When you first start with bonsai it can be a little unclear about what makes a good tree.
Really any tree can be used as bonsai, but certain species will be far better than others as they just have better characterises that work better as bonsai and they respond better to bonsai techniques.
There is nothing stopping you using a tree that is lacking in some of these characteristics, but you will very quickly start to see its downfalls compared to a tree that has it all.
One of the first things you look at on a tree is its leaves. You want them to look nice, but at the same time they need to be the right size.
Most species can have their leaf size reduced which is perfect for bonsai as it can make the tree look far more in proportion. If you can find a tree that has naturally small leaves, you will be off to a great start.
With small leaves comes small internodes. These are very important for bonsai. The smaller and tighter you can get the internodes, the better the tree will look. You want the foliage to be dense and tightly packed, which again will give the tree the illusion that it is smaller than it actually is.
When it comes to growth rate, this can be a tricky one with bonsai. We want our trees to grow quickly so we can develop them, but at the same time this can make it hard to keep them small.
The biggest thing we look for in a trees growth rate when we use it for bonsai is its ability to respond to pruning. If we cannot prune the tree then it is going to be very difficult to keep it small and it is going to be very difficult to make it look well developed.
It is also very beneficial if a tree can back bud and also if it is able to ramify, meaning the new growth gets smaller and finer, these are very good characteristics that we can use to our advantage.
If a tree can act like this, then it does not matter if it grows fast and strong as we can always prune it back and start building the tree back up, only this time controlling the growth and keeping it smaller using bonsai techniques.
(You can read more information about – What Is The Growth Rate Of A Bonsai Tree?)
How you style the tree is important, but really how you will style your tree will come down to what you are working with. It is best to study the tree and see what direction it wants to go in, and then work with it.
For example, if your tree is leaning off to one side, it is best to style it in this fashion, rather than try and bend it up against gravity.
Really style is not a big issue, no matter the tree species, you can find a style that will work for it.
Wiring is also not a big issue. Most trees can be wired, but if for some reason it can’t, then it isn’t a big deal, you can usually find some other way to style the tree without wire.
Wiring does make bonsai styling a lot easier, but it’s not the only way.
(You can read more about – Why Do We Wire Bonsai?)
A lot of people like to grow certain species of trees for bonsai for the autumn leaves. This is certainly a good reason to use a tree and it can add a lot of value to it, but for me it is more of an extra bonus.
If a tree has this, then that is excellent, if it doesn’t, it can still be a very good tree to use for bonsai.
Being able to see the winter silhouette is also something that is not make or break when it comes to using a tree for bonsai.
Basically if a tree is deciduous, it will drop its leaves and we can see the structure. This is usually a true delight, but its okay if a tree doesn’t do this.
If you have an evergreen tree they can still make a wonderful tree, you just don’t get the changes through the season.
Some people prefer one or the other, but really, it doesn’t matter as both types of tree can be great for bonsai.
The bark of a trunk can really make a tree excellent when it comes to bonsai. This will of course change greatly from species to species, but bark can be a great characteristic to look for.
However, this can be a rather personal taste. Some people love trees that thick textured bark, while other people love the thin delicate smooth bark that is free from scars.
Both of these have their advantages and disadvantages when it comes to growing the tree as bonsai, so although it’s important, you shouldn’t worry too much about it as either can be super for bonsai.
When we are considering a tree for bonsai deadwood can play a part in this. If the tree is deciduous, tropical or a broadleaf evergreen it doesn’t really matter, but if the tree is any other sort of evergreen, then dead wood can really make a big difference.
Personally I think the more the better, especially on pines and junipers. I think if it is done right it can really raise an average tree to a great tree. However, this will be based more on the quality of the material you are using, rather than the species itself.
(You can read more about – Creating Bonsai Deadwood)
Roots are very similar to the branches. We want them to grow well, but we also want them to be able to handle pruning and to get very ramified and eventually be small and compact enough to grow in a small pot.
If a tree species can offer us this, then it will be very good for bonsai. The more we can prune the roots, the more likely we will be able to build a powerful root structure which will look visually superior to a tree where we cannot work the roots to the same amount.
(You can read more about – Developing A Nebari (Spreading Roots))
When you own a tree, you need to care for it in order for it to stay alive. This instantly becomes more difficult when you put it into a bonsai pot. You can’t just ignore it like you can do with a tree in the ground.
When it comes to a good tree for bonsai you want something that can actually survive in a pot and can actually be cared for easily.
We need our trees to be healthy or there is no point growing them as they will simply die.
While I have mostly talked about characteristics of a tree species so far, I think it’s is important to note that the material you use is very important.
You can take a little 1 year old trident maple seedling or a 10 year old trident maple that has been growing in the ground for a few years. It has a think trunk with developed bark and and has had some major pruning and some root work done. It has also now has some branch structure developing.
Both these trees are going to have the same characteristics, as they are both trident maples, but one is going to make a much better bonsai than the other.
Of course the 10 year old one is going to be better, it has better developed attributes. However, there is no reason why the seedling can’t get to that level, it is just a few years behind.
Basically material can be important, but with time any material can be good, so really, you can see this as not important as well.
If you are going out shopping for trees, you can read – How To Pick A Tree For Bonsai, From Nursery Stock to find out what type of material you should be looking for.
Looking at the individual characteristics of a tree and seeing how they respond and how they work as bonsai will help you decide if a tree can be good or not for bonsai.
If you look at what is popular to grow as bonsai and then what is not popular, you will usually find that the popular trees have a lot of the traits that we want, while of course the trees that are not used often usually do not.
Once you have picked a good species, and started to develop your tress, you will want to know – What Actually Makes A Bonsai Good?
Hi, I’m Ian. I discovered bonsai in 2014 and I’ve been hooked ever since. I created this site to spread all the knowledge I have acquired over the years. Don’t forget to check out my Youtube videos where I show the progress of my Bonsai