Wednesday 18 April 2012

Make your own Bonsai trees

The art of making Bonsai trees is truly a unique and special hobby, but oh so rewarding. Not for the impatient gardener though, as Bonsai trees grow veeeery slowly! Growing Bonsai is a Japanese art form using miniature trees grown in containers. Bonsai can be created from nearly any perennial woody-stemmed tree or shrub species that produces true branches and can be cultivated to remain small through pot confinement with crown and root pruning.

Bonsai is often confused with dwarfing, but dwarfing usually refers to creating cultivars of plant material that are permanent, genetic miniatures of existing species. Bonsai does not require genetically dwarfed trees, but rather depends on growing small trees from regular stock and seeds. Here is one of my experiments making a Bonsai tree. The plant is a Parthenocisus henryana - Chinese Virginia creeper, and fully mature it reaches 10m tall and 3m spread. My plant kept as a Bonsai is nearly 8 years old, and will never grow bigger than this. I have two of these and they started out as cuttings from someone’s garden where this plant was covering a tall fence. I thought it looked so gorgeous in the autumn, when the leaves becomes bright red, so I wanted one for myself, but realised later on that I have nowhere in my garden to put it. The cuttings were therefore just left in the pots, I pruned off the new growth and the long lianas they shoot out every now and then and ended up with a mature plant that slowly stopped growing.

Last spring the two cuttings got a proper Bonsai tray each and, being the first time I have ever done this, I could just hope that they would survive the brutal treatment required to get them to fit in the Bonsai trays. Not only have they survived, but look at the gorgeous gnarly trunk I have ended up with, it really looks like a tree! Here they are, both of them together.

I have also deliberately exposed some of the roots, as is normal for Bonsai trees, something I was a bit worried about – didn’t really know if Virginia creeper would like to have their roots exposed like this, but it doesn’t seem to bother them one bit :-) They have now survived a whole year in Bonsai trays, and all I have given them so far is water. These are outdoor Bonsais and have gone through winter storms and snow, just like their full size siblings would have done. Now that they are putting on leaves again I will give them a bit of fertiliser and replenish the compost.

Here is a picture of one of the Virginia creeper from last autumn, when the leaves were about to go red. They shed their leaves eventually, and put on new leaves in the spring, but this particular type of Virginia creeper does not produce flowers.

I have ‘borrowed’ a photo from the Internet, from a web-site called, just to show you what a Parthenocisus henryana - Chinese Virginia creeper actually looks like, as mine are very far from what you would normally see. They can cover a tall building in just a few years and looks very impressive especially in the autumn when the leaves are gone red. Parthenocisus henryana was first discovered in central China in the mid 1880's by the famous plants man, Augustine Henry, hence the name ‘henryana’ which he used to add to many of the plants he discovered. I still think I prefer this one as a Bonsai :-) I wrote about my Bonsais last year, and ‘borrowed’ this photo back then too, and I got a message from the owner of the website where the photo came from! I am sure he won’t mind me copying his message here, he wrote:
Hi, Tig here from - glad that you found the Parthenocissus henryana image, taken at a house just down the road from us in Ashford, Co Wicklow. Incidentally, Augustine Henry was a Dubliner, and we worked on the garden of his house there where many of the original specimens that he collected are still growing beautifully. P. henryana is a gorgeous plant that seems to grow very well here in Ireland.
I like your bonsais of it - something that would never have crossed my mind.
Tig Mays

And here is my third Bonsai, a honeysuckle! I got this one as a small cutting from a friend’s garden, and he didn’t know the name for it, but it is evergreen, has very sweet scented flowers that remind me of green apples, and it produces black berries. This Bonsai is now 7 years old and grew in a small pot until a year ago when I replanted it into the Bonsai tray. Being evergreen, it looks like this all year round, and it flowers every time I prune it a bit, which I do around 4 times a year for all three Bonsais.

Here is the mother plant, the cutting I got from my friend, which has grown to a big healthy honeysuckle that needs pruning every year to keep in shape. From this one I took a cutting the following year, kept it in the pot and just pruned it. I didn’t intend to make a Bonsai tree back then, I just didn’t have any space for another huge honeysuckle! The cutting quickly grew quite long branches, but I kept snipping off the longest shoots quite close to the trunk and left the smaller ones as they had smaller leaves. Slowly the plant started to take on the shape of a tree, with a woody trunk and a crown.

