I’m happy to report that the heat index today was only 100°. The other day they said fall has arrived. I’m thinking somebody’s wrong about this.
Nevertheless, it is water-elm collecting season and here are a few specimens that came home today:
I really love the twin-trunk specimens I find from time to time, and this one is no exception. The trunk base is 2″ and it’s 14″ to the chop. The radial roots are terrific. The bark is ready to exfoliate either this fall or next spring. I’m guessing it’s about 50-60 years old.
This one has an interesting trunk, especially considering that a beaver gnawed off the top. This part of the trunk can be taken off to make the tapering transition look better – or it can be left as a feature. Good roots also. Trunk base is 1.5″ and it’s 10″ to the chop. Age about 30 years.
Here’s a stout little specimen, with a trunk base of 2″ and chopped at 11″. Nice trunk movement and taper. The roots will need some work, but the trunk character made this one worth bringing home. Age about 45-50 years.
Occasionally I’ll run across a water-elm that screams literati. This one made that noise as we walked by, so home it came. The base is 1.75″ and it’s 23″ to the chop. I went ahead and put it into this Paul Katich pot, which I think complements the tree very well. The age of the specimen is about 45-50 years.
I’ll know in a couple of weeks if these trees survived collecting. The last group had a 90% survival rate, so I’ve got high hopes.
Water-elm, Planera aquatica, is a great species to work with. If you’re an elm bonsai aficionado, you should have a water-elm in your collection. It’s a monotypic species, meaning it’s the only one of its kind. Pretty neat feature.
My great-grandparents immigrated to the U.S. from Sicily in the late 1800s – the emigration grant from King Umberto of Italy is in the family archives, a very neat document. If there’s one thing about folks who immigrated from the Old World, especially those from around the Mediterranean, they loved their traditions and that included foods. Another thing they all seemed to have was a fig tree in the yard. Edible fig, Ficus carica, is native to the Middle East and Asia. It’s been cultivated since Biblical times. I never knew anyone in the family who didn’t have a fig tree in the yard. And so my mother had a few in her yard, which produced bountifully each year. She made preserves and fig cakes every year – I can still taste them.
My mother died in 2014 at the age of 91. A few years prior, she’d given me permission to dig up one of her smaller fig trees – and I jumped at the chance. I love family traditions, and this is one I couldn’t not continue. So I planted my fig tree dutifully and it grew large and fruitful. A few years ago I started some cuttings in order to make bonsai from them. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, but never quite got around to.
Today I decided to pot a couple of these specimens. This first one has some nice branching already, and should make a typical broom-form style bonsai as it develops. The leaves, which are quite large in nature, reduce surprisingly well in a bonsai pot. This one already has a head-start on leaf-size reduction. The pot is a beautiful round by Chuck Iker, which I think complements the bright green leaf color nicely.
If you’d like some Old World charm in a bonsai, I’ve posted this specimen for sale at our new Ficus Bonsai sale page.
Oh, edible fig does fruit in a container, by the way.
This next specimen is not quite as far along as the one above, but it’ll catch up in the 2017 growing season. Both trees are of similar height, so you can see that this one has the large leaves normal to edible fig. But that will change next year.
This specimen is also in a nice Chuck Iker round. It’ll go up for sale in a couple of weeks.
In the fall of 2010, I made a visit to the Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge, which is 17 miles from my home, to see the National Champion Bald Cypress. Here’s a photo I took of the tree:
This massive tree, reputedly the largest of any species east of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, measures 17 feet in diameter at breast height. It’s 96 feet tall. To give you an idea of the relative scale of this huge tree, here’s a photo of me and The Champ:
Notice that I’m standing in front of the left-hand part of the trunk – I couldn’t get the whole thing in the frame because I was using the timer on my camera and had to hustle back. Anyway, I think you can see just how big this guy is. And by the way, you can slip up inside the buttress to the right of where I am. It’s awesomely cool.
I couldn’t help but think it would be great to propagate this venerable old tree, so I set about to collect some cones. That was problematic, as there just weren’t that many. But I guess when you’ve been propagating for 1500 years or so, you get tired.
