Why is My Bonsai Dying?

After years of trying to grow bonsai, one of the things I’ve learned for sure is the answer to the question “why is my bonsai dying?”

 

What I’ve learned is that this question is basically the same as when my Mom says “Why doesn’t my computer work?” The answer is, there are so many possible things that may be going wrong that the question can’t be answered without additional information.

 

For example, when my Mom has something on her computer that isn’t working it could be any number of things. It could be the software or the hardware. A rookie mistake easily solved or a complicated problem that someone adept with computers struggles with. Sometimes it has nothing to do with her at all: such as a website is down for maintenance.

 

The Two Vital Questions:

Similarly with bonsai there can be any number of reasons your bonsai is dying. But with two simple questions, you can make your impossible question into something very answerable. Here they are:

 

  1. What kind of bonsai do you have?

  • Fastest, easiest way is to ask someone who knows quite a bit about gardening, or bonsai, or both. If you don’t know someone you can ask there are local bonsai clubs where you would undoubtedly find someone who could identify your plant and it’s problem. If that isn’t an option either you can also try your local county extension office or a master gardener through county extension.
  • Overly simple, but it does work pretty often, is to do a basic Google image search and move from image to image. By this I mean if you Google “bonsai” or “bonsai with pink flowers” and scroll down the images you may find one that looks like your tree. Click on it and see if someone identifies the tree. Take that name and put that through Google images. Sometimes you’ll be misdirected a bit, but usually if you look at a couple different images, someone has it labeled right and you’ll have it identified in no time.
  • Understand you may not get the precise species. If you know you have a magnolia or a juniper, you may not know if it’s a common juniper, or a Syrian juniper, or a creeping juniper, or a rocky mountain juniper. Sometimes you have to be satisfied with a general label. This is tricky because one type of pine may require the cold to hibernate, and another may die with freezing temperatures.
  • The Arbor Day Foundation has a nice tree identification application you can find at: https://www.arborday.org/trees/whattree/ Remember that bonsai is growing trees or other plants in a miniature version to look like small trees in a pot. Which means your bonsai tree may not be a tree at all, and thus not in their database. For example, some of the most common bonsai such as junipers and azalea aren’t trees. If you look up your tree, remember that the size of the tree and leaves are generally reduced but fruit and flowers are not. (So it might not look just like a picture online).

 

  1. Why do you think it’s dying?

Are the leaves yellowing? Curling? Brown and crispy? Still green but drooping and flaccid? Is there something fuzzy and white covering it? Bugs all over it? There are no leaves at all? When was the last time it was repotted? Are the roots coming up out of the container?

 

 

The two questions “What kind of tree do I have?” and “Why do you think it’s dying?” transforms your question from: “Why is my bonsai dying?” to something like “Why does my azalea bonsai have white mold?” or “Why does my Fukien tea bonsai not have any leaves?” Ta da!

That is the first step to solving your problem. You’re going to take your new question and search it online. But you’re likely to still need more information.

Before you turn to the web to search the problem, you’ll want to observe your bonsai. Generally speaking your bonsai’s health is effected by: bugs and pests, mold and fungus, and environmental conditions – your plant is too wet or too dry, it doesn’t have enough light or is positioned under a vent in a draft or something similar. Look at the leaves, braches, trunk, and top of the soil. Do you see any insects? Signs of insects like leaves with holes? Are there any patches of brown, white, or black? Anything discolored? Where is it located, is there much sun?

If you have a smartphone take a picture of any bugs or signs of disease. Describing the problem and looking at Google images or a similar application will help diagnose the situation and hone your quest to save your tree.

 

The other part I learned to the “why is my bonsai dying?” question is that despite your best efforts you may not be able to diagnose it or fix it. Sure, if you don’t water for two months or generously watered your bonsai three times a day every day for a couple months or you’ve kept an outdoor plant inside, those are pretty clear reasons your bonsai would die. But sometimes you just don’t know, and sometimes no matter what you try you still loose your tree.

It happens to the best of them though. They say killing 1,000 trees makes you into a master. Do some searching and try to figure what you did wrong. Chalk it up to learning a lesson, and move on.