Our goal at Bonsai South is to help you acquire, style and maintain fine quality bonsai. Although we know many of you well, we’d like to know more about those of you who visit our site frequently but who we haven’t yet had the pleasure of working with. Please take a few minutes to answer the questions below. Your responses are strictly confidential.
As you develop your raw material or bonsai-in-training into masterpieces (or just great specimens), you need to know certain techniques that will give you faster results. Among these are techniques to create or improve trunk and branch taper.
Here’s a wonderful species for bonsai, Parsley-leaf hawthorn, Crataegus marshallii, which I have just started to work with this year. As I have written before, this is a species I had wanted to work with for my entire bonsai career of almost 30 years, but I never had the opportunity. That changed this year, thanks to a good bonsai friend who took me to a collecting spot.
I direct-potted this specimen into a nice Chuck Iker round. The trunk is just over 1.5″ in diameter, it has great character and movement, and all I needed to do was to create a branch structure and develop a suitable crown. Sure, it’s a 5-year project but so what? Who would turn down a great bonsai in 5 years?
The photo at left is from May 26th. This specimen got off to a slow start in spring, for reasons unknown (you may wonder if it’s because I went straight to a bonsai pot with it; for newly collected trees, I find they typically put on a good round of vigorous growth in the early stages of recovery that can mitigate this problem). But it eventually had sufficient growth on it that I could start the styling process.
Here’s the tree after its first wiring. Not a bad structure, for starters. The real challenge will be in creating the crown of the tree. I’ve wired up a new leader, which needs to run, and next year the original trunk will be chopped near where the new leader emerges. But that’s only one factor in creating this future bonsai.
Here’s the tree as of August 26th. The new leader has grown about three feet in length, and thickened pretty nicely. There’s been good growth of the branches, though certainly not even growth. That left-hand branch looks pretty rangy, right? Well, there’s more to the story than there appears to be at first blush. Let’s take a closer look.
So this explains that very long branch you see in the photo above. In the closeup, you can see the tree threw a secondary branch at about the second internode and that this branch was strategically growing more or less straight up. This simple fact meant the branch was going to be stronger than those I wired and positioned horizontally. But there was another benefit to this. If you study the two branches in the photo that lie on opposite sides of the trunk, you’ll see that the one featuring the upward-pointing secondary branch is about twice as thick as its counterpart. This is a key development technique when we’re growing the branch structure of our trees. Not only do the branches need to ultimately be from one-quarter to one-half the thickness of the trunk from the point at which they emerge, they also need to exhibit taper just as the trunk does. When we’re first wiring out the new branch structure on a tree being developed from a bare trunk, the shoots are naturally slender. We let them grow out and then cut back, and in time this process produces taper. But there is a faster way to induce taper, and that is illustrated by this example. Sometimes your new branch will throw a shoot straight up that’s near enough to the base that it can speed the process along. This is exactly what’s happening with this parsley hawthorn branch.
An obvious question at this point is, What do I do about the other branches that don’t feature a secondary branch pointing straight up? You have to use the other techniques available to you. This means you let those branches grow out farther before cutting back. You can also wire the very tips of those branches upward, which enhances the growth rate. Regardless of which you do, over time you’ll need to balance growth among the branches in order to make your bonsai look realistic. This is a chore no one escapes, but frankly I think it’s one of the attractions of growing bonsai. Seeing (and making) the development take place over time is just wonderful – and I recommend keeping a photo record of your trees, which is not only very illuminating but also instructive.
I think one of the best teaching tools we have in bonsai is the progression. Almost like time-lapse photography, it helps us to see the “life story,” as it were, of a bonsai. More often than not, we only see bonsai once they’ve reached a “finished” state – meaning their design is complete, they’re at a high state of ramification and their owner feels that the tree can be shown. Getting there is the rub, of course.
This native yaupon, Ilex vomitoria, was collected in February of this year and placed directly into this nice oval pot created by Byron Myrick. I knew exactly what needed to happen with this specimen as a triple-trunk future bonsai. The tree, of course, would have its say – you don’t ever know for sure where trunk buds will appear. But that’s okay. Part of the fun and challenge of bonsai is bringing your raw material to a good design state.
Yaupons are summer-loving species, so it took until May for this specimen to reach a point where I could apply some branch selection and wire. Here you can see the design beginning to take shape. The smallest trunk should have the lowest branches. Check. Working your way up the trunks, there should be branches filling the spaces appropriately, wired and shaped and positioned properly. Check. New leaders on chopped trunks should be wired and positioned. I’ve got two of the three trunks done. Check.
