The art of bonsai is agreed by many to be a rewarding and to some extent, tiring experience. The variety of species of bonsai allows for gardeners to have a wide selection of trees with different requirements that meet their caring preferences. Some prefer beautiful and elegant trees that require more delicate care, while some others prefer strong and resilient trees that are just as rewarding with sufficient care. The Chinese Elm bonsai (Ulmus Parvifolia) is the species that match the latter description.
Native to South East Asia as well as continental China, the Chinese Elm can grow up to a mighty 25 meters in height and 1 meter in trunk diameter. It easily develops small leaves with fine ramification which makes it a popular selection among beginners. Its slow-growing and tolerant qualities are perfect for those who are still learning the art of bonsai as this type of tree is one of the most appreciated for its undemanding growing requirements.
Its bark is distinctive in its reddish brown to dark gray temperament, and it turns corky as it matures. Its branching shape is loved by many while its tiny, toothed and oval-shaped leaves provide comfort and freshness through their highly predictable growth pattern. The elm species of bonsai is also known as the perfect training subject before one can move on to the more difficult bonsai trees.
The Chinese Elm bonsai is known to thrive well both indoors and outdoors, and it drops some of its leaves in either placement according to its semi-deciduous nature. Despite its native size and structure, with proper care, the tree can still be trained to be miniature yet healthy, with graceful, upright rounded canopy being its natural matured form. Though many owners would say that this species is more resilient and easier to take care of, do not make the mistake of thinking that you can cut corners when it comes to its growth.
The soil condition that this bonsai tree prefers is quite unique, and is most suitable for owners who travel frequently. Though the soil needs to be slightly moist, the tree also likes it if the soil gets to go a little dry between watering sessions. The best way to know if it is time to water your plant is by sticking your finger into the soil by half an inch; if you do not feel much moisture, then it is time to water it. Like most other Elms, the soil cannot be left dry for too long.
During the winter period, your Chinese Elm bonsai would not need as much water as usual. Depending on your location and climate, the tree may need to be watered everyday during spring and summer. Note that its watering schedule and needs would vary according to its growth and season, so there is no worry of sticking to a strict watering schedule. You can observe and decide if the tree needs watering through its foliage, soil-testing with your index finger or by simply weighing the pot in your hand. A dry tree would feel light in your hands.
Misting would also be good for your elm, and would not cause fungus infection like in other bonsai trees. You can do this twice a week but do not take it as a replacement for watering. Most owners prefer to elevate the pot with some pebbles to ensure its root to not sit in water. Though the roots would thrive in moisture, too much of it can still cause the tree’s roots to rot. The general aim is to avoid both drought and permanent wetness.
Despite being tough and tolerant, the tree does not like draft or varying temperature. Like most tropical indoor bonsai trees, the Chinese Elm prefers rooms that are between 60 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit. You can place this plant outside during the months of summer, as long as you remember to bring it in when the temperature drops to 60 degrees and below. Having said that, this bonsai tree can actually thrive in both full sun and partial shade. In regions with mild climate, it can even stay outdoors during winter. If your bonsai tree was bought specifically as an indoor plant, you can still put it outside during summer. Bringing it inside during winter for these type of trees would require you to place them in a cold room that is frost-free.
Depending on the tree’s origin, it may or may not be able to withstand certain degrees of frost. Chinese Elm bonsai trees from northern China are more resilient towards frost, compared to those from the southern part. Your chosen environment for this bonsai will determine either one of these two conditions; dropping of their leaves before spring, or keeping them on until spring during which new shoots will emerge.
The plant’s undemanding nature is seen through its feeding; it does not require any specific or special fertilizer in order to grow. Any bonsai-specific fertilizer would be sufficient. The alternative to that is a mixture of solid organic fertilizer and a well-balanced liquid chemical product administered once every two weeks during its growing season. During this time, which is from spring throughout fall, the Chinese Elm must be fed well. Avoid feeding during dormancy period, either during winter or when it is placed in a cold place.
Aside from maintaining the right shape of your tree and encouraging new growth, pruning and training are also important to keep the tree in its miniature form. This involves removing small branches, buds as well as new shoots. The main reason why this bonsai tree is ideal for beginners is because its branches can be pruned all year long. Letting it grow freely would result in a rapidly thickened tree. Do not worry, because this type of bonsai responds very well to frequent trimming, as it produces a dense ramification. The Chinese Elm also buds well even from older woods after strong pruning.
Owners usually allow the shoots to extend to three or four nodes before pruning back to one or two leaves. Some people prefer to let the shoots to develop up to eight leaf pairs and them trimming it back and then trimming to leave only two or three. The large branches of the Chinese Elm is often pruned once the shoots have become slightly woody. This usually happens in late autumn. Many gardeners use wires to shape their trees into the beautiful classical look of the umbrella shape, though it can be bent to fit other styles through pruning alone.
The bonsai tree needs to have its pot changed once every two years. As the tree matures, that interval can be longer. Most owners usually change its pot during spring time, mostly in early spring. This type of bonsai does not respond well to extreme root pruning, so avoid root-pruning too far back when re-potting. You would also need to be gentle and careful when dealing with its roots, as the root system tend to be crooked and intertwined. Every time after re-potting, water the plant generously and thoroughly, and let the plant rest under a shade for the next few weeks, just to help the roots re-establish themselves.
Owners usually propagate their Ulmus trees with 6 inches cuttings, made with clean and sharp scissors. This is usually done during summer, when the tree can easily heal and grow out new shoots. Place the cut piece in a glass of water until enough roots have been developed. After that, you can place it in a pot with either a quality bonsai soil or a mixture of two parts of loam with one part sand and one part peat moss.
As mentioned before, this species of bonsai is quite resilient to both insects and diseases. Keeping the plant clean and healthy can be sufficient in ensuring the tree’s longevity. You can promote better circulation for the tree simply by cleaning the leaves from dust. Symptoms like sticky foliage or visible insects should always be addressed immediately.
Unlike other elm trees, the Chinese Elm is not prone to Dutch elm disease. In an environment with low humidity however, the tree can still get infested with spider mites or scales. In this case certain pesticides can be administered, though you should always avoid the use of thinned lime-sulfur or other systemic pesticides as they can make the Chinese Elm shed its leaves. To keep it clean, spray your bonsai with a mixture of one tablespoon of dish soap and one quarter tepid water until it runs off the leaves. You can also use Neem oil spray. Always rinse the leaves with water afterwards. Just because this bonsai plant is supposedly easy to take care of, it does not mean you can neglect its simple needs. Good luck and enjoy the beautiful scenes your bonsai will provide you with!