Barberry bonsai, how to grow one from scratch

Barberry (Berberis) can be grown into impressive bonsai specimens. Try your hand on this unusual way to grow barberry!

Barberry bonsai facts

Difficulty – easy
Start from – either seedling or old, pruned plant
Blooming & fruiting – rare

Barberry is most often grown as a hedge shrub. It’s plentiful outdoors in many temperate climates. Since it is a very resilient shrub, it can be made to grow as a bonsai without much expertise.

How to grow a bonsai from barberry

There are two ways to grow Berberis bonsai:

  • from seedlings or young saplings
  • from large, uprooted shrubs (such as those forming a hedge).

Growing from large uprooted Barberry shrubs

The large shrubs will immediately have thick, showy trunks. However, the shape you have is what you get. It’s possible to chisel portions off to taper down large branches and stumps, but it’s difficult to change the large branches much.

  • Get in touch with a landscaper. When they pull out a hedge, try to attend and select a few specimens that have a promising shape.
  • Look for shrubs with low, torn branches.
  • Shrubs that are constantly cut back by mowing, edge hedging, snowplows, etc are great candidates.

Growing from seedlings

This will offer the highest flexibility. You can guide and wire branches into shape. However, it will take a while for the trunk to thicken.

  • A nice way is to shape the seedling in the shape you wish to have, then let it grow for a whole year or two before cutting it short.

Steps to set up the bonsai

Even though the scale is different, you can work both types of bonsai the same way at the very start.

Barberry seedling for bonsaiCull the roots

Roots truly take a battering when preparing a bonsai.

  • The largest, thickest root should be cut back right near the stump.
  • This will force the plant to rely on smaller secondary roots. Less vigor will result in smaller leaves and slower growth.
  • These secondary roots, which grow to the side, will look appealing if uncovered and visible.

Attach the root firmly to the pot.

  • For example, use a wire that hoops around the root and exits through one of the water-drainage holes.
  • Tie the wire ends around a stick or nail.
  • Tying the root down will make sure the tree doesn’t fall over out of the pot when more leaves and branches grow.

Berberis bonsai roots with pruning shearsShape and cut the main branches

On an old, thick Berberis shrub, you can cut back branches.

  • Select your candidates based on the shape of the trunk.
  • Aim for curvy, tapered trunks that are wide at the base but quickly turn thin.
  • Old broken branch stumps also can be maximized.
  • With larger shrubs, you’ll have to transform some of the branches into deadwood to structure your bonsai.

Use various tools such as chisels, metal brushes, and small drills to work off portions of wood and shape the ends of branches.

On a seedling, start wiring the trunk in a harmonious manner.

  • Slant or curve it as you wish the tree to appear.
  • You can either choose to keep or cut the thorny spikes.

Plant in a pot with high drainage

Make sure the pot has excellent drainage.

  • Because roots are often trimmed, wounds might develop root rot if left to wallow in water.
  • Having too much water would spur growth that would grow unbalanced. Long twigs would grow out instead of branching or growing tightly-packed leaves.

Caring for a Berberis bonsai

This bonsai is more forgiving than most other bonsai.

Watering and exposure

Follow the tips given for growing barberry indoors.

Remember to harden off your barberry bonsai every winter, too. This will help leaf and eventual flower buds to form well.

Fertilizer

Bonsai have a tiny amount of soil to draw nutrients from. It’s important to replenish those nutrients often.

  • If you’ve purchased commercial fertilizer, follow the instructions.
  • You can also prepare your own fertilizer from weeds. This fermented tea is ideal.
  • Fertilizer monthly during the growing period, but only every 8 weeks during dormancy (winter).

Blooming and fruit bearing

Because the bonsai is under duress, your barberry won’t always bear flowers and fruits.

Learn more about Berberis bonsai

Barberry bonsai seedlingA bonsai is a work of art, and it requires patience! A bonsai is often on the verge of survival. This happens in nature when a seed sprouted in a crevice without much soil or water. The challenge is to orient growth to make the tree resemble a large one but still stay small.

This requires periods of pruning and periods of growth. Also, dormancy must be respected, especially for a shrub like barberry.

  • Winter dormancy is crucial as it helps the plant prepare buds and strengthen roots.

Best varieties for Barberry bonsai

Some of the best species can be found among the dwarf Berberis shrubs. In particular, the Berberis thunbergii family boasts many naturally small but showy specimens.

Barberry, naturally adapted to bonsai growing

Barberry typically has a rather shallow root system. This makes it very adequate for bonsai-growing, since it’s naturally resilient in case of light drought and lack of nutrients.

Smart tip about barberry bonsai

Starting several at the same time will let you try different shapes. You can explore different types of branching and experiment with blooming and fruit-bearing, too!


Credits for images shared to Nature & Garden (all edits by Gaspard Lorthiois):
Old Barberry bonsai by Mike under © CC BY-SA 2.0
Seedling to convert by Jeremy Norbury under © CC BY-ND 2.0
Cutting the main root by Jeremy Norbury under © CC BY-ND 2.0
Barberry bonsai seedling by Jeremy Norbury under © CC BY-ND 2.0