A week later, I’ve got my third and final leader wired and positioned. There’s more growth on the tree overall, but I need to leave it alone for a while to let it thicken and develop sub-branching on its own.
A month later, you can see what summer heat and sunshine does for yaupon. I have a lot of growth to work with, as expected. Now it’s just a matter of waiting for the right time to trim, remove any wire that needs it and rewire to continue the development.
This is the result a few weeks later. I’ve taken the tree way back, in order to make sure I don’t lose the tree’s proportions. I want the growth somewhat near the trunks (though not right up against it). I also need to encourage sub-branching.
And a month later, once again I have strong growth and the need to selectively cut the tree back. This time I have more sub-branching, and this process will continue until the tree is fully ramified.
This is the final trim this tree will get for 2016. I’ve removed some wire, re-positioned a couple of branches and removed those shoots growing straight up or straight down. I’ll end up with nice flat foliage pads this way.
Yaupon is a broadleaf evergreen, but in many ways it behaves like a deciduous species. You can collect it during winter, cut all of the foliage off and it’ll back-bud just like a deciduous tree will. One thing to keep in mind with the species is that the young shoots must be wired when they’re still flexible enough to be shaped. They get very stiff very quickly.
What do you think of this bonsai-in-the-making? Have you ever worked with yaupon before? Leave a comment and let me know.
When we think of great times of the year for bonsai, it’s not likely that the month of August comes to mind. No surprise, right? August is (often dangerously) hot. Even if you do some collecting in August, you generally feel like you need a head examination afterwards. No matter what work you do on your trees, you know that growth for the remainder of the season is going to be muted at best.
But don’t despair. There are bonsai activities you can do in August that not only make sense, they can actually move the development of your trees forward that extra step. Let’s look at a couple:
When we wire our trees in spring, the strong growth into summer usually makes new branches push hard against their wires and this begins the process of setting them in place. So we typically must unwire our trees by late spring, to avoid potential wire scars. As happens with most species, the new branches will continue to grow and slowly but surely point themselves upward. Apical dominance is natural, and one reason we wire trees is to overcome it.
Here’s a classic example. This water-elm, Planera aquatica, got its first round of wiring in spring when all the new young shoots were ready to be initially positioned. The last of that round of wiring was undone about three or four weeks ago. The tree has responded by sending a whole host of new growth pointing upward. This is not going to make for a good bonsai, so it’s time to reapply the wire. Not only will I get the benefit of re-establishing the design I have in mind, when fall approaches all of these branches will swell with stored food. As you might surmise, that means all of the wire I apply now is going to come off by the end of the growing season.
Here’s the tree about 15 minutes later. If you compare this photo with the first one, you can see the design has been re-established. The upward trend of the branches is no more. Now, this fight isn’t over yet. It’ll continue throughout the life of the tree as a bonsai, just in a different way. In time it’ll only be the smallest shoots that grow straight up.
If you don’t currently do any late-summer wiring, you may want to add the practice to your bonsai development techniques. A lot of design work can be accomplished at this time of year – the hard month of August.
Another problem that can arise during the growing season is accumulation of grime on the trunks of your trees. This is mostly due to our watering regimes, and in summer the added issue of lack of air circulation (for those of us in non-breezy locations). Mold can easily set in, in such circumstances.
In this closeup photo, you can see I’ve got a bit of mold buildup – this despite the fact that the tree has been in full sun all year. Time to pull out the vinegar-water mix. I use a 50:50 mixture of household white vinegar and water in a spray bottle. I spray this mixture on the areas of the trunk (and, if needed, branches) that need cleaning, then scrub with either an old toothbrush or stainless steel brush. For trees with fragile bark, it’s best to use only a soft-bristle toothbrush and scrub gently.
And here’s the after photo. Cleaning the trunks of your trees will bring out their beauty, plus it’s good for their health. The bark of trees is designed to allow for gas transport via tiny pores called lenticels. When mold or grime builds up, this gas transport is hampered and the tree comes under stress. So a periodic cleaning is advisable.
Now this water-elm is ready for the remainder of the growing season. The next thing I’ll do is remove the wire in fall – so other than the necessary watering, it’s back to benign neglect.
This is a superb water-elm specimen that will make a great statement in anyone’s collection. It’s available at our Elm Bonsai page, and ships now.
These two bald cypresses came out of the swamp together, having grown for some time as natural companions. I could see a two tree flat-top pairing right off the bat. Knowing I could create the entire crown of each tree in a bonsai pot, I went ahead and put the pair in this Byron Myrick oval. Then I waited.
