As the holidays approach, shoppers are once again faced with finding those perfect gifts for friends and family. A well-chosen bonsai will not only delight its recipient; it will become a source of pleasure for many years to come.
Bonsai’s beginnings are shrouded in history. Most experts now believe the practice originated in China during the Han Dynasty two millennia ago and eventually evolved to the highly refined art form that exists today.
Bonsai, literally translated as “tree in tray,” involves more than simply plunking a small tree in a pot and letting nature take its course. A bonsai is like a pet: it requires daily attention.
While it is possible to start a bonsai from common nursery stock (or even from seed), the most reliable way to procure a good specimen is to purchase one that is established and has had a year or two of “training.” The time-honored practice of collecting bonsai from the wilds is no longer encouraged.
What to Look for When Buying Bonsai
First, it is important to remember that some bonsai have been tended for generations; a few venerable examples have been around for several hundred years. These are typically in high demand and quite expensive. The price of a bonsai reflects the amount of time already invested in it.
Most people, particularly those who are new to the art, should start with younger trees. These are less costly and offer the promise of acquiring the characteristics of their owners’ personalities.
When choosing a bonsai, it helps to follow a few tips:
- Follow your instincts. While there are various styles of bonsai (slanting, upright, cascade, group, etc.), select a specimen that looks visually pleasing. Compare your choice to other bonsai you have seen, or to full-sized trees.
- Soil: Evenly moist soil is desirable. Avoid bonsai with waterlogged, compacted, or bone-dry soil. An odd weed or two is acceptable. Moss on the surface usually indicates that the tree is established. Ensure that the pot has adequate drainage holes.
- Roots: It is normal—even desirable—for some bonsai to have exposed roots; these should appear robust and natural as they fan out from the base of the trunk. Thin surface roots should be avoided. Gently rock the tree in its pot; if it seems loose, the root structure may not be well-established.
- Trunk: An evenly-tapered trunk line is desirable. The trunk should appear proportional and heavy enough to support the crown of the tree. Avoid trunks that have unsightly pruning scars or swellings; watch out for bonsai that have been produced by chopping the top off a larger tree and growing a new trunk from the stump (look beneath the foliage for the telltale square step-off).
- Branches: Good structure is more important than the general shape of the crown, which can be trained and shaped. The lower branches should be the heaviest, and branches should be distributed evenly around the trunk. All branches should look natural as they emerge from the trunk. Trunks and branches should have NO scars from training wires. These hardly ever disappear.
- Avoid buying deciduous trees in winter, when it’s hard to judge their condition. Don’t buy trees that look sick or diseased (discolored foliage, stunted branches, infestations of mites or scale insects).
A well-chosen bonsai can be the start of a new journey for anyone with a bit of a horticultural bent. With care (and the advice of a reputable dealer), that first diminutive tree can also become a family heirloom.