If you’ve come into the possession of a bonsai tree, but aren’t sure what type of tree it is, don’t panic.
Figuring out the species of tree you have is quite easy.
First off, you should look at the foliage to determine if the tree is evergreen, broadleaf evergreen, or deciduous.
Then, once you have determined the category of your tree, you can make out its species based on its foliage, flowers, trunk, bark, and fruit.
Below we will highlight some tips to help you identify your tree’s category and species.
Why Does it Matter What Type of Bonsai I Have?
Different species of bonsai require different care and conditions.
And since you can grow a bonsai from any type of tree or shrub, it’s a great idea to identify what kind of tree you have so you can make sure it gets the care it needs.
For example, you need to grow conifers outdoors because they will not survive as indoor bonsai.
Deciduous trees also do not typically do well inside.
Alternatively, many subtropical species of broadleaf evergreens can survive indoors or outdoors but generally need warm temperatures and bright light.
Bonsais also require different amounts of water and fertilizer, depending on the species.
Additionally, some are well-suited to being shaped with wires, while others are not.
So, as you can see, a little research can help your bonsai grow for years to come.
What Are the Three Main Categories of Bonsai Trees?
The three categories of bonsais are:
- Evergreens, such as juniper or pine
- Deciduous, like maple and elm
- Broadleaf evergreens, which include ficus and jade
How Do I Know if a Bonsai Is an Evergreen?
The foliage on an evergreen tree, such as a conifer or pine, will look like needles growing around the stem, or they will grow outward in long, thin scales.
Conifers will also produce cones but not flowers.
Furthermore, most evergreens keep their needles year-round, but in some species, the needles will turn red or brown and shed in autumn.
Trees with needles that shed are deciduous conifers and include larch, redwood, and bald cypress species.
What Are Common Evergreen Bonsai?
The most popular types of evergreens are juniper, pine, spruce, and fir.
Other evergreen species include cypress, cedar, yew, redwood, and hemlock.
Junipers have short scales or needles with a bright green to slight blue tint.
The juniper may also produce bluish berries.
The bark of the juniper is often reddish-brown but may appear silvery or similar to deadwood.
You can identify pines by their long needles that grow in groups of two to five.
These trees also often produce resin and may have peeling or flaking bark.
If your tree has sharp needles that radiate out from around the stem, you may have a spruce tree.
These trees also produce cones.
A fir will have flat needles that typically grow out from either side of the stem, making the branches appear a bit flat.
Firs also have cones.
How Do I Know if a Bonsai Is a Broadleaf Evergreen?
Broadleaf evergreens are different from other evergreens in that they have flatter and rounder leaves (similar to deciduous trees) that may appear waxy or shiny.
Broadleaves are generally subtropical species that will not go dormant or drop their leaves in the winter.
Additionally, these trees usually cannot tolerate frost, so you must keep them indoors in cold climates.
The first thing to do when identifying a broadleaf evergreen species is to look for how the leaves grow.
Broadleaf evergreen leaves either grow:
- Out from the stem opposite each other in pairs (opposite leaf growth)
- From either side of the stem, with alternating growth points, so no leaf is directly opposite another (alternating leaf growth)
What Are Common Broadleaf Evergreen Bonsai?
The most common broadleaf evergreen bonsais include jade, snow rose, ficus, and Carmona.
Some other broadleaf evergreen species are boxwood, money tree, citrus, umbrella tree, and holly.
Jade has an opposite leaf growth pattern, so its leaves look like they are growing in pairs.
Also, jade is a succulent with thick, oval, water-filled leaves that appear shiny and may have a reddish tint at the edge.
Jade may have a thick trunk with small branches.
Snow rose also has opposite leaf growth, meaning the leaves grow in pairs.
Namely, you can identify the snow rose because it has small, narrow leaves and white flowers.
The leaves may even have white edges.
Additionally, the wood of the snow rose might produce an unpleasant smell when pruned.
The ficus has alternating leaf growth, meaning the leaves do not grow opposite from each other.
The ficus also has vibrant green, almond-shaped leaves, and a thick trunk.
