Plant material for Bonsai

The creation of bonsai requires raw material in the form of plants. All plants with woody stems having a good network of branches and which adapt well to hard pruning are suitable for bonsai. Container grown nursery plants are more suitable because of their compact root system. Plants for making a bonsai can be either self-propagated or container grown or collected from the wilds. All the plants are a product of vegetative propagation one way or the other. They are propagated either by seeds, or by cuttings, air-layering or grafts.

For that matter, grafts are also cuttings propagated in a special way. As bonsai are also ordinary plants in every way, raw material for a bonsai is also obtained from any of these methods. Sometimes plants are collected from the wilds, but these are also seedlings which most times grow in inhospitable conditions and are shaped for a long time by nature and therefore have a more natural form than that given by man. Nursery grown plants are also either seedlings or air-layerings or grafted material. When choosing material for bonsai one must select only those plants which have a lot of branches and have a tapering trunkline as a starting point. These characteristics are sure to ensure that such a plant will eventually make a presentable bonsai in a reasonably short time.

The main options for plant material are, however, collected plants and nursery plants.
Collected plants 
Colleting of plants from the wilds is a difficult proposition. Firstly, the collector has to obtain the consent/permission of the property owner/govt. authorities or sometimes permission may not be required. Secondly, the chances of survival for the collected material depends on several factors such the species of the plant, season of collecting, the amount of rootage remaining after collection, the balance achieved between foliage amp; rootage, the conditions which are provided on transplanting and of course the skill of the collector. In most climates, the best time for collecting is early spring. Dig up as much of the root ball as is possible, wrap the roots with damp sphagnum moss or gunny cloth (similar to hessian) and wrap up the whole plant in plastic sheeting to prevent dehydration. Cut off the top growth as much as possible to match the reduced rootage, keeping the future design of the tree in mind.

Plant the tree as quickly as possible in a large pot or planter box using coarse sand or similar fast draining material; water it thoroughly and keep it in a semi-shaded location, i.e., neither too much shade nor too much sun. Do not prune or otherwise disturb

the plant for the next year or so letting it grow unchecked to recoup its energy. Intervals between waterings too need to be monitored closely; keep the soil moist but not soggy.. Feeding with fertilizers can be started only when consistent growth is observed. Training or pruning can commence only after rank growth is achieved ensuring that the roots have taken hold. In some cases it may take three/four years for a wild plant to adjust to cramped quarters before any major shaping process can be undertaken. (Tip – Be careful; too much water to a plant used to surviving in a more or less dry condition can lead to root rotting).

Nursery plants

As creating bonsai from nursery stock is by far the easiest method, we will confine ourselves to this source of obtaining material for creating bonsai, although the guidelines will equally apply to material from other sources as well with minor differences.

In order to convert a nursery plant into a bonsai, the first consideration will have to be prolific number of branches growing all along the trunkline and in all directions. The second priority should be good rootage. This is not a problem with nursery stock.

Once a likely plant is chosen, the plant should be viewed from all directions to determine the movement of its trunk in order to determine the style characteristic of the tree. If the trunk is ramrod straight, it can be a bonsai in the Formal Upright style. If the trunk is bending in any direction, it can be any of the other upright styles such as the Informal Upright or the Slanting style. If the branches are emerging from a single point on the trunk, it can be a Broom style bonsai. The inclination of the trunk should be the main guideline.

Once the style has been determined, the branches can be pruned. In case of the Formal, Informal Upright and Slanting styles, alternate branches can be removed in a tiered structure so that the remaining branches would seem to move up the trunk line positioned left and right (or vice versa) gradually reducing in length as they emerge from higher up the trunk, describing roughly a spiraling stairway up the trunk line. On the other hand, branches on the Broom style can be tip pruned in such a way that they present a symmetrical outline in the silhouette of an open umbrella.

Wiring is an option that can be considered only where necessary, as is not a novices’ cup of tea.


Potting the newly created bonsai

Once the necessary shape is obtained, the plant can be potted in a suitable bonsai pot. Even a nursery plant which already has a compact root ball and has been living in a pot will not always survive the radical root pruning needed to put it directly in a shallow bonsai pot. The move should therefore be made in stages to ease the shock; the plant should be moved into an intermediate training pot after the first pruning and over the next two growing seasons it can be gradually shifted to shallower pots until finally it can be put into its final pot. Pruning and training can continue even in the intermediate pots. (Tip: Potential material can be grown in oversize pots or in the ground to initiate faster growth and development of trunk and branches. Once a noticeable trunk girth is developed, it can be gradually transplanted into a bonsai pot).

For the more formal styles (i.e., Formal Upright or Slanting styles), a pot with more formal lines such as the rectangle should be chosen; for the Informal Upright and Broom styles, a pot with softer outlines such as an oval or round should be chosen. Plastic mesh should be placed on the drainage holes of the pot and after a layer of granular soil is placed on the bottom, the plant – which has been removed from its original container and a part of the old soil is removed – should be placed slightly off center in the pot in such a way that the lowest and longest branch is positioned over the larger portion of the pot and its tip is projecting over the rim of the pot. Once the position of the plant is satisfactory, more soil is added in the pot and poked gently so that all air pockets are filled without compacting. As soon as this is overand the plant seems stable, the pot and the plant is watered copiously and placed in a shaded spot to recover.

The newly potted bonsai is gradually exposed to more sunlight once new growth is evident and sustained.

The branches are allowed to elongate & grow and further pruning and fertilizing is undertaken only after a growth of say, six to seven leaves per branch. The bonsai is pruned only periodically to maintain its shape and also to develop further growth in a compact space. A bonsai is normally allowed to grow and pruned alternately so as to achieve maturity and ramification.

Repotting depends on the rate of growth. Normally, vigorously growing plants are repotted every year or every second year; slower growing plants are repotted after 3-5 years only.

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