Interested bystanders considering moving into bonsai have multiple reasons to be dissuaded from giving the art a chance. Many, particularly Americans, are put off by the amount of time necessary with many tree species for initial training. Others don’t feel comfortable with risking a valuable scion or yamadori to a design that might kill the tree. Still others feel intimidated by the techniques themselves, and wish for easier starter plants for practice before risking a pomegranate or Wollemi pine to shaping and cutting. In recent years, herbal alternatives to standard trees, particularly using rosemary and other woody shrub herbs, have achieved a popularity of their own, and an intriguing alternative is the Capsicum group of peppers.
The advantages to using Capsicum peppers for bonsai experiments include a higher resistance to dehydration than most other bonsai candidates. Since hot peppers cannot tolerate temperatures below freezing, they must be kept as indoor plants in areas with such temperatures, and the peppers thrive as indoor plants in sunny locations. Many, such as the jalapeno (Capsicum annuum) and the habanero (Capsicum chinense), produce attractive flowers and fruit as bonsai. Best of all, not only are plants suitable for bonsai available at garden centers and nurseries, but no evidence yet exists for exactly how long they may survive with proper care. Anecdotal evidence of jalapenos and habaneros surviving for as much as thirty years in plants brought in over the winter, but since most plants stop producing peppers at about that time and are subsequently composted, a Capsicum bonsai may live considerably longer than this.
Another advantage to using Capsicum peppers is that as the pepper plant ages, it builds up a woody stem that is very easy to cut and shape with standard bonsai techniques. The following project involves the beginnings of training a pepper plant for bonsai, but be aware that as with most bonsai, the final effect will take years of shaping. Using Capsicum peppers for bonsai is much faster than using comparable-sized trees, but proper techniques still require patience.
And now the safety warning, to keep the lawyers happy…
WARNING: When using hot peppers for bonsai, ALWAYS wear protective clothing when working with ripe or green fruit. While the leaves and stems do not contain capsaicin, the active compound in hot peppers that produces the distinctive fire, the fruit will, no matter what stage of growth. Some individuals are particularly sensitive to capsaicin on the skin, and all must take precautions not to get any in the eyes , mucus membranes, or particularly sensitive skin. Especially when working with notedly hot peppers such as habaneros, eye protection is highly recommended, as mild bruising of fruit that otherwise leaves no trace may still leave enough capsaicin on skin to cause extreme burning if it gets into the eyes. ALWAYS wash your hands and tools after working with Capsicum fruit, whether it is green or ripe. Neither the Texas Triffid Ranch or any of the entities therein take responsibility for any injuries or discomfort caused by exposure to Capsicum fruit, and individuals overly sensitive to capsaicin should attempt the following project using a mild pepper, such as the TAM jalapeno or habanero developed by Texas A&M University.
To begin, suitable peppers may be grown from seed, or may be purchased as seedlings from the aforementioned garden centers. A suitable pepper should have a good rootstock and a stout stem. Always examine a candidate pepper for infestations of pests such as aphids and whitefly: an infestation at this early a stage suggests a weak plant, although this could also be a factor of poor growing conditions.
Upon finding a suitable candidate plant, the first concern is training it for future shaping. Capsicum peppers are particularly adapted to hot and dry conditions, and in fact have problems with root rot if kept overly wet. My preferred choice of training pot is a five-inch pot purchased at a garden shop sale, with a lip on the drainage saucer to allow inspection of the water level. Make sure that the crown of the plant, where the stem connects to the roots, is not buried in the repotting, as this may cause stem rot and may kill the pepper. Water the pepper sparingly and only when the soil is completely dry, and fertilize every six months. As the plant responds to conditions, it will produce small leaf pods, which may be shaped later.
After six months to a year of growth, the bonsai candidate will have reached the limits of growth in its original pot. In this case, the plant shifted to the side and produced new growth along the leading edge. Several small offshoots have died back at the tip, and these may be used as deadwood or jin in the final design or removed later. The main stem now shows signs of becoming woody, and while whitefly or aphid infestations may cause localized leaf loss, new leaf clusters will appear from the trunk so long as the trunk itself is still green. In addition, while the plant was stressed, it still produced a full dozen fruit and as many flowers at the time this picture was taken, attesting to the strength of the plant. Both flowers and fruit may be removed at this time, taking care with the fruit, or they may be left intact when repotting.
Of particular note is the root system in the pot. Capsicum peppers do not seem to respond well to exposing the roots for long periods, so trying to develop a nebari may cripple or kill the pepper. However, this may be only a condition of a young pepper plant, and anyone wishing to research this on an older pepper should not be discouraged from doing so.
At this stage, the root system has filled the entire pot, meaning that it already has a sufficient root pad for repotting in a traditional bonsai pot. Try to choose a bonsai pot as deep as the root pad, as the root pad will not respond as well to root combing as other bonsai candidate species. As with most others, place a piece of nylon screening over the drainage holes to prevent soil from escaping through the bottom.
At this point, the pepper is ready for repotting. The workspace used for repotting depends upon the individual, and I use a plastic container to minimize soil escape. Use this opportunity to examine the root pad for potential diseases, but try to keep disruptions to a minimum. Excess roots through a drainage hole may be trimmed, but try not to remove excess soil or comb roots for shaping.
Actually stabilizing the root pad may use several techniques, all of which depend upon the individual artist. Peppers respond well to tying with wire through the drainage holes, but in this case, the only support is the soil itself. Note in this picture that the pepper stem itself extends well beyond the confines of the pot: once it is adapted to its new pot, the trunk may be propped to a shankan form, or the excess trimmed to encourage the new growth within the pot for a penjing display. This, as always, depends upon the form of the pepper and the demands of the bonsai artist.
As of this writing, the only addition to this planting is a broken pot used to assist the roots in keeping the pepper in its original leaning form. The pepper is watered when dry, which is usually once per week, and has been kept out of direct sun during that transition. The next stage involves improving upon the branch shape and encouraging a stronger root system, and the final results should be completed within the next six months. Since so little information is available on using peppers for bonsai, copious notes have already been taken on this bonsai’s development, and the techniques described herein will be applied to other habaneros to confirm that these work the best.
The use of Capsicum peppers for bonsai candidates may be unorthodox, but future experimentation should confirm that their use offers opportunities for expanding the art. Their quick growth rate, their unusual leaf and fruit structures, and their ability to thrive under dryer and hotter conditions than most bonsai candidates give them a decided advantage to beginners, and advanced bonsai artists may find much to work with from this particular genus. As always with bonsai, the important consideration is giving the plants time to show their best advantage.
Postscript: shortly after finishing this article, I discovered a Finnish chile enthusiast who does his own pepper bonsai. He’s at least five years ahead of me, and has already demonstrated that pepper nebari are both possible and impressive, which means that it’s time for me to get to work.