Michael is an expert in the care and maintenance of bonsai trees.
Indoor Bonsai Trees
Most bonsai species, even if sold as "indoor bonsai," are actually meant to live outside. They need direct sunlight and benefit from temperature changes, both daily and seasonally. Unlike other house plants, they require frequent watering and occasional root and foliage pruning.
In short, they require all the same care and needs of outdoor bonsai, but they can tolerate indoor conditions. This makes them the perfect choice for someone who wants to decorate a home or office with a beautiful bonsai tree.
Interior lights are usually insufficient to supply the indoor bonsai with enough light to photosynthesize, so it is important to place the tree in an area that gets direct or indirect sunlight through a window.
However, you need to be careful to expose the tree neither to the freezing cold of a windowsill during the frozen winter, nor the sauna-like heat of an unventilated windowsill area in the summer. Fluorescent lighting or high-intensity growing lamps can substitute for sunlight for some species.
The Five Best Indoor Bonsai Trees
- Ficus is a fig plant and one of the most popular choices for indoor bonsai trees.
- The dwarf umbrella tree's foliage spreads to form an umbrella shape.
- Chinese elms are among the easiest choices for bonsai beginners.
- The snow rose is capable of producing tiny, adorable flowers.
- Fukien tea is one of the more popular species for roadside and market bonsai sellers.
Ficus is one of the most popular indoor bonsai species. There are more than 800 species of ficus, but there are two that are great indoor growers, and they are easy enough to maintain that they make good beginner trees.
- Ficus benjamina is a weeping fig that is evergreen and fast-growing, with lush foliage and interesting roots. It can best be shaped as a formal or informal upright, or in a weeping banyan tree style. They scar easily and don't easily heal over large pruning wounds, so it is best to grow these up from smaller trees than to do trunk chops from larger trees.
- Ficus neriifolia is a willow-leafed fig that is known for its thin foliage, strong root spread, and twiggy branch ramification.
Ficus bonsai are known for their milky sap, which leaks from cuts or wounds to the ficus. Some are also capable of producing small flowers; however, these can only be pollinated by specialized insects.
These bonsai are capable of producing aerial roots, but in order to do so, they must be situated in nearly 100% humidity.
- Location and Hardiness: Zones 10–11. Keep in areas below 60°F and place in direct sunlight to encourage the growth of small foliage.
- Diseases and Pests: Generally problem-free. Poor positioning may result in discoloration or drop.
- Watering: Keep moist; do not waterlog or keep excessively dry.
- Pruning: Prune down to two leaves after six to eight leaves have grown.
- Repotting: Repot during spring every other year.
2. Dwarf Umbrella Tree
The dwarf umbrella tree, or Schefflera arboricola, is named after the adorable, canopy-like growth of its foliage. It is also sometimes referred to as an "octopus tree" or "parasol plant."
It is a hardy and popular evergreen houseplant that looks great in a bonsai pot and can be trained as a bonsai in a variety of styles, including weeping banyan style or with exposed roots over rocks.
It is evergreen and produces palmately compound sets of 7 to 9 leaflets. During periods of strong foliage growth, high humidity, and root street (from pruning, or becoming root-bound), this species may produce highly prized aerial roots that will reach down into the soil from branches above.
Scheffleras will also bud back on old wood, allowing for heaving pruning if necessary to develop the desired shape. They do not, however, develop extremely woody trunks, which causes some bonsai collectors to avoid them. They do not respond well to wiring and bending, and directional pruning and cutting back to a younger apex are the primary ways of shaping and training them.
The sap of dwarf umbrella trees can cause skin irritation in some individuals, and it is best kept out of the reach of pets, as it can be mildly toxic to some animals.
They will tolerate low indoor lighting better than most bonsai species, and they are tolerant of low humidity better than most, too. If healthy, they will tolerate defoliation once a year.
- Location and Hardiness: Zones 10–12.
- Diseases and Pests: Can attract spider mites. Keeping your plant in high humidity is the best trick for preventing unwanted pests.
- Watering: Keep moist, but do not overwater. These trees like to be misted every few days.
- Pruning: These plants tend to grow quickly and trimming the tips can help them to grow bushier as opposed to taller.
- Repotting: They should be repotted every other year.
3. Chinese Elm
Chinese elms (Ulmus parvifolia) are not only great trees to grow indoors, but they are also among the easiest trees for bonsai beginners. Their fast growth (and highly predictable growth pattern), small leaves, woody trunks, and short nodes make it very easy for a beginner to grow a healthy and attractive bonsai tree, even inside a home or office.
They are more tolerant of underwatering and overwatering than most bonsai species. They respond well to wire or can be trained by directional pruning. They can grow in good or bad soil, as long as you don't let them simply sit in water or dry out completely. They are easy to grow from clippings, or, if you have mature Chinese elms in your neighborhood, they sprout prolifically from fresh seeds.
And, believe it or not, they are edible. The seeds are edible, if bland, and the fresh light green leaves taste like lettuce and can be mixed in with a salad for an extra layer of flavor. Bon appetit!
- Location and Hardiness: Zones 5–9. Keep in full sun up to 90°F.
- Diseases and Pests: Gall mites and aphids could cause problems. Keep the leaves free from dust to prevent pests and promote good circulation.
