One More Live Oak

Liveoak1-31-16-1I wrote last evening’s post a bit hurriedly.  I was fighting the daylight to get the trees chopped and potted, so much so that I ran out of charged power packs and had to delay this specimen until today.  But it gave me an opportunity to explain a little more about the decisions we have to make in order to create a bonsai – in this case from the ground up.

If you look at this tree you’re bound to be thinking one thing: fencepost (or its equivalent).  And that’s exactly correct.  This tree was originally grown for landscape use, meaning perfectly straight.  But what works for the landscape does not generally work for the bonsai artist.  The fact is, there are only three styles of bonsai in which no taper in the trunk is necessary: broom-form, literati and forest plantings.  Now, since this is a live oak I plan to grow it in the live oak broom-form style, which is one of the variants on live oak style.  Okay, so far so good.  But then we have to ask ourselves the question, how long should the trunk be before the crown begins?  For most species, the answer is longer than for a live oak.  You may have seen live oaks either in nature or in photos.  They tend to have a relatively short main trunk, from which proceed multiple sub-trunks that form an informal fan shape.  Some of the lower growing sub-sub-trunks can even reach the ground on older specimens.

With that in mind, then, how long should the main trunk of this live oak be?  As dug and chopped in the field, the trunk is 22″.  I can tell you that’s way too much.  So I go back to my rule of thumb: chop a trunk without taper two to three trunk diameters away from the base.  This trunk is 4″ in diameter, so if I chop it to 10″ it should look fine.

Liveoak1-31-16-2Here’s the result.  Though there’s nothing but trunk and root, this specimen already looks better.  I can visualize sub-trunks emerging as buds followed by shoots from the chop area.  Then it’s a matter of wiring and positioning them.








Finally, the stump is potted in a tub with the roots buried.  Hopefully it’ll make it.  I should know in early March; that’s when the live oaks start replacing their leaves.


Live Oaks and Yaupons

I visited the nursery of a good bonsai friend two years ago.  At the time he offered me a couple of live oaks, Quercus virginiana, that he had planted in the landscape and needed to get rid of.  Naturally I said yes.  I’ve never had good luck finding live oaks to collect through the years, so getting hold of some larger material was something I couldn’t pass up.

Today was the day.  I was able to collect four good-size stumps, which will take a few years to grow out but given time will produce very nice live oak bonsai.

Liveoak1-30-16-1Here’s one of the larger specimens, sporting a 3.5″ trunk.  Oaks of this size are a challenge to collect, since they typically have a substantial taproot that holds them firmly in the ground.  Fortunately, my friend has a large John Deere® tractor.  We were able to pop the taproot easily.

This tree doesn’t look like much at this point in time, but I can easily visualize a classic live oak with broad spreading branches starting with this stump.  It’s going to take several years, but the results should be well worth the effort.



As an unexpected fringe benefit, my friend had some yaupons, Ilex vomitoria, growing in the meadow he’s developing behind his house.  I took the opportunity to collect some female specimens (the berries tell the gender – yaupon is dioecious, meaning you have separate male and female plants).

Here’s a nice specimen with taper, great trunk character and movement.  Collectible yaupons are not that plentiful, so I didn’t hesitate to tackle it.

Yaupon1-30-16-4If you study this tree, you’ll notice that the tapering comes to an end about 2/3rds of the way up.  If I leave the trunk as long as it is now, this flaw will be very obvious as the apex grows out.  The only answer is to chop it.


Here’s the result.  It’s a shorter tree but will be a better tree.  The trunk base is just under 2″, and the height to the chop is 8″.  When all is said and done, this yaupon will be about a 14-16″ tall specimen.









Here’s another specimen with loads of character.  The dead area of the trunk is what this tree is all about.  It’s 1.5″ at the base and 12″ to the chop.  I’m thinking this will be a very fun project.











Last but not least is this raft-style specimen.  It’s common to see yaupon growing in clumps.  This particular specimen featured good trunk character and some taper.  I went ahead and potted it in this very nice Byron Myrick oval.  Developing the individual trunks should be a three-year project.  The two larger ones are about 2″ at the base, the small one 1/2″, and the tallest one about 15″ in height.

