Four photos of my small bonsai on metal growing shelves
By Jerry Meislik,  Journal Contributing Editor (Whitefish, Montana)

               One trend that seems to be growing is the interest in small-sized bonsai. I've observed there's been a large shift in the preferred size of bonsai from very large imperial bonsai to much smaller trees. We can speculate why interest in smaller trees has grown so much. One reason is that as the bonsai population ages, the cost, ease of manipulation and handling of smaller bonsai becomes more attractive. Secondly there has always been a fascination with small things, like bonsai, and the smaller the better. 

               Exactly what is a small bonsai? You can find all sorts of definitions of what constitutes a small sized tree including  rigid definitions used in bonsai shows that require a tree to be sized by strict definitions of its size and then placed into a specific group for judging and comparison. This makes good sense if you are the judge or selections committee for a show. 

               From my perspective and on a non-show level, I don’t really care if something is classified as shohin, mame or anything else. I am primarily interested in how the tree creates an impact on me.  So for this article I am defining "small" as a bonsai that is comfortably carried in my one hand. This is a pretty wide range but should give you a rough idea of the size of the trees we are discussing. Generally less than about 12-15" or so is small to me.

              In bonsai shows small trees should be kept in their own display area and never shown intermingled with large trees. Small trees although impressive in their own right fail to hold the attention when a large tree is placed alongside it. The small tree appears to be the companion or complement to the larger tree - which it is not.  Now that we have gone through the “what and why” I will discuss some specifics of smaller trees.


               To make a small bonsai believable it must have all its parts in scale to the overall size of the tree. Probably the most difficult part of creating a good small bonsai is to find material with small leaves or leaves that can be kept small with bonsai techniques. 

                In addition to the leaf it must be remembered that the petiole or leaf stem must likewise be short. A long petiole makes for a material that will not look good as a small bonsai. One exception is to use this type of material with a long petiole for a silhouette bonsai in which the canopy is presented as a single or several large masses. The separated leaves are never shown.

                In addition to smaller leaves and short petiole, short internodes are a must. If the leaves are small but the internodes are long it will be difficult to shape a good bonsai. Internodal length is regulated mainly by the tree's genetics, amount of light and proper bonsai care.

               While leaves and internodes can be reduced with good bonsai care the flowers and fruit do not really reduce. They are programmed to be close to full size. So if your goal is to have fruits and flowers in scale you will need to find cultivars that have such small parts. On the other hand growing a full sized fruit on a small tree does have a dramatic effect on the viewer even if often down-graded in bonsai shows.


              To keep bonsai healthy in a small container is no easy task. Plants are genetically programmed to grow and to expand to outcompete their neighbors. Restricting plants to such small size often takes a toll on the bonsai and may be impossible with certain species. 

              For me, drying out is the largest risk for small trees. One full drying period and the tree may be lost completely. Schefflera seem to tolerate drying quite well while some figs will die if desiccated only once.  With valuable or important bonsai I often grow them in larger pots that aesthetics would dictate to prevent drying out.

              Another technique to prevent drying out is to sink the small pots into a bed of sand. Roots can grow out of the bonsai pot's drain hole and into the moist sand and in this way buffer the dryer periods.  For the same reasons the small trees may need protection from wind, and powerful sun. Growing these small trees indoors in a controlled environment is often a simple solution.

              Using a finer soil mix and some more organic content is another way to keep trees in small pots healthy by holding more moisture. 

              Fertilizing must be done with care as dry soil can turn a mistake in fertilization into a catastrophe.

              Insects or animals can create serious damage that is devastating on small tree and yet hardly noticed on a large tree.

              Defoliation is not advised for beginners as it can result in branch or tree loss. Once experienced with your trees and their care defoliation can be carried out every few years. See my previous journal article on defoliation in May of 2013 ( .

               Repotting should be done yearly. Waiting longer can result in branch die off with many species. Scheffleras seem to do well without yearly repotting.


              One can grow bonsai from seed but it will take years for this plant to reach significant size.  (See my article on seed growing, in the Journal of Tropical & True Indoor Bonsai October 2013. )

             A second technique is to get a small plant or rooted cutting and finger prune the soft new growth at regular intervals allowing 5-8 leaves to grow at each growth point and then pinching out, leaving 2-3 new leaves. Over the years you will get a highly detailed bonsai. The tops of trees will need more frequent and heavier pinching to keep them restrained.

             A third technique is to get a larger plant and chop it back   (called reduction)  selecting a new apex from a smaller limb. In this way with repetitive reductions on both trunk and main branches you will develop a nicely shaped tree with good taper and dense branching while keeping the tree to a small size. 

            Or one can use a combination of techniques to shape a small bonsai to your liking.


