Air Layering a Chinese Elm Mallsai into Two Shohin Bonsai


The Chinese elm shohin in this display was air-layered from a mallsai. This post shows the progression of the transformation.

Mallsai is a term coined in the US; it refers to mass produced bonsai sold in big-box stores, roadsides, gift shops and nurseries. The word often carries a connotation of a poor quality tree planted in a shallow pot to look like a bonsai, and sold to the uninitiated. But many people have credited mallsai, either through personal purchase or receiving it as a gift, for introducing them to and getting them hooked to the hobby.

Typical mallsai has an exaggerated S-shape trunk which lacks taper. I found some of them can be inexpensive starting materials, just like garden center trees, for bonsai development.

This post will show the progression of air layering an inexpensive S-shape Chinese elm mallsai, and it’s transformation into two shohins.

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The top half of this Chinese elm mallsai has a good trunk movement and several well-placed branches suitable for air layering into a shohin.  I marked the trunk where I want to air-layer, and cut off a swath of the bark girdling the trunk.  Rooting hormone was applied to the region to encourage root development.   Moist sphagnum moss was wrapped around the stripped section and covered with a piece of plastic cling wrap, tied firmly to retain moisture while the roots are growing.


February 7, 2009 – Top: bark removed, and Bottom: Wrapped with moist sphagnum moss

By June a lot of roots have developed, visible through the plastic wrap.  The air-layered portion was saw-off and planted in a training pot in early August.  The left-over bottom trunk had a reasonably good looking nebari and a nice low curve for developing into a moyogi-style shohin.


 August 4, 2009 – Air-layering was successful and the top section was saw off and planted into a new pot.


August 4, 2009

The remaining stump was grown in an 8” diameter colander.

Both shohins were developed using the clip and grow method aided by minimum wiring to re-direct some of the branches.  Our hot and long growing season, zone 9, is very suitable for clip and grow on fast growing deciduous trees.  Although the method takes a longer time than wiring to produce a decent looking tree, but it gives a more natural and somewhat angular looking branch movements and ramifications.

Progression of the Air-layered Top Portion


January 25, 2010


 February, 2, 2012

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July 7, 2012 – Height: 6”


October 24, 2012 – Display with a pyracantha and fiber optic grass accent plant.

There are still works to be done to this shohin, such as pruning the apex to give the tree a rounder top for a more mature look, and to develop the air-layeredroots into a better nebari.

Progression of the Bottom Section into a Moyogi Style Shohin


 August 4, 2009 – After sawing off the air-layered top.

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May 23, 2011

The stump was repotted in an 8” colander, the leader and branches were allowed to grow uninhibited.

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July 9, 2012 – Continue to clip and grow to develop angular bends and tapers in the main trunk and branches.

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December 12, 2012

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 October 5, 2013 – Front and Back. Height: 4¾”

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October 5, 2013 – Display with a mid-size Japanese Black Pine

It took about four years to develop the chopped bottom stump into a reasonable good looking shohin with good trunk taper. Both shohins will look better with time and further refinements. I think it is well worth the time and efforts to completely redo this mallsai and transform it into two shohins, otherwise, it would just grow bigger and retain the same exaggerated S-shape trunk.


4 thoughts on “Air Layering a Chinese Elm Mallsai into Two Shohin Bonsai

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