Deciduous v. Coniferous Bonsai

Recently a fellow bonsai enthusiast posed the question, “What are the merits of deciduous versus coniferous bonsai?” That gave me pause, because I had not really thought about the comparison before. Certainly, each has its own special prerequisites for care, feeding, pruning & wiring, etc…. so let’s explore the two categories and see the positives and negatives of each.

All things being equal, a deciduous bonsai such as Trident Maple, Beech, or Hornbeam will be a much more labor intensive tree if one is to maintain it in beauty. A deciduous bonsai’s greatest strength– rapid growth and recovery from drastic pruning and wiring– is also its greatest weakness, in that it will ‘cycle’ over time into and out of a state of beauty and attractiveness. One thing I have learned about bonsai: Beauty is a transitory state of being through which a bonsai will travel many times during its life in a pot. A visit to any bonsai garden will demonstrate that fact. Traditionally, bonsai gardens have two areas, the ‘Good Garden’, in which bonsai at their peak of beauty are displayed, and the ‘Back Garden’, in which bonsai that have been recently transplanted, or heavily pruned, or have past flowering, or are in the bonsai artist’s opinion simply not refined enough yet are kept. Regardless, these ‘cycles of beauty’ will be more frequent in all but the most refined of deciduous bonsai when compared to coniferous bonsai. Finally, the highs and lows will be more pronounced than a coniferous bonsai.

As well, this factor of labor-intensity will translate into higher prices when paying for deciduous bonsai. The grower has more time in and thus has to be compensated for that time.

For all the labor, one is rewarded with a tree that presents an ever-changing display throughout the four seasons. The first flush of spring growth, the lush greenery of summer, the brilliant colors of fall, and the beautiful tracery of the bare branches of winter make deciduous bonsai utterly charming and popular.

When the average person is asked to conjure the image of a bonsai, it’s likely he’ll picture an evergreen such as a pine or juniper. Coniferous bonsai are hugely popular as a traditional choice for a bonsai. And why shouldn’t they be? Perhaps no other type of tree conjures up the feelings of immense age than a gnarly, wind-blasted and twisted conifer collected from the mountains.

Coniferous bonsai have a charm all their own. More stately in metabolism, their beauty can be more subtle than their deciduous brethren. I must confess for a love of conifers, especially Spruce and Scots Pine, both of which make spectacular bonsai. There is nothing

quite like seeing the first apple-green buds erupting like constellations of stars across the branches of an old weathered Spruce. Soon the tree is thickly covered in patins of bright green which eventually darken and blend with the older foliage. What a show! Have you ever seen a Scots Pine bonsai? The bark is wonderful– craggy and dark, with purple undertones that give way to an orange flaky bark higher up the trunk.

Coniferous bonsai are truly a labor of love, with ramification of branches sometimes taking decades to develop and shape. Bleached deadwood called jin and shari often tell a tale of struggles and hardship– added sometimes by the bonsai artist, these dead branches can be artfully carved and sculpted to give the impression of great age.

Whatever your tastes, there is always something to be appreciated in any bonsai, any time of the year.