How To Identify A Bonsai Tree

In growing and cultivating bonsai trees, getting to know the tree you are working on will give you a lot of information on how to care for your trees. This is very basic when growing bonsai and is one of the most important as well before you begin any bonsai growing project.

Now, you don’t have to be a professional arborist to identify a bonsai tree. Whether you have received a bonsai as a gift or you are planning on growing one as a project, you must properly identify each try to provide appropriate care such as the amount of light, water, feeding and type of soil to provide.

Take the time to find out what type of tree you have to help you provide the best growing environment.

Things you need to follow this tutorial

  • Bonsai plant

You can purchase bonsai trees that are ready to be cared for and shaped up from any bonsai garden stores and from nurseries locally and online. Bonsai may also be grown using seeds or cuttings depending on the type of tree you wish to use.

  • Bonsai Pot

There are a variety of bonsai pots that you can use. There are pots of different colors, sizes, shapes(rectangular, circular or triangular) and there are pots with wide mouths, deep bodies, and shallow insides.

Some growers stay true to Japanese tradition and use plain jade pots. This is because bonsai presentation is all about the tree and not the pot that holds it.

  • Bonsai potting soil

The type of potting soil depends on the type of tree you wish to grow. Usually, you need soil that has good drainage as well as good absorbing and aerating abilities.

The best type of soil for the job, therefore, is a sandy loam soil which can hold much water and fertilizer but can drain the excess. It also allows oxygen to enter the roots which can improve overall root health and structure.

  • Aggregates

There are a variety of aggregates that you can use like Akadama, pebbles, pumic and more. These will improve the drainage of your soil and increase aeration as well. A layer of aggregates is placed at the bottom of a pot before the potting soil is added.

  • Water

Use only clean water to water your bonsai. It could be tap water, bottled water or rain water as long as it is safe to use for plants. In doubt? Have your water tested before watering your plants.

  • Balanced fertilizer

The type of fertilizer to feed your bonsai trees depend on the type of tree you are trying to grow. The most common fertilizer feeding needed by bonsai plants is a balanced fertilizer with equal amounts of nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous. Be sure to follow fertilizer instructions carefully.

  • Raffia

Raffia is a natural material made of fiber which is usually wrapped around a branch or limb of a bonsai tree to avoid injury. This is moistened with water and then carefully wrapped a round the branch before wire or hooks are applied.

  • Pruning shears

Pruning shears will help you prune and trim your bonsai depending on the style you wish to have. There are many types of pruning shears but no matter what you want to use, have these cleaned and sanitized before using on your plants.

  • Wire

Positioning a branch, limb or the trunk of the bonsai is hard but wiring can help. Wires come in a variety of sizes and kinds but the most commonly used ones are annealed copper and anodized aluminum. These wires come in different gauges too so be sure to check which one suits your bonsai.

  • Pliers

You need a pair of pliers to cut wires to the length you want to use and to cut wires to remove it. You may also use pliers to cut large roots or to remove tough barks which scissors just can do.

Step by step instructions

To be worthy of caring for any bonsai tree, you need to learn how to identify what type of tree you are growing and cultivating. Take time to research on the type of bonsai using these tips.

Visit bonsai nurseries

You will be able to learn a lot about bonsai when you visit different local nurseries. These bonsai growing shops will give you a chance to check out a variety of bonsai tree species and to explore about bonsai cultivation. If you are lucky enough to live near a bonsai nursery then by all means take this as an advantage and learn all you can.

Talk to a bonsai master

It’s not impossible to talk to a bonsai master or master grower these days and this is all thanks to the internet. Almost everyone has a social media account including bonsai growers. May it be in Twitter, Facebook or Reddit, you can ask away any questions about the bonsai you are trying to grow. Be sure to take notes and keep an open mind.

Follow bonsai social media sites

You will find a variety of social media sites that cater primarily to bonsai growing. Follow these sites to get the latest on social events and special bonsai expeditions in your area or abroad.

Check out bonsai blogs

Nowadays,most bonsai growers and gardeners have their own blogs to cater to anyone who would like to learn about bonsai growing. You can follow these blogs for the best growing tips, tricks and the latest information on how to grow bonsai.

Get to know about different tree species from online sites

A lot of online sites and knowledge-based sites are all about growing bonsai. You will also learn about how to identify a variety of trees and plants which is needed for every successful bonsai growing.

Do you have a deciduous, evergreen or coniferous tree?

