Choosing a Chinese Elm as your bonsai plant is a really smart move. They are hardy and easy to train, and are very popular among bonsai enthusiasts all over the world. Seasoned professionals and complete beginners will find joy, interest and just enough of a challenge with a Chinese Elm.
All about Chinese Elms
It was the Chinese who began the art of growing ornamental plants, thousands of years ago. One plant they are believed to have cultivated into objects of art and beauty is the Chinese Elm (Ulmus parvifolia). Surprisingly, many of the Chinese Elms are found in other Asian counties including Korea and Japan. Today, Chinese Elms that are used in bonsai are commonly grown and prepared in Japan and China, with both nations exporting millions of specimens each year.
Types of Chinese Elms
There are several types of trees considered Chinese Elms. You might come across trees that don’t really seem to look consistent or alike. Some Chinese Elms have a smooth bark. These types are best suited to being kept indoors all year round. Chinese Elms best suited to outside positions have a rough bark, and this bark only hardens and becomes more appealing as the tree ages. Some recommended varieties to look out for are:
- Hokkaido- with small leaves and very corky bark
- Catlin- a common dwarf variety that is slow-growing
- Nire- with fringed leaves that form in dense groups
Chinese Elm Bonsai appearance
The plants generally have small shiny leaves, of a dark green shade. These leaves will turn golden yellow or a reddish-brown as autumn approaches. There is usually a show of red flowers in summer and an emergent green fruit after flowering. The bark may be rough or smooth and in tones of brown and grey. The bark is often shed in inconsistent and irregular patches to reveal exciting and contrasting other colours underneath.
Chinese Elm as bonsai
There are many reasons that Chinese Elms are such a popular plant choice. It is relatively easy to keep the plant looking neat by pinching. You will not be likely to need as many bonsai tools to get started with this low-care plant. They suit informal upright and the more dramatic broom style. Chinese forms such as the penjing (landscape) style can create a dramatic and interesting look. They can also be grown from cuttings.
Chinese Elm bonsai likes and dislikes
Depending on where you place them in your home or garden, you place your Chinese Elm; it will be either deciduous or semi-evergreen. Remember, the thicker bark forms prefer to be outside while a plant with smooth bark should be kept inside. Chinese Elms like a lot of light, so find a bright, sunny spot for your plant. Outdoor plants will be able to deal with colder climates and are unlikely to need any extra protection.
Watering Chinese Elm bonsai
Regardless of whether your plant is inside or outside of the house, make sure to keep the water coming during spring and summer and even into the start of autumn. A moist soil will keep the plant supported and happy during the warmer seasons. A moist soil is less critical during winter, but don’t forget about this task altogether. Use your fingers to test for moisture – a bit of dryness during the winter is ok. An occasional mist or fine spray over the plant is a good idea.
Repotting Chinese Elm bonsai
If you take possession of a young Chinese Elm, you will likely have around two years before you first need to repot. In the Chinese Elm, the roots could be compared to spaghetti- long and quite thick. Chinese Elms suits a group style so if you have multiples plants in the same pot, get into a repotting cycle where they can be done at the same time. Make sure your new soil is a free-draining variety and includes, loam, compost or other organic material and sharp sand.
Bugs, Pests and Problems
Unfortunately, there is potential for a few problems with the Chinese Elm. Outdoor plants can attract aphids and leaf gall. If you spot these issues, make sure to undertake a thorough treatment regime with insecticides. Indoor plants might also get red spider mites and whitefly. One sign of an issue with insects is the sudden dropping of leaves. If possible, take your plant outside and give it a hose down. You may also note some branches get damaged when growth has been left to become dense, so stay on top of thinning out these branches.
Chinese Elm bonsai timeline
- Spring – optimum time for fertilizing
- Summer – provide a semi-shaded site
- Autumn – foliage changes color
- Winter – retains small leaves late into December, provide frost protection
Tips to help your Chinese Elm bonsai
Feeding with a general fertilizer during the growing season is recommended. You don’t necessarily need to use wire to structure and shape your plant- certainly indoor plants can be managed with pinching. However, if you want to experiment with wire formations, begin with the heavier branches to stop them from rising or curling. Remove branches altogether to practice developing loops and callouses.
Advice for growing Chinese Elm bonsai
If you want to try your hand at the broom style bonsai (hokidachi), the Chinese Elm will be a forgiving test subject for you. To obtain this style, the trunk is straight, long and with a well spread root system. The foliage at the tip is generally kept symmetrical. Although it may look unimpressive to some, it is a simple and elegant style that is appreciated for its purity by bonsai experts. Broom bonsai are grown in shallow pots in any shape. Avoid styles such as exposed root, twisted truck and clump.
The bottom line: We strongly recommend beginning with a Chinese Elm. It has a high tolerance for pruning so that you can practice your newly acquired skills. If you do begin with a Chinese Elm, you are doing so with many thousands of bonsai beginners before you.