Developing a Yaupon Bonsai – Year 1

Yaupon bonsai in trainingOur native yaupon, Ilex vomitoria, is an excellent species for bonsai. It is found mostly along the Gulf Coast and Atlantic Seaboard, all the way to Maryland. Yaupon is a holly species—fortunately without the thorns—and like most hollies is evergreen. The leaves are naturally small and reduce further in bonsai culture. Male and female flowers appear on separate plants; unfortunately, they cannot be distinguished in the absence of fruit. The bark of yaupon is smooth, gray or sometimes white.

This is where native yaupon as bonsai tends to come to a screeching halt. The problem? Yaupon grows naturally without the slightest bit of taper to the trunk. This leaves the collector with the option of chopping and regrowing the trunk, which is certainly a viable option but greatly increases the amount of time to reach a presentable design.

I was fortunate to find this tree during the winter 2014 collecting season. It’s literally the only yaupon I’ve ever run across with a naturally tapering trunk. You can imagine how eagerly I sawed it out of the ground.  Yaupons are easy to collect, though the wood is pretty hard. You don’t need to worry about leaving any foliage as with some evergreen species; yaupons backbud very well on old wood.

This one gave me plenty of new buds to work with. By April I was wiring the tender new shoots, which, it’s worth noting, you should definitely plan to do. The branches get very stiff very quickly and they grow arrow-straight, so if you want movement in them you’d better do it while you can. Otherwise you may find yourself having to start some branches over.

The first photograph was taken in August, four months after the tree first budded out. The new shoots had grown anywhere from about 10” to as much as 2’ in the apex. Even though yaupon is thought of as a shrub, it’s actually a small tree and as such wants to get tall as quickly as it can. This helps when you’re trying to build a new apex. In the case of this tree, I let the new leader run to thicken it and also let a secondary leader run to thicken the base of the new apex.

Yaupon in training - photo 1The final photos were taken on November 30, 2014. I trimmed back the branches that have produced secondary branching, and shortened the new apex in order to force it to backbud next spring. I need to take my time developing the tapering transition. It would be a shame to waste a tapering trunk with a non-tapering apex.



Stay tuned for more on this tree next year….



Best Bonsai Trees for Beginners – Sweetgum

Sweetgum bonsai

Sweetgum bonsai three years in training, showing fall colors.

Another of the very best bonsai trees for beginners, the Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) is a member of the family Altingiaceae.

It’s a primary tree, growing to heights of 60-100’. Leaves are 3-6” in length and width on a petiole roughly the same length, and star-shaped.

Bark is gray and deeply furrowed, developing about 10 years after seedling stage.

Best Features

Growth habit: Sweetgum grows very vigorously, producing shoots in a container that can grow up to two feet in length in a single season. Collected specimens backbud very well, which allows the artist to select the branches necessary for producing a tree-like structure on a small scale. Sweetgum also grows continuously throughout Continue Reading →

Best Bonsai Trees for Beginners – Chinese Elm


Beautiful little Chinese elm forest

Another of my favorite and best bonsai for beginners is the famous Chinese elm, Ulmus parvifolia; it is a member of the Elm family, Ulmaceae.

A native of China, it was introduced to the U.S. in the mid-19th Century as a replacement for American elms killed by Dutch Elm Disease. Very hardy, cold-resistant, pest and disease-resistant, Chinese elm is a superior species for bonsai … when grown properly (see Worst Feature below).

Chinese elms:

  • grow to 50’ tall and 1-1/2’ in diameter, and
  • have leaves that are ¾ to 2” long, 3/8 to 3/4” wide, elliptical, saw-toothed, and shiny dark green.

Best Features

Growth habit: Chinese elm is a fast grower. In the ground they can produce branches that are six feet long in a single season. The new shoots of containerized specimens grow fast as well, but also produce secondary branching within the same growing season. Growth is in distinct rounds, usually three each season.

Leaf-size reduction: the leaves easily reduce to ¼” with ramification. No special techniques are required, the leaves reduce on their own.

Ramification: outstanding, beginning in the first developmental year as the new shoots produce secondary and even tertiary growth with no prompting.

The Chinese elm forest you see here was created in 2012 from material grown as cuttings. The primary training was to  Continue Reading →

Best Bonsai Trees for Beginners – Cedar Elm


Cedar elm bonsai in its third year of training.

The Cedar Elm is among my chosen five of the best bonsai trees for beginners. Cedar elm, Ulmus Crassifolia, is a member of the Elm family, Ulmaceae.

Its natural range is East Texas into Northern Louisiana and Southern Arkansas. It’s a primary species, growing to heights of 80’.

