The Bonsai Journal: bonsai articles, galleries, and more

Acer buergerianum


Premna for Bonsai: The “Stinky Lady”

Text and Photos by Robert Steven, Indonesia

Premna sp. is a sub-tropical plant found in many countries. In Taiwan, Malaysia, Philippines and Indonesia it is prized as one of the favorite species for Bonsai. It was called Qou Niang Tze in Chinese, which means “Stinky Lady” or even worse—“Stinky Bitch,” due to the bad smell of the leaves. As a result of this characteristic, Premna has few pest problems. But why is it called a “lady?” I think because it is so beautiful, charming and feminine.

There are several different varieties of Premna. Some grow along the coast and some in mountainous areas. Some have a terrible odor while others do not. The coastal species (Premna obtusifolia) is most often used for Bonsai due to the unique texture of the trunk. It is especially prized for the natural jin and shari it often possesses as a result of natural forces.

The bright and shiny green of the leaves and the dancing, twisted trunk is often quite dynamic and elegant. I think perhaps that because of this the name was tempered or upgraded to Zhou Niang Tze—“Long-life Lady.” Perhaps credit for this change should go to bonsai!

trunk detail

(above and below) The lovely interplay between the shari and the live veins.


Premna is a very fast growing tree, sometime is too fast. There are always new shoots (suckers) growing from the surface roots. This characteristic can bring the potential for some plants to be trained as mini bonsai, for it is possible to greatly reduce the leaf size. The size of new leaves is approximately 9cm, but with proper pruning they can be reduced to 2mm (!) and the foliage can be made very compact. The variety common to mountainous regions has larger leaves and a stronger odor.


Note the difference in leaf size between the new leaves (on the end of the shoot) and the rest of the leaves on this Premna.

new branches

The coarse growth of a Premna in the early development stage.


Leaves of the Premna

Robert Steven

The author working on a Premna.


Mini bonsai Premna.


The branches grow in an untidy arrangement, so wiring is required for initial styling efforts. However, due to its fast growth and prolific back-budding, the clip-and-grow technique works well for making a delicate canopy structure. A defoliated Premna can present a dramatic image with a highly ramified structure.

Premna is a perfect species for the expressionistic styles—literati, windswept or raft - and appeals to enthusiasts who like the natural jin and shari.

Right: Shohin Premna. Note the regular sized leaf at the bottom.