Oaks As Bonsai

I think we don’t grow enough oaks as bonsai.  As a genus, Quercus is one of the more agreeable out there.  Aside from being strong as oaks (ha!), this genus features a vast number of choices suitable to pot culture.  I’ve written before about live oak and willow oak and water oak – Quercus virginiana, Quercus nigra and Quercus phellos – touting their superior qualities when grown as bonsai.  And there are many, many more.

When we think of the characteristics of various species that make them suitable for bonsai, among these are smallish leaves that reduce in pot culture along with short internodes.  While there are any number of oak species that fit this bill more than adequately, there are plenty of others inhabiting the other end of the spectrum.  One of these is Southern red oak, Quercus falcata.  This stately species features leaves ranging from 4-8″ long and 2-6″ wide.  It’s not a species you’d necessarily set out to find when trying to decide on the various species to grow as bonsai.

Redoak1-30-16So with that said, I was sure this tree was a water oak when I found and lifted it, which is another way of saying if I’d known it was a red oak I probably would have passed it by.  It was collected in winter, of course, but there were plenty of leaves on the ground near this specimen that were water oak leaves.  But of course, just because you find a certain type of leaf on the ground near a tree you want to lift, that doesn’t mean it’s from that tree.  It never hurts to have an old lesson again.

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Still, there’s no denying this oak has a lot going for it.  I mean, look at that root base!  Three nice lateral roots to stabilize the tree and its appearance.  A very cool uro near the base to add to the character.  Rugged bark with some lichens on it.  No matter the species, I’d work on this tree just because it has a lot of bonsai potential.

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So the tree came out starting in early April.  The buds looked a bit weird for a water oak, but I didn’t think too much of it at first.  But once the shoots began elongating I knew I had identified it wrong.  The leaves were getting a lot bigger than I expected.  Okay, so be it.  Might as well start wiring it and see what I can make of this tree.  This photo, incidentally, was taken about two weeks ago.

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Did it grow a lot in two weeks or what?  I put some more wire on the tree today, so those branches don’t get away from me.  Interestingly enough, the primary branches are already pushing secondary branches.  This is always a good sign when you’re training a tree, regardless of the species.  A better tendency to branch and sub-branch means you’re more likely to make a suitable bonsai out of the species you’re working on.  You can also see in this photo that the internodes are not all that far apart.  That should mean I can get decent ramification on this tree, and that would mean leaf-size reduction.

Stay tuned for updated on this specimen.  I imagine that by the end of this growing season I’ll have a very nice set of branches built.  Next spring I’ll carve out the chop and possibly go to a bonsai pot with it.

The trunk base of this tree is 2.5″ in diameter above the root crown, and it’s 11.5″ to the chop.  I can see it topping out at about 20″.

 

Chinese Privet Bonsai – Initial Styling

Privet4-23-16-1I showed you this Chinese privet, Ligustrum sinense, earlier in the season.  I collected it in Winter 2016 and direct-potted it into this nice Byron Myrick oval.  Because it had a complete trunk, nice movement and taper into the apex where I knew I could grow a crown in no time, there was no reason not to go straight to a bonsai pot.

So here it is, all flush with new growth.  Time to do the initial styling before the branches get too stiff (privet branches get way too stiff to bend if you don’t catch them while they’re young and tender).

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It’s best to work from bottom to top when you’re styling your trees.  While this isn’t a hard and fast rule, it does make branch selection and placement easier.

My first step was to clear unneeded growth, once I had selected my first two branches.  Since I want to wire branches in pairs, whenever possible, I work my way up the tree picking branches two at a time.  This helps tremendously.

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Now the first two branches are wired and positioned.  There are two benefits in doing this: one, the branches are where they need to be based on the intended design; and two, with these branches in position it’s easier for me to select and envision the positions of the next two branches.

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Two more branches are wired now, a back branch and one coming toward the viewer.  Regarding the latter, you need branches that move into the viewing zone, however, these are typically not found until you get more than halfway up the tree.  Remember, you want the first third to half of your trunk to be visible to the viewer.  At that point, you want foliage crossing the trunk.  A front-pointing branch is one way to make this happen.  In my privet, I’ve got a branch in just the right spot to make this happen.

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Now the next two branches are wired.  Both of these are in the back of the tree.  This helps with the illusion of depth.  Bonsai are three-dimensional objects, so without branches emerging all around the tree you run the risk of destroying the illusion you’re trying to create.

