Bonsai is the ancient Japanese art of dwarfing trees and shaping them into aesthetically pleasing shapes. Usually they are shaped to resemble an old weather-worn tree, but in a miniature size. Just about any tree or woody shrub can be used for bonsai, but there are a few classic species that have been proven by growers over several hundred years, to be particularly appropriate for bonsai.
The red maple, Acer rubrum, is one of the most common and classic trees for bonsai. It is a forgiving, fast grower that has small leaves and is highly prized for its deep red foliage in the fall. It is great for informal upright-style plantings or creating a miniature forest in a raft-style planting.
The Chinese elm, Ulmus parvifolia, is the quintessential bonsai tree. This is what many people think of when they think of bonsai. The leaves are easy to reduce and it is adaptable to a wide range of climate zones. It can be grown indoors or out and behaves like a tropical plant without a dormancy period when grown in the greenhouse.
Azaleas are the most popular type of plant to use for bonsai. Old and masterfully trained plants can sell for hundreds of dollars. They can easily be trimmed into the shape of a small tree and most varieties already have small leaves. Growers are rewarded with a display of bright flowers in the spring or summer. Many different varieties are readily available from neighborhood nurseries who will have plants specifically chosen to grow best in the local climate.
These tough trees produce flowers and small fruit and are tolerant of abuses by novice growers. Their habit of regular vigorous branching aids in creating the miniature tree look. Many bonsai growers try to get the solitary apple tree look out of these plants, complete with fruit and all. Be careful when trimming roots; only remove about one-third of the mass at a time or the plant could suffer and die.