BonsaiNative Shrubs are Adaptable

Native Shrubs are Adaptable Bonsai:

A bonsai is a plant that resembles a large, old tree in miniature, we can more easily create a bonsai from a model we know.

Native shrubs are by nature survivors. They must, depending on their habitat, be able to tolerate extremes of temperature, animal mutilation, drought and/or flood, and even people! They often make good bonsai material because stress simply makes them try a little harder. They aren't often known for lush, rampant growth as much as their ability to 'bounce back' after a problem that would devastate a pampered shrub in our gardens. They are usually slow growing, often developing trunks that are thick, twisted and gnarled by wind, or animal grazing.

A necessary part of survival must be an ability to reproduce under varied and often less than ideal conditions. This could be seed that is easily dispersed by wind or clinging to animal fur. It could be fruit that is eaten by animals or birds, so seed is dropped some distance from the plant, or evergreen cones picked and stored by squirrels. Some plants reproduce by vegetative reproduction, sending up miniature plants from the root system called 'suckers'. These plants can be removed from the parent plant when they are small, and can become intriguing bonsai.


If we remember our definition that a bonsai is a plant that resembles a large, old tree in miniature, we can more easily create a bonsai from a model we know, rather than an exotic tree we may have never seen. A native plant can have a bonsai style in its native habitat, because something creates the stress that keeps it small, and branch growth is modified by growing conditions. We can create an image of that plant ourselves, under more controlled conditions, as a bonsai.


An interesting choice would be Silver Buffaloberry (Shepherdia argentea) which is native to dry prairies of Canada and the United States. It has oval, silvery leaves, large thorns, is known to sucker freely (a real nuisance in a manicured lawn!) and survive in spite of all the vagaries of prairie weather. It is also sold as a landscape shrub, because it is not only very hardy, but beautiful as well. There are many other shrubs, in climates somewhat different, that would be equally suitable for bonsai. Many of them are available commercially; others may be able to be found growing wild. A book of native trees and shrubs would be helpful, and information should also be available from garden centers and nurseries.


By fall, when the days were becoming shorter and weather getting colder, bring your bonsai into a cold room for the winter. In climates kinder than ours, it could remain outdoors for the winter.


Branches can be removed where necessary to create an open style where each branch is visible. One branch can be wired to force a downward curve, and some of the previous year's growth can be shortened. This can be appealing as it represents the habitat where it grew naturally. If many little hair roots have formed on the original piece of root, remove some of the thick roots and leave as many fine roots as possible.


You may choose a pot that contrasts with silver leaves and maybe add a rock to give your bonsai a feeling of "as if it had happened", as "if it belonged there." Many bonsai soil surfaces are covered with moss, but may look out of place here. A light sprinkling of coarse sand on the soil surface completed the image.


After care consists of a bright, sunny spot where it isn't so hot that the soil dries out too quickly, in the summer, and a winter home where it gets quite cold but doesn't freeze. This will vary, depending on the natural growing conditions of the plant. Try to give native plants as close to their natural growing conditions as possible. Native, prairie shrubs need very little fertilizer - they certainly don't get much where they normally live. Perhaps a balanced fertilizer once each spring, because it is in so small a pot, would be helpful, but that would be enough.


Bonsai from native North American shrubs do not necessarily fit our image of traditional bonsai. It is wise to remember that the Japanese did not develop the concept of bonsai in a rigid manner, expecting everyone throughout time to copy them exactly. They used Japanese shrubs because they were there. While there are many beautiful Japanese bonsai for us to use as inspiration, we can use our native plant material in the same way. I hope you enjoy the search as well as the final result.