Growing cannabis bonsai trees: Separating fact from fiction

Published on June 28, 2017 · Last updated February 23, 2021

Imagine having a miniature cannabis plant that you could simply set in your window, with lovely green branches emerging from its artistically spiraled center. Sounds pretty incredible, right? This is the dream of cannabis bonsai, an idea that has surged in popularity in recent years and continues to be a hot topic.

A quick Google search will bring up plenty of articles claiming how easy it is to grow a cannabis bonsai, complete with step-by-step guides or instructions. However, most are accompanied by hard-to-believe photos or renderings of said bonsai. Do these projects actually work?

Want to learn more about growing marijuana? Check out Leafly’s Growing Guide to get tips and advice from expert growers.

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To get to the bottom of this intriguing topic, I consulted the minds of those experienced with bonsai and with cannabis. My main question: Is it even possible to grow a cannabis bonsai?

What is bonsai, and why would it appeal to cannabis growers?

The key to bonsai is the word “miniature.” Unlike other potted plants, the joy of bonsai lies in creating a little landscape meant to be a replica of the natural world. Bonsai has a long, rich history that stems from regions in China and Japan and may have begun as early as 700 AD.

Additionally, just as “miniature” is key to bonsai, so is “art form.” This is not a houseplant that you can pop in a pot and allow to grow willy-nilly—bonsai are artistic endeavors that take time and care to cultivate. Many bonsai are even passed down from generation to generation, long outlasting those who first gave loving attention to their branches.

Laurel Cleveland has seen such bonsai at the Pacific Bonsai Museum in Washington state, where bonsai dating from Hiroshima, along with many others, reside. Cleveland is the creative director for Washington’s Vela, a cannabis dispensary that shares space with a cannabis grow. This convenience allows her to witness the evolution of plants every day. In addition to having grown her own cannabis plants in the past and having a rich background in horticulture, aptly named Laurel has also grown a keen love for cultivating bonsai.

When it comes to bonsai trees and cannabis plants, there’s one thing she believes is important for both: a healthy respect for the plant. “I think this is a really great way for people to start exploring [what it takes to grow] cannabis,” she says of the labor-intensive practice of growing bonsai. “If bonsai is something they’re already familiar with, more so then just plopping something on their porch … cannabis requires a lot more care and dedication inherently, just the same as bonsai, and I think that’s exactly what it deserves.”

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Unfortunately, due to legislation prohibiting homegrow in Washington, Cleveland is unable to experiment with growing her own cannabis bonsai. Yet the topic has certainly been a popular one lately, which Cleveland has noticed. So why the sudden surge in interest?

“Honestly, people desire to nurture and care for something, and sometimes animals aren’t the best solution for younger generations because they work a lot and can’t necessarily give the love and attention they need to animals. So, they redirect that to plants,” says Cleveland.

Many cannabis growers would love to see a bonsai version in their usual yield, but is it possible or just a pipe dream?

The possibilities of cannabis and bonsai

Scott Chadd is 73 years old, is retired, and has been cultivating bonsais for over half his life—he’s a self titled “bonsai person” going on 45 years. He lives in California where he is the owner of the Lotus Bonsai Nursery and president of the Golden State Bonsai Federation.

Chadd was happy to discuss the topic of cannabis bonsai, but his view came with a hearty dose of skepticism.

“Not all plants are suitable for bonsai,” he says. “It is quite complex to cover the reasons, but I will list a few. The leaves cannot be large in relation to the trunk and branch or stem of the plant. It must have a trunk that tapers from large at the bottom to small at the top. It should have trunk movement and interesting bark. Like any visual art, we are basically dealing with line, form, texture and color. The bonsai needs to have visual interest, be able to hold the eye of the viewer, and be vigorous enough to withstand the rigors of bonsai culture.”

So with that in mind, does he believe there could be a place for cannabis in the world of bonsai? “I do not believe cannabis will produce acceptable bonsai,” states Chadd.

“It is a very fast-growing, fastigiated shrub, with large leaves in relation to the size of the trunk and stem. It is angular, not graceful, or presenting curves or movement. As to its dimensions, we normally look to have a bonsai where the tree is six times as tall as the trunk diameter at the soil line. It is not long-lived and has no special characteristics other than the cannabinoid effect on human psych activity.”

Cleveland, for her part, also foresees some challenges ahead for the aspiring cannabis bonsai grower.

“I think it would be a huge challenge, definitely. I think it would probably come down to life cycle, depending on the genetics of the plant. I’ve seen cannabis plants from growers with roots like no other, so I think as far as roots go, they have the ability to anchor themselves very well. While the amount of space in the pot might be a huge factor, it is such a vigorous plant that I feel like its capable of growing pretty much everywhere. The amount of attention and care you would need to give it would be challenging.”

That said, Cleveland allows that, “if you have the time to experiment then I think it would be worth a try.” She doesn’t see quite as many pitfalls as Chadd: for example, the fast growth of cannabis is seen as a perk in her mind, rather than a downfall of the plant.

“I think people who know bonsai will have a little bit less of a learning curve,” she says. “If you lose a bonsai tree it’s heartbreaking, because it takes years and years to cultivate. Cannabis is faster to grow, so because cannabis is so vigorous and such a hearty plant, you can see the changes happen quicker and learn more about the plant.”

Keeping Up Cannabis Bonsai

As for the classic bonsai shape? Well, there may be some hope there. Cleveland believes that through low-stress training, and given enough time and space, a cannabis plant could take the desired shape a grower wants. Her theory is lent credence by YouTuber Andrew Pyrah. Based in Amsterdam, Pyrah has experimented on his channel with cannabis growth, and managing to train some plants to twist and bend in shapes that are reminiscent of traditional bonsai.

Will we see more growers attempt the cannabis bonsai? Cleveland thinks it’s only a matter of time. “I think it’s just a matter of experimenting, and a whole lot of failure,” she says, “but that’s with anything, right? Growing a warehouse full of cannabis is a difficult task too, so anything is possible.”

What about flowering? Could a true cannabis bonsai produce smokable product? The answer to this may lie in the flowering cycles of other bonsai trees. While bonsai may be allowed to enter a flowering life cycle, many growers report that many such trees don’t come back after flowering (depending on strain and genetics). Thus, it remains to be seen if a flowering cannabis bonsai would return with the same vigor it had before—or even survive.

Ultimately, the art of bonsai is perhaps less about what the tree can do for you, but more about what you can do for the tree. Growing bonsai is a task which requires the artist to show precision, care, and attention to the tree. The reward lies in the beauty of creation, the joy of viewing a worldly landscape in a miniature form, and the knowledge that you’ve nurtured that. If there is one thing bonsai and cannabis growers share, it is a deep passion for their plants. With time and dedication, there’s a good chance that we will eventually see the two passions combined into one.

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Rae Lland
Rae Lland
Rae Lland is a freelance writer, journalist, and former editor for Weedist and The Leaf Online. With a focus on culture, music, health, and wellness, in addition to her work for Leafly, she has also been featured in numerous online cannabis publications as well as print editions of Cannabis Now Magazine. Follow her on Instagram @rae.lland
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