Non-nutrient Additives

Like any hobby, the bonsai world has its share of fads, snake oil and quackery. None more so than in the multitude of different potions and elixirs offering to bring a bonsai to perfection, for the right (expensive) price. Amusingly, many of these go to great pains to emphasise that they are NOT fertilisers (since actually fertiliser is cheap and relatively easy to buy). Not only that, but many fail to include ingredient lists, reference real data or otherwise explain how their product is supposed to work.

Of course plants need nutrients, these are usually elements and explained in the post Nutrients for Trees. But there are a range of other ingredients which may or may not support your trees’ health, so I thought I’d start a list to help you work out what a product might be seeking to achieve:

  • Blood meal – eugh! A non-ethical source of nitrogen. There really is no need to use animal blood when you can get nitrogen from any rotting organic matter/compost.
  • Charcoal – in the form of biochar – depending on what it’s made from, helps water retention, attracts and provides a home for benefical microbes and provides nutrients & micronutrients (acts as a fertiliser)
  • Cocoa bean shell mulch – supports endomycorrhizae and nitrogen-fixing bacteria for root growth BUT also contains theobromine which is toxic to dogs, cats & fish
  • Conifer oils – tend to be antimicrobial, insect repellent, antifungal etc
  • Ectomycorrhizae and endomycorrhizae – fungi which interact with roots to improve uptake of nutrients – whether a particular species of tree uses endo or ecto mycorrhizae is detailed in this site.
  • Feather meal – another non-ethical source of nitrogen.
  • Flavanoids, flavanols, flavanol glycosides, anthocyanins – support the symbiosis between roots and arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (a type of endomycorrhizae), as well as with nitrogen-fixing bacteriaref
  • Humic acid – ultra-dense organic matter, converts elements into forms available to plantsref, nourishes microorganisms in the soil and may mimic the phytohormone auxin
  • Japanese Cedar (Cryptomeria japonica) oil – insect repellent, insecticide, antifungal, antimicrobial
  • Japanese Cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa) oil – antibacterial, antifungal
  • Kaempferol – a flavonoid (see above)
  • Leonardite – source of humic acid (see above) – extracted via open-cut mines
  • Manure – animal manure is a source of organic matter; from omnivores (eating both plants and animals – eg. chickens or pigs) it is higher in total nitrogen and phosphorus than from herbivores (eating only plants – eg. horses, sheep or cows) which have manure higher in total carbonref
  • Pine oil – insecticide/insect repellent
  • Quercetin – a flavonoid (see above)
  • Saponin – an insect repellent
  • Seaweed – a fertiliser which includes micronutrients which don’t appear in standard fertilizer, such as sulphur, as well as plant metabolites which can support the growth of mycorrhizal fungi and nitrogen-fixing bacteria. Seaweed extracts have been known to promote plant growth.ref
  • Succinic acid – helps reduce heavy metal contamination – as a component of Alar was used for improving fruit set in fruit tree (before Alar was banned as a carcinogen)
  • Vinasse – source of organic matter and potassium (can be chemically processed)

Read more about what some products contain here: HB-101 Analysis, SUPERthrive, Green Dream, Biochar and Biogold.