With my good fortune today I should have live oaks and yaupons for sale before long.  If you’ve been looking for either, let me know and I’ll be sure you’re on our new tree alerts email list.

Some Design Pointers

It occurred to me that the blog I wrote yesterday on the American elm, Ulmus Americana, I lifted, potted and styled wasn’t as helpful as it could have been.  For less experienced artists who sometimes struggle with making design decisions, I wanted to explain in more detail my thought process as I studied and then worked on this piece of material.

American elm1-24-16-2Let’s start with the tree after lifting and washing the roots.  When you look at a piece of material like this, you sort of know there’s a bonsai in there somewhere but you may not be quite sure where it is (meaning “what do I cut off and what do I keep, and why?”).  We always work our way from certainty to uncertainty.  What this means is, in pretty much every tree you select to work on you know for sure some things about it even if you don’t know everything about it.  In the case of this one, I know several things without even settling on the ultimate design.  Here they are: the branches are all too long and will need to be cut back to the right silhouette; the lowest branches have to go, there’s no place for them in my ultimate design; the root base needs to be cut flat, taking advantage of the best set of radial roots present; the original leader on this trunk, now dead, needs to be cut off and its base carved out to make the crown look realistic.

What I don’t know, though I have something of an idea, is what my finished branch set is going to look like (and how well the finished product will be).  But that’s okay.  We always begin with what we’re certain of, and work our way toward uncertainty.  What usually happens is that things start clearing up once the work begins.

American elm1-24-16-3This next photo is a flash-forward of sorts.  You can see I’ve removed the branches that don’t have any part in the final design, as indicated in the photo above.  I’ve trimmed back all of the branches to a silhouette that makes sense when compared with the trunk’s thickness, height and taper.  And of course I cut that root base flat and potted the tree.

Now, studying the new bonsai in the making I find I suddenly know more.  The confusion cleared up, you might say.  There are branches on this tree that attract the eye and make it linger.  Not good.  Something has to be done.  In this style of tree, I need the branches to form what might best be termed a “fan-shape” from bottom to top.  This means the lowest branches lie the most horizontal, and as you work your way up the tree they get more and more upright until you reach the crown.  And that means it’s time to wire this specimen and put those branches where they belong.

American elm1-24-16-4

Here’s the result.  Now the tree is designed, and the design is balanced and harmonious.  When viewing the tree there’s nothing that attracts and arrests the eye.

Winter Sucks – Making Bonsai Helps

We’re getting deep into our short but seemingly endless Deep South winter, and by next month depression will be kicking in for those of us so inclined.  The only good thing about winter is that I get to collect a lot of new material, and do some actual bonsai making.  Today I went out into my field-growing area and located a suitable candidate, an American elm (Ulmus Americana).

American elm1-24-16-1It’s a little hard to see among the nice winter weeds gracing the growing field, but you there’s a good trunk line and plenty of branch growth.  There’s got to be a bonsai in there somewhere.

I first collected this tree four years ago and put it into a nursery container.  Two years ago I decided it needed more vigor so I planted it out.  The first year it grew some, but this past year it really took off.  That told me it was plenty strong enough to lift.

American elm1-24-16-2






Out of the ground and roots trimmed, here’s what it looks like.  You can see the vigorous root growth that started in a nursery pot and took off in the ground.  A nice, healthy specimen.

American elm1-24-16-3












Here it is after a pruning and trimming.  This one has a really nice branch set.  It’s destined for the classic deciduous tree shape.  But it doesn’t look quite right, does it?





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This is why we wire trees.  If you compare this photo to the previous one, you can see the harmony and balance in the structure.  Branches are where they need to be.  In 2016, the branches will throw shoots along their length and these will be selected according to whether they enhance or detract from the bonsai’s appearance.  In two or three years, this tree will be showable.

