The King of True Indoor Bonsai™!

By David W. Fukumoto,   president & founder, Fuku-Bonsai Inc.      

                Brassaia actinophylla,  commonly know as Schefflera,  Octopus Tree, or Queensland Umbrella Tree is amongst the most durable and popular of all proven house plants.  It tolerates neglect and dryness as long as it's not overwatered.  It keeps developing character long after other weaker house plants have peaked and died.  The Japanese Black Pine (Pinus thunbergii)  occupies a comparable position as the "King" of traditional outdoor Japanese bonsai.

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                Photo #1:  Two Brassaia trees in training since 1962 growing over a "boulder."  The taller tree is about 22" tall with the trunk about 2.5" thick.  The smaller bonsai in the foreground is also growing over a rock in a pot that is only 1/2" high.  Both plants are cut back heavily when they grow out of proportion to their containers.
               Brassaia are strong trees and my original bonsai continues to develop more personality each year.   It's been cut back hard many times and growth is consistently vigorous with new aerial roots each year.  To keep it to the desired height,  I simply keep cutting it back.  In most years,  I trim off aerial roots to build stout pillar roots.  On other trees,  I allow all new roots to develop a complex network of fine roots. 
               The size of the pot greatly influences the height.  In photo #1,  the smaller Brassaia has been in training since 1973 and is only 6" tall with a trunk almost 2" thick!  It could be cut back more heavily to create a proportionally stouter tree.  The normal size leaves of a Brassaia growing in the ground are over 24" across.  With steady grown and frequent pinching,  numerous tips will develop, and it's possible to reduce the leaves to less than 1" across.


              All forms of bonsai share the same basic principles.  First,  it's necessary to provide the necessary environment and meet the horticultural needs of the plant.  Second,  begin with ideal plants that already have character and interest to avoid the long process of learning how to develop plants from scratch.  Identical bonsai training techniques are used.


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               Photo #2:  Our HD-1 desk size Brassaia Lava Planting will grow more vigorously after the roots enter the media in the pot.  Cut back hard to emphasize the trunk base.  Raise up the planting and expose the rock by prodding media under the rock.   Once new growth points appear,  select those in desirable positions,  rub of the rest,  and continue training.
               Bonsai are not stunted plants.  Rock-grown plants are ideal starter stock as they are surviving plants of proven durability.  In a gravel filled tray,  they will stay relatively compact,  grow slowly, and be an attractive decorative plant for a long time.  Simply soak the entire rock planting once per week under water for about 30 minutes and replace it on dry gravel.  From time to time,  add a tiny amount of house plant food to the water. 
               If you want faster growth and more character,  bury the rock in a pot using very porous media.  About once per week,  water by letting the pot stand in water up to the rim for 30 minutes.  The pot should be almost totally dry before the plant is watered. After a few months,  roots will be growing over the rock and into the media. Leaves will begin to become larger and growth will be very vigorous.  Increase fertilizer for stronger growth.
                At one point,  it'll be time to cut back very heavily.  In photo #2, one plant was allowed to grow about 18" tall and cut back to only 2"-3".  Coat the cut with Vaseline petroleum jelly to reduce infection and die-back and continue the same weekly watering.  In a few weeks,  you'll notice a number of new growth points developing.  We tend to allow the top and bottom growth points to develop and remove the remainder. Retaining too many growth points will reduce the vigor of the tree.
                This cycle of vigorous growth,  severe cutting back,  and growth tip selection is repeated 2 to 4 times per year.  Use larger containers for stronger growth.  Cut back at different times of the year or with different number of months between cuts.   Utilize all bonsai techniques.  Use spreaders,  ties,  wire,   splints,  etc. The variations are endless and limited only by your imagination!  Fuku-Bonsai develops "Living Sculpture" in this manner and our #8LS-1 items are 8 to 12 years old and are outstanding values. 

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                Photo #3:  Over 20 young seedlings were rock-planted 20 years ago.  From time to time, a few were removed,  and others grew together into an attractive arrangement.   A similar arrangement of traditional outdoor bonsai plant material would also be attractive.  Study successful bonsai designs and substitute trees that will grow well for you!
               A single tree can be developed into beautiful bonsai.  But,  if you want a fuller more complex design,  consider assembling several components.  The bonsai in photo #3 was initially created in 1975 when a number of young seedlings were rock-planted.  Over the years,  some plants were removed and others cut back.   Due to the limited amount of media available,  growth is slow and trunks are slender and elegant. 
               Rock-planting and repotting are basic bonsai techniques.  Many good books and bonsai instruction are now available to teach technique.  But like painting,  it's possible to have outstanding technique and boring results.  The critical factor is having an exciting design concept!

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               Photo #4:  Training began twenty years ago in 1975 when a trimmed branch rooted on one of our benches.  The top was cut off and the roots mounted and leaned on an inclining rock.  Over the years,  the crown became increasingly complex and aerial roots were allowed to create a more interesting trunk design.

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               Photo #5:  In contrast,  this 5 year old plant was grown in a very tall pot to create long roots.  When first repotted,  it needed a wire to help support it until the roots thickened.  Aluminum foil is used as a temporary "pot wall" and every so often,  more roots are exposed as the plant is potted higher each time. 
              I enjoy sinuous filigree root designs and Brassaia allows creative root manipulation and extraordinary results!  These are tropical designs:  large lush green leaves,   trunks that lean out from rocky perches,  and roots that fall and grasp and twist into beautiful naturalistic designs  .  .  .  man and nature coming together in harmony!
                Too often,  bonsai look like other bonsai;  and after looking at many,  they begin to look alike.  To stretch bonsai parameters,  bonsai can be shorter and stouter or thinner and more elegant. 
        *** Go to "Brassaia Chokkan" shared on-going training by Craig Thompson
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This article originally appeared in the Fall 1995 Fuku-Bonsai Review;  1995; Fuku-Bonsai Inc.