Desert Plants Bonsai Discussion

Hello everyone,

Been reading a few of the threads and enjoying the pleasant discussions. I live in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, considered “arid desert” by some. For reference, here is a link to the climate: UAE weather

I’ve wanted to bonsai local trees since the 90s but kept postponing it. In the meantime I kept buying Mallsai and killing them.

At 57 years of age (and with 2 grand kids now), I think I am now more patient. So, I have picked some local stock to “bonsai”:

  • boughainvilea
  • olive (not so local)
  • Ficus

And then I found something new: Texas sage, which apparently loves our weather. I’ve had the tree for 4 months now and it is thriving. So I was wondering when I can put it in a bonsai pot, and how tolerant it was of having its roots trimmed. Right now, the temp can go up to 37 in the afternoon, and down to 27 at midnight. It will not get very cold at night even in the middle of Winter.

Another tree I found plenty of in the nurseries is Mandarin Orange. Would it work as a bonsai? Its branches seem to stay green for a long time, which is strange.

Lastly, I was able to find a Chinese elm bonsai and it seems to have survived our Summer. It has grown vigirously since then and I am afraid to prune anything, but at the same time, I can see that the inside of it is losing leaves. Should I prune it? Is it OK to prune it now?

I know I have put several topics here, but I have never had anyone to talk to about bonsai before, so made this thread about desert climate instead. I also have questions about other local plants but probably will indicate them in the title of the topic next time.

Thanks so much for reading this.

I can offer some options from the Texas hill country (USDA Hardiness Zone 8).
Our Fall temp are similar, 38/25. summers hit 40* regularly, winter days are usually 25/5, with occasional freezes down to -5.

Texas sage (Leucophyllum frutescens), and the majority of our woody, drought-tolerant, shrubs (ex: rosemary) do not tolerate root pruning well. Treat them like pines, and never bare-root.

My top recommendations for Texas Natives:

Texas Ebony (Ebenopsis ebano): One of the best bonsai in our collection. It is ever-green deciduous, grows well indoors and out, tolerates root pruning. Ours is in a shallow pot, in inorganic soil, and thriving.
Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center - The University of Texas at Austin ← LBJ wildflower center database, an excellent resource

Cedar Elm (Ulmus crassifolia): Extremely hardy and vigorous, tolerates really rough handling including collection, bare-rooting, major structural work. Provides lots of new growth to work with, which requires attentive pruning.

Orchid Tree (Bauhinia lunarioides): Can be difficult to find even in Tx, but worth it if you can get one.

Yaupon (Ilex vomitoria): Considered something of a weed where I grew up, landscapers love it, It is incredibly resilient, and with proper development can be a really nice bonsai.

Baldcypress (Taxodium distichum): Ryan will tell you that you CAN over-water these. I will tell you to keep their feet wet, standing in 3-6cm of water depending on the pot, 1/3 to 1/2 of the pot submerged. Fresh running water is best if you have a small pond or water pump. We move ours out of the water after leaf drop, and keep them damp but not wet during dormancy.

Texas paloverde (Parkinsonia texana): If you want a real challenge, these have a lot of potential. They are very drought tolerant, but don’t like their roots worked on, and their apically-dominant growth habits, and tendency to die-back from pruning and wiring make them difficult to shape.

Ashe Juniper (Juniperus ashei): If you are looking for a Juniper that is adapted to an arid climate with extreme temperatures, this one is a good choice.

I could go on and on, we have a huge variety of Fabaceae (Pea Family), Oaks, and conifers that are adapted to this harsh climate.

I would encourage you to explore your own native species, you may be surprised at the variety and quality of material that is available. Some of our best specimens are collected “trash” trees, over-looked shrubs, the native trees that fade into the background because they are ubiquitous where we live. Give them a good environment, look a little deeper, and you can find some truly beautiful and unique material.


All of those species seem like good choices for your climate, particularly if you can provide some shade in the heat of the day. I get similar temperatures to your current ones during the heat of the summer, but have much colder winters (-20C is possible). The Chinese elm can be pruned back any time it is growing well. I like to let mine grow out to 6-8 leaves and cut back to 2. However, it can also be cut back very strongly and will then it bud from older wood. Bougainvillea should be able to handle the combination of heat and lack of winter. I believe that olive wants some form of dormancy, but the one I have comes inside once the outside temps drop close to 5C so it really does not see much of a dormant period.

Just for fun…I did a ‘native UAE plants’ google search.
Several trees and bushes profered themselves… may be suitable for bonsai… The local acacia looked interesting, as well as several of the local woody bushes. Look there…
Go local. They will survive in a pot better.
See what is surviving in the older landscaped buildings… ask permission, and go for it… I find this very worthwhile.
Good luck, document the endever and post back here…

Thank you so much for taking the time to add suggestions to my future projects. I never knew any of the trees you mentioned and so was surprised that they would be tolerant of our climate. I especially loved the Ashe Juniper.

Thank you for your advice on Elms.

Lately, the gift of a Dew drop bonsai has brought the “plague” to my balcony. Blight! And all of my trees are now being treated by a copper based fungicide. It’s devastating when you don’t know what’s wrong with your tree and then transfer the very thing to your other trees. Yes, a total novice at horticulture. Sigh.

Acacia is a huge thing here. They grow everywhere. Only thing is that their roots are very deep because they roam for water. So I cannot dig up anything that I like. So I actually tried an experiemtn with seeds. Now my eldest son says he’ll take care of them and turn them to bonsai after I am dead hehehe.

I know what they will look like - I will adopt the style that they appear in here in our deserts, as that is more representative. Broom, windswept and the canopy like styles.

I am very excited.