The Stunning Styles Of The Entrancing Hibiscus Bonsai
Hibiscus is one of the most striking and commanding of the floral plant species. Their sheer size and signature petals resembling various colors of the finest silk georgette make their blooms incredibly memorable. Thriving in tropical and subtropical climates, you will have seen these beautiful flowers on the classic ‘Hawaiian print’ used for beach shorts and casual Aloha shirts. It isn’t just due to the climate that they’re used on Aloha shirts; hibiscus is actually Hawaii’s State flower. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to bring this cardinal symbol of island life into your home? With a stunning hibiscus bonsai, now you can.
Hibiscus isn’t one of the plants you automatically think of when you hear the word bonsai, and understandably so. How can a plant with such massive flowers make a good bonsai? Hibiscus is actually favored for larger bonsai varieties but makes quite a beautiful miniature tree as well. With time, your hibiscus bonsai will adapt to its limited space, and your blooms and foliage might decrease gradually in size. Still, even with massive vibrant flowers on display, hibiscus will be a charming addition to your bonsai collection.
The Best Styles for Hibiscus Bonsais
Hibiscus is arguably one of the more unique bonsai varieties. But it’s also one of the easiest to cultivate. Its soft, pliable branches mean that it will bend easily even into adulthood, and its large flowers make for a showstopping display of color and depth. Hibiscus is a wildly popular plant in South Africa, a country encompassing the southernmost tip of Africa, surrounded by both the Indian and Atlantic oceans.
South Africa boasts over 59 species of hibiscus, including the small exotic groundcover H. aethiopicus. South Africa is also the only country on Earth with indigenous bonsai styles recognized by the Japanese Bonsai masters. Most of these styles are better suited for trees with thick trunks and fine foliage, but hibiscus trunks are fairly easy to thicken, so they’d do well in South Africa’s indigenous bonsai styles.
South African Bonsai Styles for Hibiscus
The indigenous bonsai styles of Sout Africa are mainly centered around the natural growing styles of various trees in the region. South Africa is an incredibly diverse nation both in culture and ecology. With wetlands and desert and everything in between, South Africa’s indigenous trees take on some of the most interesting formations. These formations are replicated in the quiet art of bonsai.
The bushveld style is heavily influenced by the natural growth patterns in bushveld areas. Regions classified as bushveld typically receive around 15-25 inches of rain annually, leading these areas to be moderately dry. The bushveld is populated by tall grasses in shades of gold, thornbushes, and hardy trees like acacia and the iconic baobab. Because Baobab is its own bonsai style, we’ll focus on the appearance of acacia trees for the bushveld bonsai style.
Acacia trees create the striking imagery we see when Hollywood portrays the African landscape. Characterized by wide crowns and empty lower and middle branches intricately entwined with one another, these trees are the goal to have in mind when creating the bushveld style.
Hibiscus in the bushveld style seems like a bit of a feat, but because their trunks are easy to thicken, this style is achieved with relative ease. You’ll need to manipulate the various branches as they grow to achieve the intricate webbing that acacia trees naturally grow in, but this is also easy to do. If you cultivate a thick enough trunk, you might be able to play around with slightly exposed roots and simulate the moderately dry conditions of the bushveld. This could create a beautiful contrast with the vibrant and foliage of the hibiscus bonsai.
Named for the famous wild fig tree at the foot of the Magaliesburg in the nation’s capital, the Wonderboom bonsai style features a few relatively spread-out trunks that seem to share a crown. The aptly named ‘Tree of Wonder’ achieves this style naturally by growing similarly to the magical yew tree of the British Isles.
Like the yew, the Wonderboom is characterized by a single central mother tree whose branches have stretched far and rooted themselves within the soil to form new daughter trees. This growth pattern has resulted in beautiful natural bows and arches forming, building massive visual interest, and inspiring early locals to dub it the ‘Tree of Wonder’ or Wonderboom.