If you’ve been looking for a nice American elm bonsai, this tree is available at our Elm Bonsai page.

Hopeless Cause, Bonsai Challenge or More?

Whenever anyone talks about or posts on a forum about swamp maple, Acer rubrum (also known as red maple), I advise not trying to collect larger specimens.  Why?  I’ve learned the hard way that while these trees mostly survive collecting, they ultimately succumb to a fungal infection that kills them mostly or completely.  It doesn’t happen in one year, but rather in three or four so you work hard at styling the tree and of course fighting off the infection but it’s very hard to win.  A member of our local club had a very large one he’d created from a stump – the stump was of course intact when collected, but over time rotted out completely through the base and on one side.  He maintained the tree for a couple of decades, with the rot advancing all the time.

I made a collecting trip today, but high water thwarted my plans.  I did, however, run across a couple of swamp maples that looked really awesome to me.  I just couldn’t resist bringing them home.  So now the challenge begins.

Swampmaple1-23-16-1Here’s the bigger of the two maples.  The trunk base on the main trunk is 3″, the smaller is 1″.  The taller trunk is chopped at 19″.  It has bark, so I’d guess it’s at least 30 years old.  I’ll shorten it more next year.  I’m in hopes that leaving it longer may help me in my fight against the fungus.  Time will tell.







Here’s another view of this tree.  I’m not sure where the front will end up being, but I’d say I have a couple of great options.










Potted in a tub.  I also left the roots long, again in hopes it’ll help me keep the tree alive and intact a few years from now.







Here’s another specimen I really liked the looks of.  The trunk base is 2″ and it’s 16.5″ to the chop.

Let me know what you think of these trees.  I’ll post more on them as they come out and grow.  This may end up being a hopeless cause, but it’s certainly a bonsai challenge – and who knows, it may end up being more.

Korean Hornbeam – What Does This Mean?

I’ve never grown Korean hornbeam, Carpinus coreana, as bonsai.  I bought a few small specimens last winter and planted them out so they could thicken up in the ground and provide me with stock plants for cuttings.  This past summer was pretty hard on them.  One died and the other three struggled.  I’m not sure if they didn’t care for our excessive heat down here in the Deep South, or if they simply weren’t well-enough established to make it through with robust good health.  Regardless, the season ended with three left and I’ll be watching them closely this year to see how they like it in my landscape.

KHornbeam1-18-16-1Here’s where it gets weird.  Today I’m out strolling in the growing field and I stop to take a close look at these small Korean hornbeams.  What do I see?  Buds swelling and a couple unfurling!  Now, I’m used to Chinese elms emerging early in the season, but early means late February or early March.  It’s just what they do.  But having no experience with Korean hornbeams, I can’t explain why they’re wanting to break dormancy now.  Our weather has been pretty cool since Christmas, with a number of light freezes and highs ranging mostly into the 60s.  We got one day late last week with the high around 70.  I’m not willing to believe that’s enough to make most species start to move sap.  Oh, the Japanese magnolias are blooming and the Louisiana irises are pushing, but that’s their programming.  I saw some out-of-season leafing of landscape trees back in the Thanksgiving-Christmas interlude, thanks to unseasonably warm weather.  But these Korean hornbeams were not budding then; this has happened in the past week or so.

KHornbeam1-18-16-2So I’ll ask my readers: if you grow Korean hornbeam, what’s your experience with them breaking dormancy?  Do they emerge sooner than other species?  Or is this out of character for them?

An Unexpected Find

Parsleyhaw1-16-16-1From the beginning of my bonsai journey almost three decades ago I’ve wanted a parsley hawthorn, Crataegus marshallii.  Though I’ve collected my fair share of hawthorns, I’ve never found a parsley haw.  Today that all changed.  I was out collecting with a friend, and he took me to a vacant lot where he had collected a very large specimen years earlier.  Though the leaves were off most of the trees, we did manage to find a few smaller seedlings that were still holding onto a few of their leaves.  Here’s a branch from one.



