Obtaining The Plants

There are many ways to obtain bonsai. At the beginning it is best to work with the more common plants. Most are obtainable at local nurseries. Plants that are native the area where you live often make fine subjects for bonsai. But make sure these plants meet the bonsai requirements of size, leaf, trunk, and scale. (See fig. 11.)

Formal Upright Mugho Pine
Fig. 11 -- A group planting in any of the
bonsai styles makes use of only one species
of tree. Cryptomeria is shown here.

Some old favorites grown as bonsai because of their classical good looks are: Sargent juniper (Juniperus chinensis sargentii); Japanese black pine (Pinus thunbergii); wisteria (Wisteria floribunda, Wisteria sinensis); flowering cherries (Prunus subhirtella, Prunus yedoensis); and graybark elm (zelkova serrata).

Among the plants recommended for the beginner are: Firethorn (Pyracantha coccinea or Pyracantha fortuneana) which is an evergreen with small leaves; Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster dammeri) which characteristics similar to those of firethorn; the Dwarf pomegranate (Punica granatum nana) which is deciduous, and has tiny green leaves; and Juniper (Juniperus scopulorum or Juniperus virginiana) which is a hardy evergreen with heavy foliage that takes well to pruning.

In addition to nursery stock, plants for bonsai can be collected from the wild or propogated from plants in your garden. (See discussion of propagation.)

Growers can now purchase mature bonsai created in this country; these plants have recently become available at selected nurseries. Mature bonsai plants also can be imported from Japan, but only deciduous varieties ship well.

Collecting plants from the wild

The job of finding plants in the wild that adapt well to bonsai is difficult for the beginner. Traveling in wild terrain where such specimens are found can be hazardous. Also, at least a year must pass before a plant collected this way can be containerized, and much care is necessary to insure survival during this period. Wild plants, however, often look older than they actually are and make handsome specimens.

The best time for collecting plants in the wild is during March and April, when new growth or leaves have not yet begun to sprout. Here, the collector must recognize when the wild plant is in its dormant period.

On a collecting trip the following items will be helpful: a small collapsible shovel; polyethylene sheeting and string for wrapping rootballs; sphagnum moss for packing around the rootball; a container of water for wetting leaves and rootball; and a small crowbar for getting roots out of rocks.

Remember the following points when taking plants from the wild:
  1. Get permission to dig from the owner of the property.
  2. Do not randomly dig wild plants. Make sure that the plant you are removing is not on your State conservation list. Remember that nothing can be removed from national parks and similarly conserved areas.
  3. When digging the plant you want, try not to injure the taproots. Get as much soil around the roots as possible. Older trees will require greater care and a slower training schedule.
  4. After you cover the roots and soil with wet sphagnum, wrap the rootball in polyethylene film. Wet the branches with water frequently.
  5. At home, unwrap the rootball carefully. (It is not necessary to unwrap the rootball if it is wrapped in burlap.) Plant the tree in loose garden soil in a location that is protected from the sun and wind.
  6. Water, and examine the roots of the new plant for several moths. Feed the plant sparingly.
  7. After at least 1 year, the plant can be dug up and placed in a container. (Large trees may have to go into a succession of smaller containers before they are ready.) Trim the roots around the base carefully so the plant will fit into its container.
  8. If shaping is necessary when potting a collected tree, prune the branches lightly.
  9. Two years after the plant has been collected from the wild, start it on a regular training program.

Importing mature plants

If you are going to import bonsai trees from Japan, it is best to do so during their dormant period. Such plants are subject to severe fumigation before they are allowed to enter this country and thus are likely to be harmed by fumigation.

To find out which trees can be imported, check with the Plant Protection and Quarantine Programs, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Hyattsville, MD 20782.

Bonsai plants are now available that have been trained in the United States. These plants have the advantage of being acclimated to various areas of the country.

The nursery plant

The easiest and best method for the beginner to obtain bonsai is to buy nursery stock and develop his own. These plants come in 1- and 5-gallon cans and their root systems have become adapted to cramped conditions.

Buy only young, healthy plants when purchasing nursery stock. When searching for potential bonsai among nursery stock, do the following: Do not thin the root system excessively all at once when placing the plant in a smaller container. By thinning the roots gradually and reducing the root system, safely and over a period of years, you will not damage the plant. If you prune and shape first and neglect thinning the roots, some plants may die.
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