Shohin Bonsai-To-Be – Three Cheers For The Little Guys

Just because a there’s not much to a bonsai, doesn’t mean there’s not a lot to that bonsai.  Take the case of the shohin specimen – a bonsai that is less than 12″ from the soil surface to the tip of the apex.  In terms of mass, there’s just not a lot to a shohin bonsai.  But in terms of what the bonsai is intended to be – that is, a representation of a large, mature tree in nature – it’s amazing what a shohin bonsai packs into those 12″.  Even more amazing is how this is accomplished with no more than a handful of branches.

Today was a rainy day almost from start to finish, so I puzzled around for what I could do outside in the rain.  I settled on lifting a Dwarf yaupon – more on that in the near future – and taking a couple of photographs of shohins I’ve been working on in recent days.  I think they’ll end up being awesome bonsai.  And packing that awesomeness into a very small space.

I’ve been growing this American elm, Ulmus americana, in the ground for the past few years to increase trunk size.  I’ve cut it back a couple of times, planning on a standard grow-and-chop development of the tree into a nice size pre-bonsai or bonsai.  Well that’s the normal route you’d take, and so would I.  But recently I decided to see if I could make a smaller bonsai out of this one for a change of pace.







On June 24th I lifted, trimmed, carved, and potted this little guy.  The leaves on it are the ones it came out of the ground with.  For those of you familiar with American elm, at least from my writings, I have declared the species “King of Leaf-size Reduction.”  In the wild, left alone to grow rampantly, they will produce leaves that are easily 5″ long.  If you happen to take note of this while scouting for specimens to lift, you might consider the species unsuited to bonsai.  Well, that’s certainly not the case.  Once you get to the fine development stage of an American elm bonsai, you can expect to get the leaves down to under 1/2″ and even as small as 1/4″ in length.  It’s truly amazing.

Which in this case means these leaves would be removed from the tree, with the expectation that I’d get a shoot in every leaf axil with smaller and of course more numerous leaves.

And here we are today, with a lot of new foliage (smaller, of course).  With a trunk base of 1.5″ and a height of less than 12″, I see a broom-form shohin American elm bonsai that will have a terrific structure before the end of this growing season.  That’s how fast they grow.






Here’s a Green island ficus, Ficus microcarpa, that I potted up on June 23rd.  I’ve grown very fond of the species, and as a result have introduced it to my offerings this year.  This little guy, with a trunk base of 1.25″ and a height of 7″, is another example of a shohin bonsai.  It has exactly four branches, not including the apex.  To make this specimen into something believable, I have to get the design spot-on.  I mean, when you think about it there’s a whole 7″ in which to make a tree-form emerge.  Every branch has to do its part.

A month later, this shohin bonsai-to-be has put on a lot of new growth.  I removed a low branch that was coming straight toward the viewer, opening up the trunk better.  I got a bud on the left side of the trunk above the low left branch, and it’s now growing out (that’s my fifth branch).  The branch nearest the apex has extended, and I’ve wired and positioned it.  There’s more work to do, obviously, but by the end of summer I expect to have this design mostly done.



And finally, here’s the champion of the blog post, a Dwarf yaupon, Ilex vomitoria ‘Nana.’  I won’t relate the whole story of this specimen just yet – there’s another blog post to be written on it – but consider that the trunk base on this tiny specimen measures 1.5″ and it’s a mere 3″ to the tip of the leader at the left side of the tree.  I can tell you this guy is destined for a semi-cascade style.  It doesn’t look like much yet, but if you strain a little you can see where it’s going.

Shohin bonsai are ideal for those who have limited space for their pastime.  They do present unique challenges, the most obvious perhaps being that they exist in a very limited quantity of soil.  You’ll need to make provision for this if you decide to get into shohin.  But I can tell you, it’s well worth the effort.

Do you grow shohin bonsai?  If so, I’d love it if you’d share some of your experiences with us.

6 Replies to “Shohin Bonsai-To-Be – Three Cheers For The Little Guys”

  1. tim

    Gotta love the little ones. I kinda use them as “proof of concept” because design ideas can be brought to fruition so quickly. My biggest failure was making a shohin forest with b.c.. They look great but I havta hack at them every couple weeks and I don’t know how long they can take it. I’ll share some picks via facebook and maybe you have some tricks on slowing them down..

  2. Dan Short

    Great little trees Zach. I really like the prospects for that elm especially. The little guys are addicting because you can always find the space for another one.


      • robert gardner

        Love your dwarf yaupon, I think that I am able to see the future cascade in it. It will be
        a very marvelous Shohin bonsai. Every time I watch the trees that you work on I am just
        amazed at what you can do. You spend so much time on what you really love making such awesome trees and them just sell them. Do you ever here from the people who buy them. Will that Dwarf Yaupon ever be for sale, please let me know. Also I need to get your Email address, as I would likevto send you some pictures of my 2000 year seedling project, (Ponderosa Pines)
        Bob G.

        • Zach Smith Post author

          Thank you, Bob. I hear often from my clients, even many years later. It’s great keeping up with both them and the trees. My elder statesman client is (if my math serves) 90 years young now and still at it. We’ve known each other for 25 years. As for the Dwarf yaupon, someone just put dibs on it today. We’ll see how it turns out when the growth kicks back in. My email address is Would love to see your Pondies.


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