In Defense of the Mallsai
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Author:  Will Heath [ Wed Apr 09, 2008 11:00 pm ]
Post subject:  In Defense of the Mallsai

In Defense of the Mallsai
by Will Heath

Juniper procumbens
Photograph used with permission from

The term Mallsai has become a joke, a punch line, even an insult in the community; the very name brings to mind images of poorly designed bonsai purchased by the ignorant and sold by the unscrupulous. Such material has acquired a reputation that is vastly undeserved and is inaccurate in portraying the important role it has played in expanding the bonsai community.

It seems to be a trend these days to quickly chastise, criticize, or condemn those people who purchase bonsai from box stores, Internet mass sellers, or even from that mystical person in the van that seemingly has the magical ability to be in multiple locations at the same time.

The term "Mallsai" was coined by Vance Wood in 1986 and has come to mean any potted plant that is sold under the label "bonsai" and which is found in any retail outlet that is not a bonsai specialty nursery. These Mallsai are typically mass-produced and often have a surface covering consisting of gravel, which is glued on to prevent spillage during shipping and handling. They also typically come potted in heavily glazed and often colorful imported Chinese pots.

For some reason, even if the items being sold are identical, a bonsai specialty nursery never sells Mallsai. This phenomenon of purchase location affecting perceived quality and even the very definition of the object is not confined only to Mallsai, indeed, it can be found in other discussions, especially those concerning traditional nurseries. The logic behind this perception shell game escapes me and certainly deserves further study by Orwellian scholars, but that is another subject.

Junipers seem to make up a rather large percentage of Mallsai, while Pony Tail Palms, Ficus Benjamin, Bamboo, and even succulents are other species commonly used. Many species used for Mallsai are typically poor choices for bonsai, but are easy or inexpensive to obtain. Many stay green for extended periods with less than adequate care even, in many cases, after the plant is dead. In example, the Juniper's ability to stay green for weeks after death makes it idea material for Mallsai, which most likely explains its predominance in the marketplace.

As we can see, Mallsai are usually created from less than idea species and are typically young plants. They are quickly and inartistically shaped to resemble an image that the general public would recognize as a bonsai, planted in a inexpensive pot, and sold everywhere except in bonsai specialty nurseries where they are called inexpensive pre-bonsai.

Ficus benjamina
Photograph used with permission from

Besides the reasons given above, there are many other reasons that many people look down upon Mallsai and are quick to point out the fallacy of purchasing such material to any beginner who makes the mistake of admitting such. This condemnation of Mallsai may be prevalent because the "more experienced" honestly believe they are "instructing" the beginner, helping them, or correcting something they think is a mistake in judgment. On the other hand, maybe the quick criticizing of Mallsai is only because the critics are simply parroting what they themselves have read or what they received as "advice" in the past when they purchased Mallsai.

I think the prejudice against Mallsai and the prevalent and often predictable condescending attitude against those who purchase such material is unwarranted and causes great harm to the art form. By condemning this material, we are in effect biting the very hand that feeds us as serious bonsai artists.

The fact is that Mallsai is most likely the leading cause of people becoming involved with bonsai. It exposes more people to the art of bonsai than any other source of material and, simply because of its predominance, literally millions of people are exposed to these plants every year in some way. The very plants that we call Mallsai, that are labeled and often recognized as bonsai, at least by the public, are in many cases the first exposure people have to the wonderful world of bonsai. There is no other outlet for bonsai that can boast such a wide audience, anywhere.

The material may well be sub-standard and the health of the material may be questionable, but this does not matter in the least. Let us remember the Karate Kid movies, in which fake and poorly designed juniper bonsai were kept indoors by Mr. Miyagi. These flaws, obvious to the experienced practitioner, did not prevent a boon in bonsai and the initiation of many newcomers into the art. The Karate Kid movies can be and have been credited with the success of many businesses and for the expansion of the art of bonsai in America.

Arboricola schefflera
Photograph used with permission by

It doesn't matter that a person could no more learn about proper bonsai techniques from the movies than they could learn martial arts from them. What matters is that the movies got people interested in the art form and that these people rushed out and bought trees, bonsai, tools, and books. They went to shows, took classes, subscribed to magazines, joined and formed clubs, went to workshops and watched demonstrations. The bonsai community experienced a rush of new people, thirsty for knowledge and hungry for information. Bonsai experienced a flush of growth, both in practitioners and economically as well, that the art has never seen since, that is until the phenomenon of Mallsai.

Yes, Mallsai is doing the same thing for the community that the Karate Kid movies did.

