I Like Collecting Odd Species Too – And Even The Impossible

I’m somewhat a creature of habit when it comes to bonsai.  I have a group of species I prefer to work with, and whenever I go collecting I pretty much stick to the known.  But that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy the occasional odd species.  As for the impossible?  Well, I mostly steer clear of them, but ….

Let’s start with the odd.  I don’t work with pines all that much, but I’ve made it a goal of mine to learn more about them.  I truly love the way pine bonsai look – but I haven’t had much success in the past.

On yesterday’s collecting trip, I ran across this unusual specimen.  It was growing up through a fence, though fortunately none of the fence wires had been engulfed by the tree.  After cutting away some of the wires, we got it disentangled.  I took as much soil with it as I could, knowing that there would be mycorrhiza on the roots that must not be disturbed.  When I got it home, I put it straight into a nursery container and surrounded it with my normal soil.  But no root disturbance past cutting off the tap.

Where’s the front of the tree?  I don’t know yet, and fortunately I don’t need to know for some time.  The main thing is that the tree live and gain strength in a pot.  Then I’ll figure the rest out.

What species of pine is this?  I’m not sure, but I’m thinking short-leaf pine, Pinus echinata.

This one measures 2.75″ at the base, and is 26″ to the tip of the taller apex.








Now on to the next odd species.  I collected this one last week.  I believe it’s a Sweet bay magnolia, Magnolia virginiana.  Southern magnolia is common down here and commonly thought of.  I wouldn’t attempt to make a bonsai with Southern magnolia.  But Sweetbay magnolia?  Well, it’s an odd species for bonsai but why not?  Now, I have no idea if this species can be collected successfully, no idea if it’ll backbud and no idea if it can be trained.  So we’ll just wait and see how all of those things go.

The base on this one is 3″, and it’s 11.5″ to the chop.


And finally, the impossible.  Here we have the venerable Sycamore tree, Platanus occidentalis.  Among the champions in terms of leaf size, these clock in at 4-8″ long and wide.  This wouldn’t be so bad, considering that some species feature dramatic leaf-size reduction in a bonsai pot, but you can tell just by looking at Sycamores in the wild that they don’t want to produce small leaves and ramification.  I’ve never seen a Sycamore bonsai, and I’m sure I know why.  But this particular specimen came up near a larger one I had taken down when I cleared my property a few years ago.  The nice thing about it is, it’s grown with some trunk movement.  They’re usually arrow straight without any hint of taper.  So as long as I’m going to tackle the impossible, I figured this was as good a subject as possible.

The trunk base on this one is 3″, and it’s 20″ to the chop.  I can hardly wait for the giant leaves to start appearing.

I’ll keep you posted on the progress.  In the meantime, let me know what you think about any of these.

Did Some Collecting Today – Check Out This Great Hornbeam

Today I went out in hopes of collecting some bald cypress.  The water was up, however, so I had to fall back to Plan B.  I ended up with some yaupons, huckleberries and even a pine.  But the best find of the day was this tree, a truly great American hornbeam, Carpinus caroliniana.

This one checks all the boxes.  The flaring root base and radial roots are terrific, the trunk has very nice muscling and movement, and the taper is great.













I’m thinking this view shows off everything better.  What do you think?















And here it is, after I dusted the cut ends of the roots and potted it up.  Notice how the roots are buried, to ensure they stay moist.  And of course the trunk chop is sealed to prevent it drying out.

The base on this specimen is 4.5″, and it’s 24″ to the chop.  I would expect the final height of this tree will be about 32-34″.  The plan for this year is to let it grow out to get established in its nursery container.  I’ll wire the primary branch structure sometime in late April.  And of course there will be a new leader that will be allowed to run in order to produce a tapering transition from where the chop is into the new apex.

I should know in March whether I was successful with this one.

Leave a comment below and let me know what you think.  I’d love to hear from you.

It’s Really Warm This Winter – This BC Agrees

It’s not at all uncommon for us to have mild winters down here.  What’s really uncommon for us is to have balmy winters down here.  What does balmy mean?  It means temperatures in the 80s with humidity in the 90s.  And not just an odd day here or there, but days on end.  We had a couple of very cold nights about a week or so ago, with temps in the low 20s.  We even got some freezing rain and sleet, which I wrote about.  Then it warmed up.  And kept on getting warmer.  We’re going to cool off a bit in the next few days – powerful storms rolled through the South a couple of days ago – but all in all we’ve been consistently above-normal this winter.

A phenomenon I’ve written about before has resurfaced this year.  Some of the bald cypresses I collect come from locations a hundred miles south of where I am.  These trees tend to start budding out in February.  Even though I’ve relocated a number of these trees northward, they tend to bud out very early as if they were still at “home.”  Here’s one that’s decided to start pushing buds now.

I was surprised when I first noticed this tree budding the other day.  It wouldn’t have surprised me if it had started budding in February, as if it were still farther south.  But in mid-January?  Wow.