There are basic tree types that are used for bonsai growing. The first type of tree is the deciduous tree or trees that naturally lose their leaves during the wintertime. The second type of tree is the evergreen tree variety which stays green all year-round. Other important characteristics of deciduous trees and coniferous trees that you must understand before growing bonsai trees:

Deciduous trees

  • Need long and warm growing seasons
  • Need abundant moisture
  • Need rich soil. Leaves that drop to  the soil can be used as an organic material for the soil
  • The leaves are arranged in strata: canopy, under story, shrub, and ground
  • Need a lot of light that is filtered out before it reaches the ground
  • Will drop leaves during one season. Trees stop photosynthesis during this dormant period.
  • Have three different types: Northern hardwood, central hardwood and southeast pine and oak.

Evergreen/coniferous trees

  • With more than 500 tree species
  • Most coniferous trees grow in the Northern Hemisphere where these form forests
  • Coniferous trees can adapt to cold weather and acidic soils found in these areas.
  • Coniferous trees do not produce flowers but grow cones to hold their seeds.
  • Coniferous trees produce male, pollen-bearing cones, and female,seed-bearing cones. Both appear on the same plant
  • Leaves look like needles and stay in the tree all year round.
  • Cypresses and larches are an exception because these lose their needles once every year.
  • Conifer needles protect themselves with a waxy outer coat to let snow and ice slide off.
  • Leaves that are single-spaced out in the branches are fir trees like a spruce-fir or Douglas fir.
  • Needles that grow in bundles are pine trees
  • Clustered needles are larch trees
  • Straight needles grow from yew trees.
  • Awl-shaped and scale-like needles are in juniper and cedar trees.

The most common deciduous trees used as bonsai include Chinese elm, Japanese elm, and Japanese maple. The most popular evergreen or coniferous trees used are cedar and juniper trees. Therefore bonsai trees may be classified as either deciduous or coniferous.

Do you have an indoor or outdoor specimen?

Bonsai trees may also be classified as either indoor or an outdoor specimen. Most bonsai trees are hardy and may be grown indoors as well as outdoors. However, there is an ideal growing environment for every bonsai tree. For instance, tropical bonsai tree varieties need a warm tropical climate and therefore may be a challenge for people who live in cold climates.

Overlooking growing temperature in considering the type of tree you wish to grow could be very dangerous for your trees. Your trees could even die when you neglect to consider whether these are indoor or outdoor specimens. 

Growing in indoors or in a greenhouse

Some outdoor bonsai trees may still be cultivated despite living in an environment that is not conducive to its growing needs. The best way is to house one in a greenhouse or even grow one indoors.

Growing indoors and in a greenhouse has a number of advantages than outdoors

  • You will be able to protect your bonsai from extreme weather conditions like storms, high winds, strong rain and severe heat.
  • You will be able to protect your bonsai from the onslaught of a variety of pests like spider months, maggots, codling moths, weevils, sawflies, scale insects and more.
  • You can monitor the health of your bonsai closely when you grow these indoors.
  • You can provide the ideal lighting, water, and humidity conditions to help your trees grow.
  • Your bonsai trees can be used as indoor ornamental plants when you grow these in a greenhouse or indoors.

Does your bonsai need a specific type of soil?

Another way to classify bonsai is according to the type of soil it grows in. Once you have identified the type of bonsai you have, the type of soil that it needs to grow from is next. Because there are a variety of trees that can be made into bonsai, each tree has a specific soil requirement to grow.

Take for example cedar trees which require acidic soils to grow.Apple trees, on the other hand, need soil that has Akadama content to improve drainage and aeration.

The best soil to grow bonsai trees

Ideally, bonsai trees need soil that can absorb nutrients and water well. The soil must also be able to drain water and nutrients well.

Sandy loamy soil fits these properties. A sandy loamy soil mix may be purchased from any bonsai nursery or garden shops.

Does your tree have a specific shape that needs to be encouraged?

Possibly the most interesting way to classify bonsai trees is according to a shape or style that it is grown. Bonsai trees are shaped into a variety of designs. You will be able to shape your tree to whatever design you wish and this is accomplished by using strict pruning, shaping, and wiring techniques.

Take note that not all trees are the same. Some trees will do well in a cascading design while some will grow perfectly in a broom or upright design. Here are the most common ones.

  • Broom style (hokidachi)

The broom style bonsai design is a design that will work best for deciduous trees that have thick and extensive branches. This is a straight and upright design that shows off the lovely tree branches and leaves.The tree branches out in all directions and will be found 1/3 of its height.The branches and the leaves have a ball-shaped crown and are considered the focal point of the design.

  • Formal upright (chokkan)

This is a common bonsai form that is achieved naturally when a tree is exposed to a lot of light and when the tree has good health. You will notice a bit of tapering as the trunk grows upright. The trunk should be thicker at the bottom and should grow thinner as it goes higher. At about ¼ of the total height of the trunk, branching should develop. There should be a single branch at the top of the design and this is the crown. The trunk should not span the entire length of the tree.

