GROUP I – Hardy, Easy to Grow

This Page Last Updated: February 21, 2015
During the summer of 2008, the first major review and reorganization in years was made to this overall listing
by a committee of members of the Phoenix Bonsai Society
to reflect our most recent actual experiences with these various plants.

The specimens shown immediately after each description
are actual trees our members have cared for here.


       Because of the long and hot dry summers in our area, some special changes must be made to the instructions found in the standard books or articles on bonsai care:

       A coarser soil mix is used here to aid drainage, which is very important in our climate.  The soil components will be primarily inorganic material with some organic material added; the ratio and specific mixture will vary from grower to grower.  Depending on the needs of the plant involved, 50-75% of the mix will be common inorganic components, which include lava (scoria), pumice, perlite, Turface®, crushed granite, chicken grit, coarse sand, and Akadama.  Organic materials include orchid bark, cactus mix, potting soil (Black Gold® is good) or duff (for collected trees).  These should be screened/sieved to remove dust-size particles.  The use of peat moss is discouraged completely or recommended in very limited quantities.  Any form of manure should not be used as it may introduce soil-borne diseases to the plant.  The ideal size of the soil components is 1/16″ to 1/4″ and sharp particles are preferred over smooth, aiding in root division.  If the roots haven’t grown much by the next repotting, you’ll need to increase the amount of inorganic material in the soil.

       Repotting your bonsai will allow the soil to be changed, the roots to be trimmed and, if needed, the orientation of the plant in the pot to be adjusted.  The frequency will depend on the age, species, growth of the tree, and the size of the pot and will be done less frequently here, say every two to five years.  Some trees will become “pot-bound” much sooner than others.  Repot in the shade, out of the wind and preferably on a day with a dew point of at least 30° and, ideally above 40°.  Mist the root ball if it will be out of the pot for any length of time.  Include a little of the original soil in the new soil to inoculate it with needed microorganisms.  The time of year to repot is generally considered to be best when the tree is dormant, with the optimal time being in the spring between bud swelling and bud extension.  Transplant as late in the day as possible so the tree has a longer cooling period to aid in its recovery.  Keep bonsai in the shade for a week after root pruning.  Pots that are slightly deeper or wider than is traditionally used are better in our climate.  Still aesthetically pleasing, these give the roots more room and insulation.

       Watering is more frequent, especially with the very low humidity of the pre-monsoon days.  While the coarser soil mix holds less water, it is better for the trees because there is less possibility of the roots rotting from excess water in the soil.  Some members have had good results using Reverse Osmosis (R.O.) system water.  Whatever kind is used, apply thoroughly so that run-off comes out of the drainage holes.  Then don’t water again, depending on type of plant, size and age, local weather, microclimate siting of the plant, and time of year, until the top portion of the soil is dry.  Let tap water sit 24 hours before using it if possible.  Brown leaf tips may indicate too much or too little watering.  If a tree has wilted leaves, put it in the shade and give it a little water.  Give a little more water later that day.  Let the roots recover slowly — don’t drown them.

       Properly fertilizing your bonsai will maintain the health and growth of the tree, prevent diseases, and improve flowering.  Both organic and inorganic fertilizers consist of macronutrients (Nitrogen, Phosphorous and Potassium, N-P-K) and micronutrients.  Organic sources are slower acting, although safer.  Feed your trees at full to half-strength monthly from March through October, heavier in the spring and lighter in the heat of summer and early fall.  It is a good practice to occasionally vary your fertilizers to assure complete feeding and remember your soil mixture will affect your fertilizing schedule.  In addition to soil feeding, you can occasionally provide foliar feeding and include micronutrients.  Give foliar feedings during non-hot times.  Provide nitrogen from an organic urea source, since most purchased urea is inorganic, as high as 46% nitrogen, not a balanced fertilizer and very likely to burn especially in the heat of the summer.  (“Burning” occurs when types or amounts of certain substances in the soil draw a large amount of moisture out of both the soil AND the plant that is growing in that soil.)  Pay attention to specific plant requirements (below).  Organic fertilizer is less likely to burn roots.

       Take an old toothbrush or wire brush to the drainage holes of your pots at least once a year.  Keep that drainage flowing!  Also, brush the top layer of soil at least once a year to break up the hard/alkaline-water salt residue buildup that could cause water to run off instead of sinking in.  Deep soaking so that there is a lot of water run-off out the bottom of the pot will also help leach out salts.  (Be aware of temporarily increased fertilizer needs after you do deep soak.)