Inexpensive, exposed to millions of people, easily recognizable, promoted as a great gift idea, and available in outlets other than specialty bonsai stores or nurseries, Mallsai are the perfect promotional item for the art.

A quick look at any of the Internet forums will show that many of our newest practitioners, and some of our old, were first introduced to bonsai through Mallsai. They bought books, joined clubs, and came to the forums in droves, seeking information on how to care for or on how to save their Mallsai. Many still have this first tree and others have stories of how they lost them, but the common denominator is that the lowly Mallsai started it all.

Many new members in bonsai clubs first were introduced to bonsai with a purchase or a gift of a Mallsai. Offices all over the country have a Mallsai on the desk or in the window. Mallsai are showing up in television commercials and in many movies, they are appearing in magazine ads, and the Internet is full of sites selling them, enough of them to justify expanding even. Because of their very nature, Mallsai are easy to import or create, easy to ship, they can be priced to be very affordable, and there is an ever-growing demand for them. Florists are even beginning to sell them and you can send one now as easily as sending a dozen roses! sells hundreds of bonsai to corporate customers on a regular basis. Large corporations such as Sears have ordered over a hundred Mallsai labeled with their company logo to give out as gifts to clients or employees. Imagine all the new fledgling bonsaists such promotions create!

The Mallsai is a huge commercial success story and because of this, it is a success story for bonsai because every new owner of a Mallsai is another possible member of the community. When knowledge is sought or advice needed they will turn to the forums, the clubs, the books, and the magazines. When communicating with like-minded individuals becomes a need, they will seek out the community.

Portlacaria afra
Photograph used with permission by

Certainly, Mallsai has its faults and there are many sources for better material, but its strength is its availability. The argument could be made that the poor material commonly used for Mallsai often dies and that this could discourage people from continuing with bonsai. Yet, the truth is that all beginners, no matter the source of material, will lose trees, it is a part of the learning process. The important thing is that a person becomes interested in the first place, something Mallsai does well.

Mallsai are introducing more people to bonsai every day than any other bonsai related activity. It is the best thing we have to bring in newcomers, at least until the remake of The Karate Kid with Jackie Chan as Mr. Miyagi is released. ;)

Besides introducing people to bonsai, the Mallsai teaches many things to the beginner such as watering, pruning, soil considerations, light requirements, and the beginner is forced to research, either in publications or on-line, information on the species, thus exposing themselves to even more bonsai in the process. As we all know, one thing leads to another and before we know it, we are hooked.

Maybe the next time a person posts a Mallsai on a forum or brings one to a club meeting, we should hold back on the suggestions to find better material or to plant it in the ground and remember what it felt like the first time we acquired a bonsai.

Welcome the newcomer, congratulate them on joining the community, and say a silent word of thanks to Mallsai and for all this often overlooked and under appreciated resource has provided.


Author:  Vance Wood [ Thu Apr 10, 2008 7:42 pm ]
Post subject: 

Very good article, well written, well thought out and generally dead on the money without what seems to be the obligatory condescension often associated with this material. When I started doing bonsai it was so long ago we didn't have mallsai, heck, we didn't have malls. My first bonsai was a Cotton Wood seedling I dug from the garden.

I guess the major problem I have with the product is the tendency for those who sell them to instruct their customers to grow them indoors, when some of the trees they sell should be outdoors, and to water them on a schedule. All without out any kind of care instructions that present an accurate account of what to do. This is almost guaranteed to be a recipe for failure.

Author:  Aarin Packard [ Fri Apr 11, 2008 1:47 pm ]
Post subject: 

What a great subject to discuss, that, as you said, is dismissed by more "refined" students of bonsai. I myself first came to bonsai when two friends got mallsai as Christmas presents.

My first tree, if you can call it that, was a swap-meetsai. I did not want to spend much money on something I would eventually kill, which made buying an inexpensive plant to learn with that much more appealing. That mallsai was the begging of my passion for bonsai and even started me down the path to a profession in bonsai.

Author:  David Martin [ Tue Apr 15, 2008 3:16 pm ]
Post subject:  Mallsai

A very well written article and the amount of forethought given to its preparation is evident by its content.
My first 'bonsai' was bought in 1981 from a florists in Southampton, England and had been supplied by one of the original bonsai growers in southern England, Mr. Fred Rawlings of 'Little Trees'. It was a Japanese Maple of mame size having 2 branches. It was from that very modest beginning that my interest began which led to competency in collecting and growing collected Scots pine, Yews etc.
Some years later having sold all my trees due to domestic circumstances.
I was led back to the hobby after a Chinese Elm was bought in a large DIY store and given to me as a present. That was the catalyst to bring me back after a 10 year break. The tree will never be a valuable prize winner, but 4 years on looks respectable.
As for my others, well time will tell.....

