Most people growing bonsai have been there at some point. You are excited. You join a forum because you have just bought your first bonsai. So you post your tree online and ask the forum for input on your very first starter bonsai tree. And then you get a few grumpy remarks.
That is not a bonsai
Join a houseplant forum, this one is about bonsai
A little confused you decide to ask for more input. Asking why this is not a bonsai. The label states “bonsai”; The store sells it as bonsai; It was expensive enough, so it must be a bonsai, Right?
Maybe the easiest way to understand why you hold a plant that many will not consider a bonsai, is by understanding what these people do consider a bonsai. So the main question to ask yourself becomes: What is a bonsai? Go ahead. Read that post first. Then continue reading here.
So, Now you know what people mean when talking about a bonsai. Look at the plant you bought or were given. What does it look like? Probably, it looks either like a tuft of leaves, with a bloated set of trunks below it, or an S-shaped trunk, with a few branches on it.
Let’s analyse the tree
Bonsai have surface roots
Look at the roots. Do you see any roots on the surface of the soil? Do you see how a number of strong roots all around the trunk extend out and into the soil? Probably not. This is one of the things most people look for in bonsai. If this is missing, it is missing one of the important characteristics of bonsai.
Bonsai have branches with side branches, and side branches to this
Think of a tree in the park. Imagine the branches. They have loads of side-branches. Which have side-branches, which have side-branches. This ramification is something to strive for in bonsai. Does your tree have this?
Bonsai are unique
Just like in nature trees are all individual and different, bonsai are all different. Trees that you can buy in a shop that look like they are part of a series of thousands of not more, typically are not bonsai.
Bonsai have an overall image that looks like a tree, in miniature
This is perhaps one of the most important tests.. If you critically look at your tree.. Can you see this tree somewhere in the landscape, as a 10 metre tall giant? Or does it look more like something that someone tied around another tree in order to get it to grow like it is? (Note, this is also tricky, as there are lots of good bonsai that people have trouble seeing as a realistic tree)
Is my mallsai tree worthless?
This is a question I see often of fora. Or actually, it is a conclusion often drawn when people are told their plant is not a bonsai. They want to return it to the tore, and get a refund. I would say: Don’t. The plant you liked in the store is still there. Nothing has changed. Unless you find the label “bonsai” the most attractive feature, it should not matter it is not a bonsai. In fact..
Can I create a bonsai out of my mallsai?
In some cases yes. The Ficus ginseng mallsai I would recommend NOT trying to convert into a bonsai. Unless you live in the tropics, and get this plant to do lots of growing, this will not make a decent bonsai in your lifetime. But the common s-shaped mallsai, often formed out of Chinese elm may be converted in a nice bonsai, given a bit of time.
Core to getting there is trimming the tree back to before the worst of the bend, and starting over from there. This also can take a lot of time. So for now, I would recommend just learning how to grow trees in little pots. Once you have mastered that, perhaps you can go out, and buy a few more plants, and this time, do not pick up a mallsai!
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