What Makes a Bonsai Expensive and Valuable to Owners

  • By: Josh Koop
  • Date: August 20, 2023
  • Time to read: 14 min.
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When you are caring for your first bonsai the bug to join the hobby will already have bitten you, with many owners naturally thinking that their bonsais are the best.

Bonsai trees can be extremely expensive and if you are still in the early stages of learning about the trees, this can be confusing.

What makes this worse for many owners is that most local nurseries will have cheap bonsais that are only made to last 20 or 30 years. 

There are three parts to deciding how expensive a bonsai tree is, the age of the tree, the shape of its trunk, and the size of the bonsai. Many of the oldest bonsai trees are not the small things we will have in our collections, and these expensive trees only reached their current sizes because of their extreme age. 

Knowing what makes a bonsai so expensive may help you sell the trees you have one day while allowing you to easily judge whether or not you are getting a good deal.

Some of the most expensive bonsai trees in the world have been cared for by generations of bonsai masters.

While your local nursery can quickly provide you with the perfect tree to eventually become a bonsai , there are shops around the world where you can buy more expensive specimens. 

Bonsai potted landscape miniascape dishgarden penjing bougainvillea

How much is a real bonsai tree worth?

Some believe a bonsai is not fully part of the classification until the tree reaches its maturity, which can be anything from five years to over 20 years.

This drastically affects the overall price of the trees and nurseries will constantly be using trees that grow faster instead of those that would need to be tended for the next 20 years. 

The actual price of a fully grown bonsai tree can be anything from $20 all the way to well over $400 if the tree is under 30 years of age.

As a tree gets older, the price that it can be sold for significantly increases, with many families shocked to learn that the small trees they are selling after inheritance can easily be worth thousands of dollars. 

Bonsai trees that are older than 50 or 60 years of age can be extremely rare, not only are the trees used by nurseries not going to be able to get that old, but a variety of things influence the lifespan of the tree.

If you grew a tree in your mid-teens, you could easily have a sound investment if the tree survives until your retirement. However, this is not why we usually grow bonsais , as it is much more fun to have the trees in your home. 

How much does a 100-year-old bonsai cost?

A tree that is only a few years old can still cost up to $1000, which makes it all the more difficult for bonsai lovers to find unique specimens.

Seeing as the hobby was not as big in western culture until the mid-60s and 70s there are only a few places on earth where you can find truly 100-year-old trees, and the cost can be a surprise.

At this age, the tree has usually been kept by at least two generations of people, either in the same family or being bought and sold.

A 100-year-old bonsai can be sold for anything from $4000 and upwards, depending heavily on the tree’s condition and what type of tree it is.

These trees are very rarely sold out of hand, being sold at auctions where only those who have the money and knowledge for the tree are allowed to buy. 

This is usually why bonsais are passed down through a family, starting in the East, and why being a bonsai master is such a valuable profession.

Few people in the world can take care of a tree that is already a few hundred years old and then allow it to continually grow in all the right ways.

Bonsai owners looking for an older tree should work on taking care of a few smaller trees before thinking of getting a tree that lived through the world wars. 

How to know if a bonsai will be worth a lot?

If you are walking through an auction space or find yourself lucky enough to come across a bonsai grower that is willing to sell out of hand you will need to know the signs of a good tree.

These are the things that you should look at and ask about when you are thinking of seriously buying an older tree. Some of the best trees may be found when you least expect them, sometimes being sold at farmers’ markets or by those who simply do not care. 

In the same way that you would judge the value of the bonsai that you are interested in buying, you may consider the bonsai that you have.

If you visit a few of the museums around the world that have the oldest bonsai trees in them it will also allow you to appreciate the magnificence of the trees that they have displayed. 

Consider the age of the tree

The most important part of the value of a living bonsai tree is the age of the tree, this is because it will be the hardest thing to accomplish.

Older trees will always be more expensive and knowing how long a tree may live should not be forgotten, most trees that are 100 or older can probably live close to forever.

However, if you are looking at a tree younger than 30, you should do some quick research; many trees have limited lifespans.

These are usually fruit-bearing trees that have been bred to grow quickly and produce fruits, this affects how old they can get even when they are bonsais .

If you are selling a bonsai it is vital to remember that a matured bonsai tree will always be worth a lot more than a tree that can still grow wildly. 

The type of tree 

Most bonsai trees look fantastic , and the tree you are growing may look amazing after you have spent the time required to train its growth.

However, some trees are used by almost every bonsai lover on earth, usually because of the ease of taking care of them.

This has created a market where bonsai trees are much more coveted than others. 

Some bonsai tree species are a lot harder to take care of, seeing as the trees can be sensitive to changes and require that you constantly take care of some parts.

If you know that a specific type of tree is harder to take care of and that it can live longer then chances are it will be worth a lot more than other bonsai trees. 