I ended up with a handful of trees including the one at left, which is destined for the literati style.  Considering this, I went ahead and put it into this nice Chuck Iker round.  The color should complement the fall foliage really well.  The trunk base is 1.5″ and I chopped it to 16″.  I plan to add another 6-8″ to the height.  I’m looking forward to working on this tree.  It should be budding sometime in March.











Here’s another one I couldn’t resist putting straight into a bonsai pot.  The trunk base on the larger tree is 1″ and it’s chopped at 14″.  I just got the pot from Byron Myrick last week.  This is going to be a really nice, graceful twin-trunk parsley hawthorn bonsai.

Hawthorn Winter Silhouettes

Winter is the time to do light pruning on your deciduous trees and, for those needing it, wiring.  Today I worked on a couple of hawthorns, a Mayhaw and a riverflat hawthorn.

Hawthorn1-10-16-1This is the Mayhaw, Crataegus aestivalus, that I’ve been developing for the past five years.  In 2015 I repotted the tree late – see “Did The Mayhaw Make It?” – and it responded with tremendous growth.  I deliberately left the tree alone after it was repotted, not wanting to tax it unduly, and today when I went to trim it back there were plentiful shoots well over a foot long.  So I trimmed everything back to within the appropriate silhouette, plus I removed crossing branches and those pointing straight up and straight down.  The result looks very much like a real tree, of course with the exception of the crown which is about two years away from its final development.  But you can’t argue with the very nice ramification I’ve gotten with this specimen.  The trunk base is 2.75″ above the root crown, and it’s 22″ to the tip of the leader.



This riverflat hawthorn, Crataegus opaca, is without a doubt my favorite bonsai at present.  Isn’t it lovely?  This specimen has reached the point where it’s only lacking completion of the crown, most likely about two years away, and continued ramification as it matures.  But all in all, this is just a gorgeous bonsai.

You may be wondering about the moss.  It literally “exploded” late in the season, puffing up three inches over the soil surface.  Very interesting.  I plan to remove it in spring, but in the meantime I figure it’ll help with winter protection of the roots.

The trunk of this tree is 3.5″ above the root crown, and it’s 29″ tall.

Potting A Bald Cypress

Cypress1-9-16-1I last showed you this bald cypress, Taxodium distichum, when I did the initial styling on it a couple of months ago.  It grew very well in 2015, after being collected in February of that same year.  I decided the tree was ready for its first bonsai pot this year.  Now, you may wonder if I’m not rushing things, considering that the new leader is hardly thick enough to make a believable transition at the chop point.  But I know just how powerfully top-dominant bald cypress is, so the new apex of this tree can be entirely grown after it’s placed in a bonsai pot.









I commissioned this Byron Myrick oval for the tree.  All sorts of greens do very nicely with cypress, as they evoke not only the foliage of the species but also the swampy habitat.  This one is no different.  Also, the oval shape should complement the graceful curve of the tree.



My first chore is to work on the chop area.  You can see that I chose a new leader below the chop and wired it up to continue the trunk line.  Now I need to saw off the chop flush with the leader.  That’s step number one in prepping this apex for what will ultimately be an uninterrupted trunk line that tapers smoothly from soil line to its tip.





The cut went quickly with my Japanese pruning saw.  Cypress has light sapwood, so it’s very easy to work.








Next I used my trunk splitter to make this angled cut.  Notice the “shelf” I left near the new leader.  This is designed to keep the swelling callus from producing a reverse taper a couple of years down the road.  By forcing the callus tissue to cover the shelf, it won’t grow nearly as quickly as the callus below it.  Ultimately, it’ll be completely rolled over and will make a very smooth tapering transition.





Here’s a view from the back.  Notice that I’ve carved down the rough cut.  This will all be sealed when I’m through potting the tree.  It’s freshly cut sapwood, and it’ll transpire moisture right out of the trunk and threaten the tree’s survival if I don’t protect it.








Next I unpotted the tree.  Check out all the roots I got in a single year!  You can also see the buttressing roots I buried right after I collected it.  They stayed protected, meaning they stayed alive, and they sprouted new feeder roots as expected.









