The Art Of The Bonsai Tree

The ancient art of bonsai and everything you need to know to get started.


A native Texas ebony, once common but now rare since the big freeze that swept across the Southwest in 1989. This specimen is about 14 years old and is styled in semi-formal upright with exposed roots. 

From the estate of SMU dance professor, Larry White, through Sunshine Miniature Trees 










The Secret Spring

The Asian art of Bonsai offers an alternative to the scarcity of winter.

Dwarf Yaupon Holly in the Chinese penjing style, which seeks to shape trees of unusual character to aesthetic principles. This tree was originally planted in the 40s and was salvaged from a hedgerow in 1991. It took three years of work to create the look seen here, and the tree has been maintained in this style for ten years.

Owner, Blue Sky Bonsai/ The Leone Group

It’s winter, and everywhere you look, not a leaf in sight. Your trees are brown and the yard is bare. You dream of spring, yet you have a secret: an ancient tree stands blooming indoors near an east-facing window. It is gnarled by time, and its branches are bent by a silent wind, or perhaps under the weight of invisible snow. It’s 50 years old if it’s a day, and 14 inches tall.

Welcome to the secret spring of bonsai, the ancient Asian living art of mature woodland trees raised in pots. Bonsai are the pinnacle of indoor gardening and can provide a lifetime of aesthetic happiness.

American bonsai are direct descendants of potted trees cultivated in monasteries and royal gardens in Japan that were brought home by returning WWII soldiers. Japanese miniature tree design, in turn, derived from the even more ancient Chinese penjing designs, developed over centuries by scholars and courtiers. But it’s in the West that bonsai has become the houseplant alternative to outdoor gardens, and it’s the gust of joy you get from taming nature’s oldest living things that accounts for its popularity.

Of course, most traditional bonsai are still grown outside – even during winter. I have a cedar elm bonsai on my terrace that exactly mirrors the winter wood of native cedar elms towering over my garden.

However, banyan ficus, tea trees, and snow roses join a dozen other major varieties of tropical-origin plants flourishing and even blooming indoors year-round. So, if the blasts of winter have you down, consider bonsai. They are your doorway to a secret springtime of your very own.

A nana juniper pulled from old landscape material and trained for 16 months by a beginning bonsai student. It is classed in the shohin (small size) style and trained in the treasured yamadori style (Japanese for a tree collected from the mountains). 

Private Owner, Stephen Tharrett, Blue Sky Bonsai/The Leone Group

Many eager indoor gardeners received little junipers for Christmas only to see them die an ugly death. Don’t be dissuaded: conifers (pines, junipers, cedars, etc.) can only be grown out of doors. Being evergreen, however, they are beautiful even in the dead of winter. What you’re looking for indoors, though, are tropical and semitropical specimens like pomegranates, tiny-leafed Chinese elms, flowering tea trees and snow roses, and any of the thousand varieties of ficus/banyan. You can purchase bonsai already done grown from seed in bonsai dishes and shaped along the way (recommended) or plants uprooted as nursery stock and plunked in a pot. Or, you can buy that same nursery stock yourself and shape to fit. Whichever, choose trees that have a pleasing asymmetrical form and seem hardy with little to no dead wood, leaves, or branches. And watch the watering; too much will result in fungus and root rot, while too little creates a desert in the pot. Your best bet is the digit test: Stick your finger in the soil just past the nail to the first digit and test. Dry? Immerse pot in a pan of water to the base of the tree trunk and let it absorb. Not dry? Don’t water! For outdoor bonsai like a juniper, a nice flowering azalea, or a lovely maple, the same watering rules apply. And finally, bring tender plants and shallow pots in before a hard freeze.

Before you whip out your pruners and start whittling away, make sure you have the proper equipment. Sylvia and Howard Smith of the Bonsai Society of Dallas note, The highest-quality tools are the expensive Masakuni tools from Japan, but if you’re just getting started, you’ll only need pruning scissors (not pruners), concave branch-cutters, bonsai wire-cutters, aluminum bonsai wire, and bamboo chopsticks. A decent pair of butterfly-handled scissors can be purchased for $15-$25 and will make a clean cut, promoting better healing. For bigger branches use concave cutters – a professional grade is best. They cost around $25-$45 and should last forever. Wire-cutters must be made strictly for bonsai; regular cutters can’t cut wire off branches without damaging the bark. And those chopsticks?  They are for stirring and aerating the soil.


If you like step-by-step instruction while enjoying the privacy of your own sofa, here’s a short list of books to consider.

One of the best beginner books: Sunset Publishing’s Bonsai.

For the more advanced grower: Both volumes of the standard reference works, Bonsai Techniques by the late, great John Naka.

For pictures and inspiration: Amy Liang’s beautiful The Living Art of Bonsai.

For a bimonthly fix: Bonsai Today magazine. Sensei (master) says, “check it out.” 


This Taiwan ficus was imported from the Republic of China in 1992 and is about 40 years old. It was probably grown in a field for many years to acquire its wide, tapering trunk. It was then shaped with exposed aerial roots in the banyan style, which is how many varieties
of figs appear in nature. 

Owner, Blue Sky Bonsai/ The Leone Group


Everyone from floral shops to home improvement centers seem to sell bonsai trees and pots these days, and there are a million of them on the web. But good stock can’t reliably be bought wholesale, so here are a few local suppliers and sites that you can
count on.

For rough and finished trees:
Sunshine Miniature Trees
7118 Greenville Ave. 214-691-0127

For outdoor trees:
Blue Sky Bonsai/The Leone Group

404 Southwestern Blvd. 972-471-3500

Rough stock:
North Haven Gardens

7700 Northaven Rd. 214-363-5316

Spectacular stock:
Bonsai Smiths
972-392-1430 (by appointment)

Well-priced pots, stands, and a few indoor trees:
Century Art

400 N. Greenville Ave., #16A. Richardson. 972-699-7888

For any and all pots, books, tools, etc.:
Dallas Bonsai Garden