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After a little more editing and wiring, the finished result.  This tree now has its basic structure in place.  The next step is to let it continue growing, which will thicken the branches and start the ramification process.  I’ll need to remove the wire in about two to three weeks, then wire again for the summer growing season.  By fall, this will be a presentable Chinese privet bonsai.

The trunk base of this tree is 1.5″.  Finished height should be about 16″.

This tree is available at our Chinese privet bonsai page.

New Bonsai In The Making

I love spring because there’s always new material to work on.  That’s one great thing about bonsai: no two are exactly alike.  Even though any given species has a particular growth habit, when you start building a bonsai you don’t know for sure exactly where your branches will be.  So you style around this uniqueness in each tree, which is what ultimately makes them all different from one another.

I’ve come to appreciate crape myrtle, Lagerstroemia indica, as a species for bonsai.  Their easy growth habit, rapid growth and vigorous rooting ability set the species apart from many.  They have beautiful spring and fall foliage, and will bloom in a container.  What’s not to like?

Crapemyrtle4-16-16I grew this crape myrtle from a cutting I made years ago.  At some point I potted it in a large nursery container, set it with some other raw material and ignored it.  It grew out and got taller as it thickened up.  Crapes will produce long, straight, stiff, non-tapering trunks if left alone.  That’s just what this one did, except it also produced a low branch and an interesting set of surface roots, which you can see in this photo.  I wasn’t sure what to do with it, but when I bought this shallow tray from Chuck Iker it struck me that I had the makings of a neat exposed root bonsai.

I cut off the bulk of the trunk and of course the roots – crape myrtles root more vigorously than just about any non-tropical species I can think of.  I had a couple of shoots to work with in starting a design.  No, it doesn’t look like much right now but I think you can see the potential.  The proper design for this tree, to my way of thinking, is a broad spreading specimen with a classic crape myrtle shape.  In this case I want to make it “low-slung,” complementing the shallow tray and the exposed roots.

The trunk base on this specimen is just under 1″.  It’s 15″ in length to the end of the long shoot.

I’d love to hear what you think of this bonsai-in-the-making.

Oakforest4-16-16I’m blessed with oaks where I live, and these guys were volunteers near my garden.  I’ve let them grow for the past several years, thinking that one day I’d do something with them.  I had this Byron Myrick tray sitting idle, and its depth happened to match the basal thickness of largest of the trees I had available.  Couldn’t ask for a better sign.  So two weeks ago I dug this group and assembled a fledgling forest.

You can probably see some unhappy foliage on the trees.  I left some in order to gauge my success in lifting the trees.  While some of it withered, each tree with foliage (all but one) kept some green so I was confident they would make it.  Now they’re pushing new buds, so I can get down to the next stage of forest building beginning next month.

The base of the largest of these trees is 1.25″, and it’s 26″ tall.  I’m very fond of tall forests, so I’m really looking forward to watching this one develop.

Let me know what you think of it.

 

 

 

Developing A Sweetgum Bonsai

Several years ago I began growing the Sweetgum, Liquidambar styraciflua, you see below in a nursery container.  It grew fairly typically for Sweetgum, nice and straight as it reached for the sun attempting to become 80 feet tall.  Periodically I would chop the growing trunk to a smaller branch and then let it grow some more.  I also had allowed a couple of low branches to run wild, in order to thicken the trunk base.

Sweetgum8-24-14-2In August of 2014 the young tree had reached a point where I felt it was time to give it a tree shape.  In the photo at left, you can see the very young shoots that have been wired into place.  You may also be able to see the point where I chopped the growing trunk, in order to bring the tree back into proportion.

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Fast-forward a year, to August of 2015.  Those tender young shoots I had wired a year earlier now have some heft to them, not to mention pleasing movement.  This is one design principle to always keep in mind: trunk movement should be reflected in branch movement.  You don’t want a curving trunk and arrow-straight branches.  This is why we wire young branches, so they won’t look static to the eye when the bonsai is being viewed.  Also, when you wire young branches be sure that you put both up and down and side to side movement in them.  Otherwise the bonsai will not look as realistic as a natural tree.

Sweetgum10-3-15Here’s the tree just over a month later, after trimming the strong growth to produce a nice silhouette.  At this stage of development, I’m left with working in the crown area of the tree.  This Sweetgum bonsai is about 70% of the way to “completion.”  I know that 2016 is going to be the time when I finish the design.

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It’s now April 9th, 2016 and this Sweetgum, now very rootbound, is waiting to push buds.  In fact it’s lagging other specimens for this very reason.  So with the basic design development about 90% complete, there’s really no reason not to put this tree into a bonsai pot.  If you look closely you can see two new buds along the leader emerging from the chop halfway up.  These will be wired to provide two branches filling up the empty space that currently exists.  I’ll let them grow out, then wire and shape and let them run.  Once they harden off, it’ll only be a matter of pinching and developing the ramification needed to complete this part of the tree.