It took a couple of months, but I finally got enough growth going to start wiring the new leaders. Not much to look at, are they? (Actually, they grew like crazy bushes; I took off over 90% of the growth before doing this wiring.)
A couple months later, we’ve got some good growth going. Time for a trim and more wiring.
They’re back to not looking like much, but if you strain you can see the crown taking shape on the larger specimen. I’d predict that by the end of next growing season, I’ll have a really nice flat-top structure in place. I’ll keep you posted.
Here’s a sweetgum bonsai that I just made today. It too doesn’t look like much, but that’s because I cut off all the large leaves in order to promote a new crop of smaller leaves. I’ll diligently pinch the growing tips, which is the secret to training sweetgums during the growing season. I should have a nice bit of foliage on the tree by next month.
This is a small specimen, with a trunk base of 3/4″ and a height of 14″. What I like about it is, it’s a good example of the natural growth habit of sweetgum, which is columnar. By keeping the branches short, I can emphasize this great feature of the species.
The pot is a beautiful oval by Chuck Iker. In case I get fall color this year, the pot color will complement it very nicely.
Finally, I wired up this Eastern hophornbeam, Ostrya virginiana, which I had direct-potted this past winter when I collected it. I cut off the leaves the other day, to promote a final flush of growth this season.
Hophornbeam is one of the relatively few species of trees that holds its leaves through winter – American beech and Southern sugar maple being two others in my neck of the woods. They also feature a nice rough bark, versus American hornbeam with its smooth bark. They’re difficult to collect, as they don’t like to have their roots disturbed.
This specimen has a 1″ trunk base and is 11.5″ tall. Another great Chuck Iker pot.
Who doesn’t love the idea of working with trees collected for bonsai? Absolutely no one! Great collected bonsai material is just as inspiring as collected treasure, because that’s really what it is. Every one of us has at least a little treasure hunter in them. When you combine this with the idea of spending 10 to 100 years less time developing the material than if you grew it from seed or cuttings, there’s no better shortcut to our goal.
Let’s start with the basic benefits of the collected tree, namely, age and character of the trunk. Now, what can sometimes misdirect the beginner bonsai collector in the wild is ramification. In my 30 years of collecting trees, I’ve seen this phenomenon countless times. There are many agents in nature that will give rise to the ramified small tree – think of cattle browsing or the fencerow whacking that a road crew or property owner may do. This can easily give rise to the ramified, twiggy and, alas, unsuitable specimen. The beginner is easily fooled by such specimens. As you gain experience, you learn to look beyond natural ramification for the tree’s trunk. It’s here where you find great bonsai. If you don’t like collecting your own, but rather purchase them from various purveyors (such as yours truly), look closely at the trunk. Why is this? Because both roots and shoots can be grown in just a few years. A large trunk with great character and bark may take 20 to 100 years to grow. This is where you get a great bonsai from a collected tree – in the quality of the trunk.
Now, let me state here one of the very few exceptions to this rule, namely, the bald cypress. There’s no substituting an old trunk for buttressing roots in a collected BC. They can’t be created in a few years. It usually takes a trunk diameter of at least two inches to start getting root flaring on a BC; it takes at least three inches, almost always more, to get real buttressing. The deep, deep buttressing comes about when the trunk diameter reaches five inches or more.
Okay, so you have this Water-elm trunk (populated with some brand-new shoots). If you ignore the shoots and focus solely on the trunk, you can easily see that it exhibits a lot of great qualities for bonsai. The base has a nice flare where it emerges from the soil. Check. The trunk has good movement starting near the base and running all the way up. Check. The trunk (which has been chopped to the smaller of two leaders) has excellent taper, which is essential to creating the forced perspective necessary to fool the brain into thinking the tree is taller than it really is. Check. Given the size of this tree, it’s estimated that it could be as old as 75 years. There’s really no way to create the character of this trunk in just a few years, so this points up the great benefit of hunting (or acquiring) great collected stock.
Now we move on to the next phase of creating a great bonsai from a collected tree. If you study this photo carefully, you can notice a number of things that are going on. Let’s start at the base. Compare the base of the tree in this photo versus the base in the photo above. Notice that there’s an even nicer flaring to the base? One of the techniques utilized with newly collected large specimens for bonsai is burying the lateral roots to prevent their drying out. This helps promote the growth of new roots, which usually emerge at the chopped ends of the larger roots. The larger lateral roots are chopped back hard, to ensure they fit in the eventual bonsai container.
