Where you should get your first tree, and what kind of tree should it be, depends on where you live, where you want to keep it and what experience you have. I am living in a temperate climate and therefore my personal experience is limited to the plants that grow around here plus some subtropical and tropical plants that I grow indoors. I also have very limited – and universally negative – experience with Australian flora, so, unfortunately, I cannot give too much info about that. But whatever I write here should be applicable throughout Eurasia and North America.
So first thing first – where you should get your first tree? If you have indoor plants, you should first look whether you have a suitable plant already that could perhaps be converted to bonsai. There is plenty of commonly grown indoor potted plants that are also suitable bonsai species. Two of my most impressive and valuable trees were converted from 40 years old plants that my mother grew.
If you have a garden and want to have an outdoor bonsai, then I would recommend using local species or some decorative species that you might already have. You can either try and take a twig and plant it – many species take root easily – or look around your garden for a seedling that started to grow where it should not have, perhaps too close to a hedge or similar.
Such plants have a huge advantage over anything that you buy in that you can be reasonably sure that they can prosper in the environment you can provide for them and you might already know how to care for them.
Do not buy anything that has “bonsai” in the name. Neither a good expensive tree nor one of the mass-produced cheap ones in supermarkets. In the first case, you probably would not be able to take proper care of the tree yet, and in the second case you would not be buying a bonsai but a crippled plant that can become one in a few years at the best, or will die soon no matter what you do at worst. The cheapo “bonsai” from supermarkets can be a good source of twig cuttings for your own planting though, sometimes it is the only way to get your hands on certain species. And absolutely never buy “bonsai kit”. There is no such thing as bonsai seeds. Those are ordinary tree seeds in fancy packaging and without proper care will, therefore, grow into ordinary trees – if they germinate at all.
Do not poach trees in the forest or on someone else’s property. There are environmentally friendly and IMO morally OK ways to do it – for example trees that grow near train tracks or roads and are periodically cut down for maintenance because they are a weed – but it is still illegal and you should not do it without the permission of the property owner. And then there is, of course, the morally reprehensible poaching in parks and mountain forests. In Japan poaching of trees for commerce has lead to significant environmental damage in mountainous areas for example. Yup, the Japanese are not above commercializing their heritage and destroying their environment in due course. And to poach a tree without it dying requires a lot of experience, take my word for it.
If you lack suitable species at home and cannot find anything in your garden and therefore must buy something, then buy plants of suitable species at your local gardening store. Look for plants that do not have overtly visible scars from grafting and are healthy and with a bit of luck, you can find a tree that can be converted into a bonsai within one-two years.
And here a very short and incomplete list of species/genera, in three categories. The taxa are listed in no particular order from the top of my head. I only write about species/genera that I have personal experience with or can reasonably extrapolate to from closely related taxa. And because English tree nomenclature is a complete nonsensical mess, I will only use Latin names.
- Ideal for a beginner:
Indoor – Myrthus communis, Hibiscus sp., Laurus nobilis, Fuchsia sp., Crassula ovata, Serissa foetida, Adonium obesum, Punica granatum
Outdoor – Acer sp., Betula sp., Larix sp., Ulmus sp., Taxus sp., Ligustrum sp., Buxus sp., Carpinus sp., Tilia sp.
- Not ideal, but still suitable with caveats:
Indoor – Ficus sp., Euphorbia milli, Portulacaria afra, Olea europaea
Outdoor – Juniperus sp., Thuja sp. Cupressus sp., Chamaecyparis sp., Thujopsis sp., Pinus sp., Fagus sp. Malus sp., Prunus sp., Illex sp. Cedrus sp., Tamarix sp., Crataegus sp.,
- Not suitable for a beginner at all:
Indoor – Podocarpus sp., Eucalyptus sp., Annona sp., Citrus sp., Camelia sp., Cuphea hissopifolia
Outdoor – Picea sp., Fraxinus sp., Salix sp., Populus sp. Vitis vinifera, Forsythia sp., Corylus sp., Visteria sp., Calluna vulgaris, Vaccinium sp., Azalea sp., Rhododendron sp., Sambucus sp., Hedera helix
Each of these taxa may get their own extra article in due course. I will start with some of the most suitable ones.