       Young/undeveloped bonsai may require several years in a growing bed or large training pot to develop good form.  Putting trees in a display pot will greatly slow their development and can inhibit trunk-thickening significantly.

       Despite the “all-at-once” creation sometimes shown in our demonstrations, it is much less stressful to your trees if you prune, repot, and wire them at different and appropriate times.  Take the time to study and learn the rhythms of each plant.  Photograph or sketch your trees periodically to measure your progress.  Plan to work with your tree over a long period of time.  Enjoy.

       Keep some form of log or record on the care, fertilizing, pruning, and growth of each of your trees.  Talk to other club members, read the books and magazines, attend workshops and shows, and study full-grown trees of all shapes.



        Because of the nature of the weather in the Greater Metropolitan Phoenix area, many of the plants usually recommended for bonsai are not suitable here for long-term (over 6 months) outdoor locations.  The plants on the following pages have been rated by members of the Phoenix Bonsai Society as to hardiness as bonsai in containers in Maricopa County.  Individual specimens may differ due to variety, size, age, health, and microclimate location.  Generally speaking, a five gallon-size tree is hardier than its one gallon-size counterpart.  Your own experience/success with each type may differ from these averages.
DISCLAIMER:   As with any form of gardening, there are no absolute guarantees that your bonsai will automatically thrive if you choose certain plants and follow the instructions found throughout this site.  Bonsai is an art that requires hands-on experience over a period of time in order to begin to master it.  The information found herein has been gathered over the years from actual local experience.  We offer it for educational content and as a starting point only.



Special Condition Key:

A prefers more acidic soil; try 1 Tablespoon white vinegar in 1 gal. water monthly
B brown leaf tips indicate salt burn/salt build-up, often from too much or too little watering
C subject to iron or manganese chlorosis (best iron source is a chelated mineral)
D subject to random branch die-back (which may be due to wrong-timed pruning)
F frost-sensitive, so protect with frost cloth or bring indoors if a hard freeze is expected
I more adaptable for use as an indoor bonsai than other plants, but still requires a certain level of temperature, light and humidity in order to be healthy and to thrive
L may drop some leaves when relocated or repotted
M very attractive to spider mites, so hose-spray and keep in very good air-flow
P pinch first set of leaves when opened, the next will be smaller in size
R do not root prune if at all possible; never bare root this kind of plant
S leaves sunburn/windburn easily, so provide shelter/protection
U larger specimens can take full sun most of day here when established; caution: increase sun exposure gradually
W bark is tender or branches are brittle, so wire carefully, if at all, to avoid scars and damage
X Outside of a container, this is considered an invasive plant in some areas: err on the side of caution and discard this plant’s clippings or a “dead” specimen in a trash bag, not just on the ground.
^ evergreen
% deciduous/semi-deciduous
* can bloom as bonsai


Note: Plants labeled as susceptible to chlorosis when grown in the ground should not have this problem in a container with a quality soil mix and regular fertilizer schedule. “Established” plants are firmly rooted and producing a good growth of new buds which have opened up into leaves.






GROUP I – Hardy, Easy to Grow


Akebia, Japanese (Akebia quinata) %*


       a climbing vine, so sends out suckers at the base; in fall, cut back; flowers in February/March briefly; cuttings root easily.   [Lardizabalaceae; Ranunculales]