Plus, ficus trees often produce sap, and you may notice white spots on the trunk or branches.
Carmona is another tree with alternating leaf growth.
However, the Carmona has much smaller and darker leaves than a ficus that may have tiny white spots.
It may also produce white flowers or small red, green, or black berries.
How Do I Know if a Bonsai Is Deciduous?
Outdoor deciduous trees will go dormant in the winter, which means their leaves will change color and drop in the fall, and the tree will re-bud in the spring.
You can keep some deciduous bonsai, such as the Chinese elm, indoors year-round, and therefore they may not drop their leaves in autumn.
Most deciduous bonsai, however, must stay outside.
Deciduous bonsai often show surface roots at the base of the trunk.
They will also grow in opposite leaf growth or alternating leaf growth patterns.
What Are Common Deciduous Bonsai?
The most common deciduous bonsais are the Japanese maple and the Chinese elm.
Other popular types include Ginkgo, oak, and Japanese winterberry.
The Japanese maple is probably the most popular deciduous tree with opposite leaf growth.
You can identify this tree by its long, thin, 5-pointed leaves.
The leaves may be red or green during the spring and summer and might turn vibrant colors in the fall.
The most common deciduous tree with alternating leaf growth is the Chinese elm.
Popular with beginners, the Chinese elm has small, shiny leaves that look more like those of a broadleaf evergreen but will drop in fall if you keep your tree outdoors.
Can I Identify My Bonsai Tree by Its Flowers?
Yes, you can often identify bonsais by their flowers.
Overall, flowering bonsai are usually deciduous or broadleaf evergreen.
Flowering deciduous trees are typically fruit trees such as cherry, pomegranate, crabapple, apricot, and apple.
But, keep in mind that these trees may not always produce fruit.
Other flowering deciduous trees include the magnolia, which will produce white, purple, or pink flowers in spring.
Or you may have a wisteria, which will create hanging blue, purple, or white flower clusters.
Many species of broadleaf evergreens produce flowers as well.
The jasmine and gardenia will make white flowers with a strong perfume.
Meanwhile, bougainvillea produce white or magenta flowers.
Azaleas are very common flowering bonsai as well and can produce pink, red, white, or purple flowers in late spring.
Can I Identify My Bonsai Tree by Its Trunk?
Yes, sometimes you can identify a bonsai by its trunk.
For example, not all bonsai will have a traditional central trunk structure.
You may have bamboo or a Hawaiian umbrella tree, which will grow a cluster of thin trunks with no rough bark.
Or, your tree may have a thick, straight trunk with smooth bark like the Japanese elm (Zelkova).
You could also have an oak, which has a thick trunk and thick branches.
Alternatively, your tree might have curves like the letter ‘S.’
This shape could mean it is any number of species, including spruce, ficus, Chinese elm, dwarf jade, or juniper, among others.
Meanwhile, if the dark old wood peels away from the trunk, exposing young wood underneath, you might have a sweet plum (Sageretia).
But, if the bark is stringy and reddish, you could have a redwood.
How Else Can I Identify a Bonsai?
If you still can’t figure out what kind of bonsai tree you have, don’t fret.
Lucky for you, there are many websites that include photos of every type of bonsai to help you identify the tree you have.
But, keep in mind that a young or juvenile tree might look slightly different from an older specimen of the same species.
You may also be able to find an app or online bonsai community that might be able to determine what type of tree you have from a photograph.
And many bonsai growers and enthusiasts write blogs.
In addition to identifying what type of tree you have, bonsai blogs can help you gain additional knowledge on how to care for unusual bonsai species.
If you can’t find what you need on the internet, you may be able to ask questions at a local gardening store or nursery.
If you are lucky, you may even find a bonsai expert who can help you identify your tree and give you tips on its care.
You can find bonsai trees for sale in various places, from big box stores to specialty bonsai nurseries.
Thus, it may not always be obvious what bonsai species you have bought.
But, since bonsai can be any type of tree, it’s crucial to determine what kind of tree you have so it gets the right light, water, temperature, and fertilizer it needs to thrive.
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