  • Informal upright (moyogi)

The trunk is upright at this design which looks like the letter “S”. This is a style that is common in bonsai and is also very well known in nature. The tapering of the trunk is clearly seen in the moyogi while the base of the trunk is thicker compared to the higher part of the trunk.

  • Slanting bonsai style (shakan)

The slanting bonsai style is a style achieved by continuous blowing wind blowing in one direction. The tree should be in a 60 to 80 degrees relative to the ground. To design your bonsai, the roots should be well-developed on one side so the tree won’t fall. On the side where the tree is leaning the roots must not be too developed. The first level branch grows opposite the direction of the tree to create a balance. The trunk may be slightly bent or completely straighten the shakan design. The trunk is always thicker at the bottom than along the top to be able to hold the design of the tree.

  • Cascade bonsai style (kengai)

This design is what trees look like when these thrive along the sides of cliffs and waterfalls. The tree tends to bend down due to falling snow or rocks that add weight to the branches or leaves. This is difficult to achieve and maintain because this design opposes the tree’s natural tendency to grow upright.

This type of bonsai design should be placed in a tall pot to be able to support the tree’s cascading growth. There would only be a small upright growth in this design and then the trunk bends downwards to complete the cascading form. The crown of the tree grows above the rim of the pot as the branches grow alternately left and right.

  • Semi-cascade bonsai style (han-kengai)

The han-kengai is a little similar to the kengai and is also a style that depicts plants and trees that are grown near cliffs and waterfalls, lakes and rivers. The trunk is upright for a small length but then the remainder of the trunk grows downwards or sidewards. The difference from the cascading style is that the trunk will not grow below the bottom of the planter.The crown is not at the top but at the bottom of the rim of the pot.

  • Literati bonsai style (bunjingi)

The literati style depicts the growth of a tree in a forest or area that is densely populated by many other trees. In this setting,the competition is very fierce that only one tree can survive by growing taller and stronger than the others. The trunk of the bonsai tree develops crookedly and does not branch out due to the sun only focused on the top of the tree. Growers also create a sense of drama in this style as the branches are jinned or removed from the side of the trunk. This depicts the e tree’s struggle to survive in nature. The literati style bonsai is are planted in a small round pot to show the dramatic design.

  • Windswept bonsai style (Fukinagashi)

The windswept design depicts the tree’s struggle to regain control despite tough weather conditions. The branches on the tree grow along one side of the tree due to the strong and persistent wind. The branches may grow out on the sides of the trunk however these will grow bent to the other side. Wiring, pruning and positioning the bonsai tree in the planter are techniques used to perfect the fukinagashi design.

  • Double trunk style (sokan)

The double trunk style is very common in nature but may not be in bonsai. The tree trunk branches out into two main trunks but the same trunk grows from one root system. One trunk could grow smaller than the other however the thicker one will become nearly upright while the smaller one will grow out in a slanted fashion.  Both trunks will grow eventually and have a single canopy of leaves.

  • Multitrunk bonsai style (kabudachi)

The multitrunk style has three or more trunks instead of just two growing from one root system or from just one tree. All the trunks create one crown of leaves and the thickest and the most developed trunk is allowed to grow and even beyond the top of the display.

  • Forest bonsai style (yose-ue)

The forest bonsai style is like a multi-trunk style however these grow from several trunks. The yose-ue style has individual trunks and is grown in one large pot. The most developed tree or trees are placed in the middle of the display while the smaller trees are planted in a staggered manner.The design is styled like a mini forest with moss, rocks and other materials are added to the design

  • Growing on a rock bonsai style (seki-joju)

In the real world, trees can grow almost anywhere.There are even trees that grow on a rocky terrain. When trees grow on a rock,the roots are forced to search for nutrient-rich soil. The roots could therefore grow in cracks and in holes. As the roots become exposed on the soil surface, these develop a thicker bark to protect them from the heat of the sun.The roots will also grow over, under and along the sides of obstacles like rocks and tiles and these are depicted in the seki-joju.

  • Growing in a rock bonsai style (Ishisuki)

In this style, tree roots grow in cracks and holes of rocks. There is not much room for roots to grow and even room to take in nutrients from the soil. This is why with this setting you need to water and fertilize your soil more often. Although this design looks very interesting, there is not much space to store water and nutrients as the tree grows in a shallow pot with a rock that compete for pot space.

  • Shari bonsai style (sharimiki)

Bonsai trees develop a bald or barkless area along their trunks as time goes by. The barkless part in a natural setting is the result of harsh weather conditions. The bald part starts from the area where the root emerges and this tapers along the top of the tree. The barkless part can be exposed to sunlight to whiten or it can be removed with a knife or pliers and calcium sulfate is applied to enhance the bleaching process. This is a unique way of presenting different bonsai trees and when creatively done it is a dramatic design that is worthy of display.