Bougainvillea (Bougainvillea sp.) F,U,W %*


        older/larger landscape specimens transplant best mid-summer [Do you have a landscape plant with a two or more inch diameter trunk growing in the yard that you don’t want any longer?  Any time between the middle of June and the middle of August : Step 1. cut back branches and trunk to 18″ to 24″ high, saving only the largest or best positioned branches, everything else above ground goes (You can start shaping/trimming a couple of days in advance, but that’s not necessary.  Watch out for those thorns!  No harm if you want to leave only a couple of small green leafy branches to ease your mind that the tree’s still alive…) ; Step 2. dig the plant up along with as many lateral roots as possible that extend out only about six inches or so from around the trunk base, being sure to keep any good-looking surface roots  (You’ll probably have a few thick diagonal and vertical below-surface roots to cut — trim them all the way back to the stump.  And don’t worry if you end up with less roots than you do when transplanting other types of trees.  Be sure you have plenty of water with you: just a little for the plant roots, but most of it for you — the air temperature while you’re doing this excavating could easily be over 100°F!  Did we forget to mention that you should start working before mid-morning or after dinner?) ; Step 3. plant the “bougie” in a large container — cut-down 55-gallon drum, mortar mixing box, heavy plastic dish tub large enough for this particular specimen, etc. —  filled with chicken grit or well draining large grained sandy soil mix, and keep sufficiently watered but not waterlogged ; Step 4. the plant should be pushing out lots of new growth buds by the end of one month ; Step 5. the next mid-June, after giving it its first shaping trim, transplant your tree into its first large training pot.  Your dug plant’s success is all but guaranteed.  (Reviewed by Bill Mooney and Max Miller, 01/29/2000) ] ; takes heavy top pruning; cut a branch off just above a thorn to stimulate new bud growth — sometimes cutting below a thorn will cause dieback down to the next branch; buds back on old wood; don’t bare-root young plants; give less water before flowering, more during flowering, little throughout the winter; give lots of light; known to produce “flowers” (actually modified colored showy bracts surrounding a trio of small white or yellow-tipped trumpet-like flowers) up to three separate times a year, flowers easily; if displaying a specimen in full bloom it is possible to remove most of the green leaves to heighten the visual effect of the flowers; possible to withhold watering on established plants until the largest green leaves just start to wilt from dehydration, those leaves should then rehydrate without harm or loss; likes a lot of water in good draining soil; cut largest leaves in half throughout the summer to stimulate bud growth for winter flowers; don’t cut branches from about middle of October until January or February, then prune drastically; use 0-10-10 fertilizer once a month from September until summer to encourage blooming; in summer, feed with high Nitrogen fertilizer to get a lot of growth of leaf pads (Gro-Power 12-8-8 slow release tablet can be used); recommended soil mix is 60% granite or chicken grit and 40% potting mix; transplant in middle of summer; although B. glabra‘s spines are thinner and B. spectabilis leaves’ underside are more hairy (almost velvety), pure strains are very rare as the cultivars readily cross-pollinate.    [Nyctaginaceae; Caryophyllales]     SEE ALSO BCI Plant Sheet.


Elephant Tree (Bursera microphylla) F,U,W ^*


       a woody tree with small, thin pinnate leaves; trunk thickens fairly quickly and becomes fissured with peeling bark; part to full sun; loves the heat; leaves are fragrant when crushed; transplants readily, even as bare root; can be grown from cuttings; doesn’t mind being root-bound; requires early pinching and pruning to induce branching and trunk-thickening; native to Arizona and Mexico.    [Burseraceae; Sapindales]


Fragrant Elephant Tree (Bursera fagaroides) F,U,W %


        similar to B. microphylla above but more frost-sensitive and with larger, broader leaves (select varieties with smallest leaves); from Mexico.    [Burseraceae; Sapindales]


Natal Plum (Carissa macrocarpa) F,U,W^*


      a slow grower; can be very forgiving; keep these plants slightly drier than wetter; wire green branches only; accepts severe pruning; cut large leaves in half to promote re-budding; “Boxwood Beauty” is the smallest-leaved variety available.    [Apocynaceae; Gentianales]     SEE ALSO BCI Plant Sheet.


Texas Ebony (Ebenopsis ebano, formerlyPithecolobium flexicuale) D,R,U,W ^%*


      small leaves; very hardy and backbuds easily; evergreen to semi-evergreen; dark green leaves on zigzagging thorny branches; feathery spikes of creamy yellow fragrant flowers in spring and early summer.    [Leguminosae; Fabales]     SEE ALSOBCI Plant Sheet.


