If you've recently been inspired to try bonsai, perhaps by an image on Pinterest or Instagram, a trip to the mountains, or seeing a bonsai exhibition, it's easy to get started as long as you take a few key points into account.
Bonsai is the same word in Japanese and in English because there was no English word for the idea prior to its introduction from Japan to the rest of the world. Bonsai is a combination of two characters in Japanese, the first means tree, and the second means container, or tray.
The term "tree" might also be expanded to include any species of tree or shrub that creates a woody structure (or even semi-woody like cactus or Othonna arbuscula.) Given this, and that bonsai are not a special species of plant, but instead a set of techniques used to control the shape of a plant, it may be daunting to figure out what species to use as a beginner.
It's a common misconception that all bonsai are grown indoors; the reality is that only a few tropical species are suitable for typical indoor environments, while most tree species will prefer to live outdoors, sometimes requiring protection from very cold and hot conditions due in part to the confining nature of a bonsai container.
Local outdoor conditions can play a large role in the suitability of species for beginners. You can look around your local environment and identify the types of trees that grow there. If you see a lot of deciduous trees (growing naturally) then you will likely have more success with deciduous, while if you see few trees, or have dry conditions you may have more success with conifers.
Best Beginners' Trees for Outdoor Growing:
Juniperus Chinensis / "Kishu"Juniper - there are a million varieties of Chinese juniper, with an incredibly variable range of foliage and growth characteristics. The "Kishu" variety has all the characteristics that make it perfect for bonsai. The tree grows slowly in cooler climates, and more quickly in hotter climates. Kishu is very similar to what growers in the U.S. call "Shimpaku" but it is slightly smaller, and has a blue cast to the needles under some conditions. Both varieties are suitable for bonsai, but "Kishu" is more adaptable to smaller size bonsai trees.
Pinus thunbergii (aka Pinus thunbergiana) / Japanese Black Pine - this is one of the most common varieties used in Japan for high quality bonsai. These pines have all the qualities that make them suitable for bonsai, with beautiful dark green foliage, bark that ages, and the ability to create fine structure and branching. The tree is suitable for beginners, but requires more attention to timing that other species. It is sensitive to over-watering.
Juniperus procumbens "nana" / Japanese Garden Juniper - thanks to Mr. Miyagi, who worked on these in the original Karate Kid movie, this is the most common juniper bonsai. It's suitable for beginners wanting to learn the basics. It's biggest drawback is that the foliage in many climates remains "juvenile" for its entire life, leading to a more coarse growth habit that is harder to work with if you advance past beginner-level interest, or want a tree that is smaller than 8" or so in height.
Zelkova serrata (aka Zelkova) /Japanese gray bark Elm - a vigorous member of the Elm family (Ulmaceae) that can form very fine branching and reacts well to bonsai techniques. The beautiful spring foliage, green summer canopy, and fall color contrast with the winter bare twigs for unmatched seasonal interest.
Ulmus Parvifolia / Chinese Elm - has a number of cultivars that are "corkbark" with different size leaves, such as "Hokkaido" (tiny leaves, like 1/8th of an inch) but the more common "corticosa" or corkbark variety is typically the most vigorous and suitable for beginners. The leaves can be reduced to less than 1/2" but can also reach 2" in size if the tree is left to grow wild. The tree creates fine branch structure, rugged bark, and typically yellow fall foliage; the winter silhouette can be stunning in contrast to the lush nature of the summer growth.
Best Beginners' Trees for Indoor Growing:
Ficus Nerifolia / Willow-leaf Ficus - a somewhat uncommon Ficus variety that is well suited to bonsai training due to it's vigorous growth and fine leaf and twig structure. The plant buds rapidly, and sometimes even produces tiny figs, even while confined to containers less than 1" in size.
Portulacaria Afra / Dwarf Jade - this is a succulent type plant that is very forgiving in terms of watering. It tolerates pruning, trimming and other bonsai work; just keep it away from freezing temperatures!
Grewia Occidentalis / Lavender Star Flower - If you want a flowering bonsai, and you want to keep it indoors, this tree is going to make your day! The plant will flower almost continuously under the right conditions. It can be placed outdoors during warmer conditions for even more vigorous growth. The small bright green leaves contrast with the lovely flowers, and the tree will bud profusely when trimmed, allowing you to make almost any shape you desire! Under low light conditions the leaves increase in size slightly and flowering is less reliable, but southern or western windows may provide a suitable growing spot.