Article by Andrew Kozlowski
Buying a bonsai tree really isn’t that different from buying an ordinary plant. The more research you do up front to understand what you are buying, the more likely you will end up with the right bonsai for your home or garden. All plants have their own specific needs for sunlight, water, humidity, fertilizer, and temperature. There are some species that will only survive outdoors, and others that do well inside.
Before you start shopping for a bonsai tree, decide where you intend to keep it. Do you want an indoor or outdoor bonsai? Evergreen coniferous species and deciduous species (that lose their leaves in the fall) are generally considered outdoor bonsai. Some of these species include juniper, Japanese red maple, larch, cypress, blue spruce, and boxwood. Tropical and sub-tropical plants, especially some flowering and fruit-bearing varieties, will flourish inside. These include Norfolk pine, ficus, Fukien tea, desert rose, and starflower.
Because there are so many species suitable for the creation of a bonsai, and so much to know about each species, the best place to get a tree is from a nursery that specializes in bonsai. The experts there will know which trees are right for the local climate as well as how to take care of them. Trained staff will not only be able to advise you on your selection, but because they are providing their plants with the best care, you’ll have the comfort of knowing you are getting a healthy tree.Some garden centers also sell bonsai, but because they’re not specialists, the trees there may be damaged or infected with pests. And if you buy a tree from an online retailer, read customer reviews, and ask questions so you know you are dealing with a reputable bonsai dealer. Be sure to check shipping and return policies to make sure you can return a damaged or unhealthy tree.
If you go to a nursery or garden center, take some time to thoroughly check out both the plants and the establishment itself. The facility should be clean, and the plants should be lush and healthy looking. When you examine bonsai trees, inspect the bark, branches, and leaves for any scars or injuries. The leaves, needles, or flowers should be vibrant, full, and consistent in size. If there are any yellowing, brown, or shriveled leaves, the plant has either been given too much or too little water or may be infested with pests.
You should also check the soil in the pot. If the soil is mushy or slimy, the plant could have root rot, and it will be difficult to nurse it back to health. If the soil is parched and bone dry, the tree’s roots may be very delicate and dried out. Bonsai tree soil should always be moist to the touch, not wet or overly dry. You should also make sure the plant is not pot-bound. If you can see roots poking through the drainage holes at the bottom or circling around the base of the plant, it needs repotting. Unless you’re up for that challenge immediately, pick a different plant.
Remember, since bonsai are just shaped and trained versions of ordinary plants, you can buy a seedling from the nursery and create your own bonsai through wiring, trimming, pruning, and repotting until you’ve achieved the style of tree you want. Many bonsai hobbyists find this to be an extremely rewarding project.
About the Author
Andrew Kozlowski is a naturalist, amateur botanist, and author of articles and books on topics ranging from plant care and gardening to home downsizing. For more than 20 years Andrew has managed environmental programs in the U.S., Europe, Africa, and Latin America. He resides in San Francisco.