As a gardener looking to get into bonsai, it’s important to know how to identify a tree. If you aren’t growing the tree from a seed or cutting, you need to know what kind of tree you have. Trees used for bonsai may be evergreen, deciduous, coniferous or fruiting.
Why is it important to know how to identify a bonsai tree?
It’s important to know how to identify a bonsai tree so you can provide the proper care and maintenance that it needs. Certain tree species can have specific requirements for watering, pruning, shaping, training, sunlight, soil, and nutrients. Some bonsai trees can be easy to grow while others may need special care.
If you don’t know how to identify a bonsai tree, you won’t be able to answer any of these questions:
- Is your bonsai an indoor or outdoor tree?
- Does your bonsai require a specialized fertilizer or a unique feeding schedule?
- Does your bonsai tree have a dormant period?
- Does your bonsai thrive with a dry period or does it need to be watered regularly?
- What are the soil requirements?
- How often does your bonsai need to be repotted?
- What’s the best shape for your bonsai tree? (Read more about bonsai shapes and styles)
Not knowing what kind of bonsai tree you are caring for means you won’t know the basics of caring for it.
How to Identify a Bonsai Tree
There are several factors to look at while learning how to identify a bonsai tree. First, you can start by determining if it is an evergreen or a deciduous tree.
Coniferous (Evergreen) Trees
Evergreen trees maintain green leaves all year round even in the cold or dry season. These trees have thicker leaves that slowly fall off instead of all at once in the autumn. You can find evergreen trees in the rainforest and other tropical climates. In climates with harsh winters, you can find a few evergreen trees, mostly conifers, that will tolerate the severe cold. Evergreen leaves and needles have a higher carbon-nitrogen ratio that contributes to the survival of this kind of tree. The needles tend to have a wax-like coat as protection from the elements.
There are over 500 evergreen tree species that typically grow in the Northern hemisphere. Evergreen trees do not produce flowers, but they can grow cones that hold their seeds.
Popular evergreen bonsai trees include Chinese elm, Chinese bird plum, Japanese elm, Fukien tea, boxwood, cedar, juniper, jade, and Okinawa holly.
Deciduous trees require warm and long growing seasons with plenty of humidity. These trees need soil that is full of nutrients and a lot of filtered light, at least 5 hours of sunlight a day. Deciduous trees will lose their leaves in the fall and go into a dormant period when it gets colder. Deciduous trees are known for their multi-colored foliage, especially in the autumn before their leaves fall off. The colors can range from red, orange, purple, and yellow.
Popular deciduous bonsai trees include trident maple, Japanese maple, pomegranate, crabapple, zelkova, and fig.
Observing the foliage is the easiest way to begin identifying a bonsai tree.
Broadleaf trees will have thin, wide leaves. Deciduous trees are known for being broadleaf tree species. Broadleaf trees will produce flowers that allow for pollination from different agents such as birds, water, and wind. Broadleaf trees can be very versatile as they range from seasonal foliage, and various leaf shapes, sizes, textures, and colors.
If your tree has needles, instead of leaves, it is a coniferous tree. That means you can narrow down your search to only evergreen trees. Coniferous trees have foliage that can have two types of growth: whorled or elongating. Whorled growth results in needle-like foliage and elongating growth results in scale-like foliage.
Some needle differences that will help you identify the type of evergreen tree you are observing include:
- Bundled needles are typically only present on pine trees.
- Tapered needles are grown on juniper and cedar trees.
- Straight needles grow on yew trees.
- Needles that fall off all at once every year are grown from cypress and larch trees.
If you have a flowering bonsai tree, you can use the flowers to identify the tree type. Some unique flower patterns to observe include:
- White, star-shaped flowers that bloom in the fall are grown on jade trees.
- Large, pink flowers are typically found on azaleas.
- Clusters of white flowers are grown from Chinese bird plum, hollies, and Jaboticaba.
- Puffy, white flowers are grown from brush cherry trees.
