How to Grow and Care for Desert Rose Bonsai

desert rose bonsai with pink flowers in pot in front of marble stairs

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Along with being an especially easy house plant to care for, the desert rose bonsai is a unique species that can be trained to grow in various shapes. After dropping its leaves in the winter, this succulent tree comes back in the springtime with bright, beautiful flowers in shades of red, pink, and deep purple blooming on small stems attached to its bulbous trunk. As an indoor plant, it can be grown in a container like other popular houseplants or trained as a bonsai tree. Since this plant is toxic to humans and pets, be sure to grow yours in an area safely away from children, cats, and dogs.

  • Botanical Name: Adenium obesum
  • Common Name: Desert rose, Sabi Star, desert azalea, Japanese frangipani
  • Plant Type: Succulent tree
  • Mature Size: Up to 9 feet high and 4 feet wide outdoors; 2 feet high indoors
  • Sun Exposure: Full sun
  • Soil Type: Sandy, free-draining soil
  • Soil pH: 6.0
  • Toxicity: Toxic to humans, dogs, and cats

Plant Care

In terms of water, treat your desert rose bonsai like the succulent it is. Its bulbous stem (or caudex) holds water, so allow the soil to dry out between waterings to avoid root rot. Your plant will probably need less water during the winter months when there's less light and it's not actively growing.

When the soil is slightly dry and it's time to water your plant, do so thoroughly. Ensure the pot has plenty of drainage holes on the bottom. You can take your bonsai outside for a soak or water it in the bathtub where excess water can run freely from the pot.

Fertilize this plant once per month in the growing season using a standard houseplant fertilizer diluted to half strength. You can stop fertilizing in the winter if the plant goes dormant, but continue to fertilize every other month if it is still actively growing new shoots.

three potted desert rose bonsai plants with pink flowers against wood background

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Best Growing Conditions for Desert Rose Bonsai

Desert rose bonsai trees are native to hot, dry climates, so it's best to give them a warm place with full sun exposure to live in your home. This plant's ideal temperatures range from 40 degrees at night to as hot as 90 degrees during the day.

A south-facing window that gets several hours of sunlight per day is an ideal spot for your desert rose bonsai. In warm and temperate climates, you can also keep your plant outside in a sunny spot with some afternoon shade from spring through fall if the temperature range is suitable. Be sure to slowly acclimate your plant to sunnier conditions in the spring, then debug your plant before bringing it inside for the winter.

A healthy, mature desert rose bonsai should bloom for several weeks in spring and summer with the right conditions. A regular fertilizing regimen in the spring and summer growing season can also help your desert rose bonsai flower. However, a recently repotted plant may divert energy away from blooming as it focuses on growing roots in its new container.

Since these plants are prone to root rot, keep an eye out for signs like bumps on the trunk or yellow, squishy leaves when overwatered. When this plant is in need of water, its trunk will turn soft and become smaller than its usual thick, bulbous base.

Types of Desert Rose Bonsai

There are several relatives in the desert rose bonsai's family that have unique appearances and growth habits. Adenium boehmianum (also known as the Bushman's poison) grows with spiral-shaped leaves and pale pink or yellow flowers. The flowers of this species were historically used by African hunters to create poison arrowheads for hunting purposes.

The Adenium swazium variety has pink and white flowers shaped like small trumpets. Adenium arabicum, on the other hand, typically reaches about 6 feet in height and has larger leaves than the desert rose bonsai. Adenium socotranum can reach heights of 16 feet when grown outdoors in proper conditions.

How to Propagate Desert Rose Bonsai

The best way to propagate desert rose bonsai is to take tip cuttings. Propagate your plant during the spring or summer while the plant is actively growing. Here's how:

Step 1: Select a healthy branch on the mother plant from which to take a cutting.

Step 2: Using clean, sharp gardening shears, cut a 6-inch tip cutting from the end of the branch. Allow the cutting to callus over by leaving it in a shady place for a couple of days.

Step 3: Once the cut has callused over, fill a container a little more than halfway with a moistened rooting medium (like perlite or a blend of sand and potting soil). Wet the cut end of the stem slightly and dip it into the rooting hormone powder.

Step 4: Plant the cutting so that the cut end of the stem is just below the surface of the rooting medium.

Step 5: Place the cutting in a spot with bright light. Keep the soil moistened (but not overly wet) and mist the plant daily. You should begin to see new roots form in one to two months. Once roots have grown, care for the plant as usual.

Common Problems With Desert Rose Bonsai

While these plants are typically easy to grow, you may come across a few problems. Here's how to diagnose and treat your plant:

Pests

Keep an eye out for pests like mealybugs, spider mites, and aphids on your desert rose bonsai. If you do see signs of pests, wipe them away with a cotton ball soaked in rubbing alcohol, then give the leaves a thorough spraying in the sink or shower to remove any stragglers. Cover the soil with a plastic bag to avoid overwatering.

Root Rot

Since these plants are succulents, they're prone to problems when overwatered. If you notice the plant's leaves yellowing from the outside in and there are small spots on the caudex, cut back on watering immediately and allow the soil to dry out completely. Resume watering once the soil has dried out slightly, and ensure the pot has plenty of drainage holes to prevent excess water from soaking the roots.

Sunburn

If you notice your desert rose's leaves turning uniformly yellow, that could be a sign that it's getting stressed by too much heat or sun. Move the plant a little further away from your light source or to a sunny spot that gets afternoon shade.

Don't be alarmed if your desert rose drops its leaves in winter—this is common in many climates. They'll grow back when the plant comes out of dormancy in the spring.

Potting and Repotting Desert Rose Bonsai

Repot your desert rose bonsai every two years or so until it's the size you prefer. Another sign that your plant needs repotting is that the caudex is crowding the pot. The best time of year to repot your plant is in early spring when the plant is actively growing. Use a wide, shallow, bowl-shaped pot with drainage holes, which allows the roots to spread out and lets the soil dry more quickly.

It's important to wear gloves when trimming or repotting your desert rose bonsai to protect your hands from its sap. Wait until the soil is dry to repot.

Gently remove the plant from the pot, using your fingers to loosen the old soil from the roots. Trim away any rotted roots with sterilized shears, then apply a fungicide to the cuts. Place the plant in its new container, then fill it with fresh succulent soil. Wait about a week after repotting before resuming its regular watering routine.

How to Get Desert Rose Bonsai to Bloom

The best way to ensure your desert rose bonsai blooms is to provide it with plenty of nutrients through fertilizer. Healthy plants will bloom in the spring (and sometimes a second time in summer) with red, pink, or purple flowers.

Pruning your plant can also encourage more flowers to bloom. Cutting above leaf nodes, trim back any long or leggy stems to allow flowers to develop at the fresh cuts.

FAQs

How Do You Shape a Desert Rose Bonsai?

Shape your desert rose bonsai by pruning its stems to reach the desired shape. New growth emerges from fresh cuts, so trimming unwanted stems can also help your plant become fuller and healthier.

Can Desert Rose Bonsai Grow Indoors?

Desert rose bonsai can easily grow indoors under the right conditions. This species prefers bright, direct light, so plant yours in a spot that receives full sun like a south-facing window. Ensure temperatures do not drop below 40 degrees at night to keep your plant healthy.

How Fast Does Desert Rose Bonsai Grow?

As a slow-growing species, desert rose bonsai plants typically grow up to 1 foot per year with regular fertilizing and plenty of sunlight. This species tends to stop growing depending on the pot size, so transplant yours to a larger container until it reaches your preferred height.

Article Sources
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  1. Desert Rose. American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. 2022.

  2. Adenium Obesum. North Carolina State University Extension.