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Where to find plants to create Bonsai.

By Mark Givensel

A question I’m asked by many interested in learning about Bonsai is “Where do you get the trees to create Bonsai from?”  Here are some common ways Bonsai enthusiast acquire plant material to create Bonsai trees.

Cuttings for existing Bonsai.

Many Bonsai artist take cuttings from existing Bonsai or from trees in the ground and develop them into Bonsai.  Particularly with fast growing trees such as Ficus and Bougainvillea trees, cuttings are great and free ways to acquire trees to create Bonsai from. Of course once you receive a cutting you must propagate the roots and give it time to grow into it’s own tree before you can even begin the process of creating a Bonsai from it. This of course will lend itself to acquiring the patience one should have to be successful in the art of Bonsai in the long run.  Places to find good cuttings of trees include your fellow Bonsai enthusiast or at Bonsai demonstration. 

A couple of my better Bonsai have come from watching a demonstration during a class and politely ask the teacher if you may have one of the cuttings which were removed during the demonstration.  You can also simply find trees you like in nature and take cuttings to propagate into trees to turn into Bonsai.

Once you acquire a cutting be sure to take care and propagate in properly in soil so it can begin the process of growing its own root system.  Give the cutting proper time to develop before beginning the process of crating a Bonsai from it.

Photo: Bougainvillea Bonsai - This was originally a cutting picked from the trash from a Bonsai demonstration I attended 2 years ago. Propagated the roots and with patience and time created the latest addition to my Bonsai garden.

Bonsai from Seeds

It is possible to purchase seeds online or at your local nursery or even collect from an existing Bonsai.

Bonsai from seed, however take great deal of time (years) for the seed to grow into a tree which can be developed into a Bonsai. 

Additionally, when starting from seed, you must plant multiple seeds with the understanding that some of the seeds will not even develop into usable material.  

There many people whom do this and techniques for achieving greater success can be found online.

Growing s Bonsai from seed. Photo by Chrissy Polcino

Purchasing Plants from Nurseries

This is a popular way of developing trees into Bonsai, particularly for beginners.  Trees or shrubs can be purchased at your local nursery at a small cost and almost immediately begin the process of developing them into a Bonsai. 

At our clubs beginner’s class we do exactly this with small Junipers  which are purchased six months before our class.   Types of trees to purchase vary from region, but some obvious example are Junipers, Ficus, Azaleas and more.   

Photo: Small Junipers purchased for our Beginner's Bonsai Class at the Valley Isle Bonsai Club in Maui, HI.

Removal of Existing Trees

Removing an existing plant from the ground is another way to acquire plant material to develop into a Bonsai. 

Obtaining the owner’s permission first goes without saying.  I have come across situations where a property owner would like a tree or shrub removed from their yard because they do not like it or need it removed for some other reason.  Taking care to remove it with enough roots in tact to sustain the tree is essential. 

Some plants are easier to do this with than others.  Hearty plant material such as Ficus, Bougainvillea are examples of hearty plants that are pretty easy to dig up and turn into Bonsai.  

Most pines are difficult to dig up and use as Bonsai because they are more delicate and susceptible to stress when removed from the ground.  When removing more delicate trees, take extra care to remove a larger root ball when digging up from the ground.

Photo: 30 year+ Bougainvillea stump.  Removed from the ground after the property owner decided they no longer wanted it because the sharp thorns made it a bother to trim.  All the branches were removed and enough root ball preserved to sustain it.  With patience and calculated pruning this will become a presentable Bonsai in 5-6 time period.

Purchasing Bonsai online

It is possible to purchase Bonsai trees at various stages of development.  Use extra caution when doing this, as you do not get to inspect your plant before you purchase it. 

Additionally do thorough research to  make sure the tree you are purchasing will grow in your area.  Check for reviews online of the seller and be aware of scams. 

It is very easy for a seller to misrepresent the type of tree or its value when selling online.  Make sure the seller understands how to package and ship a Bonsai and uses the quickest shipping method to reduced the amount of stress the Bonsai will endure.

Find people who no longer want their Bonsai.

You would be very surprised with how many trees I’ve received for free from people whom either had too many Bonsai and needed to reduce their collection, or were not in a position to care for them any longer. 

A good way to locate these types of situations is to join a Bonsai club, or post on Craigslist that you’re looking for plant material to turn into Bonsai.  When I first started out in Bonsai, I seemed to take any plant I could get my hand on to try and make it into a Bonsai. 

After several years, I realized I was running out of space in my garden.  As a result of this as well as wanting to share my love of Bonsai, I’ve given away a number of my trees to others just getting started in Bonsai or a gifts to people to show my appreciation of them.

Give your time and patience to the art of Bonsai and you’ll find these types of situations will come your way.

Photo: Ficus given to me by a woman who no longer had the time or desire to care for it.