What the size of the tree means

A big mistake that many outside the world of bonsai think is that all bonsai trees are small trees with barely any leaves or branches.

However, this is not always a tree and many truly old bonsai trees will have both an odd shape and be quite a bit larger than regular bonsai trees you may find.

These are the trees that you will find that are regularly showcased but never have prices on them, but there is an important part to remember.

Most bonsai can be pretty large within a year of the tree growing, and you will need to look at how the trunk is shaped and aged.

As older trees grow they will grow differently, the trunk will show this, primarily if the tree has been maintained and trimmed.

An old, large bonsai will not have scarring where the tree had to be significantly cut down to force it back into being a bonsai. 

The current condition of the bonsai

Bonsai trees will not be displayed outside of their green seasons, bonsai owners will always want to show off the full splendor of the tree.

This is why even the oldest of bonsai, and the most expensive ones, may only be shown to the public when they have a full head of leaves.

This makes the majesty of the tree a lot more and if they are being sold it is the only way to see that the tree is still fully healthy. 

If you are looking at trees that are almost a hundred years old then it is vital to know what signs should be there to show it is healthy.

You should be able to see that the tree is still growing healthily in some parts, even if the trunk of the tree looks like something that has been sun-bleached for a hundred years.

A tree that looks dead should never fetch more than a tree that clearly shows healthy signs of life. 

What the tree looks like

The condition of a tree and what a tree looks like are two opposite things because many trees can look amazing while still being quite dead.

This is why you need to know what a good and old bonsai will look like, especially if the bonsai you are looking for is known for growing in more exotic ways.

A series of trees made by a Japanese master comes to mind, all of which are trees that have been grown entirely on rocky outcroppings instead of just in a pot. 

This means that if a tree is older and has a thick trunk that winds in and around itself then it will be worth more.

Similarly, trees that are prone to having thick vine-like shoots across them can be worth more than simple trees that are growing straight and true.

Other times you may have trees that do grow straight and true, these trees will usually have shorter trunks but will have canopies almost thicker than the tree is tall. 

What are some of the most expensive trees that you can grow?

Finding a good old tree that has been taken care of can be a big challenge, as often you find them either in hardcore collections or they are now museum pieces.

Some of the most amazing trees are usually on loan to certain institutes from master bonsai growers that have had the tree in their families for generations. 

If you want to get a bonsai that will be the fascination of the world then it may be better just to start your tree.

This can be a bit more work but will allow you to have a tree that you control the growth of, and if you are fortunate, you can have someone in your family get it as a part of their inheritance. 

  • Japanese Maple: A tree grown by many bonsai lovers worldwide, it can make a canopy of lovely red leaves that can amaze anyone even if they aren’t in full bloom. This tree, if treated properly, can live easily for over 100 years or more.
  • Bodhi Trees: There aren’t many of these that are significantly old in the bonsai world yet. However, they have become popular to grow thanks to the beauty of their trunks, and the fantastic thing is that these trees have been recorded as over 2000 years old in the wild. A bonsai you make from this tree might outlive your family name. 
  • Pomegranate Trees: Pomegranate trees start bearing fruit around 5 years of age, however, how old the tree can become is quite a mystery. Many pomegranate farms will have trees planted by the very first owners of the farms, which means that as long as the tree is taken care of it should easily reach over 100 years of age. 
  • Juniper Trees: Many people consider Juniper Trees baby’s first real bonsai trees. These trees have the unfortunate reputation of being the tree most growers will allow to die before they learn what not to do. However, this family of trees should not be underestimated and we would recommend that you work the hardest to keep them alive. A juniper tree can live anywhere from 3000 to 6000 years. 
  • Pine Trees: Pine trees are some of the tallest trees in the world, and pine forests worldwide are truly magnificent things to see. Keeping one of these giants as a bonsai can be a real challenge but an enriching experience. Most pine trees can become between 150 and 250 years of age before they die of literal old age, usually falling over in their giant forests. 
  • Olive Trees: These trees have been used for olives for thousands of years, with ancient Greeks and Romans having olive and olive oil as part of their fiber. These trees have unique trunks and can make fantastic bonsais if appropriately grown, as their trunks twist and turn naturally. It is vital to remember that currently, there are fruit-bearing olive trees well over 2000 years old. 
  • Azalea Trees: A famous tree for bonsai , this one has bright pink flowers that have made it extremely popular for many growers to have in their collections. Many believe that the art of bonsai began in Japan because of these types of trees, starting with Sakura trees. No one is quite sure how old azalea trees can get, with some trees in the wild well over 300 years of age. 

Where are some of the most expensive Bonsai trees in the world ?

Now that you know how to see when you are looking at an expensive bonsai tree or how to grow a bonsai that can one day be inherited by your family.

