Bored with run-of-the-mill houseplants? Try bonsai

‘Tis the season to feel the holiday joy. For people who love plants, we find joy every day in the plants we nurture to grow in Nevada’s unpredictable weather. From trees that provide windbreaks to flowers that bring in the pollinators, we fill out landscapes with a variety of specimens. And, if we have enough windows in our homes, we grow as many as possible indoors.

amur maple and shrub bonsai potted landscape
Bonsai pots can contain both trees and shrubs to simulate a mini landscape. Photo by Jenn Fisher, Cooperative Extension.

While our houseplants are mostly of tropical origin and would never survive outside in our winter temperatures, there is one group that is sold as a houseplant, although many of the species prefer the outdoor seasonal weather changes. That is a world of bonsai.

A bonsai plant is a tree or shrub that is grown in a pot and aggressively pruned to limit its growth. This prevents it from becoming normal size, and in the process, creates a living work of art.

For those who grow bonsai plants, they are much more than just another plant on the patio. There is a connection to nature, a journey that begins with each plant. For passionate gardeners, the attention to detail is far beyond just watering and occasionally fertilizing. It is truly an art form that originated in China and evolved in Japan. The connection with the plant is different for each person, but most will say they feel at peace when working with their bonsai. They find patience and calmness as they care for the plant, each day noticing every little change. In many cases, when properly cared for, a bonsai tree will outlive its owner, as most trees have the ability to live well over 100 years.

ficus bonsai tree
Over 25 years old, this ficus bonsai tree still has lush green foliage in varying shades of green. Photo by Wendy Hanson Mazet, Cooperative Extension.

Surprisingly, there are several species we grow here in Nevada that can be trained and grown in the form of bonsai. Species commonly found outside in our landscapes, such as maple, gingko, Chinese elm, juniper, and baldcypress, make excellent specimens for bonsai. While these trees will do best outdoors, experiencing the seasons and the much needed winter dormancy, their long-lived nature and unique forms make them popular as indoor bonsai plants as well. Plants of tropical origin that grow well indoors when bonsaied include including weeping fig, Hawaiian umbrella and dwarf jade tree.

Whether you purchase a restarted bonsai or start from a one-year-old seedling, the art of bonsai is inspiring and an enlightening growing experience. It is best to find a mentor to help you make good choices and learn the proper care that is needed for these special plants. The most important things to know are that bonsai pots will be shorter and squatter than pots for other houseplants to keep the plant dwarfed, and the potting mix will be coarser than most common potting mixes to allow for excellent drainage.

For gardeners looking for a new adventure and a way to focus and work on developing their patience with great rewards, bonsai might be a great hobby to try. With the new year just around the corner, what gardener could say no to a new challenge that does not require a huge amount of space.

Wendy Hanson Mazet is the Master Gardener coordinator for University of Nevada Cooperative Extension. Questions about bonsai care? Contact a Master Gardener at 775-336-0265 or