Another thing to notice about this tree, moving upward from the base, is the new branch structure that has been created from the adventitious shoots the tree re-grew. When collected, the tree was much taller, perhaps 10 feet or more. Most of the foliage on the tree was near the top, due to shading from nearby trees. The trunk was chopped back to about two feet. This forced the tree to push new growth down the trunk, which it was eager to do – it only needed chopping and sunshine. Remember, a tree doesn’t really care how tall it is; it only cares that it can gather enough sunshine to produce enough food and other biochemicals to survive and thrive. By the same token, a tree doesn’t much care how many leaves it has – it only cares how much leaf surface area it has, to gather sunshine. This is the secret to ramification.
The next thing to notice about this tree is the area of the trunk chop. This is one of the most challenging spots on any collected tree to develop properly. It’s at this point that the tree must make a suitable tapering transition from the original trunk diameter into something much smaller, then terminate in the apex by way of a trunk line that continues to taper quickly and smoothly to what is essentially a vanishing point. This takes time, but by no means more than 3-10 years depending on the size of the trunk. Again, this is something that can be done relatively quickly, much more quickly than creating trunk size, taper and character starting with a seedling or cutting.
It’s almost always the case that more than one thing is going on at the same time during development of a great bonsai from collected material. Just as in the photo above we were creating a juvenile branch structure from new shoots, in this one we’re creating the beginnings of ramification while continuing development of the tapering transition in the tree’s apex. You may also notice in this shot that a new shoot popped on the trunk below the others. I’ve taken advantage of it to create a new number one branch – so it’s not as far along as the others, having only leaves along its length rather than secondary shoots. Moving up the trunk, I’ve wired secondary shoots and positioned them, bringing this part of the tree into the next stage. The new apical leader has thickened, has been cut back and has now produced secondary branching that will ultimately result in a full crown.
In this most recent photo of the tree, every part of the tree is fuller than it was just a month prior. It’s actually been pruned back to a nice silhouette prior to this photo being taken. The foliage density is about double what it was. The primary branches continue to thicken. At the site of the original trunk chop, the new leader continues to thicken as well, which in time will produce the illusion that the tree is much taller than it measures. Notice also that I’m in the process of rounding the crown – this is a more natural appearance for deciduous trees than a pointed apex which is typical of pines.
It won’t take but another couple of years to really bring this beautiful collected tree to a good state of refinement – to make it a great bonsai. The key to it all, in my opinion, is the established character that only time in the wild (and a good eye at collecting time) could produce.
Here’s a newly collected Water-elm that came home last month. As in the example above, it’s only a trunk. But it’s got good character and good rootage (buried at present to protect it). All it needs is to grow some shoots suitable for a branches and a new apex, and then undergo those tried and true development techniques illustrated above.
And here’s step number one, in progress.
Are you routinely working with great collected material? If not, you can use techniques you already know to add some great bonsai to your collection.
I’m sure you all remember this Bald Cypress, Taxodium Distichum, which I defoliated on July 14th. You were kind enough to help me pick the new front of the tree. It’s surprising to many folks that established BC can be defoliated in summer, but the fact is it not only does no harm to the tree, it actually produces multiple benefits. For one, you get another round of styling work done. After defoliation, you have the opportunity to “see inside” the tree and make some styling decisions. Second, you avoid the inevitable “tired” foliage that BC bonsai tend to get in the August-September timeframe. They grow so vigorously that it’s common for some of the interior foliage to suffer and turn brown, then black. This goes away with the defoliation and does not return. Finally, the trees are much more likely to produce a nice fall foliage color, the beautiful bronze you may have seen before, as a result of the defoliation.
Two weeks later, you can see the new foliage appearing. As a general rule, all of the thicker branches on a BC will rebud in various spots along the length of the branch. With the smaller ones, it’s an iffy proposition. Sometimes they die, sometimes now. But they’re easily replaced with fast-growing shoots, so it’s not a significant issue.
Here’s a shot from today (8/20/16). The foliage volume is coming along. I did a shearing of new shoots that were pointing straight up or were too long, and removed shoots that didn’t belong. All of this is in preparation for showing the tree at our local club fall show in November. I’m in hopes of having fall color to show.
I know a lot of you are looking for bald cypress stock, and we should have a lot more next spring. As always, I can’t recommend BC more highly. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a species better suited to bonsai.
I’d love to hear any comments you may have.
I posted a blog on this Roughleaf dogwood, Cornus drummondii, this past Thursday. The tree was collected in January of this year, and after a slow start really took off. As I mentioned Thursday, the tree has a lot going for it in terms of character. Given that plus the fact that the tree has recovered so well and quickly, I decided that today I would go ahead and do the initial styling on it. One thing I wanted to avoid was allowing the new branches to get too stiff to bend in 2017.