But be grateful for the humble Mallsai, it follows on from the saying, 'from little acorns big Oak trees grow'.

Author:  Vance Wood [ Sun May 11, 2008 8:58 am ]
Post subject: 

God bless the Mallsai and all who grow them. May God grant you the grace to deal with those who have them and the eye to grow beyond their design in your own bonsai.

Author:  Paul McLagan [ Fri May 16, 2008 8:04 am ]
Post subject: 

Although there is the quality of introducing new people to the art/hobby, the conditions of mallsai bought from Home Depot, Lowes, ect. make them prone to a very short life. The death of a bonsai, and especially your first, will make you contemplate whether your time or money should be further invested in trying again. I have met many disheartened people who started with mallsai and with the proper guidance and help, have restored their faith. I think if anything mallsai further tries to fulfill the stereotype of what Westerners think bonsai is as a decoration instead of a living being, a real tree. Instead of shunning mallsai, the bonsai community should help with education of proper bonsai care and maintenance. It has been at least a short 50 years since bonsai got notice in the US. Only 30 years since we have tried to develop a more cultured approach to the art/hobby. More time and education will clear the fog of ignorance, the ignorance that results in businesses selling small dead junipers super-glued to the bottom of import pots.

Author:  Will Heath [ Fri May 16, 2008 8:56 am ]
Post subject: 

While this is true, we all have lost trees at some time or another, mallsai or not. Getting past that is the first learning experience.

Some pass this test, others fail.


Author:  Vance Wood [ Fri May 16, 2008 9:29 pm ]
Post subject: 

On the other hand I have seen people get into the hobby, spend mountains of money buying expensive pre-bonsai and even finished bonsai to end in the same sad conclusion. Those that will quit, will quit regardless of approach and education. Those that will stick will stick regardless of set backs. The Mallsai may be the introductory point where the seed is planted, from that point on nature and character will seek their own levels.

The point remains; you cannot get out of something you never got into neither can you grow into something that you never tried on.

Author:  John Dixon [ Tue Aug 19, 2008 10:11 am ]
Post subject: 

I agree that mallsai is an important part of the increase in bonsai for the US. I also agree that the premature death of a mallsai can have a lasting effect on the beginner, but this is where the more experienced bonsaist has a unique and utterly important role in the life - or death - of a beginner's interest in bonsai.

All too often I see more experienced bonsaists belittle these bright-eyed folks and unfortunately solidify the belief that bonsai enthusiasts are a snobbish bunch. Nobody was instantly a master here, and sometimes we need to do a little self-check when we deal with beginners. I'm not suggesting we lie to them, but we can be constructive rather than destructive in the way we associate with them and their fledgling efforts.

Mallsai is a great learning tool. Yes, a lot will be lost, but in that death can lie the greater birth. The birth of a bonsaist who will apply themselves and enjoy the art for their entire life. Recently, I had a younger man who reached out to me for help with his first bonsai. He was terrified that it was sick and he wanted to know how to revive its vigor (know where this is going yet?). He even named the bonsai and showed a profound level of love and care for it. I asked him to bring it to me. He ran back carrying a very brown procumbens planted in a blue glazed pot (with drainage holes though!). I just smiled and told him, "I'm sorry but "Bill" is dead". I could see his heart sink. Now was the time for encouragement. He gave me the story of how he came to own it, and asked me how much I thought he paid for it. I said $25-30. He was shocked that I was dead on. I took the opportunity to give him the Reader's Digest version of what a mallsai was, and then we discussed how to keep a LIVE bonsai living. Next thing I know he was practically begging me to sell him one of mine and asking if I had anything around $50-75. Now, this could be seen as a slight to some, but he didn't even see my bonsai. He was just looking for a replacement for his friend, Bill. I find that very encouraging, and I will do what I can to find him a good quality replacement, even if it means I reduce my collection of one mediocre bonsai that I started from a cutting a few years ago. Granted, I might not sound like I would survive in retail, but I'm not in this for least, not right now. My goal is to encourage individuals of entry-level skill to apply themselves to bonsai and thrive on the enjoyment it can bring.

In some ways, I think mallsai helps to make that happen. I admit that I will look at ANY group of "bonsai" in any retail environment, regardless of perceived quality. Never have I walked away without at least some sense of enjoyment of what I just saw.

Good article.

Author:  Will Heath [ Tue Aug 19, 2008 11:16 pm ]
Post subject: 

Excellent reply John, the community would do well to have more enthusiasts like yourself.


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