- Healthy Plant – This may seem obvious, however, from time to time we find sickly plants that are nicely shaped. We want to save them!
No matter how tempting, buy finished trees and starters that are healthy.
This means appropriately green leaves or needles (depending upon the time of year), stability in the pot and lack of pests. A yellowing evergreen, a plant wobbly in the pot and/or misshapen or damaged leaves are all signs of problems.
- Trunk – Begin your bonsai with something that already has a good start. Bonsai that are basically small rooted cuttings or seedlings, are more than a long term proposition. Unless it is a rare plant, it is usually a waste of money. Short or tall, a proportionately heavy trunk makes a tree look older.
- Taper - Taper means the trunk is wider at the bottom and narrows towards the top. Branches should also narrow toward the tip. Trunks or branches shaped like 'poles' rarely become good bonsai.
- Proportion - Leaves, fruit and flowers must be in scale with the final height. If you want to create or buy a bonsai tree that will remain small, big leaves will detract from the idea of it being a small tree. Those same leaves may be fine on a larger bonsai of the same species. Fruit and flowers rarely reduce in size.
- Dead branches and or scars are signs of age. They can always be created, however, if they are already present you have a head start. If you are selecting a tree that has driftwood, be sure it looks natural.
- Nebari - is a Japanese word that refers to the surface roots that flair out from the base of the tree trunk. That flare is highly valued and adds to the look of age. This Ficus bonsai by Ed Trout is an excellent example of good nebari.
- First Branch - When you buy a bonsai that is an upright plant, a good first branch is important. It helps if it's approximately one third the way up the tree's finished size. It should also be the heaviest branch on the bonsai. If all or most of the big branches are in the top of a plant, consider another plant.
- Lots of Branches - When you buy starters to create your own bonsai, look for plants with lots of branches. You will not need them all. However, you will have more opportunities to find the good ones.
- Proportion - Leaves, fruit and/or flowers should be in scale with the height of your tree. Large fruit or flowers can take away from the "tree look."