- Small, pink flowers can come from Okinawa holly.
- Multi-colored flowers that range from white, purple, pink or blue typically come from wisteria.
- Orange, yellow, or pink trumpet-shaped flowers are grown from dwarf pomegranate trees.
- Star-shaped, large flowers on bare branches are grown from star magnolias.
If your bonsai tree is producing fruit, you can narrow down your search even more. Some unique fruit patterns to observe include:
- Miniature cones are produced by Hinoki cypress.
- Small black or blueberries are typically grown on Jaboticaba, hollies, or Chinese bird plum.
- Red berries can come from brush cherry.
- Yellow, clustered fruits come from Ginko.
Tree bark is another indicator used to identify a bonsai tree. Here are a few distinct characteristics of tree bark.
- Cracked, light-brown bark can come from a Fukien tea tree.
- Bark with color that ranges from tan to red and brown with a rough texture can come from a Chinese elm tree.
- Dark, scaly bark can indicate that the tree is a Chinese bird plum.
- Bark that peels and curls can indicate that the tree is a Jaboticaba.
Do I have a popular variety on bonsai?
Any tree can indeed be used for bonsai. However, there is a list of most popular tree types that can thrive on extensive pruning and training. These popular bonsai trees are unique because they can grow flowers or fruits- making them versatile. If you are unfamiliar with a bonsai tree, it’s best to go down the list of popular bonsai tree varieties to see if your tree matches the descriptions of those tree types.
Some of the popular bonsai tree types include:
Azaleas can be either evergreen or deciduous depending on the species. Azaleas are popular for bonsai because they are extremely attractive when in bloom.
Azaleas normally have large leaves that are solid green. Azaleas are a flowering shrub. Depending on the species, azalea flowers can range in sizes and colors. You can find azalea flowers in white, pink, purple, red, and orange.
Boxwood is an ornamental, evergreen tree that is often used for bonsai.
Boxwood plants have dense leaves that stay green all year round.
Cedar trees are easy plants for bonsai that can be trained to remain small.
Cedar trees are evergreen and have needle-shaped foliage. Depending on the species, the needles can be short and soft or long.
Cherry blossom trees produce delicate, pink flowers. These trees have a deep cultural significance in many Asian cultures and are a popular tree variety for bonsai.
Cherry blossom trees produce breathtaking flowers that tend to bloom in the spring. The colors can range from white to pink.
Chinese elm is a popular choice for bonsai because of its fast growth and small leaves.
Chinese elms have unique bark that can be a blend of various colors including gray, green, and orange.
Ficus trees are fast-growing trees that can grow indoors. Because of this, it’s a popular choice for bonsai.
Ficus trees have small, green leaves that have a deep green color.
Jade trees are a succulent plant with small, plump leaves.
Jade trees are a symbol of good luck and fortune so it makes sense that many would want to keep one as a bonsai.
- The Japanese maple tree is a deciduous tree that has uniquely shaped leaves that can range in size and colors. Japanese maple tree leaves can vary from bright red, yellow, and orange.
- The leaves are star-shaped and make for a popular snack when deep-fried in certain cultures.
Junipers are a coniferous tree with needles for foliage. It’s an easy tree to grow for beginners.
The needles are awl-shaped and are arranged in pairs or threes.
Most oak trees are deciduous and will replace their leaves every few weeks in the growing period.
An oak tree has broadleaf leaves that are thin and flat.
Knowing how to identify a bonsai tree is important because it dictates how you will train, shape, and care for your tree. Understanding the kind of tree you have and its unique needs is crucial for its growth and development. If you are in a situation where you must care for an unidentified bonsai tree, there are a few steps you can take to gain a better understanding of its needs. First, you want to determine if the tree is coniferous or deciduous. You can observe the leaves, fruit, flowers, and tree bark to identify the tree. There are a few tree varieties that are popular for bonsai due to their tolerance for extreme pruning and living in small space.