Do you have a flowering bonsai?

Bonsai trees may also be classified to either fruit-bearing or non-fruit bearing or ornamental bonsai.The most common fruit-bearing bonsai is the apple tree. Apple bonsai trees area sight to behold with lovely dark green leaves that grow thick and pink and white flowers that usually grow during summer time. But as these flowers fall,small green apple fruits emerge. Just like their regular counterparts, these apples may be eaten or you can simply preserve them as décor.

An ornamental bonsai tree will not bear fruits like conifers or evergreens. These are mostly used as display and are often placed in indoor structures like homes, offices, museums and malls or can be placed in outdoor gardens as well. 

Do you have a popular variety bonsai?

Some bonsai are just more popular than others. This could be due to their ability to bear fruits, flowers or cones, their striking beauty or versatility. When it comes to bonsai shows, these are stars of the show. You may also find these in outdoor landscaped gardens and meditation areas. If you want a popular bonsai to care for then get ready to pay more because these are generally more expensive compared to regular bonsai types.

  • Chinese quince – these trees are very popular for their pink flowers with large,yellow fruit.
  • Ficus –this bonsai tree has densely packed oval-shaped shiny, thick leaves. Sometimes these can grow flowers.
  • Bougainvillea – this is a very lovely flowering tree with blooms that come in a variety of colors. This has thick,shiny green leaves that are perfect for many kinds of bonsai design.
  • Chinese elm – this tree has delicate twigs and branches coming from one single trunk. Leaves are very delicate with scalloped edge.
  • Japanese elm – this tree has darker green leaves compared to the Chinese elm. Leaves are toothed and have distinct pointed tips.
  • Japanese maple: Comes with a maple’s traditional five-pointed leaf that changes colors in the seasons. Bark changes color with age, going from green to light gray or brown.
  • Cedar – these trees are slow-growing but will look mighty when mature. There are clusters of needles on branches.
  • Juniper – there are more than 30 juniper trees that exist. The tree’s needles come in a variety of colors from dark blue green to light green.
    Needles are sharp at the tree’s young stage and soften as the tree ages.
  • Dwarf bamboo – bamboo grows fast and is easy-to-grow. These trees have long stems with thin, long leaves. Stems will be planted solo or bundled.

These are elegant trees that are usually used for bonsai making. You can make your own bonsai garden with many different tree varieties.

Does your bonsai need special care?

Some bonsai can be easy to grow while some may need expertise and experience in a grower. Choosing an easy growing bonsai if you are new to cultivating bonsai trees is the best way to go. You can move on to bonsai trees that are harder to grow when you have become more at ease in growing different bonsai varieties

  • Climate – some bonsai trees require a cold or winter-like climate to thrive and grow while some will be able to grow in tropical conditions. You will also find trees that can survive extreme dry or cold conditions and therefore may be grown indoors or outdoors.
  • Feeding – some bonsai trees require specialized feeding schedule and fertilizer or nutrients. There are bonsai trees that need fertilizer that have higher nitrogen levels during a certain period of their growth while others may not be too picky. Still there are easy-growing bonsai trees that need balanced fertilizers while some require less frequent feedings. All these depend on the tree species you are trying to grow.
  • Watering – Some trees need regular watering while some can thrive in dry conditions. Some need more water especially for trees that bear fruit while some are not too kind to moist soil. But no matter what watering schedule your tree requires, never water when the soil is moist because your tree could develop root rot or mold growth. Water only when the soil is dry.
  • Soil requirements – some trees need a special kind of soil while some may simply grow on any kind of potting soil. Be sure to check your plant’s growing requirements because any mistake could become detrimental to your plant’s health.
  • Re-potting needs – some bonsai trees need a larger and deeper pot because of the tree’s massive and fast-growing roots. Some may not need to be re-potted at least for 3 to 4 years or even 5.

No matter what type of bonsai tree you have be sure to use a pot that has adequate drainage to improve aeration and drainage of excess water or fertilizer. And of course, repot using fresh new soil to replenish nutrients.

Shaping and training

Some bonsai plants are easy to shape while some require more help. Some may need a stronger wire because of their large and thick trunk while some will heed to aluminum wires.

But no matter what type of tree you want to develop into a bonsai, make sure to mind the tree’s health and growth when these are wired. Remove the wires on time to avoid injuries on your plant’s limbs and branches.


The type of bonsai tree will dictate the kind of growing techniques, training and shaping styles you need to employ. There are a lot of tree species which can be developed into a bonsai. Learning what type of tree and what its needs are is crucial to its development and growth.