Root cutting of Ficus 'Mystery'

(below left) Same cutting wrapped with plastic tape and showing new sprouts

(below right) Same cutting a few years later


(Left) Ficus thonningii in wild unrestrained growth. (Right) Same plant reduced down to basic structure

Four 'Mystery Figs':  (above left) Grown from a root cutting;  the other three were trained from stem cuttings.

Four Ficus salicaria (Willow Leaf Fig) - three trained from root cuttings; lower right one from a stem cutting

 (Left) Ficus virens and  (Right) Ficus microcarpa 'Mini Blue' --- both grown from seed

(Left)  Ficus microcarpa, from stem cutting.  (Right) Ficus microcarpa, seed grown









  Ficus natalensis, from stem cutting


Two Dwarf Scheffleras from cuttings in exposed root style










Fortunella hindsii (Hong Kong Kumquat)                 from root cutting




           Any type of shape and bonsai design can be accomplished with small bonsai but small bonsai will often look best if the design can be accomplished with 3-5 branches. Too many branches and the tree will look shrub-like and not tree-like. Careful branch selection will result in the proper scale to carry the design.

            All preliminary growing work should be done in a sizeable growing container and not the final or show container. Otherwise this process will take many, many years to accomplish.

          Containers for small bonsai can be called too bright and  almost gaudy if up-scaled and used for large bonsai. Here is another chance to get creative by working with small trees.


         Of the species that I grow a number make successful small bonsai. Some of the larger leaf varieties take more skill and effort to work while the smaller leaf clones are simple to scale to small bonsai.

         Ficus:    burtt-davyi,   microcarpa,  'Mystery', natalensis,  salicaria, virens

         Hong Kong Kumquat -  Fortunella hindsii

          Schefflera arboricola


          Now is the time for you to start some small bonsai to add to your collection. I know you will love them. Send me some shots of your favorite small bonsai.

           - - - Jerry (   URL:




             Mahalo Jerry for another great meaty article! I still am amazed at the number of bonsai that Jerry is growing ---  and that many are trees that he has grown from seeds or cuttings!  When I first met Jerry in the mid-1980's,  Jerry liked LARGE BONSAI!  So it's interesting that he's growing smaller!  I started the other way and am most comfortable growing small bonsai. 

             The first time that I showed my trees in the early-1960's,  I had just taken a "beginner's bonsai class" that was sponsored by the Honolulu Bonsai Kenkyu Club.  All participants in the class were asked to bring a few of their trees as the club was planning to have one section devoted to beginner trees to be part of an educational exhibit.  I was the youngest, the most inexperienced exhibitor, and I had to drop my trees off and go to work.  I came back later to see that their was no "beginner section or educational exhibit"  and my tiny young trees was sandwiched between the two senior exhibitors who had the largest oldest trees!

              I learned that all the old-timers wanted my small trees to be next to theirs as they really made the old trees look more impressive. The two senior members pulled rank and I was stuck between them!  But my effort caught the attention of Haruo Kaneshiro who saw something in my scrawny plants, took me under his wing, and invited me to visit his home.  Thus began a special friendship for almost thirty years until his passing in 1992. Then my trees were about 7" to 10" tall and that's what I call "small size" which is one size larger than "mame" which was generally 6" or smaller.  

             A SPECIAL OFFER TO FOUNDATION MEMBERS. We originally obtained what Jerry calls 'Mystery Fig" as Ficus natalensis many years ago. Although Fuku-Bonsai does not produce Ficus Bonsai, we have a significant amount of stock of this ficus for those who want to obtain plants. We will make it available to members of the Mid-Pacific Bonsai Foundation based upon donation of fair market values to the Foundation. Fuku-Bonsai will handle the shipping under our standard shipping rate of $15 for the first plant, $22 for 2 plants, $24 for three plants, and free shipping for 4 or more going to the same address.

             Please specify budget range, size and preference, and your city and state: "Young plants less that $25; Semi-trained up to $100; Younger specimens to $500 and older exhibit quality $1,000 and up." Photos will be provided for prior approval for the purchase of older plants. Please email for more information to

              For those Foundation or study group members who want to start their own, make a $25 donation to the Foundation and provide a $15 Fuku-Bonsai packing and shipping fee and I'll send you a some unrooted tip cuttings and unsprouted root cuttings if available.

              Fuku-Bonsai and some study group members are moving toward high-quality small bonsai and an article is posted at:

              You're invited to join us!  ~~~David

*** Return to the June 2014 issue of Journal of Tropical & True Indoor Bonsai

*** Go to Mid-Pacific Bonsai Foundation website
*** Go to Fuku-Bonsai website
© Mid-Pacific Bonsai Foundation and Fuku-Bonsai, 2014