The Money Tree, often recognized by its intricate braided design, is more than just an ornamental plant. This exotic bonsai, also known as the Guiana Chestnut or Malabar Chestnut (Pachira aquatica), is deeply rooted in tales of prosperity, luck, and ancient traditions.
But what’s the story behind this fascinating tree? How did it journey from the wetlands of Central America to become a cherished symbol in East Asian cultures? And can this tropical beauty truly be classified as a bonsai?
Origin of the Money Tree
Money Tree is a wide-crowned, 30 to 60-foot tree that grows in freshwater wetlands and rainforests in Mexico, Central America, and northern South America. It was brought to Taiwan, Japan, and East Asia, where it blossomed in popularity as a beneficial plant, bestowing good fortune, wealth, and prosperity upon those who grow and care for it.
The legend goes like this…
In the 1980s, a poor Taiwanese truck driver discovered the Money Tree, brought one home and grew more from seeds. His luck changed when he began braiding five small trees in pots and selling them, making him a wealthy man.
Another version of the story is that Taiwanese agricultural engineers found Pachira aquatica trees in Mexico in 1964 and brought them back to Taiwan for their fruit. The fruit didn’t do well in production, but the trees multiplied exponentially in the wild and in cultivation, and growers braided them for sale as lucky ornamentals.
Since then, Money Trees have become wildly popular in Japan, Taiwan, China, and East Asia as indoor plants because of their lucky symbolism in feng shui. They have generated millions of dollars in Taiwan and are an important commodity in their economy. Money Trees have become a standard gift from one business to another to promote and inspire success and good fortune.
In addition to all its other attributes, parts of the Money Tree are edible! New young leaves and flowers can be eaten, and the seedpods, when mature, burst open to yield saba nuts that are delicious raw or roasted and taste similar to chestnuts.
Money Tree In Feng Shui
Five is an auspicious number in feng shui because it represents the five elements – metal, wind, fire, water, and earth. Money Trees typically have five leaflets in each leaf, and five trunks are often braided together, harnessing the power of the elements and creating an atmosphere of good fortune, prosperity, and wealth.
Sometimes, Money Trees have six or seven leaflets, which are considered even more lucky. In addition to their symbolism, Money Trees can help clean the air of toxins such as formaldehyde, toluene, benzene, and xylene.
Is Money Tree a Bonsai?
Money Trees are not the typical stylized bonsai trees from temperate or alpine areas since they’re tropical with braided trunks and leaves on top. But tropical trees can also be bonsais, although they’re less common.
Unchecked, a Money Tree will grow 6 to 10 feet tall indoors but can be pruned and shaped to stay small. So yes, although it isn’t a classic bonsai in the usual sense, a Money Tree can be trained as a miniature.
Training Your Money Tree as a Bonsai
Your Money Tree will probably come to you with braided trunks at a 10- to 18-inch height. To keep it at that size, you will need to do two kinds of pruning – yearly pruning of the branches, leaf buds, and roots to keep it small, and maintenance pruning any time of brown or dead leaves or branches.
Pruning the Money Tree to Keep It Small
Training the structure or growth style of the tree will be more focused than maintenance pruning. The best time to do regular, yearly pruning is in the spring.
- Look for any V-shaped branches, and use sharp, clean shears to cut them one-half inch above the V.
- Then, trim any branches growing out to the side one-half inch above where the branches attach to the trunk.
- Remove any branches or pairs of leaves that are growing too high.
- Aim to prune your plant to half its size yearly to give it an even, compact shape.
Yearly pruning of one-quarter of the root ball will keep the root growth in check and in proportion with the top part of the plant. Money Tree roots should be pruned during periods of slow growth, usually fall and late winter.
Maintenance pruning can be done at any time of the year.
- Remove any dead or brown leaves.
- Pinch the soft ends of leaf buds and new shoots before they grow out and toughen. Pinching will stimulate growth hormones to make the plant bushier with thicker branches and shorten the space between the internodes.
General Care for Your Money Tree Bonsai
Like any other houseplant, Money Tree needs the right kind of care to thrive as a beautiful bonsai. Follow these care tips for successful growth.
Money Trees need 6 to 8 hours of bright, indirect light in order to be healthy. Set your plant in an east- or north-facing window or back a few feet from a west- or south-facing window.
Money Trees’ leaves will turn pale and drop with too much direct sunlight but will stretch toward the sun in low light, so just the right light is important. Rotate your plant every few days so it grows straight up and doesn’t bend toward the window.
Temperature & humidity
Your plant will be happy in average household temperatures of 65 to 75 degrees F. They don’t like hot or cold drafts or dry air, however, so keep them in an area with steady temperatures.
