Sunday, 14 February 2016

Can I Bonsai a Cactus?

Although I was anything but an enthusiastic gardener as a child, I have clear memories of wanting a cactus. My parents very nearly bought me one too, but somehow between my selecting my plant and going to pay for it, I managed to get a mass of thorns stuck in my hand, and after that good sense prevailed. I never did get my cactus. Well not until recently.

I've got a few succulents I'm training as bonsai but they've never been my favourite material to work with because the branches tend to break rather easily. So I'm not sure what possessed me on the day I decided to buy this cactus with the intention of turning it into bonsai.

Cactus as purchased

I'd been to a bonsai show at a fabulous garden centre about an hour away from home and after viewing the show it was only natural that I had a good look at everything they had for sale in the nursery even though I didn't really want to add anything to a collection that is already far too big.

I rarely buy from the bonsai section at nurseries because they tend to have mediocre trees and even the pre-bonsai have really high price tags, but I love to look at what's for sale anyway. Fortunately I was able to avoid temptation in that section, so I moved on to looking at their garden trees. Still nothing took my fancy.

And then I saw that cactus with its rather tree-like structure. Those two long stems with their fat bases said twin trunk bonsai and hard as I tried to resist the temptation, as I wandered through the rest of the nursery I couldn't get it out of my mind. In a moment of madness I bought it.

Once I got it home, however, the doubts began to set in. Where was I going to keep this plant without risking someone getting hurt? I tucked it away up against a wall, behind some of my other trees. Strangely, despite my doubts, I felt my usual temptation to grow the unwanted pieces as cuttings, though I knew I shouldn't. I was torn.

Decision making has never been one of my strengths, so I took the easy way out and did what I so often do in situations like that - nothing!

That was several months ago.

Finally today, realising that autumn isn't too far off, I decided that something had to be done, so I schlepped my cactus to a club workshop, all the while wondering whether everyone would tell me I was crazy to attempt to bonsai this unusual material.

Surprisingly nobody did, though they may well have thought so. I even got help with extracting the cactus from its old pot- my helper used a thick cloth to pull it out without getting a handful of thorns.

Although I don't normally train my trees in bonsai pots, I felt I should make an exception with this one to avoid having to handle that thorny trunk more often than necessary. Perhaps it was just as well, because there was a surprise waiting for me when it came out of the pot - those two stems came from a much thicker base and exposing that base was the only way to fit it into a bonsai pot.

Cactus pruned and planted in bonsai pot - February 2016

To be honest I'm not sure I like it so much now. Seeing it in that pot has reawakened my doubts over the wisdom of buying it in the first place. Regardless, I shortened the stems to give it a more treelike appearance, and I'll see how it develops over the next few months. If I really hate it, I can always try to sell it at a club show, or if all else fails it can go on the club raffle.

Update: When I shared this post with Reddit's bonsai group, I was told that it's not a cactus. I cross-posted to the cactus sub-Reddit and have established that it's actually a Pachypodium Saundersii.

Update 2: Unfortunately this experiment did not have a happy ending. I should have known better.


  1. How do you suppose a prickly pear cactus would go as a bonsai, l have a 4cm lobe from discarded prunings. Currently cut skin back to 2cm around lobe and have it in loose potting mix to initiate root growth.

    1. Technically a bonsai should look like a miniature tree so I'm not sure the purists would call it bonsai. But it would still be a fun project and if you like it, that's the most important thing.

  2. Do you still have that cactus? It looks nice, whether or not it's a bonsai.

    1. Sadly it didn't survive very long after I repotted it. I'm not sure what killed it, but I suspect it was root rot.

  3. I don't think that's a cactus - I believe it's a euphorbia. But it's very cute!

  4. I think it's Crown of thorns.