It’s a little hard to see in this photo, but the two lower branches are chock full of buds.  These will ultimately produce the ramification needed in the lower part of the tree.

One more thing to notice in this photo is how drastically I root-pruned the tree.  It’s common for new bonsai enthusiasts to shy away from the drastic root-pruning trees need in their development phase.  What this results in is trees with rangy, poorly tapering surface roots.  This critical element of bonsai design can’t be overemphasized.

Sweetgum4-10-16-1Here’s the tree in its bonsai pot, a nice Chuck Iker round.  The color of the pot will complement the bright green of the Sweetgum leaves when they come out.

This tree has a trunk base of 1.25″, and it’s 13.5″ to the tip of the apex.  It’s available at our Sweetgum Bonsai sales page.  Ship date late next month.

 

A Massive Trident Maple Gets Some Attention

About four years ago I acquired this trident maple, Acer buergerianum, from a bonsai friend.  He had been growing it in his field bed for several years prior and wanted to get rid of it.  I gladly agreed to saw it out of the ground – which, way too much time later proved just about impossible.  We lashed it to the back of his Jeep and finished the job that way.

Well, this was the last tree I potted up that day and I was pretty tired.  So it went into a really big tub, after which it pretty much sat untouched until today.  Just food and water.

Trident4-9-16-1It took about an hour, a lot of water and a lot of muscle to get the tree to this point.  Isn’t the root base amazing?  I had buried it, as I always do, when it was first collected in order to protect it from drying out.  This technique works on everything I collect; rarely will I lose a large lateral root on a tree.  This trident was no different.

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Here’s a shot from the back.  You can see where the trunk was chopped several years ago after the tree had been allowed to grow unchecked to thicken the base.  The callus is rolling over.  Tridents heal well, so in time this wound should close mostly or completely.

Isn’t that a great mat of fibrous roots!  You should see the amount I cut away.

It’s a little hard to see from this angle, but there are large buttressing roots all the way around this specimen.  Once this tree finds its way into a bonsai pot, the nebari is going to be stunning.

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Here’s the tree in its smaller tub.  I cut away a lot of stiff larger branches, which could not be bent.  When the tree re-buds, I’ll be able to wire the tender new shoots and get a good branch set started.  This should happen over the next several weeks.

This tree is available at our Miscellaneous Bonsai sales page, for anyone who’s wanted to tackle a really big trident maple.  I believe it can ship in late May or early June.

A Couple Of New Trees On The Way

Now that spring has taken hold, a number of my newly collected specimens are starting to get established and closer to their initial training.  One thing I like to do whenever feasible is to directly pot new trees into bonsai containers.  I do this in part because it shortens the time from initial collecting to finished bonsai, and who doesn’t want that?  Of course, there are some important considerations when undertaking a direct-potting approach.  For one, you need to have either a mostly complete trunk or stick with specimens that have enough apical dominance that you can create the appropriate taper through to the apex in two or three seasons.  Bald cypress and hawthorn are two species that have sufficient apical dominance to allow you to do this.  But with just a few exceptions, you want to stick with trees that are complete trunks only needing a branch structure.

Hophornbeam4-6-16-1This is an Eastern hophornbeam, Ostrya virginiana.  It’s a cousin to American hornbeam – they’re both members of the Birch family, Betulaceae.  When I ran across this one during a collecting trip, I saw a complete trunk with nice character (damage, actually) and even some branches to start with.  It was a no-brainer to direct-pot it into this beautiful little Chuck Iker round.  The trunk base is 1.25″ and it’s 11″ to the tip of the apex.  It’s mostly leafed out now and starting to push shoots.  I would expect it’ll be ready to sell in another month.

Hophornbeam differs from hornbeam in a few important ways: one, it eventually develops a rough, plated bark which is very attractive; two, the leaves are persistent through winter as they do not produce an abscission layer (like beech), light tan in color and easy to spot; and finally, the leaves are somewhat coarser than hornbeam’s and remain lighter green in color through the growing season.  They ramify and reduce leaf-size well as hornbeam does.  One other significant difference is that they are surprisingly hard to lift in large sizes with a high success rate.

Oh, and hophornbeam also shares with hornbeam the common name ironwood.  If you’ve ever tried to chop one down with an axe, you understand what that means.