Money Trees are native to steamy rainforests and wetlands in the American tropics. They don’t do well in dry air and need higher-than-average humidity. To boost the humidity around your plant, set it on a pebble tray with water, use a humidifier, or keep it in a humid area of the house, like the bathroom or laundry room, if there is enough light.
Soil & Pot
It’s essential that Money Tree’s soil is well-draining. My favorite homemade soil for Pachira is a third good quality indoor potting mix amended with a third peat moss and a third perlite.
This mixture provides a loose enough structure for good drainage and air circulation around the roots and ensures the plant gets the nutrition it needs.
The pot you choose is important, too. It needs to be twice as big in diameter as the bottom of the braided plant and have a drainage hole in the bottom so that it doesn’t hold water around the roots and cause root rot.
The best time to repot your Money Tree is the early spring before the buds begin to expand.
Roots grow out and down to search for more nutrition for the plant. When there are too many roots in the pot, it becomes root-bound and is not able to absorb enough nutrition and water, which affects the health of the plant.
If you have kept the roots in check by pruning them every year, as well as the leaves and branches, you may not need to repot your plant more often than every two to three years. Select a pot the next size up from the current one, making sure there is a drainage hole in the bottom.
Use a rich, well-draining potting mix and set the plant so it is even or just below the top of the pot. Water it well and put it in a warm location with bright indirect light.
Money Plants are fans of moist conditions, but they can’t always have wet soil, or they’ll develop root rot. I’ve found that they do better with the soak-and-dry method.
Test the soil with your finger, and if it is dry 1” to 2” down from the top, it’s time to water. Water the soil thoroughly, allowing it to run through the pot and out the drainage hole until the soil is soaked.
Let it drain completely, then empty the excess water from the saucer or decorative pot. Wait to water it again until the soil is dry down 1” to 2” again rather than watering on a schedule. It will need to be watered more frequently in the warm months of the spring and summer during the growing season than in the winter when its growth has slowed.
Your plant will be healthiest if you give it some fertilizer. The easiest way, which is my favorite, is to fertilize it once in the spring with a sprinkling of slow-release granular bonsai fertilizer in the top layer of soil that dissolves a little each time you water.
Another way is to add a balanced liquid fertilizer or a soluble powdered fertilizer to your watering can three or four times during the spring and summer.
NOTE: Whether you use a granular or liquid fertilizer, it’s safest to use only half-strength of the recommended amount in the instructions to prevent fertilizer burn.
Money Tree can be susceptible to several pests like spider mites, mealy bugs, whiteflies, and fungus gnats.
Spider mites, mealy bugs, and whiteflies
These pests suck the sap from the foliage and cause it to become stippled and distorted, weaken, turn yellow, and even drop off. If you notice bugs on your plant, run water over the foliage to knock the insects off. Then wipe the affected leaves and stems with rubbing alcohol to kill any remaining bugs, and treat with insecticidal soap, Neem oil, or horticultural oil.
Fungus gnats deposit their eggs in the soil, and when the larvae hatch, they feed on the organic matter in the soil, including the roots. When they mature into adults, they emerge from the soil as flying insects, then lay their eggs back in the soil, and the cycle starts again.
Fungus gnat eggs are often present in bags of potting mix and grow into larvae when the soil is kept too wet. Control for these critters has to be twofold:
- Treat the potting mix before use by microwaving or baking it briefly to kill the eggs. You can also treat it by watering the soil with 1 part hydrogen peroxide to 3 parts water, which will kill the eggs and add oxygen to the soil.
- Trap the adults with sticky traps so they don’t have an opportunity to lay eggs back in the soil.
The primary disease of Money Tree is fungal root rot, caused by overwatering the soil and poor drainage. When air spaces in the soil are filled with water, and the roots can’t get enough oxygen, root rot takes hold.
The best way to handle this problem is to gently remove the plant from the potting mix and wash the roots to see what they look like.
Healthy roots are white and firm, but if any are black, spongy, and smell foul, cut them off with clean scissors or shears. Wash the remaining roots in hydrogen peroxide and water or with a fungicide like Neem oil or cinnamon, then plant them back in fresh potting mix in a clean pot with a drainage hole.
Although many beautiful houseplants are toxic to pets and people, Money Tree (Pachira aquatica) is completely non-toxic and is safe for your family.
Nancy has been a plant person from an early age. That interest blossomed into a bachelor’s in biology from Elmira College and a master’s degree in horticulture and communications from the University of Kentucky. Nancy worked in plant taxonomy at the University of Florida and the L. H. Bailey Hortorium at Cornell University, and wrote and edited gardening books at Rodale Press in Emmaus, PA. Her interests are plant identification, gardening, hiking, and reading.