If you’re addicted to succulents (and who isn’t?) you’re always looking for more ways to display, enjoy and utilize their unique characteristics. I make lots of succulent crafts such as mosaics, tapestries and many hypertufa crafts to plant with Sempervivum, Sedum, Echeveria, Crassula and many other gorgeous low maintenance plants.
This article will give you inspiration for yet another craft – albeit one that is completely different than all the other ways to display succulents.
Using some of my favorite Crassula in a completely unique way – luckily, they’re very forgiving - you really can’t avoid making a great little tree like form that is both charming and fun.
I’m talking about Bonsai, of course. This ancient Chinese (Pen Jing, or landscape) and Japanese (Bonsai) art of duplicating the wild trees growing naturally in cliff faces, or other very challenging environments goes back centuries. Many venerable Bonsai trees can be passed down for many generations in a family and are revered and admired by collectors.
Crassula, the Jade plant, is particularly great to use
for Bonsai, with its tree like form and ability to withstand
considerable rough treatment. There are several smaller versions of Crassula that work well, and other similar plants like Elephants Food, with their rubbery stems and tiny leaves.
I find a very root bound specimen, preferably one that has been in the same pot for several years, and is around 20cm (8") tall.
It can be a single stem, or branched – each of these forms will give a different effect. Several cuttings potted together can make a raft style, or clump. In time, this will give the impression of a tiny forest in a pot.
Essentially, Bonsai is performed by constant pruning and pinching of the new growth, each time forcing more branching.
Any branches growing directly up or directly down are removed. In the case of the Crassula argentea cutting shown here, the leaves are almost all taken off – where each leaf was, a new cluster of leaves will emerge, and can be trained as a new branch. The top was also pinched to encourage new buds to break below.
A shallow bonsai pot, some soil, lava rock or pebbles for mulch, and of course, your plant
Prune off the bigger leaves so it will produce more smaller growth, pot into your shallow pot.
Eventually, with every successive pruning, the leaves get smaller, and the tree takes on a gnarled ancient appearance. There are rigid rules for making real bonsai out of forest trees, but with succulents, I don’t feel the need for such restriction.
Pot into a shallow, bonsai pot with drainage holes - these may require wiring to hold the plant in place.
Watering and pest control are of course still carried out, as you want a healthy plant, not a sick one.
Thorough drenching, wetting all the way through the root ball, and then allowing the soil to dry out is essential to Crassulas well being.
Occasionally, fertilize with water soluble fertilizer, or sprinkle some worm castings on the surface of the soil.
Root pruning, or removing some of the larger roots can be done each season, which will trigger the growth of more fine roots.
Wire the branches so they drop down instead of remaining upright – use care that the wire doesn’t cut into the stem, and remove it as soon as the form has set.
Take a small wire brush or other sharp object (small nail, metal comb, piece of wire) and brush it up and down the stem. Scarring the bark will make the stem rough and give the impression of great age once it heals.
There are many different Bonsai designs that you can make – here are a few:
Single upright form, very traditional and formal
Leaning to one side, sometimes with roots exposed
Growing as though in a cliff face, leaning or even cascading
A group of different sized plants arranged like a little forest or grove
Luckily, Crassula especially are really easy to propagate – short cuttings of several leaf nodes will root in weeks, and be ready to start making into a Bonsai in a few months. Training of these fascinating little trees is ongoing and a valuable lesson in patience; the Zen appeal of growing your own little forest? Priceless.
As your bonsai Jade plant gets bigger, you'll prune it - this essential step keeps the shape of a tiny tree in miniature. Each time you pinch off new growth, the plant will put out more, smaller leaves. Over time, the branching structure gets finer, the leaves ever smaller.
It seems like a lot to take off all at one time, but don't worry, the plant will quickly make more growth to fill in the gaps.
The parts that have been cut off will make more Jade plants for bonsai
Scarring the trunk will add to the look of a long life lived in a harsh environment
Another treatment that increases the look of venerable old age is to scar the trunk - running a thin knife blade or razor blade up and down to make small slits will make the trunk look old and bulk it up. In time, this will thicken the lower part of the trunk to make it look even more aged.
See more great pictures of another great candidate for indoor bonsai, Portulacaria afra.