Emu Bush (Eremophila sp.) ^*


       dense shrubs of several varieties from Australia; gets leggy but tolerates heavy pruning; good root structure is found on fairly young plants; in a pot it needs lots of water; early spring and summer colorful flowers attract hummingbirds.    [Myoporaceae; Lamiales]


Weeping Fig (Ficus benjamina) F,I,L ^


        takes heavy top pruning; allow a small stump to remain when a branch is cut off, the stump will dieback; reduce water if leaves have dropped; sensitive to overwatering or cold drafts, keep soil evenly moist; cut largest leaves off and let only the last 1/4″ of the petiole (leaf stalk) to remain in order to control proportions and stimulate new buds; some recommend partially defoliating at least once a season to promote smaller leaves and better branching; full defoliation of a branch could kill it though; most Ficus cuttings successfully “take,” but it is possible that keeping more leaves on the cuttings and using heavier wood produces much better root growth; can also do air layering with some success; white latex sap is irritating to some individuals’ skin, if so, use gloves when pruning; sap can be allowed to dry up and fall off on own or use water-moistened fingers to dilute and remove from branch cuts; “Natasha”, “Brussels Sprouts” and “Too Little” are the smallest-leaved varieties available.     [Moraceae; Rosales]     SEE ALSO BCI Plant Sheet.


Burtt Davyi Fig (Ficus burtt-davyi) F,I ^


        a fast grower; takes heavy pruning; likes a lot of water; “Nana” is the smallest-leaved variety available.    [Moraceae; Rosales]


Chinese Banyan / 
Indian Laurel Fig
(Ficus microcarpa) F,I,U ^


       see above.    [Moraceae; Rosales]


Narrow or Willow-leaf Fig (Ficus salicaria, aka F. nerifolia F,I,L,M ^


    see above ; doesn’t mind being root-bound; needs a little more light than otherFicus species; cold air, not enough light, or overwatering can cause leaf drop; remove large old leaves throughout the year; defoliation said to work well with; a wide but shallow container for training will help the tree grow wider and thicker more quickly.    [Moraceae; Rosales]     SEE ALSO BCI Plant Sheet.


Mexican Ebony (Havardiana mexicana, formerly Pithecellobium mexicanum) D,R,U,W %*


       small grayish green leaves; deciduous; the young bark is grayish green; little puffballs of white are the slightly scented flowers in spring; thorns.    [Leguminosae; Fabales]


Tenaza (Havardiana pallens, formerly Pithecellobium pallens) D,R,U,W ^%*


       semi-deciduous; faster growing than Texas and Mexican Ebony; the vanilla-scented puffball flowers from spring through fall are very fragrant; thorns.    [Leguminosae; Fabales]


Juniper, Procumben (Juniperus procumbens‘Nana’) B,M,U ^


      junipers are NOT indoor bonsai ; pinch/pull off fat new buds on all junipers with fingers, not scissors (no matter how sharp they are, scissors press/crush the needles, which then turn brown — NOTE: on all junipers except Shimpaku and procumbens ‘Nana’, it is now felt to be O.K. to trim with scissors although brown ends will result: those ends will drop off in awhile and any remaining brown ends can be pinched off before a show); carefully pull off old brown needles; don’t overwater; wet the foliage fifteen minutes before working on; give all junipers plenty of light and fresh air, but protect smaller specimens from direct afternoon sun as necessary; do not bare-root junipers; grayish foliage could be severe injury from spider mites; foliage normally takes on purplish tinge during cooler winters; wilted or brown foliage will not revive; best pruning time here is February to March, and then again in October; best wiring time is in the autumn; best re-potting time is January to February.    [Cupressaceae; Coniferales]     SEE ALSO BCI Plant Sheet.


Lantana (Lantana montevidensis) F,U,W %*


        cut back heavily just before leaf buds open in late winter; extremely attractive to white flies; trunk very slow to fatten in its pot, so start with as big a specimen as you can.    [Verbenaceae; Lamiales]     SEE ALSO BCI Plant Sheet.


Dwarf Myrtle (Myrtus communis‘Compacta’) F,M,U ^*


        can prune back hard in February, but don’t do every year; heavy pruning may cause some “brown back”; in spring when tree is actively growing, clip all the leaves off short, then it will send out many side branches; clipping the leaves allows the sun to hit the dormant buds and stimulate growth; do not bare-root; some specimens may be frost-sensitive; fast grower; buds back readily on older wood; try not to remove too much rootage or take off too much of rootball at once, best to do so in early summer.    [Myrtaceae; Myrtales]


Olive, Fruitless (Olea europaea) U,W ^


        watch out for scale insect infestation; let soil become nearly dry before watering again; better to wire green wood; roots grow quickly; can reduce rootball down best in June or July; transplants best in summer; even cut-back large old landscape specimens are said to transplant successfully; only produces flowers on ends of second-year growth, so a properly trimmed bonsai should never flower; keep suckers growing from trunk base under control; take soft cuttings for rooting in October, March or April.    [Oleaceae; Lamiales]     SEE ALSO BCI Plant Sheet.