Looking at the hibiscus plant, you wouldn’t think it possible to cultivate this flowery shrub as a Wonderboom bonsai, but you can. Even though the unique style of the Wonderboom is achieved by its natural growth pattern, you could plant multiple trunks in one pot like a slight take on the Japanese forest bonsai style and prune each tree to create one shared canopy or crown. If you specifically want the aesthetic of the bows and arches that the Wonderboom branches naturally form, you could try grafting one branch to another.
Bonsai is a patient artform, and taking something like a hibiscus shrub and turning it into a miniature tree takes patience and time. But with ingenuity, concentration, and a wild imagination, there is no bonsai style you cannot replicate with your hibiscus plant.
Jacob Hendrik Pierneef is one of the most well-known names in the South African art world, and since his death in 1957, the posthumous popularity of his works has increased globally. A landscape by JH Pierneef is worth anything from $78 to $1.6 million. The landscapes JH Pierneef is famous for include myriad interpretations of the South African bushveld.
Acacias dominate this scenery in the most beautiful open umbrella styles. In honor of JH Pierneef’s impact on South African arts and culture, the open umbrella bonsai style that is wildly popular amongst South African bonsai enthusiasts now holds his name; the Pierneef style.
Pierneef bonsais are typically similar to the bushveld style. The one exception is that Pierneef bonsai compositions feature more emphasis on the thick lower trunk, with the branches starting higher up. They, however, share the distinctive higher canopy crown line.
You can therefore cultivate Pierneef bonsais in the same way as bushveld bonsais, paying more attention to letting the trunk thicken as you would with the Wonderboom, without letting it get too wide. You would then shape the branches or graft additional branches on to, over time, form the unique and distinctive Pierneef bonsai style.
Wild Fig Style
The wild fig style is widely regarded as a South African take on the broom style. Replicating the interesting growth pattern of the region’s wild fig population, this style is characterized by its incredibly wide crown and far-reaching branches. In general, the wild fig bonsai style is always wider than it is tall.
Typically, the wild fig-style bonsais also feature broad trunks, with branches starting around halfway up the full height of the tree. The branches are longer, further-reaching at this halfway mark, getting incrementally shorter as the eye reaches the top of the tree. This leads the tree to somewhat resemble the classic short, stout toadstool silhouette.
The flat-top style is characteristically unique from any other bonsai growth pattern or accepted style. A flat top is also not an over-exaggeration; the trees upon which this style is based naturally develop completely flat tops. These two trees are the Acacia sieberana and Acacia abyssinica, the latter being a commonly found deciduous tree in Ethiopia. These tree species look like the intricate spokes of a wheel from a bird’s eye perspective.
This is a challenging style to achieve with hibiscus, but it is still very well within the realm of possibility. The unique flat-top of this tree is easy to trim; your only struggle might be how to handle the massive flowers that your hibiscus will eventually grow. Flowers typically grow on softer, more pliable stems, so they would be easy to weave between the branches for strategically placed and more intentional patterns. The flat top could serve as a natural display surface for the magnificence of the flowers. Suppose you graft one or two additional types of hibiscus to the original parent plant. In that case, you will end up with an intricate and vibrantly colorful display against a green backdrop of foliage.
Japanese Bonsai Styles for Hibiscus
Returning to the realm of styles most bonsai enthusiasts know better, we now delve into the complexity of traditional Japanese bonsai cultivation.
Broom Style – Hokidachi
Broom-style bonsais are easy to pick out of a lineup of miniature trees because they look like small brooms. They typically grow with thick trunks, and their foliage usually doesn’t start until about a third of the way up the full height of the tree. The branches of broom-style bonsais grow in all directions with a steady upward trajectory, forming the broom’ head’ to crown the tree.
While hibiscus usually has fairly narrow stems, these can be cultivated into trunks of relative girth, making these flowery bushes perfect for a broom-style bonsai. You can use any type of hibiscus for a broom-style bonsai, and those with smaller flowers and finer foliage such as the dwarf varieties will create a stunning visual display. If you opt to leave the flowers blooming above where you’ve already trimmed the tree’s foliage, you could add even more visual interest.
In my experience, this often looks as if you’ve been able to stop time and capture the beautiful moment when small colorful birds are fluttering around your bonsai.