- Watering: Keep moist, but do not overwater.
- Pruning: Allow new shoots to develop eight leaf pairs, then trim them down to two or three.
- Repotting: Repot every two years in early spring.
4. Snow Rose
The snow rose, or Serissa japonica, is a tree with a woody stem that produces tiny leaves and very small, attractive, and plentiful flowers. It's also known as "the tree of a thousand stars." It is evergreen or semi-evergreen and will do as well inside as it does outdoors. It can flower in every season, but it is most prolific from early spring to late autumn.
Flowers are usually white, but pinkish cultivars are available, as are variegated cultivars. They develop twiggy branches that can be easily ramified by pruning back to one or two sets of leaves when branches get leggy. They are sensitive to changes in light, temperature, and water, and may lose some foliage, temporarily, when they are stressed by such changes. But they are usually quick to rebound to health.
The snow rose is a somewhat high-maintenance bonsai for beginners and will shed its leaves if it experiences stress, such as fluctuations in temperature or watering routines.
- Location and Hardiness: Zones 8–11. Store in a warm, humid location.
- Diseases and Pests: Scale can be an issue, and poor placement can result in yellowing foliage.
- Watering: Keep moist; mist foliage.
- Pruning: These plants should be "finger-pruned," and care should be taken to remove sprouts growing off the tree's base so as not to overwhelm the plant's energy.
- Repotting: These trees dislike having their roots pruned and should be repotted every two to three years.
5. Fukien Tea
The Fukien tea tree, also called Carmona retusa or Ehretia microphylla, named for the province of Southern China where it is native, can grow to more than a dozen feet if planted in the ground outside. But it also thrives indoors, and it is one of the most popular mass-produced indoor bonsai species offered for sale by roadside vendors, fair vendors, and big-box retailers.
It produces small white flowers year-round and small red fruits. The foliage is small, rich green, and waxy. This tree is well suited for an informal upright style. Unfortunately, many of the mass-produced Fukien tea trees are styled into a very curvy S-shape that is difficult to alter once the trunk becomes too thick to bend with wire.
It does best in stronger light for at least five to six hours per day. Although it will thrive indoors, it benefits from spending some time outside in spring and summer. It does not do well if temperatures drop below 40 degrees. During winter months, especially in colder climates in which cold outside air comes in and is heated, causing very low humidity, this species will benefit from the use of a humidity tray.
- Location and Hardiness: Zones 10–11. Placement in front of south- or west-facing windows with four to six hours of light a day is ideal.
- Diseases and Pests: Aphids, mealybugs, and scale insects can cause problems, and the flowers can attract insects in warmer climates.
- Watering: Water when the soil's surface starts to dry out.
- Pruning: Prune regularly to develop a dense branch structure. Keep new growth pruned back when it gets too long and unkempt, but do not remove all of the growing tips. Fertilize regularly throughout the growing season. Prune off the bottom quarter of the root ball when repotting.
- Repotting: Repot every other year or whenever the roots begin to fill the pot (i.e., you see root masses pushing out the bottom of your drainage holes). As a tropical species, this tree prefers repotting to take place in the middle of summer, rather than late winter or early spring like many other species.
Indoor Bonsai Care
Maintenance of an indoor bonsai tree is not much different than maintenance of outdoor species. Never permit the soil to become completely dry.
If your tree is placed in a hot area of the house, more frequent watering or the use of a humidity tree may be necessary. A humidity tray is a shallow tray filled with water and small stones, on top of which you place your tree's pot. The evaporating water provides moisture to the tree via absorption through the foliage.
Fertilizer should be applied, at half strength, at least monthly, except during the winter season. Like any bonsai, you should remove new growth that is unwanted, by clipping or pinching off. At least once a year, you should inspect the soil to make sure the tree is not root-bound. Most indoor bonsai species benefit from repotting every other year.
With proper care, feeding and watering, your indoor bonsai can remain small, healthy, and attractive indefinitely.
- Antosh, G. (2018, November 07). How To Grow and Care For Schefflera Arboricola - Dwarf Umbrella Tree.
- Carmona (Fukien Tea) Care guide for the Carmona Bonsai tree. (n.d.).
- Dwarf Umbrella Tree 101 - Care and Growth of Schefflera Arboricola. (2017, November 09).
- Ficus Bonsai tree (Retusa, Ginseng) Care guide for the Ficus Bonsai tree. (n.d.).
- Snow Rose Bonsai Care. (n.d.).
- Warren, P. (2014). Bonsai. London: Dorling Kindersley.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2014 Michael
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Tim Marshall from Otley Yorkshire LS21 on December 02, 2018:
I have recently started to enjoy bonsai and have become slightly obsessed. However, I do have certain restrictions as I live in an apartment but I do have the option of using the surrounding grounds. This is not ideal though as the whole point is for me to have bonsai is to have them where I can see them and enjoy them. Living in Yorkshire, winter daylight is restricted to around six hours with frost from around October to March although this can happen before and after these months. I have one bonsai which is the Ficus Retusa of about 7 years. This was bought this year and I felt this to be a good start. A chinese Elm takes my fancy. All of this however may not be worth pursuing if bonsai have to be in the surrounding gardens out of my easy view. I need to be honest and realistic. Tim Marshall
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