Here are the flowers of the honeysuckle close-up. They have the most intense scent you can think of, a very fruity-fresh scent, I wouldn’t mind having a perfume that smelled like that! I can smell them from the other end of my garden when it is in full flower, and although I have lots of other scented plants I really like this one. This honeysuckle is also easy to care for, as it doesn’t attract greenflies, as many other do.

And here is my next generation of Bonsais, another honeysuckle same as my first one, can’t stop with just one! And I am also going to try to make Bonsai trees of Jasminum officinale, I am not at all sure if I will succeed with that, but I just have to have a go at it! I had a large jasmine in a tub for years, but it became quite woody and stopped flowering, so I cut off these two pieces and threw away the rest. Come back in 5 years time and see if they are still alive :-)

I did have a plan to take cuttings from my Acer palmatum garnet this spring, and grow them to Bonsais, but after reading about it on the Internet I decided to drop that idea! Apparently they don’t grow well as cuttings, success rate is dismal and most Acer palmatums sold here are grafted anyway. And growing them from seeds is out of the question! The seeds require a 90 days stratification process where you have to turn them over and keep the temperature constant and moisture level under control and…oh, that sounds just too much work for me! I plan to go and buy a cheap, small specimen from a garden centre and grow it as a Bonsai, possibly have a go at training it with wires, haven’t done that yet :-)

I am a bit chuffed that my first attempt to make Bonsai trees have been so successful, especially since I practically ended up making these by pure coincidence. Shame it takes so many years to see a result…now, what else can I possibly make a Bonsai of from my many plants….Viburnums perhaps? Or how about my azalea, that would be a lovely Bonsai if I could manage to make a cutting from it! I also have a Taxus baccata 'Fastigiata Robusta' and I have been looking for seedlings from it that I could dig up and replant to grow as Bonsais, but despite producing lovely berries every year I have not seen any seedlings yet. A Taxus Bonsai would have been amazing! Can you tell I am hooked on Bonsais?? I could just go out and buy one or two or three of course, but that would not be the same as growing them myself. Oh, and perhaps I should tell you that although I have wanted to have a Bonsai for years, it all sparked off last January when some friends gave me an indoor Bonsai, a Serrissa foetidia, which I managed to kill within 4 months as I did not have the required steady light and temperature these fiddly Bonsais need. But that led to me looking for what I could replace it with, and I found out I already had 3 plants in my garden I could experiment with, the results which you just have seen :-) Have you ever tried growing Bonsais yourself? I would love to hear what type of plant or tree you have and how old they are. Until next time, take care.


  1. Brilliant Helene - thank you for such a brilliant and inspriing post. I might just have to have a go with one or two cuttings I have not potted on.

  2. Helene, I think many of your followers will be tempted to have a go at growing Bonsai after reading this.We have one, a Japanese Acer which we have had for ten years, it looks much the same now as it did when purchased.

  3. Helene - Well done with your experiments. You make bonsai sound do-able for the amateur gardener. I've been trying to grow dwarf flowering quince bonsai, but I can't get them to look aged.

  4. Hi Helene
    I'm pleased that you have had so much luck with bonsai. Yours are beautiful! I had one long ago but didn't have the patience to deal with it and so it perished. But after reading your post, I think I'd be willing to give it another try!

  5. paul.brandford@yahoo.com19 April 2012 at 05:52

    Good to hear of trying with cuttings. I've only ever tried with natural plant seeds, i.e. fruit pips or stone etc.
    The only success I've ever had was about 20 years ago with a lemon pip, but that plant went out of control due me traveling away from home too much & too long. I still have that plant but is now nearly 2 feet high & too late. the main stem is about 1.5 inches thick. but from your suggestions I'll try cuttings.

  6. What a great post! I love your bonsai plants :-) so far I did not dare to tackle this project, but I do admire everyone for growing them. I may try one later this year.

  7. Your Bonsai's are amazing! I have never been tempted to try as I'm far too impatient. I'm also a bit mad too... I feel cruel thinning out seedlings so deliberately stunting the growth of a tree would give me sleepless nights! Ha ha ha x Great post Helene x