This view is from the back of the tree. I wanted to illustrate the design principle of making your decisions beginning with things you are very sure of, then moving on through to the things you aren’t so sure of. In this case, there’s a long and straight branch emerging at a sharp angle from the main trunk that, for reasons I can’t explain, I left on the tree. Clearly this branch has to either be removed completely or reduced greatly in length. I was able to cut to a new shoot down the branch, so I did that to get started on the “editing” of the tree.
Here you can see that I’ve shortened the offending branch. It’s not likely to play a part in the final design, but I left part of it on for now (you can always cut more off of the material you’re working on; putting something back on that you just cut off doesn’t work at all).
You may recall from Thursday my impression that I would be cutting to the branch shown here moving off to the left at a good angle, as my primary trunk line. As I studied the tree this morning, I changed my mind. The reason for this has to do with how the tree emerges from the soil. While that particular trunk line could be made to work, I have in mind a round pot for this tree and based on this I felt the tree should terminate in a more upright position. Now, if down the road I change my mind (or the tree’s new owner does so) there won’t be any problem in restyling the tree. But for now, I decided to go with the upright trunk line.
In this photo I’ve cut back the old leader – which was going to happen regardless.
Here I’ve used a wooden block to move the tree into its ultimate potting angle. This will help me as I choose and position branches.
The main trunk gets chopped back to the where the new leader emerges from it.
After much editing of shoots that won’t be part of the final design. You can see the bonsai starting to really take shape. Isn’t the trunk character terrific?
Here I’ve wired all of the branches and the new leader, and positioned them.
I slip-potted the tree into this nice Byron Myrick round, to the greatest extent I could, in order to prevent damage to the roots. I did have to trim some to fit the tree in the right spot in the pot, but overall they got “bruised” to the minimum possible degree.
I really like the way this Dogwood bonsai turned out. By doing the initial styling and potting this year, the tree can get a head-start on next year’s development. All that’s left at this point is to thicken up and develop the crown of the tree, and pinch and prune the branching to create ramification. Roughleaf dogwood is much easier to develop into a well-ramified specimen than its cousin the Flowering dogwood. Don’t get me wrong, I love both species, but each has its own features.
If you’re interested in native species as bonsai, this tree is available at our Miscellaneous Bonsai page. It ships in September.
I have written on more than one occasion about the principle of benign neglect as it pertains to bonsai. Because bonsai is a hands-on pastime, the beginner often becomes convinced that creating and maintaining their trees is almost constant work. In fact, aside from daily watering and checking for any pest or disease issues, bonsai is a lot less doing than you might think.
I wrote a blog about the species Roughleaf dogwood, Cornus drummondii, earlier this year. I’ve worked with dogwoods on a limited basis over the past 25+ years; this occasion has really opened my eyes to a fine native species for bonsai.
I collected this specimen on the same day as the one in my blog post. I think you can readily see the potential – great old bark on the trunk, nice taper and movement, and there’s even a bonus natural shari thrown in. This tree, along with the other one that had been growing nearby, apparently had suffered the fate of many trees growing alongside a highway. The occasional weed control project, perhaps, with bush knife or some tractor-mounted horror. Maybe someone parking too close and scraping the lower trunk. It’s not hard to imagine, though you can’t be sure exactly what happened. As a bonsai artist, all we can say is “thanks.” So much great material comes from the good “un-intentions” of others.
This photo is from May 8th, by the way.
And lastly, today’s appearance. The roots are firm and the growth is rampant. Because dogwood wood really gets stiff once it hardens off, the tree needs an initial styling soon. Fortunately, with a good set of roots the tree won’t mind, even at this time of year.
This is another example of (mostly) benign neglect. I’ve fed this tree and watered it. Not a single leaf has been trimmed or pinched. I’ve moved it on the bench less than two feet from where I first set it. The only active thing I’ve done is to stabilize the trunk (see the photo above) using a native American pottery shard wedged against the edge of the pot. And that … is it!
The moral of the story is, your trees don’t love your attention near as much as you love giving them attention. To borrow the timeless Japanese principle, less is usually more. As you continue on your bonsai journey, this principle will get easier to apply.
Final note: I’ve included some detailed comments in the captions on the first photo above, to give you an idea of my thought process in planning the design of this tree. To be sure, there’s often more than one potential design in a tree. You as the artist get to make the final call on the raw material you start out with. For those trees I go ahead and design before posting, I try to find the best expression of the tree I can. Balance and harmony, in a mature representation of a tree in nature, are the desired end-result. This takes a good trunk line, taper and movement; well-placed branches; and finally, diligent pruning and pinching to produce foliage in scale.