So I took my trove home and put them into a sandy mix in a big tub, then I waited. True to form, only about a handful of the seeds sprouted – they were from a very old tree, right? Normally with BC, you can pretty much count on 100% germination.
Anyway, I eventually potted the seedlings into their own containers, then just fed and watered and left them alone – more neglect, you might say. But there’s not much to be done with BC seedlings, aside from making forest plantings. Over time, my Champ progeny dwindled to only two. But they grew nicely, and that pleased me greatly.
It’s an axiom that bald cypresses, left to their own devices in a pot, will get to looking pretty shaggy to downright awful in the foliage come this time of year. These have been no exception. Here’s what I mean:
You can see a little green foliage on this lovely lanky six-year-old seedling; this is what sprouts back out after the spring foliage gets tired and turns brown followed by black and crispy. The tree won’t die, but it sure doesn’t look like much. But I think I can change that.
So here we are after shortening the specimen, wiring it out and removing the soil from the roots. Nice roots, which is no surprise. Coiled roots, which is no surprise. That’s what comes when you leave any piece of material in a container for too long. The roots do what they have to do to grow and survive, and if that means coiling around the pot a bunch of times that’s exactly what they’ll do.
A closeup of the roots. I had to cut some growing through the pot’s drainage hole; this is the rest.
I added a piece of wire to the trunk – it was too straight before. Doesn’t this make all the difference?
Then it was time to pot the tree. I had this nice Chuck Iker round, and thought it would work just fine for my Child of the Champ. In a few minutes this is what I had.
And now for the million-dollar question: What’s wrong with this picture?
You may recall that last week I had written about a three-tree oak planting which was just in the wrong pot. A key point of that study was the fact that I had a very tall main tree in a rather large – too-large – pot. So when I repotted the planting into a smaller pot, which accentuated the height of the main tree even further, all of a sudden the composition improved.
That’s just not going to work with this tree. Isn’t that interesting?
I had this Byron Myrick oval that had previously held a yaupon bonsai – another case of a pot being too big for the tree in it. In this case, though, I think I have a composition that makes the tree actually look in proper scale. What do you think?
The trunk base of this specimen, incidentally, is 1″ in diameter. It’s 32″ tall. I have a flat-top in mind, a good style for a tall slender cypress.
This tree should push new growth in a week or two, barring unforeseens. I plan to offer it for sale when I’m sure it’s recovered.
Next year I’ll be potting my other Child of the Champ. It’s grown more strongly than this one, and actually has the beginnings of root buttressing in a relatively small diameter trunk base. I’m anxious to see how it turns out.
Several years ago I bought 50 Japanese black pine, Pinus thunbergiana, seedlings. I hadn’t worked much with pines but wanted to give it another try, and I knew that JBP does very well here in the Deep South. Hence plenty of raw material.
I planted about 30-40 of them in the ground, most in a clearing at the back of my property; the rest went into either pots or another ground growing area in full sun. Then I waited to see how they’d do. I lost some the first year, then more the second year. By the third year it was time to have some trees removed from my property, and the tree cutters found a great spot to roll the logs prior to removing them – right over the bulk of my pines. I didn’t find any trace of them.
Now I was down to about eight seedlings left. I did some in-ground training on the ones I’d planted out of harm’s way, and left the ones in pots alone. Another couple of years went by, and one by one they all died – all except for one lone specimen in a pot. I ignored this survivor, except for feeding and overwatering it. I had stuck it in a pot with really lousy soil – I’m not even sure how I put that soil together, it was so mucky. But the tree trooped on, growing ever so slowly.
Earlier this year I noticed this tree had grown a pretty long leader, but had some nice lower branching. Since it had decided not to die, despite every effort on my part, I went ahead and cut off the leader. Then proceeded to ignore it some more.
