Guidelines for Selecting Trees for Bonsai

By Jan Hettick

The following are guidelines for considering which material to use for creating bonsai.  Obviously there are exceptions to each and every guideline, based upon personal taste and opportunity, but it's a place to start.

  • Look at the size of the material—both the current size of the tree and the size of the future bonsai.  The tree should be easy to handle, but big enough to allow you some options.
  • Tree should be climate appropriate.  It should be hardy and suitable to your particular conditions, such as sun/shade, watering and fertilizing habits, and ability to provide winter protection.
  • Check the roots.  Look for spreading, radial roots all around the trunk.  Roots should be fibrous, and the plant should not be too pot bound.  Avoid heavy, crossed roots near the base of the trunk.  If digging from the wild, or someone's yard (make sure you have permission), be sure to get a good root ball and pack or wrap it tightly to reduce wobble of the roots.
  • Look for trunk taper (where is the future apex?).  Good texture improves the illusion of age.
  • Look for branches in good positions, such as a heavy branch about 1/3 of the way up the future bonsai.  There should be lots of branches to provide design options.  Branches should protrude from all sides, and reduce in size up the tree.  Pliable branches are easier to wire and train.
  • Look for small foliage, leaves or needles, and short internodes.  Or, will they reduce with pruning?  Avoid compound leaves as they are rarely in proper proportion to future bonsai.
  • Will the species bud back upon hard pruning?  Is there potential for grafting or air layer?
  • Select a tree in good health.  Avoid trees with evidence of pests or disease.  Color of the leaves should be good.
  • Do you “see the tree”?  If the material suggests a specific design, you are ahead of the game.
  • Finally—is the material exciting?  Is it something you want to work on and look at for the rest of your life?

For more information on collecting potential bonsai material, either from the wild, someone's yard or a garden nursery, check out Deborah R. Koreshoff's book, Bonsai, Its art, Science, History and Philosophy from the BSOP library.