I think this is a nice little specimen with a great future as a bonsai.

Privet4-6-16-1As with the hophornbeam above, when I spotted this Chinese privet, Ligustrum sinense, I knew it was going straight to a bonsai pot.  Except for a couple of stubs, I didn’t have any branches to work with but I knew that wasn’t a problem.  The trunk line was pretty much complete and perfectly tapering – I just needed to finish out the apex.  You can probably see where I chopped the trunk up near the apex to the thinner (new) trunk line.  And now I’ve got plenty of buds to wire into a branch set once they’ve extended enough.  That should happen in another three or four weeks.

I think this terrific Byron Myrick oval really suits the tree.  The color will complement the color of the bark and provide a nice contrast with the leaves once the tree fills out.

The trunk base on this specimen is 1.5″ above the root crown, and it’s chopped at 13″.  Finished height will be about 16″.

Watch for this tree to go up for sale in May as well.

Water-Elm ‘Root Around Cypress Knee’ Repotting

Water-elm11-29-15-2I posted this fall shot of my ‘Root Around Cypress Knee’ Water-elm, Planera aquatica.  The tree had been in its pot for a couple of years.  Because I had not been able to give it a lot of room during the first potting, I didn’t want to wait another year to cut back the roots and give the tree fresh soil.  Plus I wanted to get an idea of the condition of the knee, which is not going to last more than another season or two.  This knee is composed of sapwood.  While bald cypress heartwood is virtually indestructible, the sapwood is very light and rots easily.  This is especially true if the wood remains in contact with water.  In the case of this tree, there was a smaller knee emerging from the left-hand side of the trunk base which rotted away last year.  So that left me with the main knee.

Water-elm4-3-16-1Here’s a shot of the tree from the rear, after I pulled it from the pot.  You can see there were plenty of roots.  You can also see the very nice nebari this tree has.  This is good news for the time when that knee isn’t with me any longer.  It’ll make for a good, stable looking surface root structure.

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In this shot I’ve already teased out and eliminated a lot of the roots, especially finer surface roots.  This exposed the lower part of the knee and allowed me to judge its integrity.  There’s softness going on, and because the knee has a cut surface on the bottom its ability to absorb moisture just cannot be thwarted.  Cypress wood is pretty much like a sponge.  This is why when collecting the species you have to seal the top chop.  Water is sucked up through the sapwood from the severed tap and lateral roots, and it’ll evaporate right through the sapwood at the top chop and dry the tree out.

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Another angle on the nebari embracing the knee.

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Now the roots are all trimmed and the tree is ready to go back in its pot.

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The final result.  I’ve raised the tree somewhat in the pot, exposing the fine nebari it possesses.  Even once the knee is gone, this is going to be a fine water-elm bonsai.

The trunk base is 2.5″ in diameter and it’s 21″ tall.  The pot is a beautiful rounded-corner rectangle by Byron Myrick.

Hawthorn Thread-Graft Success

Hawthorn2-28-16-2Last month I showed you the result of a six-year project to establish an acceptable design for this large Mayhaw, Crataegus aestivalus.  After collecting the specimen, which measures 4″ at the base and was originally chopped at 24″, trunk budding failed to produce a branch on the left-hand side of the tree to counterbalance the lowest right branch.  The obvious solution was a thread-graft, as I had a spare shoot emerging from where the first branch had come.  So I drilled an appropriately sized hole through the trunk and shoved the shoot on through.  After that, it was just a waiting game.

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Waiting and styling, of course.  You can see that my thread-grafted branch, along with the others, has been trained in addition to being allowed to grow out.  Hawthorns, as most species, produce sub-branching on their own as the tree develops sufficient leaf surface area to feed itself in the most efficient way possible.  I did less pruning on the thread-grafted branch than on the others, but I wired as needed to get the sub-branching where I wanted it in anticipation of the ramification that will ultimately make this design work.

Hawthorn3-28-16-2Yesterday I bit the bullet and cut the original shoot free of the thread-graft.  You can see the gap in this photo.  You can also see, on the left side of the trunk, a nice new shoot that I knew would give absolute proof that the graft had taken.  It never flagged a bit.

I’ll remove the remainder of the original shoot, and then continue developing the thread-grafted branch.  This branch, along with the tree’s crown and some root work, are all that’s left in the making of this very fine Mayhaw bonsai.