Today I got a wild hair and decided this valiant JBP deserved a shot at a bonsai pot. So here’s the result:
It’s a nice looking little tree, isn’t it? While it’s not particularly large, it is at least 10 years old. The trunk has some nice movement, and there’s a decent set of branches. Now, I’m pretty confident this guy isn’t going to last through the coming winter, maybe not even to the arrival of winter, but we do have an understanding between us. It’s going right back to neglect-ville, which is my bonsai secret weapon. If it survives, I’ll drag it out in spring and post an updated photo. If not, then of course we won’t speak of it again.
Let’s face it, sometimes we’ll style and pot a tree and then decide the pot isn’t quite right. It happens, despite our best efforts. The good news is, you can always change pots. What’s critical, of course, is to get it right the second time if you misfire the first time. Let’s take a look at a specific example, and I’ll explain the thought process and some design principles to show how I decided what needed to change and why.
You’ve been following the saga of this yaupon holly, Ilex vomitoria, since this past winter when I collected and direct-potted the tree into this nice Byron Myrick oval. The tree is terrific, and so is the pot. And the pot is acceptable … but, it’s just not quite right. I’ve been looking at the tree now for several months, and I finally reached a point where I had to take action.
You may want to study this photo for a couple of minutes before reading on and viewing the next shot. What strikes you about the composition? This is a triple-trunk specimen, with nice graceful movement in the trunks. It’s potted in the right position in the pot – slightly off-center thereby producing the proper balance (you can envision the scalene triangle formed by the earth, the outer tips of the branches of the left-hand trunk and the tips of the three trunks moving toward the earth). But despite all of this, there’s just something not quite right. Can you name some flaws associated with the pot?
Here’s an analysis of the problem with this composition, which lies completely with the choice of pot. While the pot depth is fine, it’s too long and the sides are too straight; taken together, the pot looks “heavy” with respect to the tree and draws the attention away from the overall composition. This has to be corrected.
Here’s the tree in its new Chuck Iker home. I think the composition has improved dramatically. This pot has curved sides, which complement the graceful movement of the trunks. The size is much more in keeping with the tree itself. The pot isn’t “heavy.” When you view the tree, your eye isn’t attracted to the pot itself to the exclusion of the tree. Rather, the eye moves throughout the composition as it should, never coming to rest in one spot.
This pot is a round, by the way, so the rule is you put the tree in the center.
Let me know your thoughts on this transformation. Do you think the bonsai has been improved?
We’ve been following the development of this native yaupon holly bonsai, Ilex vomitoria, since I collected the specimen in 2014. At left is a photo of the tree taken on August 24th of that year. You can seen it’s had some rudimentary shaping done to the branches and the new leader I selected. This specimen was clearly destined for the informal upright style – with the nice curve in the trunk and the generally upright attitude, I wasn’t going to try to force it anywhere else.
If you study this photo you can get a feel not only for my design plan, but also for the amount of development work I had in front of me. Notice the number one branch emerging from the right side of the tree. We know from Bonsai By The Numbers (click on the link to read the blog) that this branch should emerge roughly one-third to forty percent of the way up the trunk. Given the fact that the trunk chop is only about four inches up from this point, I’ve clearly got to grow a good third of the tree above the chop. This is not a daunting task, per se – but it certainly requires having a plan and sticking with it. All too often the bonsai artist tries to shortcut this process – they don’t work the design plan, in other words. So patience and perseverance are in order.
This photo illustrates another way you can add to the challenge of pulling off your bonsai design – pot the tree too soon. I’m guilty as charged, but I’m also prepared to work my design plan and that means taking the time and applying the techniques necessary to get there. It will be a slower process but will finish up reliably.
Compare this photo, taken today, with the one above which was taken in April of last year. You can clearly see the advancing design plan. Not only are the branches thicker, but the leader is also much thicker as a result of allowing it to run and then cutting it back periodically.
At this point it’s worth pausing for a bit and taking a little time to explain another principle of design. Study the lowest part of the trunk of this bonsai, from the soil surface to where it makes its first turn. Take a measure of this distance in your mind. Then from the point where it makes its turn, to the point (at the chop) where it makes its next turn, measure this distance in your mind. Notice how it’s roughly half the length of the first section of trunk. Now look at the third section of trunk, from the point of the original chop to where I wired in the next turn. Notice how that section is roughly half as long as the second one.
