Edible Bonsai:Traditionally, bonsai are old treasures, lovingly cared for, passed down for generations.
This concept makes it difficult for beginners to embark on what appears to be a very long-term commitment. They want to see a bonsai! Even more experienced bonsai enthusiasts appreciate a feeling of accomplishment when they can see a bonsai develop from an herb plant in a few months instead of many years. There are many herbs, which develop a woody stem at quite a young age, have interesting foliage, and are easy to obtain.
What is an herb? A dictionary definition is - a plant, either annual or perennial, which is valued for its medicinal properties, flavour or scent. Appropriate ones include rosemary, lavender, thyme, scented geranium and oregano. These are all easily available in small pots from a garden centre, at little cost.
They can also be grown from seed. An ideal time to start seeds would be spring, but if fluorescent lights are available, they can be grown any time during the year. A warm white and a cool white bulb work well, several inches above the plants, and on for about twelve to fourteen hours a day. A timer is well worth the cost. Herb seeds should be easy to find, from seed catalogues if not locally. Growing from seed will give you the opportunity to experiment quite inexpensively, and is an interesting hobby in itself. Most herb seeds must be warm to germinate and grow well, so read labels!
There is a lot of variety in leaf colour, texture, fragrance, and flowering of herbs. Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) has narrow, grey coloured leaves, mauve flowers and a familiar fragrance. It becomes woody quickly, and is a sturdy plant that can be kept for years. Scented geraniums (not the common, garden variety of pelargonium, but the same family) can have curly or ruffled leaves, or variegated green and white leaves, and many different fragrances, resembling lemon, apple, rose or nutmeg. They also produce small, attractive flowers if grown in enough light. Thyme is a ground cover or small, erect perennial shrub. The shrubby type (Thymus vulgaris) with its tiny leaves and lilac flowers makes a neat, fragrant little bonsai. Oregano (Origanum vulgare) is an upright shrub with oval leaves and purplish-pink blooms. A favourite of mine is rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) with its narrow, aromatic leaves, glossy green above and greyish white beneath. That is the plant we will use for this bonsai.
Look for a compact plant with a strong stem and branches alternating along the stem. Most woody little herbs will be an informal upright style, although creeping thyme makes a wonderful cascade style bonsai. Young plants often have many branches very close together. Choose a front, with strong branches growing toward either side and the back, and remove leaves on the underside of the branches, and enough small branches to reveal the trunk. As with any bonsai, the goal is to create layers, with a branch to one side, the back and the other side, but with this small a plant, it might not be possible. Any crossing branches are removed, and those growing directly toward the viewer. Pruning off little branches and leaves close to the trunk and the bottom third of the trunk will give the impression of age - trees lose their oldest branches as they mature, and the oldest branches are closest to the trunk are closest to the ground.
Wiring the trunk to create a curve will enhance the informal upright style. Choose either copper or anodized aluminium wire, just heavy enough to hold the new shape when the trunk is curved. Anchor it at the base of the plant, and gently spiral it up the trunk. The curve you form will maintain its position. Remember that branches should extend from the outside of the curve, not the inside. Young herb plants will grow very rapidly, under good growing conditions, so check the wiring regularly to be sure it is not cutting into the trunk. Remove gently as the trunk begins to grow and the curve you created should remain.
This is possibly all that should be done at this stage, if we are starting in the fall. Houseplants, even those growing directly under lights, become somewhat dormant during the winter months when their light level is lower than in summer sun. Most herbs do well as houseplants during the winter, either in bright, sunny windows or under fluorescent lights. In warmer climates, they can spend the winter months outdoors in a sheltered spot. They will need less water when dormant than when actively growing, but do not allow them to become too dry. If the pot the plant came in is of sufficient size, it will likely be fine for the winter.
In the spring, before new growth commences, it is time to choose a bonsai pot. Remove heavy roots and try to retain as many fine hair roots as possible. Choose a pot appropriate for the style you are creating, to enhance the interesting foliage, and in a size in proportion to the plant. This is the time of new growth. Pruning will consist of pinching out new sprouts as they grow in unwanted places. You might also get a branch in a place you do want! As new growth matures, the plant will need pruning to shorten and shape the branches. It is now looking like a bonsai!
It can be grown outdoors during the summer, in a sheltered spot, but remember that it will dry out very quickly in such a small pot. It can also do well in a sunny window. A kitchen window would be perfect! A little herb bonsai would make a delightful gift. There is one distinct advantage to an herb bonsai. Every time you prune it, you can eat the trimmings! Try doing that with any other kind of bonsai!