- David Hale
As a bonsai hobbyist, you may not think about how old your trees may become, but many of the oldest bonsai trees in the world started life in someone's back garden before being passed down the generations. But how long does a bonsai tree live for?
How long can a bonsai tree live?
Bonsai trees live for hundreds of years if they are well cared for. Bonsai are genetically the same as full-size trees, and will usually live longer thanks to the care they receive on a daily basis.
A common myth surrounding bonsai is that trees are stunted, unhealthy, and starved in order to achieve their small size. This, of course, is not true. Bonsai trees need to be well cared for to keep them looking nice and to increase your opportunities for design.
By looking after roots with careful watering and repotting, managing growth with regular pruning as well as strategic fertilization, your bonsai will almost certainly live longer than you will.
Bonsai trees are not exposed to most of the dangers of wild trees, such as storm damage, fires or erosion. They may contract the same pests or diseases such as spider mites, but a good bonsai practitioner will manage these as best they can to increase the longevity of their bonsai.
On the flip side, if you don't treat your tree well, it won't live as long. Bonsai trees can die for many reasons, most commonly due to repotting at the wrong time, forgetting to water trees or some kind of pest or disease that could have been prevented or treated. Overwatering your bonsai can have long-term implications for your bonsai, such as increasing their susceptibility to disease and limiting the number of roots they grow.
Factors affecting how long a bonsai will live for
There are lots of things that impact how long a bonsai tree will live. Some of these are under our control, while others are not. If you want your bonsai to be healthy and live longer, then consider each of these factors and how you can optimize your horticultural practices to help your bonsai live longer.
Bonsai is a very broad term that encompasses lots of varieties of trees and plants. These trees do not all share the same environmental requirements, and trying to grow a tree in the wrong place will result in a slow death for that bonsai.
Most temperate trees do not survive well indoors. They require the light, humidity, and temperatures that are provided by an outdoor environment.
Many tropical plants will not survive if left outdoors in a colder climate, but they can be successfully grown indoors if they are provided with the necessary light and humidity they need to thrive. They need to be placed in well-lit rooms to maximize sunlight exposure, which is generally much lower inside, even if you have a lot of windows. Grow lights can be used to help with this where necessary. Indoor environments are also generally very dry, so aids such as humidity trays can help your indoor bonsai.
Due to genetics, tree species live longer than others. There are exceptions, but most of the oldest trees in the world are conifers.
There are well-known bristlecone pines (Pinus longaeva) that have proved to be thousands of years old, as well as many Giant sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) trees that have also found to be >3000 years old.
Other species have been found to live for thousands of years. Some of them include:
- Patagonian cypress (Fitzroya cupressoides)
- Sierra juniper (Juniperus grandis)
- Bald cypress (Taxodium distichum)
- African baobab (Adansonia digitata)
- Sacred fig (Ficus religiosa)
- Coastal redwood (Sequoia sempervirens)
While most deciduous trees do not live for thousands of years, they generally can survive for hundreds of years, meaning the only limiting factor for your enjoyment of your bonsai is the care you provide.
As we've mentioned, the care you provide is key to the longevity of your bonsai tree. If you are a bonsai beginner, then longevity doesn't really need to be a big concern for you.
Watering your tree well and fertilizing in line with your goals will keep the tree happy day to day while directing growth and keeping the root system refreshed with a repot when necessary will keep your bonsai moving in the right direction. Beginners can benefit from choosing a bonsai tree type that is hardy and easy to look after, such as Cotoneaster horizontalis.
As you progress with your practice and start to acquire older and more refined trees, you'll need to be more conscious of the care requirements these advanced trees require.
The older a tree becomes, the less vigorously it will grow. This means it will be less able to cope with people repotting at the wrong time or with poor technique, or handling the foliage in a way that saps energy from the tree.
With age often comes refinement, which can impact how you look after your trees over winter. For example, a refined Japanese maple with lots of fine branching will not tolerate temperatures much below freezing. This is because the finer a branch is, the more susceptible it is to frost damage. So as your collection becomes older and more refined, you need to be more involved with their protection over winter.
Something else you may notice with deciduous trees that have been bonsai for many years is that they slowly start to lack vigor and health. If you have ruled out all other potential causes such as root damage from under- or over-watering, or diseases like root rot, then this may be a sign the tree has been in a bonsai pot for too long.
To bring back some strength to your old tree, it can help to repot it into a wooden box for a couple of years, choosing one that is slightly bigger than its current container. The extra space to grow, along with the organic relationship between the soil system and the wood of the box, can revitalize your tree and bring it back to its best, helping it to live longer.
Bonsai trees are created in many ways. Some are grown from seed and therefore take many generations to reach old age.
Others are cultivated from yamadori, the process of collecting wild trees and planting them into bonsai containers. This method of bonsai creation obviously has the advantage when it comes to acquiring an old tree, as many valuable pieces of yamadori are already hundreds of years old when they are collected. Decades of fighting wind, snow, and high winds can create extremely interesting trunklines, branches, and deadwood, which is of course perfect for bonsai.