It’s visually pleasing, for both trunk and branching, to have changes of direction that resolve to shorter and shorter lengths of trunk or branch. It helps the tree look more natural. In this specimen, I think I’ve done a pretty good job of following this principle. Do you think it works?
You can’t help but notice that my crown is starting to take shape. Here’s a closeup to show a recent round of wiring and positioning primary branches, with the ultimate goal of developing them into the fine network of branches that once well-ramified will not only fill out the upper part of this bonsai but also complete the design plan. This tree is three years into its development. In two more I would predict to have a complete design, and a tree I can show.
Yaupon holly is a species native to the coastal regions of the U.S. from Texas up through Virginia, and it also is spotty in Arkansas and Oklahoma. The scientific species name, vomitoria (yum!), is due to the practice of native American tribes brewing a tea from the stems and leaves for purging. I’ve heard local lore that there were ritualistic pilgrimages to the Gulf Coast where this occurred.
For bonsai purposes, yaupon holly is an evergreen with small, glossy dark green leaves that reduce very well in bonsai culture. The male and female flowers appear on separate trees, with the bright red berries of the females persisting through winter and providing food for wildlife. Good quality collected specimens are not especially common, as their growth habit is untapering and arrow-straight. But I’ve had good luck in my efforts. There are a couple available at our Miscellaneous Bonsai page. The triple-trunk specimen is about to get a new pot – I think the current one is a bit large. Regardless, if you don’t have this species in your collection you’re missing out. Neither pests nor diseases seem to bother them, and they grow all season long and especially well in summer. You can find nice varieties in nurseries, and by all means work with them, but at heart I’m a purist so I’m biased toward the original species.
Last weekend I posted a survey in order to get a better idea of what you’re interested in bonsai-wise. Although I communicate with many of you either occasionally or even often, it’s not for sure that I know exactly what it is you really want out of bonsai. I mean, I know what I want for the most part – but I also know that that’s not necessarily what you want. So it made sense for me to just ask. The response was very good, with 20% of you taking the time to share your preferences. Here’s what I learned:
First of all, I thought it was worth finding out how long you’ve been actively involved in bonsai. I was a bit surprised, but glad, to see that over 30% of you have only just begun in the art and hobby. Bonsai is a wonderful pastime, as you know, but without newcomers it eventually “dries up” as its older practitioners pass on. There always needs to be “fresh blood” in the bonsai world, and I think this is clearly happening. I know this because when you add the newbies to those who have been at it for five years or less, the total jumps to over 50%. I think this is just wonderful.
Next I wanted to find out what size bonsai you prefer. Bonsai come is all sizes up to about 48″ tall, so there’s a size for everyone. But there are certain very dedicated bonsai folks who are really into either tiny bonsai, the mame/shohin sizes, or massively large ones. The results of the survey bear this out, with about 10% liking really small trees and 10% liking really big trees. Fully 80% of you like them all, and I have to count myself among you.
The next obvious question is what species you prefer. The answer on this one was pretty substantially skewed toward deciduous species. Now, it’s not clear to me if this is related to my own preference. I make no bones about my love of deciduous bonsai, and therefore that’s what you mostly see written about and shown on my site. It would only be natural if the site attracted bonsai enthusiasts who also share my preference. But I do think it’s a good indication that 30% of you like all species – and to be truthful, I really love great pine bonsai and certain tropicals. I just don’t work with them often.
Next I thought it was worth finding out where you get your bonsai material from. This is obviously important to me, because I’m here to serve those needs for you to the greatest extent I can. But it’s pretty clear from the chart that over half of you collect and grow at least some of your own bonsai material. I think this is to be expected – after all, while I collect a lot of my trees I also grow from seed and cuttings and every now and then I’ll even buy some material. No one has or can provide every species worth growing as bonsai, and I sure don’t plan to try. I know what I’m good at and what I do a good job of providing.
