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Cotoneaster for Bonsai

by Brent Walston


Cotoneaster is currently our best selling plant for bonsai. A number of factors are responsible for this phenomenon, including coral to bright red berries through the Fall, white or pink flowers in the Spring, small neat foliage, twiggy and often arching branch habit. Last, but not least from a grower's point of view is the fact that it is possible to grow a plant suitable for bonsai in a relatively short period of time.

Cotoneaster for Mame

Cotoneaster for small bonsai, 4 to 6 inches, can be grown from cuttings in a year or two. The leaves, flowers and fruit are all in proportion to this size. They are also quite easy to maintain in this small size, needing little trimming, and repotting only every year or two. It has been suggested that Cotoneaster can also be used for indoor bonsai, but on this point I have my doubts. Plants for this size can be grown out in 3 to 4 inch pots, which they will soon fill and the resulting root confining condition will begin to dwarf the plant by shortening the internodes (the distance between the leaves or buds).

Cotoneaster for Shohin

For Shohin (under 10 inches tall), Cotoneaster should be grown out in one gallon cans, and pruned back frequently to obtain many breaks on the trunk from which future branches may be selected. This process takes 2 to 4 years. During this time no branches should be removed. It is permissible and desirable to let them get a little wild to develop trunk, but if you let the branches go too long without pruning they will be too fat in relation to the trunk for bonsai. The branches should be continually pruned back to a diameter a little greater than the can and into a cone, to maintain proper branch proportion. All of these low branches will help develop good trunk size and taper. The excess branches are removed at the time that the plant is put in the bonsai pot.

Styling Proportions

Cotoneasters make better broad headed little trees rather than upright narrow trees. To keep the branches in proper proportion to the height for these squatty little trees, the first branch should be lower than the traditional one third the height level. The branching may be trained either horizontally or weeping depending on the species used. For some cultivars it is impossible to do anything other than weeping.

Species for Bonsai

Species that grow very quickly are not really suitable for bonsai, their wild growth is simply too hard to tame. Most of the species and cultivars are deciduous in our Northern California climate, although in a milder area they may remain evergreen. The one species that remains reliably evergreen in our area is C. buxifolius 'Nanum'. This nice little plant will reach about four feet if planted in the ground. It has gray green fuzzy foliage and black stems. The flowers are white and the berries are small at less than 1/4 inch and are very red with no hint of orange. It makes very fine bonsai.

My favorite diminutive Cotoneaster for bonsai is C. microphyllus 'Cooperi'. This is a low growing and actually rock hugging cultivar. It arches naturally and if left alone will nearly bonsai itself. It is suitable only for weeping styles and may be made to cascade. The 1/4 inch leaves are very deep green and shiny. The bark is dark brown and soon takes on rugged characteristics. I keep them pretty much confined to make the arching habit tight, growing them out only in four inch pots. I have some of these that are almost five years old with nearly one inch trunks standing about 6 inches tall. They are so beautiful that I cannot bring myself to sell any more of them.

Other species suitable for bonsai include C. adpressus 'Praecox', C. apiculatus 'Tom Thumb' and 'Little Gem', C. congestus 'Likiang', C. dammeri 'Emerald Spray' and C. microphyllus 'Thymifolius'. 'Praecox' and C. horizontalis have pink flowers, the others are white. Another fine cultivar with a very nice arching habit is C. dammeri 'Streib's Findling',.

There are probably another dozen or so species and cultivars that are also suitable for bonsai, just look for nice tight habit, attractive berries and small foliage.

And finally

Cotoneaster is an excellent beginners plant, they are tough, easy too grow, not too thirsty, tolerant of all sorts of light conditions and most soils. They are also a great plant for beginners workshops because they are easy to obtain, inexpensive, and result in a very nice small bonsai with flowers and fruit. If you are new to bonsai, try one!

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