The leaves are:

  • elliptical or lance-shaped,
  • sometimes blunt at the tip and sometimes sharp-pointed,
  • 1-2” long and ½ to 1” wide.
  • a shiny dark green above with a leathery feel,
  • hairy beneath,
  • coarsely saw-toothed with rounded teeth (the rounded teeth of the cedar elm’s leaves are about the only way to distinguish between cedar elm and winged elm in young specimens).

The bark of cedar elm is light brown and furrowed into broad, scaly ridges. It takes at least a decade before bark begins to form.

Best Features

Growth habit: cedar elm backbuds very well on old wood. The specimen pictured below was estimated to be about 40 years old despite only having a trunk diameter of 1-1/2”. It had only a single branch when collected, but produced ample buds to allow for proper development of the tree’s structure.

Cedar elm has two or three rounds of growth each season, which Continue Reading →

Best Bonsai Trees for Beginners – Bald Cypress


The National Champion Bald Cypress – at Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge

One of the best bonsai trees for beginners is the Bald Cypress, or Taxodium distichum. A member of the Redwood family, Taxodiaceae, it is a primary tree species and can reach heights of 100-120’ with a trunk diameter typically between 3-5’. Larger and older specimens are known and documented, including what you see to your left, the largest tree east of the Sierra Nevada and the sixth largest in terms of overall volume in the United States.

This is the national champion bald cypress, 94’ tall with a 17’ diameter trunk (it’s a single tree with two trunks). I live a mere 17 miles from it.  Nice…

The needles:

  • are flat,
  • are crowded,
  • are feather-like,
  • they occur in two rows on green twigs,
  • are dull green above and whitish beneath, and
  • they turn reddish-brown in the fall and drop along with the twigs.

The bark is brown or gray, with long fibrous or scaly ridges. It peels off in strips.

It’s my opinion that bald cypress is the undisputed King of American Bonsai and again, they are one of the very best bonsai trees for beginners!

Best Features

Growth habit: Bald cypress is one of the more vigorous species grown as bonsai. Although you can expect only three rounds of growth each season, each round of growth is very dynamic.

Continue Reading →

Best Bonsai Trees for Beginners – American Hornbeam


My monster American hornbeam. The trunk base is 6″ in diameter.

One of my favorite and best bonsai trees for beginners is the American hornbeam, or Carpinus Caroliniana. It is a member of the birch family, Betulaceae and is an understory tree, growing to only about 30’ in height.

The bark is gray and smooth, the leaves a dark blue-green and shiny, elliptical, long-pointed at the tip, and sharply doubly saw-toothed.

Best Features

Growth habit: American hornbeam grows continuously from spring through the end of the growing season. This hastens training, as it can be wired and shaped as many as three times during each season.

Leaf size reduction: hornbeam leaves reduce well, from 4-1/2” in length to less than 1”.

Ramification: facilitated by the continuous growth habit. For larger collected specimens with no branches at all, it’s common to see the tree bud and produce shoots that in turn produce secondary shoots in the first year.

This is evident on the specimen pictured here, which was collected Continue Reading →

Best Bonsai Trees for Beginners – Deciduous Species

Pix-BonsaiThere’s nothing as exciting as getting bitten by the bonsai bug.

You see a photo of a masterpiece bonsai, or better still you go to an exhibition and see wonderful specimens in person. You’re amazed that a fully mature tree which should be 100’ tall is only 2’ tall, and its leaves are tiny but perfectly shaped. You’re hooked and you want to be able to grow bonsai yourself.

This elicits the second question every new bonsai enthusiast asks, the first being, “How do they do that?”, namely: “What are the best bonsai trees for beginners?”

It’s a simple question with a reasonably simple answer.

The best bonsai trees for beginners are without a doubt those that are:

  • easy to keep alive in a shallow container, and
  • are quick to train into suitable representations of mature trees in nature.

As a beginner, the last thing you want is Continue Reading →

How to Make Bonsai Lemonade

Pix-LemonadeBack in 2010 I collected an American elm from the side of a rural highway.

It had a great flared base, with some deadwood extending to the soil, and good taper to boot.

I figured to style it into an informal upright, and once it had thrown new branches that’s just what I set out to do.  It grew all right for that season, but frankly it turned out to be only a so-so bonsai-in-the-making.

I gave it the minimum attention necessary, but for the most part it stood ignored among all the other trees.

Then 2011 came and I kept it watered and kept looking at it in an attempt to find a decent bonsai in the material.  In the meantime, the dead area of the trunk grew bigger, leaving a couple of odd veins of living tissue and some branching that didn’t help the appearance one bit.

By the end of the growing season I was ready to toss it out.

Then it hit me:

Why not lay the thing down and see if it wanted to be a Continue Reading →