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Collecting Bonsai Trees From Nature

Collecting Bonsai Trees From Nature

Not all bonsai trees are cultivated from seeds or cuttings.  As I’m sure you could have guessed, the original bonsai trees were inspired from nature.

They were also first collected from nature.  Either as a sapling or as a naturally stunted tree in a bad position, collection was the old-school way to do it.

Collecting bonsai trees from nature is pretty damn hard.  Depending on the situation, it’s not easy for the transplanted tree to survive.  It’s also a huge pain in the ass to dig some trees up.

With that said, it’s also great fun.  You are effectively rescuing a tree from a rough life to pamper it and care for it for the rest of its life.  It’s strangely rewarding…

To begin, I have to state the obvious:  You probably can’t just go into some else’s land to go digging up without their permission.  It’s not ok on someone’s private property, and it’s not ok on public land.

Get permission first.

Now that you’ve gotten the permission you need, we have to first identify the two types of trees you’re going to be hunting for in the wild:

Saplings and underdeveloped trees.

Let’s start with the easiest first:  The saplings.

Collecting Saplings For Bonsai

To collect a sapling, you don’t have to do much more than dig it up.  Ideally, the roots aren’t that deep yet, so it shouldn’t be too hard.  You just need to be careful of the little fibrous roots when you are pulling up the longer taproot.  You need to keep those little roots intact and unharmed as best as you can to keep the sapling alive.

You can also look for newly sprouted nuts or seed pods.  I have a pretty cool walnut bonsai that I collected from a sprouted walnut that was found near a walkway in the woods.  To my surprise, it’s still alive and well.

 Walnut Bonsai Tree



Be sure to fill in any holes when you’re done.

Collecting Wild Trees For Bonsai

Next up comes the underdeveloped trees.  These are generally some older trees that are growing on top of a boulder or something else that is preventing it from thriving.  If you can get at it, get at it.

But be warned:  These suckers are difficult to get going.  They likely have roots shooting all over the place in order to keep them alive, so we have to be both strong and careful.

To start, first prune the tree a bit.  You don’t want too many leaves and branches to get in your way, and they’ll only steal energy away from the roots when you pot it, so get trimming.  Any branches you don’t need, trim down.  Any branches you’ll keep, take most of the leaves off (leave 2-3 per branch.)

Now it’s time to get digging around the tree as wide as the canopy.  This is about how far the fibrous roots go, and we gotta keep them intact and healthy to improve our odds of keeping this tree alive.

You’ll want to dig straight down in order to get under the root-ball and tap roots.  You may have to go deep, and you should expect some serious obstacles (like the boulder or slab of rock keeping the tree dwarfed.) 

It won’t be easy.

You will likely have to cut off the taproot at some point, and do plenty of wiggling of the tree trunk to loosen it up. 

Your goal is to get a pry bar under the rootball to get it up, ideally without damaging many of those root fibers.

Once you get the tree out of the ground, hold off on celebrating for a minute.  You’ve got to get that tree back home.

Mimosa Bonsai Tree


Again, fill in any holes. You wouldn’t want to bust your ankle going through a leisurely stroll, so do the right thing and fill it in.

Transporting A Wild Collected Bonsai

You’ve got to bag up that rootball for the trip back home.  You can use a plastic bag, canvas bag, or a bucket.  Personally, I find a 2.5 gallon or 5 gallon bucket work the best.

Next up, you have to make sure the roots have some water.  It can’t be bone dry for too long, so just make sure it’s moist. 

If the dirt on the roots is already pretty moist, you can skip this.  This would be a good time to mention that the best time to collect wild bonsais is right after a good rain.

The ground is softer, the tree is watered, and things are just easier.  Just watch out for extra biting bugs, which are definitely less fun to deal with.

Once your tree is ready to transport, do it.  It won’t like being kept out for too long, so don’t delay.

Caring For A Wild Collected Bonsai

Now that your newly collected wild bonsai is home, you’ve got to plant it. 

There’s a ton of info on how to plant it.  Some say in large rocks, some say in sand, some say in gardening soil.

I say, plant it like a regular bonsai.

Finish up your pruning and be sure to seal the wounds to keep.

Use bonsai soil and put it in a bonsai pot if you can.  If your new tree is too big for that, use some well drained rocks and any well draining container that you can.  I’ve done this and it worked surprisingly well.

Water and light are the crucial elements here. 

You’re going to have to keep this new tree watered frequently.  Once or twice a day in really well drained soil. 

For the light, keep it in indirect sunlight or in a spot that gets direct morning sun for a while.

Once you see some new growth, you’re pretty much free to treat it like a normal bonsai for the rest of it’s life.

Bonsai Collection Tools

I’ll quickly mention the tools I use to get this done.

You’ll need a big spade or shovel, a pry bar and something to transport to dirty roots in like a bag or a bucket.

Beyond that, you’ll need something to trim the tree down a bit.  Regular pruning shears will work fine.

The only “specialty” tools I recommend are a small tactical shovel and a machete.  They will help you saw any big taproots underground, cut any large limbs that your shears can’t handle, and be your default “what do I do now?” tools.

These are the ones I use, and I love them.

Before we wrap this up, we should mention the moral part of this.  I don’t like to collect wild trees that will probably grow up big and strong without me.  There are exceptions to the rule, like if it’s going to get ripped up by landscapers or its one of a thousand saplings in an area (and this one happens to be in the worst position.)

Remember:  We collect bonsai to appreciate these trees.  Part of that is respecting them in the wild which ensures we’ll be able to enjoy them, both big and small, for years to come.

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