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I have an Operculicarya decaryi. I got it about half a foot long, and now it has grown quite a bit.

It seems reasonably healthy and not in danger of dying, though I don't know much about these trees and can't say if this counts as prime health. It is about 2.5 ft long and 1.5 ft high. I like the plant but I'd like to improve its appearance. My issues are:

  • Branches are too long and wild, looks like a bramble and not a tree.
  • Leaves are too spaced out, looks "unhealthy" like a desert tree in a barren environment, not like a thriving plant pampered with active care.
  • Trunk (as well as branches) curving in strange spiral way, makes the tree look crooked and unstable.
  • The bulb looks too small.

I'd like to make it more compact and bushy by trimming and pruning. Ideally I'd like a lush, bushy, nicely rounded appearance like these:

Although alternatively, a more "stylized" look like these would also be fine (if it is easier):

I have no bonsai experience - I realize that the pictures I posted are probably the result of years of work and extensive skill. However, even small improvement would satisfy me. In particular, I would really like to improve leaf density (if even a little) and make the leaves more evenly distributed with less long, naked branches everywhere.

Are there any simple principles I can follow when pruning to slowly move in the direction of my goal? How frequently should I prune? Should I start cutting only the tips of undesired branches and slowly work my way in, or just cut the branch at the trunk? How do I encourage leaf growth in the middle of a long, bare branch? How do I avoid pruning too much and stressing the plant? Should I plant in a bigger pot to encourage more robust leaf growth?

EDIT: After looking at this question about bonsai styles, I think I probably want either a moyogi or chokkan (whichever is easier), hokidachi or kabudachi style. I definitely don't want any slant, windswept or cascade appearance, and more complicated styles like incorporating rocks or sharimiki would probably be beyond my ability.

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You can — and should — regularly prune your elephant tree. They are not as fussy as deciduous trees and it is hard to kill them by pruning too much. It is best to prune in spring or summer (for a faster recovery) but it can be done any time of the year. Just make sure to not prune right before or after re-potting. See the images below for where to cut.

Long thin branches can be cut back to encourage leaf growth. You need to keep pruning the branches as they grow to keep them thick and lush with leaves. It is also important that it receives enough direct sunlight (around 4 hours a day) as this helps it grow more leaves.

As you can see in the images below it takes some time for the tree to grow enough before you can make the big cuts. The time it takes to grow between these cuts will be more than enough for the tree to recover from its last pruning. It is useful to limit yourself on how often you prune the tips of branches and other little details. Say once in 1-3 months (depending on the season) to make sure you are not stressing the plant. As a rule of thumb: do not prune until the previous places pruned have completely healed.

Re-potting should be done once every 2 (or so) years. This is when you can also prune the roots. Pruning the roots works much the same as pruning the branches and helps develop a fuller and healthier root ball.

Planting into a bigger pot does not necessarily mean better growth. It all depends on how well developed the roots are. I would stick to the same size pot. You can fertilize it, but be careful. It is easy to kill your elephant tree when done wrong. Here I would ask a local garden center for what fertilizer to use and how much if you decide to go buy fertilizer.

For the chokkan (no wiring needed and easier) or moyogi (requires some wiring but still not so hard) styles:

enter image description here

For the hokidachi (no wiring needed) style:

enter image description here

  • Hey, thanks for writing this out, that makes things a lot clearer! I'm confused though - eg in the Bonsai Cooperativa picture, do you really cut off the whole tree at A starting out? Will it be able to survive with all the leaves gone? – Superbest Jul 28 '17 at 20:36

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