Finally, here’s the tree in its new home.  The branches and the new leader are where I need them to be going into the 2016 growing season.  My two chores are creating the tree’s apex and flushing out the branch structure.  This is about a four to five year project.

If you’d like to take over the training of this tree, it’s available at our Bald Cypress Bonsai page.  The trunk base is 4″ at the soil surface, and it’s 22″ to the chop point.  I’m planning for a final height of 30-32″.  This is going to be a very elegant bald cypress bonsai.

“Capturing” The Hibernating Tree

A comment was just posted yesterday which posed the simple question, “The tree will grow on from that few roots?”  The question was prompted by this photo:

Hawthorn1-2-16-1Well, there’s not much left of this riverflat hawthorn, right?  Just what the bonsai artist needs, of course, which is the key part of the process of turning a natural tree specimen into a bonsai.   But what about those severely cut back roots?  What’s going to feed the tree till spring?

One of the common myths about deciduous trees is that they store food in their roots in order to survive winter.  Exclusive winter root food storage is limited to root crops such as potatoes, carrots, onions, etc. and ornamentals such as lillies and irises.  To be sure, some food storage occurs in the root zone of deciduous trees, but the fact is food is stored throughout the tree in the form of starch.  This starch is held in solution in the tree’s sap.  Because the plant’s metabolic rate slows dramatically during dormancy, just as a hibernating bear’s does, the stored starch is utilized at a very, very slow rate.  Sap does not flow during winter, so the individual cells of the tree stay alive by the very slow utilization of starch reserves.  This makes perfect sense, when you think about it.  There is no active cell growth, since the tree has no need of it.  There are no leaves taking in sunshine and CO2 to produce food for the plant’s overall growth and to fuel other metabolic functions.  There is no transport of hormones and food to the roots of the plant to make them extend further to support growth of the above ground part of the tree.  All that’s really needed is the maintenance of cell structure, meaning internal cell pressure which is a direct result of the presence of sap.

So returning to the question about the dramatic root reduction on this hawthorn, I know the tree can regrow roots and shoots because the tree essentially “wants” to live.  It doesn’t regrow roots and shoots because a certain volume of roots has been retained in the collection process.  And because I know this, I can plan the future life of this tree as a bonsai by chopping enough of the roots to allow for proper tapering of each of the large roots that were growing in the wild, not to mention ensuring the tree will fit properly in its future bonsai pot.

Hawthorn10-10-15-2Here’s another example of extreme reduction of lateral roots.  You may recall I collected this riverflat hawthorn back in October, to see if it could be done at that time of year.












Sure enough, this tree actually put out new foliage during our unseasonably warm November.  Growth has stopped now, but I have complete confidence this specimen will come through winter just fine.

One final note on root reduction when collecting deciduous trees: when you observe a tree growing in the wild that you intend to collect, notice the spread of the above ground part of the tree.  Then use your imagination to picture a root system of equal volume below ground.  Notice I didn’t say equal spread, because the root system of a tree spreads far beyond the edges of the part you see above ground.  Its configuration is basically flattened out, because there’s relatively little oxygen beyond the first foot or two of soil.  (If you’ve ever seen a mature tree uprooted during a storm, you’ve observed more or less a “pancake” of root and soil the tree was “sitting” on.  Why is this root and soil mass confined to within the spread of the tree’s crown?  Simply because the smaller, finer feeder roots snap off when the tree falls over, remaining in the ground.  What you see is the larger, hardened off roots closer to the tree held intact.)  The point of this is, when we collect deciduous trees and drastically reduce the root zone, we also drastically reduce the above ground structure of the tree.  In essence this maintains a balance.  When the tree comes out in spring, the growth of shoots will be more or less reflected by the growth of roots.

So whenever we go out in winter to “capture” hibernating trees, we can do so with confidence.  We can also make the necessary root zone reductions in order to be able to place our future bonsai in their pots without having to re-chop the large roots.  New roots sprout readily from the cut ends.