 

Happy To Be Wrong

One of the key skills the bonsai artist must learn is how to identify the various species he or she intends to work with.  This is especially true when you collect your own from the wild.  This is a challenge when you’re first starting out, though I believe it’s a fun one.  For those of us who work primarily with deciduous trees, which are usually collected in winter when they’re devoid of foliage, there’s an extra challenge.  Identifying species is a matter of examining the foliage, bark, dormant buds (if present), and sometimes flowers and fruit.  It’s by far most common to make our identification solely on the basis of foliage.

Roughleafdogwood1-23-16-4I posted this photo on January 23rd, along with the lament that I have never had success in collecting larger red maples (as this is what I was sure it was).  I was out hunting bald cypress that day, but high water had other plans.  So when I spotted this twin-trunk and another really nice specimen I thought it was better to go home with two trees that probably wouldn’t make it rather than empty-handed.

Then the wait began.  It took a solid four weeks for tiny buds to appear, but they finally did.  What’s more, they appeared in opposite pairs which is exactly the way they should have.  Only there was something not quite right about them.  They weren’t red.  Now, the old saying goes “there’s always something red on a red maple.”  Newly swelling buds, flowers, fruit, new leaves, the petioles once the leaves have greened, and then winter buds to complete the cycle.  This red maple was missing red buds.  What did it mean?

The leaves finally began opening tentatively.  They were light green in color.  Not red.  Hmm.  That wasn’t right, either.  What’s more, their shape was all wrong.  Rather than the normal three-lobed leaves with serrations that red maples sport, these were non-lobed and smooth and rather slender.

It was at this point that I took another look at the bark of these specimens.  Now, as the red maple begins developing bark it produces fissures which in time grow deeper and rougher.  My first impression here was that these trees were just in the beginning stages of bark development.  But with the leaves all wrong, I took a closer look and realized that these were plates forming, not fissures.  What’s more, they seemed to be in a pretty regular grid pattern.  There’s one group of species I well knew that produced bark like this: dogwood.  And what species of dogwood do you find in or near the swamps?  Roughleaf dogwood, Cornus drummondii.

I was dead wrong with my tree ID back in January, and I couldn’t be happier about it.  That means I get to train two more trees which will feature characteristics like this one:

Dogwood3-25-16-1This is the first and so far the only roughleaf dogwood I’ve trained as bonsai.  My experience so far is that it ramifies much better than flowering dogwood, Cornus florida, which I have grown as bonsai in the past.  Leaf-size reduction is likewise superior.  So with great bark and foliage, not to mention superior trunk character, I think it’s got everything you could ask for.  (This tree has been posted for sale at our Miscellaneous Bonsai sale page.)

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If you look closely you can see the buds opening on this one, which I re-shot today.  I’ll need to chop it back some more next season, plus lose the larger of the two leaders on the main trunk to enhance taper.  But I couldn’t be more excited about this new dogwood, now that I know what it is.

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Finally, a closeup of the foliage.  Isn’t it great?  On another interesting note, while the buds on this and the other dogwood I collected emerged light green in color, the new leaves have turned red while unfolding.  This mirrors, to a degree, the fall color we sometimes get on our dogwoods.  The color is caused by anthocyanins, which produce the reds and purples we see in autumn leaves (they are breakdown products of chlorophyll) as well as in flowers and fruit.  As the leaves harden off, chlorophyll production ramps up and the red disappears.

 

Spring Bonsai Fun – Part 2

Hawthorn1-2-16-3I collected this Mayhaw, Crataegus aestivalus, on January 2nd of this year.  It had some nice roots so I direct-potted it into this beautiful Chuck Iker round.  Then waited.  Hawthorns almost never disappoint, so when it got just warm enough for new material to begin waking up this was one of the first specimens to do so.

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Here we are, about six weeks later, and now I’ve got some shoots to work with.  You may be able to see that the shoots in the upper part of the tree are stronger than those lower down.  This is natural for most species, simply because they want to get to a certain height.  This programming doesn’t go away just because a bonsai artist shows up and wants them to behave differently.

From the beginning of the life of a collected deciduous bonsai, the artist must struggle against apical dominance.  It starts with the new raw material and pretty much never stops.  So you’re always encouraging the lower branches to get stronger and stay that way, while “cooling off” the upper branches.

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You want to do the initial styling on your tree as soon as it makes sense to do so.  With this specimen I had some time yet – but given that I also had some time today and there will be endless chores over the next several weeks, a quick styling on this one made sense to me.

I wired some primary branches and the new apex in about 10 minutes.  I also pinched out the growing tips of a few of the higher shoots, to cool them off.  I’ll let the lower shoots run for the next few weeks at least, to keep that energy in balance.

This tree will go up for sale most likely in May or June, so stay tuned for updates.