Bonsai FAQ

Frequently Asked Questions

There are many questions that we get on a regular basis here at the Midwest Bonsai Society. Following is a list that can hopefully answer many frequently asked questions. If not, contact us.

I'm looking for Bonsai classes in Chicago, are there any?

One of the most frequent questions we get is whether there are any bonsai classes in Chicago. The Midwest Bonsai Society has workshops at our shows, please see the links for the Spring and Summer show at the left for more information. Otherwise there are classes that are held at the Chicago Botanic Garden and taught by the Curator. Information can be found at the Chicago Botanic Garden's website.

I got a bonsai as a gift, what do I do with it?

Getting bonsai as a gift is an exciting thing - the trees are surrounded with so much mystery and wonder that it's hard to know where to start or what to do with it. We recommend getting a book on bonsai to start - a good one is Bonsai by Harry Tomlinson. There is so much to learn about bonsai that it's impossible to answer in a short paragraph or two. Another good resource is - they have a comprehensive list of species, with notes on the care needs for the specie. Otherwise, please feel free to bring a new tree to one of our meetings for advice and information on the tree, it's easiest for us to see the tree in person to tell you what it is and how to care for it.

My bonsai has yellow leaves - is it sick?

A few yellow or brown leaves on the inside of the tree, or near the base is a common part of the bonsai life cycle. A leaf (or needle) only has a finite life span, after which the tree pulls the chlorophyll out of the leaf and it turns yellow and dies. The tree's growth habit is to grow leaves on the ends of branches, or the top of the canopy - where the most amount of light is. If your yellow leaves are few, near the interior, or happen at changes of season then there is probably nothing wrong with the tree. Signs of problems would be yellow or brown in the new growth or outer edges of the tree.

My bonsai is sick, what's wrong with it?

Imagine calling up your doctor and simply stating that you are ill - are they going to be able to answer you without specific details, symptoms and history of the condition? The same is true with bonsai; many conditions cause yellow leaves or other signs of plant distress, so it's very difficult to diagnose problems without seeing the tree in person or getting very detailed information regarding it's care, cultivation, location, length of time of symptoms, etc. The best thing to do is to bring the tree to a meeting.  We will be more than happy to look at it and tell you what we think might be ailing it.

I want a bonsai for my desk at work / coffee table at home / other indoor space. What do you recommend?

I recommend something artificial. Bonsai are outdoor trees and fare poorly or die outright if kept inside. Many, like junipers, need to go dormant (temperatures below 35F) in the winter to remain healthy. The only species that stand any kind of chance in growing indoors are Shefflera and Ficus species, though additional supplemental light is required. Trees grown indoors will tend to have large leaves and thin growth and not have the look of a 'classic' bonsai.

I want to buy / gift a bonsai, where can I buy them in Chicago / my neighborhood?

Chicago Resources lists the places in Chicago were you can find bonsai if you are searching for one for yourself. If you are thinking of giving it as a gift, I'd recommend buying someone a book on bonsai to gauge interest first. Bonsai are not static sculptures, but living plants that will grow and change, as well as needing specific care. It is a hobby and not a decoration, so it's often best to find out if the person is interested in getting involved in the hobby before getting a tree.

I have a bonsai and I want someone to prune / wire / care for it for me. Who can I contact?

There are a few individuals who will do house calls for bonsai care & maintenance, you can use our Contact page to ask for specifics. They will typically charge by the hour and help or instruct on many basics of bonsai care.

I want a bonsai that doesn't need pruning / shaping / light / water / etc. What do you recommend?

We recommend artificial bonsai. Bonsai are living, growing plants. They will need pruning, wiring, shaping, light, water, fertilizer, repotting, etc. as well as times where they are allowed to grow out or otherwise look unkempt. It is a common misconception that bonsai are simply decoration when in reality it is a process that takes years. Most bonsai spend their time in intermediate states, since keeping a tree in "show ready" condition (i.e. looking like a perfect sculpture) indefinitely is impossible. Bonsai properly cared for will live much longer than their counterparts in Nature, and should far outlive their human owner. We are more than happy as a Society to help you learn these skills, but there are no bonsai that don't require some effort to keep them looking like bonsai.

I have a special event and want bonsai as decoration. Where in Chicago can I rent bonsai?

There are no places in Chicago where you can rent live bonsai, and we don't have any information on artificial bonsai. The only 'masterpiece' bonsai in the City are either owned by the Chicago Botanic Garden or private individuals, and they are not available for rental.  Large bonsai are masterpieces, and irreplaceable if damaged. A broken branch cannot be glued back on. Since the folks who are growing the trees are doing so for their own enjoyment as a hobby, there is no interest in carting their trees around.  Additionally, many bonsai owners are private about their collections due to fear of theft - which is particularly devastating with bonsai. Thieves do not know how to care for the trees, so a stolen bonsai is a dead bonsai - since the bonsai community is small, there are no buyers for stolen trees since the individual trees are highly recognizable.

Why do you keep recommending artificial bonsai? Aren't you the Midwest Bonsai Society?

Artificial bonsai keeps coming up since it fits what many people are looking for in a bonsai - a piece of decoration. Working with living bonsai is an active, continual process that many are not interested in getting involved in. It is a hobby that requires years of effort. Living bonsai can be used for decorative purposes, but only for a few days a year; they can't be kept in 'show condition' perpetually nor can they remain indoors more than a few days every once in a while (in Japan they will be brought in and displayed for a day for a special event, but then taken back out again at the end of the day/event). The Midwest Bonsai Society would love to talk to you if you are interested in learning about the processes of bonsai care and maintenance.