It is essential to know about the other trees. Many other bonsai trees are significantly older than we see in our everyday lives.

While trees that are 100 or 200 years old can easily reach several thousands of dollars worth, there is a category above this that a few trees hold in the world.

We are going to be looking at what we call the big three; these are the oldest bonsai trees in the world that are all valued at the same amount.

All three of these trees have been priced at priceless. 

The Yamaki Pine in The US National Arboretum

In the 1940s, a family of bonsai crafters was having a typical day in Japan when the first nuclear bomb was dropped on a human city.

The city of Hiroshima almost instantly lost more than 80% of its population, with thousands more dying in the remaining days from radiation poisoning.

This marked the end of the Second World War and was almost the end of the Yamaki Pine.

This 392-year-old tree was part of the Yamaki family and as the family survived the blast with only minor scratches, the tree was taken care of for another 25 years.

In 1976 it was donated to the U.S. National Arboretum, where it stood for the next 25 years at the entrance to the building until 2001, when the family came to visit the tree and were able to tell the miraculous story of the tree. 

Ever since the tree has become famous as the tree that survived a nuclear explosion, a living piece of history that may never die.

This tree is not at the end of an older bonsai tree, however, the history and story surrounding it have meant that it is truly a priceless piece of history that should never be sold. 

Sandai Shogun no Matsu the tree for Emperors 

The Japanese started the tradition of growing bonsai trees thousands of years ago , which was seen as part of their nobility.

Many samurai practiced the art of bonsai making and were quite pleased with the hobby, and soon master bonsai carers were made.

However, there is someone else from this early era that also enjoyed bonsai trees, the Shogun. 

The shogunate of Japan is best understood as an emperor system. Around 300 years ago a Shogun called Tokugawa Iemitsu received a five-needle pine tree that was already 200 years old.

Ever since the tree has been passed down from shogun to shogun, being taken care of either by the shogun or one of his retainers. 

As with the Yamaki tree, it is not necessarily the age of the tree that sets it apart, but the history of the tree.

The Sandai Shogun no Matsu is the emperor’s tree and can still be visited as part of the Tokyo Imperial Palace collection.

It would do well for all bonsai lovers to view this collection as there are some amazing specimens other than the Sandai. 

Grandfather Ficus Retusa Linn in Italy

We call this the grandfather of all bonsai trees because it is the grandfather, believed to be the oldest bonsai tree in the world the Ficus Retusa Linn is believed to be well over 1000 years old.

Without damaging the tree, there is no sure way to see how old it is; however, its age can be seen by the complex growth it shows throughout its roots. 

This tree is currently being kept at the Crespi Bonsai Museum in Italy after the museum’s founder, Luigi Crespi, spent ten years trying to gain ownership of it.

No one is sure of the full history of the tree as it would be hard to trace without any documentation, however, we do know that when Crespi found it the tree was being tended to by Chinese bonsai masters. 

Once he had the tree it was being taken care of by Japanese bonsai master Shotaro Kawahara.

When the museum opened in 1991, five years after he secured the tree, it was placed in a glass pagoda where it quickly became the collection’s centerpiece.

The museum is a must-visit for all bonsai lovers and will easily showcase some of the most impressive trees in the world. 

Why are older bonsai only taken care of by bonsai masters?

You may be wondering why you need to be a bonsai master to take care of an ancient tree , with many people thinking that the process for all trees is the same.

However, this cannot be further from the truth, many times, the older a tree is, the more work they require. 

An older tree is much more susceptible to certain bugs and fungi and must be taken care of not just by a master but instead managed by an entire team.

Each trimming of the leaves and roots must be planned and thought out.

A bonsai of this age may need to be repotted, which can be a task requiring a crane, a few hundred people, and more stress than anyone old enough to be a bonsai master needs.

Because of these sensitivities, any mistake you make to the tree can cause it to die or a large portion of it to die.

Often, this can cause a lot of damage and with the oldest bonsai trees you may even be arrested, it is rare, but it can happen.

Many countries that house the oldest bonsai trees have special protections surrounding them and even breaking branches without care can be a legal problem.

Final Thoughts on Why Bonsai Trees Are so Expensive

Determining the price of bonsai becomes almost impossible as it becomes older and older, with many people working hard to ensure that their bonsai are not just handed to random people.

This is why you will find that even the richest people may have trouble owning the best bonsai trees they can find, as the owner may refuse to sell to them.

The true price and expense of a bonsai tree are not what others are willing to pay, but the amount of love and care you know has made it what it is today. 

If you are just learning about bonsai trees and looking to purchase high-quality trees that will likely live longer than you then I would highly suggest checking out Bonsai Boy Trees, as they are a long-lasting New York business that provides trees for all price ranges!