Here’s an interesting chart. For those of you who buy material, the overwhelming majority go for either pre-bonsai or bonsai-in-training. To be honest, that’s just what I would answer. The design, the shaping and compositional creation of bonsai, is almost all of the fun of the art, at least for me. And this seems to be true of you as well. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I can spend hours viewing finely-wrought bonsai. There’s nothing like the quiet dignity of a tree growing in a shallow tray that looks for the world like its massive counterpart in nature. But at some point you can’t help but want to take a piece of raw material and bring it to that state yourself. Hence the 85%-plus of you who buy either pre-bonsai only or a mixture of pre-bonsai and partially trained trees in bonsai pots. Once it gets your personal touch, you’re connected.
The next question I asked was about the size of your collection. As many of you know, I’m a huge proponent of having at least 50 trees to work on (and not solely for mercenary reasons). This is because of my dedication to the bonsai principle of benign neglect. I challenge anyone to overwork more than 50 trees. It’s a snap to overwork one or a few. This is especially a problem for beginners to the art and hobby, because they know their job is to “train” their bonsai. The problem with training our bonsai is that it’s not a full-time job. You wire, then shape, then wait. And wait. And wait some more, until that branch gets set or that leader is thick enough to require removal of the wire. If you have one or two trees and you wire them out, each day as you look at them you get that old itchy trigger finger. Bonsai can only take so much love before they keel over. So I say make sure you have enough trees. About 85% of you agree, and that’s just outstanding.
Next it was time to find out how you rate your skill level. Again I was very pleased with the results, because they tell me that most of you are relatively new to the art of bonsai. This is wonderful. I see from this chart that about 75% of you are well into the basic learning phase of your bonsai journey. This is one of the purposes of my website and business, to pass on things I’ve learned and to help you get better if I can.
Age (yours, not your bonsai): I’m 61 and soon to be 62, and in almost 30 years of pursuing the wonderful art of bonsai I have heard countless times, “We need more young people in bonsai.” Well, I think this chart speaks for itself. Almost half of you who responded are, from my current outpost in life, what I would deem young. I got really hooked myself at age 33. At that time I would have considered young to be 15, plus or minus. And you do occasionally see teens whacking at trees in newbie workshops. But the most reliable source of new bonsai enthusiasts is that demographic who catch the bug after about 25. It gets better once child-rearing is over, because with kids in the house you spend most of your shaping work (and about all of your money) on them. Once that’s over, you move on to organisms that stay put, never talk back and never wreck your car. What’s not to like?
Now we come to the final, and perhaps most interesting, question of the survey – What is your biggest bonsai challenge? The overwhelming majority of you, 70%, said that designing your trees is the biggest challenge you face. If you add the 10% who said maintaining the design of their trees is their biggest challenge, it’s pretty clear that for most bonsai enthusiasts it’s all about making our trees look right. This is hardly surprising. Bonsai is a representation of a mature tree in miniature size. So how they’re designed, and how that design is maintained over time when the tree wants to grow differently, is what it’s all about.
Doing a Better Job for You
I’ve devoted a lot of effort in my blog posts to show the process I go through in designing bonsai. This seems to fit very well with your own biggest challenge, so look for more of the same. I will try to do a better job of explaining the design principles that go into my thinking as I illustrate the steps in training my trees.
Also, it looks like most of you are interested in bonsai that fit the “in-between” sizes, rather than really big or really small. So I’ll focus on expanding my stock of in-between’s. I don’t like lugging all that many huge bonsai around, especially as I’ve gotten older, so this should save some wear and tear on my back. Win-win.
Once again, thank you for participating in the survey. As 2016 starts to get long in the tooth, I hope your bonsai collection has gotten bigger and better and you’ve learned a few things from my posts. I’m always available to answer questions, so feel free to email or post comments.
Earlier this year I decided to make a forest planting of water oaks. It was a noble idea. I had some material and I had the pot, so why not?
I know what you’re probably thinking and yes, I know there are six trees here and it’s not an odd number and forest plantings need to have an odd number of trees (up to about 11). My plan was to add another tree to bring the number to seven. That sounded like it would bring some good luck to the forest. I wasn’t sure when that was going to happen, though.
