Origin: Sub-Saharan Africa
Growth season: October – December
Location: Indoors or outdoors (full sun)
Minimum temperature: 12° C
This tree’s unique, root-like branch structure is the subject of several legends. Some say that the tree was cast down from the heavens and landed upside down, where it started to grow. Others say that when God planted the baobab, it kept walking; to force it to stay still, He replanted it on its head. A third story claims that during the beginning of the world, animals were each given a tree to plant. The hyena was given baobab tree; disgusted, he shoved it in the dirt without care.
No matter its origin, baobabs are prized worldwide for their unique aesthetic and cultural significance and are a favourite of bonsai enthusiasts. Well-suited for beginners and experts alike, the baobab is low maintenance and relatively easy to care for, as long as you are patient and pay attention to the temperature, placement and amount of water it gets.
Baobabs are deciduous, losing leaves in the dry season and remaining bare for up to nine months. Older trees will flower in mid-winter with heavy white flowers.
Caring for a Baobab Bonsai
The baobab is extremely sensitive to temperature and will suffer in the cold. In Australia, this generally means that the plant can remain outside for much of the year; however, you will want to consider bringing it inside in winter and autumn and keep an eye on the thermometer. If the temperature outside drops below 12°, bring your bonsai inside immediately.
Baobabs require at least six hours of direct sun a day; if you are unable to manage this, make sure that you supplement with grow lights for sixteen hours. The baobab cannot grow in shade, so keep this in mind when finding a place for your plant.
Baobabs are built for the hot Australian climate, only needing to be watered about once a month during their growing season. When dormant, baobabs need no water — in fact, watering them will likely result in death.
Be mindful of how much water you give your bonsai, as too much can lead to root rot. Always check first before watering: if the soil is dry, it is time for a drink. If not, even if it is your scheduled watering day for the month, wait and monitor the soil.
Though baobabs can generally grow in nutritionally poor soil, bonsais require a bit of extra attention. Use liquid fertiliser once a month in tandem with watering. Any succulent or cactus fertiliser that is high in potassium and low in nitrogen should be suitable. Make sure you only use half the concentration; too much can cause damage to the plant’s roots and kills the baobab.
It is recommended during the first year of growth that you avoid pruning back; afterwards, the baobab can be pruned at any time, apart from winter. For the best results, start pruning in early spring before the new buds begin to grow.
Remove any new shoots that break the main crown to maintain its shape. Try to cut as close to the bud as possible. According to Doug Hall’s Bonsai in South Africa, an authorative guide for cultivating baobab bonsais:
“The Boabab’s impressiveness is its main point of interest. Extremely masculine in mood, the trunk forms the focal point and should give the feeling of stability. The trunk should be perfectly straight and should not taper towards the top…. The trunk should be free of side branches. All the main branches should start from the top and should give the impression of fingers pointing in all directions into the air.”
Very little wiring is needed with a baobab bonsai. Wiring can cause the branches of the baobab to scar, so it is typically best to let the tree grow naturally and shape by pruning.
If you do choose to wire, do so only with the younger branches and shoots. Weighting these down can also help them to grow horizontally with minimal interference.
Your baobab needs repotting every second year in the spring. Take this opportunity to prune the roots by a third, removing any that are dead or damaged.
The baobab’s roots do not follow a traditional structure and are instead more bulbous, allowing the plant to store water and survive in arid conditions. They require a lot of room to grow, so deeper pots with lots of drainage to keep the roots dry are recommended — generally, a pot that is twice the size of the root ball will do the trick nicely. Make sure there is lots of sand in your soil; a well-draining cactus potting mix should be suitable.
Baobabs can be propagated using both seeds and cuttings with similar results.
Seeds need to be soaked in warm water for a day before being scarified on sandpaper to expose the inner layer. They then need to dry for another day before sowing.
Baobab seeds may not always take, so make sure to plant more than you need. Keep the soil around the seeds nice and moist, but never wet. Make sure the soil maintains a temperature of at least 15° C — this means that you may want to keep your seeds inside during this stage.
As soon as roots start to grow, your seedlings need to be planted in their own pots — they don’t like to share! Make sure that these are at least seven centimetres wide to give them enough room.
In the spring, cuttings can be used to propagate your baobab. Take a cutting with at least three leaves and let it dry out for a few days before planting in a sandy soil mixture.
Though sensitive to temperature and water, the baobab is a tough bonsai that can thrive in poor soil, survive fire and will live for hundreds of years. As long as you take care of its basic needs, your bonsai will be a reliable companion for the rest of your days.
For indoor baobab bonsais, aphids, mealybugs, fungus gnats and spider mites may be a problem. This can be easily dealt with by using a suitable pesticide.
Want more help with your baobab bonsai? Get in touch with us today!