoor species that should prove almost indestructible. One note of caution though, many of them contain poisons in the roots and seeds, so care with children and animals is necessary.
This list is far from complete, indeed it could be almost endless. Once you have experimented, you should have developed the impetus to try other “new” materials.
Another way in which your range can be extended is to develop plants in styles that are less commonly seen. Some of these have fallen out of favour as they are perceived as unattractive (coiled, octopus, shield root), others are less well known or slight variations on the accepted norms. All are a challenge and can be an excellent way to add variety.
Fallen Cone/Hundred Tree
This is an appealing but infrequently seen style. It represents a phenomenon that occurs rarely in nature. When a group of seeds fall together, be they in a cone or gathered together by wind etc they may all germinate and then compete for space. The result is an informal, dense grouping with many trunks arising almost from the same point. This style is nigh on impossible to construct but simple to achieve naturally.
I “discovered” the method accidentally when two handfulls of ash seed were left to stratify in pots. They were hidden between larger potted trees in the garden and forgotten. After germinating strongly but unnoticed in spring, they miraculously survived. I never did get around to pricking them out. I am now the proud owner of a highly unusual “natural” mame forest of dwarfed ash. In their second year I rubbed out the dominant black bud, at the apex of each, to encourage side budding and minimise increase in height. They are still very young but have the potential to become an interesting composition in time.
As the forest develops they will require maintenance with fine, long nosed scissors to remove any unwanted or crossing growth. Leaf size has already reduced dramatically due to their limited root room. The technique is now employed whenever I have a surfeit of tree seed.
Imagine a root over rock tree with the rock removed and you have a good idea of what this could look like. It may appear highly artificial but does occasionally occur in nature when erosion removes much of the soil surrounding the base of the tree. An alder on a river-bank may provide you with a good model. Collected trees that have grown between rocks often have a roots that could never be amended to a perfect radial spread. Consider displaying the thickest roots elevated as if they had been exposed by rock-fall.
Micro environment representations are an interesting trend, only recently begun in America. They involve larger scale plantings than most of us are used to. The ecology of an entire region is represented in miniature, paying attention to the geology and physical geography involved in its formation. The representation could be of glaciated Highland glen with stands of Scots Pine, a moorland bog with willows, a limestone pavement with close cropped Hawthorn. Imitating a favourite landscape in miniature takes research and care but the rewards are worth it.
Not exactly the artful masterpieces that we usually strive to conceive and perfect, but these light-hearted bonsai arrangements can be delightful talking points. Imaginative use of the materials available is the key to devising new and intriguing forms. They form a counterpoint to the serious side of the art and are also a great way to get youngsters, who have yet to grasp the complexities of styling, involved in a fruitful hobby.
Bonsai hedge arrangements. Some of the examples I have spotted at exhibitions and shows were based on a cottage garden gate, a miniature rose arch, and a straight hedge.
Mini topiary can be undertaken with the smaller leaved forms of Box and Hedge Honeysuckle (Lonicera nitida).
Miniature gardens of any type can be fashioned. For example along the lines of a Japanese garden complete with raked sand, rocks, short mosses and water features. Ornamentation is down to personal taste. My youngest daughter delights in the inclusion of mirrors and miniature Japanese figurines fishing in the “pond”.
Trying unusual plants, styles and techniques is another way in which we may bring greater diversity to the hobby. As with all bonsai, there is a great deal of satisfaction to be had from learning by experimentation. Don’t worry if a species doesn’t appear in any of your bonsai books. If you think that it may provide you with a challenge, or just some plain old fun, give it a go.