Ironwood (Olneya tesota) D,U %


       very small leaves that make beautiful pads with pruning; it can be wired and easily styled as a bonsai; grows fast and buds back readily; it has thorns; semi-deciduous.    [Fabaceae; Fabales]


Jabily Tree (Operculicarya decaryi) F,U %


       this Madagascan tree is a member of the cashew family, growing over 20 feet tall with a trunk 3-½ feet in diameter in habitat; fine, shiny green pinnate leaves turn almost black in full sun; can be grown from cuttings but quickly forms a thick rippled trunk (reportedly ¾ inch trunk and 15 inch height in 15 months) from seed; available as seeds or cutting-propagated plants on the web or from desert plant nurseries; thrives in heat.    [Anacardiaceae; Sapindales]


Pittosporum (Pittosporum sp.) ^*


      susceptible to aphids and scale; “Wheeler’s Dwarf” is a common small-leaved variety; P. phillyreoides may do better in desert.    [Pittosporaceae; Apiales]     SEE ALSO BCI Plant Sheet.


African Sumac (Rhus lancea) C,P,U ^*


        can normally drop some of their leaves during the hot summer; let soil get fairly dry between waterings; give extra Nitrogen fertilizer; prefers good drainage soil; upper part of the tree grows like a weed, but trunk and branches take a while to thicken; “Clip and Grow” works better than wiring.    [Anacardiaceae; Sapindales]


Chinese Elm (Ulmus parvifolia) M %


        a fast grower; takes heavy top pruning and pinching ; don’t give extra Iron or high Nitrogen fertilizer, especially not well into autumn: that could cause winter twig die-back; when leaf pruning, allow only the last 1/4″ of the petiole to remain; a dead growing-season elm has dry green leaves, brown leaves are normal end-of-season alive; if in doubt about whether to water or not right now, don’t water: large specimens are fairly forgiving; can defoliate completely in early January to help give some dormancy to; perhaps every other year defoliate in August just before the fall growing season starts; when trimming the fine branches at the end of limbs, trim the end of each limb or branch as a unit so that the outline of the tree is not smooth but consists of many small sections of foliage that are smooth locally; propagation from cuttings very successful; “Catlin” is the variety of choice; “Seiju” is hardier than “Hokkaido” but both of these very small-leaf varieties have brittle branches.    [Ulmaceae; Rosales]    SEE ALSO BCI Plant Sheet.


Vitex / Chaste Tree / Monk’s Pepper (Vitex agnus-castus) U %*


      buds back on old wood; needs lots of light and fresh air; leaf fall may occur if not enough light; water less during dormant period with leaf shed.   [Verbenaceae; Lamiales]




None of these plants is impossible to grow as long-term bonsai here — you may just need a little more learning about the particular requirements.  Try any of these for yourself and increase our knowledge.  Try unlisted species and varieties and increase our knowledge.  The use of a greenhouse, especially during the summer months, can vastly improve your success with the less hardy specimens.  However, be aware that “hothouse plants” are less able to withstand sudden, unforseen changes in growing conditions.  These include outdoor weekend displays or shows, even Matsuri in late February.  Just be advised that the risk is always there.
(“Plants for Bonsai Here” information is derived from two club surveys, the editor’s personal experience, ongoing conversations and e-mails with assorted members, new entries and insights at meetings and displays, material from our late teacher Leroy Fujii’s notes, and contains 10% or less of material found in postings from theInternet Bonsai Club, the Sunset Western Gardening Guide, Bonsai in Your Home by Paul Lesniewicz, The Bonsai Handbook by David Prescott with Colin Lewis, Bonsai with Tropicals by Mary C. Miller, and Plant by Janet Marinelli (ed.-in-chief, DK, 2005).)(After the plant specifics can be found the scientific    [Family; Order]   names.  These are mostly from the slightly modified Cronquist system found in D. J. Mabberley, The Plant-Book (NY: Cambridge University Press; 1987), pp. 627-636.  These names are given to aid in identification and to show broader relationships between the various plants.  It is not necessary to know these in order to successfully grow bonsai here or elsewhere.  For additional relationships of these plants we use, see our Analysis.