Formal Upright – Chokkan
This is perhaps the most widely used and well-known style of bonsais. A tree often exhibits this type of growth style in nature, especially if it is exposed to a lot of light and does not compete with other trees for resources. The upright-growing trunk should have a clearly visible taper. To guarantee a true formal upright bonsai trunk, it must be thickest at the bottom and thinnest as it grows taller. The trunk should begin to sprout branches around 1/4 of its length. It is not recommended that the trunk of the Chokkan tree spans its entire height; the top of the tree should be a single branch.
Informal Upright – Moyogi
Moyogi is one of the more architectural bonsai styles. Mimicking nature, the informal upright style sees bonsais growing relatively straight, with a slight s-bend in the thicker portion of the trunk. These trees are usually comparatively taller than other bonsai styles to allow for the simulated bend in the trunk and typically branch out organically from either side of these bends.
To be a good representation of moyogi, the trunk of your hibiscus bonsai should be fairly thick at the base and taper up gradually to become markedly thinner at the top. Depending on your personal style, both the larger and dwarf hibiscus varieties will suit the moyogi style if done well.
Slanting Bonsai – Shakan
Shakan is a particularly dramatic bonsai style. Created to emulate the effects of strong gales and gusts, this style results in a tree that slants prominently to one side. In nature, trees will lean predominantly to the side strong winds blow them. Trees will also grow this way eventually to try and decrease the damage caused by winds. If their branches and foliage grow in the direction of the winds instead of against them, there’s less chance of branches being flung off the trees.
Roots, as we’ve covered in a previous article, are integral to a tree’s survival. In the case of trees that inspire the Shakan bonsai style, roots are even more important. In this case, roots grow more prominently on one side of the tree to keep the tree stable and strengthen it against the winds. Roots sometimes grow above ground to this end which creates an incredibly striking visual display.
In the aesthetic sense, strong roots on one side of your Shakan-style hibiscus bonsai create visual balance. This style is another that captures the true drama of the natural world.
Cascade Bonsai – Kengai
When a tree lives in nature on a steep cliff, it can bend down due to several factors, such as snow or falling rocks. Kengai is particularly suitable for hibiscus due to the plant’s malleable branches. A flower below the rim of the pot also creates immense visual interest.
In bonsai, downward-growing trees can be difficult to maintain since they grow against the tree’s natural upright tendency. Kengai bonsais are typically grown in tall pots. In the beginning, the tree will grow upright, and then it will bend downward. Trees usually develop a crown that rises above the pot’s rim as they grow. However, the remaining branches grow in alternating directions along an S-shaped trunk that bends both left and right. These branches should grow horizontally to maintain the balance of the tree.
Semi-cascade Bonsai – Han-kengai
Semi-cascades are also found in nature on cliff faces and along rivers and lakes. The trunk bends downwards or sideways after growing upright for a short distance. Contrary to cascade trunks, the semi-cascade trunk will never extend below the bottom of the pot. Most of the time, the crown appears above the rim, while the branching follows below.
Literati Bonsai – Bunjingi
These trees grow in densely populated areas, where the competition for resources is so fierce that they can only survive by growing taller than the other trees. The trunk of the tree grows crookedly upward since the sun only shines on the top. In order to make the branches appear tougher, their bark has been removed. In this way, it is expressed that the tree is battling to survive. Literati bonsais are typically cultivated in small round pots.
Windswept Bonsai – Fukinagashi
Windswept is another prime example of how the harshness of the elements shapes the sentinels of the natural world. This is an excellent representation of the struggle for survival some trees endure in climates and regions with more severe wind speeds.
As winds continually blow the tree in a specific direction, the tree adapts by growing in that direction, thereby decreasing the damaging effects of the strong gusts. This creates dramatic sweeping displays that capture the conflict between the tree and the elements. Fukinagashi is not only a story of conflict, however. It is a story of determination in adversity. Because of the pliability of the hibiscus branches, the windswept style is easy to achieve.