Obviously not soon enough, and so, six being an unlucky number two of the trees in my new forest up and died. I’m not a fan of forest plantings with dead trees in them, so there was only one thing to do – take it apart and figure out what to do with the living trees.
I had an old Tokoname tray sitting on a shelf, so I put together a little three-tree forest (the two small trunks are actually connected). To be honest, while it was okay to have this planting and I was happy the trees stayed alive, it just didn’t quite strike me as artistic in its composition. No rules are broken, and it seems to meet the standards for bonsai forest design to a pretty decent degree. But there was just something not quite right about this composition from the start.
It finally struck me that one of the key features of this small grouping is the extreme height of the main tree. It’s certainly all right to have trees in a bonsai forest that are quite tall relative to the thickness of their trunks; no problem there. But in this case the height is exaggerated because there aren’t more tall trees surrounding this tall tree. You can get away with one very tall tree as long as there are others around it of similar height – this is the essence, in fact, of most forest plantings. But it’s not happening with this three-tree composition.
There was only one thing to do, in my opinion. You can get away with overly tall trees in two bonsai styles: forests and bunjin. The fact that I have a three-tree forest notwithstanding, the only way to make this group look “right” was to render it a more bunjin-style bonsai. So the obvious answer was to reduce the size of the pot, exaggerating the height of the tall tree even more. I had this new Shawn Bokeno oval on the shelf, and it seemed to fit the bill.
You may want to spend a few minutes studying this design. Notice how each of the trunks has a distinctive movement toward the right as you go up the trunk. This makes for harmony among them, and this is enhanced by the fact that each trunk gets progressively thinner as your eye moves from one tree to the next. They move in synch. Their foliage masses are arranged in a pleasing fashion, with the lowest branch on the shortest trunk, with successive branches being higher and higher as you move from smallest to largest trunk. You can see a great degree of visual depth in this forest, which is created by having the smallest tree placed at the rear of the group. Also notice that the trunks get closer together as they get smaller. All in all, I think there’s now some artistry in this forest design.
Hopefully these trees will come through having been potted and then repotted twice in the same growing season. I couldn’t keep looking at them the way they were, though, so I had to take the chance.
Now, there’s plenty of work to be done on this new bonsai. Obviously the trees still have their full-size leaves. Over time I’ll be able to reduce the size of the leaves greatly, with pruning and pinching, and this bonsai will ultimately look very realistic. But that work is for another day.
I’d love to hear what you think of this bonsai. Do you like this rendering better or the one above?
Part of my bonsai journey, and perhaps yours as well, has been to try new things from time to time – and sometimes things that don’t make a lot of sense when you first undertake them. Take for example “collecting out of season.” I think we’re all familiar with the admonition to only collect trees during dormancy, in other words winter. While this principle is hard to argue with, it is also not universal. Years ago I figured out that it’s best to collect sweetgums in May, because the survival rate is higher. I learned from local experts that water-elms are best collected in July and August.
A couple of years ago, on a whim, I decided to lift a water oak on my own property in summer. The tree survived, which led me to branch out to willow oak, which also survived. I found that these species can be collected into August. This year I decided it was time to try lifting a live oak, Quercus virginiana, in summer, so in July I dug this tree from my growing bed.
I decided to leave the foliage you see on the tree and to place it in the shade. In a few days the edges of the leaves began browning, so I went ahead and cut them mostly off – I was careful not to cut too close to the petioles, in order to not damage the dormant buds in the leaf axils. Then I waited.
It took a couple of weeks, but finally some buds started swelling. If you look closely enough you can see the new shoots just about to start pushing. As I mentioned in the earlier post on this tree, I do need to cut the leaders back hard – but that is not a task to be done this year. The tree needs to get established in its nursery pot first, which means I wait until next spring to cut. The good news is, live oak grows with surprising vigor in a pot. For a tree that can live several hundred years, it’s not something you’d expect. But I’m all for vigorous growth, so I’m not complaining for a second.
If you’re interested in live oak for bonsai let me know. I plan to offer some for sale next year, and will be happy to put your name on my live oak “wish list.”
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