Double Trunk Bonsai – Sokan
The double trunk style is not that common in bonsai despite being common in nature. The smaller trunk may grow out of the larger trunk just above the ground; both trunks usually stem from the same root system. It is evident that the two trunks differ in diameter and length, with the larger trunk growing almost straight and the thinner trunk becoming a bit slanted. Eventually, both trunks will have one crown with leaves from both trunks.
Multitrunk Bonsai – Kabudachi
In theory, multi-trunk bonsais are similar to double trunks. The addition of numerous trunks creates a slightly more complex-looking bonsai, but they’re both equally beautiful. Kabaduchi actually also has similarities with the Wonderboom style we covered earlier with the South African styles in that you essentially have one tall, further developed trunk that creates the bulk of the bonsais crown. Other smaller trunks add visual interest and a deeper dimension to the setup.
Forest Bonsai – Yose-ue
Some bonsai enthusiasts call Yose-ue a take on the multi-trunk idea. But like the multi-trunk style, Yose-ue actually has more in common with the Wonderboom style from South Africa. You are essentially trying to replicate an entire miniature forest instead of just one tree, albeit one tree with many trunks.
The relationship between the various trees in the forest is something you want to pay close attention to. Bonsai is an effort to create realism and fantasy at the same time and a way to bring the forests of the world into your home. Some forests grow in a staggered formation, where the various trees’ crowns are on different levels. Other forests form one unbroken crown giving the feeling that each and every tree is connected, which they are, as we explored in an earlier article about the yew. Some forests seem to have one crown because each tree’s crown is on the same level, but on closer inspection, their crowns don’t touch. This creates a really striking image of individuality in the embrace of togetherness.
Think about what kind of message you want your miniature forest to carry and start there. It’s been hypothesized, researched, and, on a small scale, proven that trees in a forest exist in defined communities of codependence for vital resources. This is the perfect opportunity to explore the natural dynamics between living organisms in a semi-enclosed system such as a forest.
Shari Bonsai – Sharimiki
Over the course of many years, some trees develop baldness due to unfavorable or harsh weather cycles. These bald patches of the tree trunk where the bark has come away and turned into mulch on the forest floor are exposed to direct sunlight. The effect of this direct and intense exposure is that the wood under the bark will bleach and become white. The tree then has a distinctive look, especially if it has branches or additional trunks that still have bark.
Shari is an incredibly popular style amongst true bonsai connoisseurs, and it isn’t as difficult to achieve as you might think. Essentially, you need to carefully strip the bark from the thickened trunk of your hibiscus bonsai with a sharp blade or knife. Then you need to expose the wood under the bark to copious amounts of direct sunlight. But drinking in the sun’s beautiful rays to such an extent that its wood whitens will take years.
Luckily we here at The Bonsai Alchemist have a trick. All you need to do is treat the naked portions of the trunk with lime sulfur; this will perfectly simulate the long-term effects of the sun. Lime sulfur is also far more targeted and controlled than direct sunlight. Shari opens up a whole new world of possibility when you are creating your hibiscus bonsai. The bleached white trunk becomes a symbol of femininity. Increase this strong Yin energy by working a few bends and organic curves into the trunk before you bleach it. Coupled with a more upright, thicker, barked masculine trunk, you have the picture of perfect balance.
Bonsai is a creative space, a realm where your will is the driving force. You become more than someone pottering around with plants. Once you dabble in the art of bonsai, you are forevermore part of a sacred group of creators. We prune, bend and shape our trees just while we prune, bend and shape ourselves. We are on a sacred journey, not only of discovery of the deeper self but of the universe and all its wonders.
Hibiscus is a plant that has been shown over centuries to have a resonance with the human body. Helpful to the body, mind, a soul in so many ways, hibiscus is a plant rooted deep within the human experience. Bringing one of these spectacular, noble flowering shrubs into your life, either as a bonsai, or rooted in your garden, can only bring good into your life.
So as I’ve said in my other writings, choose colors of the hibiscus flower that are important to you and resonate with your soul. Bring this beautiful plant into your life and pour yourself into it by cultivating it as a bonsai. Tend to it as you tend to yourself, learn its story as you know your own, and cultivate it to thrive as you build yourself into something spectacular.