I don’t have any idea what the remainder of winter will bring, temperature-wise, but if we don’t get a killing freeze this tree will continue to push buds all the way through to spring.  Today I went ahead and did some trimming and a minor bit of wiring.  I’m considering changing pots, and if I do it’ll have to happen fairly soon.  I’ll post an update.  This tree is developing good ramification now, so I’ll need to pay closer attention to how the branches and sub-branches are positioned.  You can also see that I’ve left two strong shoots in the apex.  Their purpose is to thicken the leader and smooth the tapering transition.  I should have this chore completed in another season or two.

BC collecting season is upon us.  I should have some new material coming in within the next two weeks.  For those of you on our BC wish list, you should expect to hear from us when these trees start budding.  More on that to come.

Fun With Some Ordinary Material – It’s Going To Be Nice

All of us have ordinary material hanging around on our benches.  What I mean by ordinary material is the not-hundred-year-old masterpiece-in-the-making stuff.  I’m a great proponent of working with ordinary material.  As I like to say, it’s hard to mess up really outstanding material (though it can be done); but one of the most fun challenges in bonsai is taking a really ordinary, nondescript piece of material and making something nice out of it.

Well, it doesn’t get much more ordinary than this American elm, Ulmus Americana.  I’ll tell you the brief history of it.  About three or four years ago, I collected an American elm sapling with a trunk base of about an inch.  American elm is easy to collect, but for some reason this one died back to near the base of the trunk.  I tossed it off the bench and into the “don’t care if you die” section of the nursery.  Dutifully it trooped on, throwing some basal shoots that grew a little bit that first year.  It hung in there the next year, and by the third year I decided I’d wire the two shoots and put a little movement into them just for laughs.  There wasn’t much to lose, after all.  I had some extra bench space, so it got promoted off the ground.

This past year I let the tree run some more, and it gained strength as you can see by the two vegetative shoots coming off the base and apex of the two trunks, respectively.




Today I decided to have a little fun with this survivor.  I took off everything that didn’t look like a graceful twin-trunk American elm bonsai-to-be, wired it out and here it is.  There’s no branching on the main trunk, but there are dormant buds on the trunk that will emerge come spring.  I think this guy may turn into something one day.  What do you think?








I’m inclined (no pun intended) to think the above design will work best, but I wanted to see how straightening the main trunk might change the appearance.  What’s your take on it?

The key takeaway from this post is that you may have any number of ordinary pieces of material hanging around on your benches waiting for some styling magic.  You’re the magician.  The main thing is to work on them.  Not all will turn into exciting bonsai, but as you gain experience you’ll find that you can make just about anything better.  Think of what this will mean for your awesome trees.



Two Privet Bonsai-To-Be – Same Height But Very Different

I lifted a couple of Chinese privets, Ligustrum sinense, today.  I made the decision to collect them because of what I saw in the trunk of each – nice tapering potential and good trunk character.  As with most deciduous species, you can cut back Chinese privet to a bare trunk and it’ll sprout plenty of adventitious buds for your use in creating a branch structure.  That’s just what I did today.

Here’s the first one, in the ground.  See the nice stout base and the trunk that tapers as it moves upward?  Even better, notice that the trunk forks at just under a foot in height.  You can’t ask for anything better when you’re selecting specimens to collect.










It’s easier to see in this photo just what I saw in this specimen.  Privets often grow just as straight as a pole.  This one actually has nice taper from the root base all the way up.  I chopped off the original, mainline trunk in order to enhance taper.











This pot is one of the ovals I got from Byron Myrick a couple of weeks ago.  I think it complements the tree well.  I’ve sealed the chops, and now it’s just a waiting game.  Sometime in March buds will begin to appear up and down the trunk.  At that point I’ll be able to start thinking of a design.  Privets grow super fast, so I expect to have a lot of this bonsai built by the end of the 2017 growing season.

The trunk base of this specimen is 2″ at the soil surface.  The trunk is chopped at 12″.  I would expect the finished height to be about 16-18″.  I should end up with a graceful Privet bonsai.



Here’s the second privet I lifted today.  The first thing to realize about this one is it’s chopped at 14″ – just slightly taller than the first one.  But the trunk base is over 3.5″ at the soil surface – quite a difference.  This specimen is also much more masculine.  That means I don’t envision nor do I plan to produce a “graceful” bonsai with this one.  It’s going to be a stout tree, finishing at around 18″.  Same height as the first one, but a very different outcome.

This guy is available at our Chinese Privet Bonsai sale page.  It will ship in spring.

A Quick Live Oak Bonsai-To-Be – Chop, Lift, Pot

In keeping with recent fun, today I decided to chop, lift and pot a Live oak, Quercus Virginiana.  This is a specimen I’ve grown from seed, along with a number of others, since 2011.  While it isn’t a large specimen by any means, having a trunk base of 1″ diameter, I saw a potential structure I thought would work fairly well right out of the ground.







First I removed most of the top of the tree, by chopping the trunk.  I’ve cut to a smaller section of trunk that happens to be going the right way.












Next I removed the bulk of the new leader, cutting to a smaller section of trunk that happened to be going the right way.
















When I saw these roots I was astounded.  My conclusion is that as a live oak grows from seed, it really sets out a massive root system to ensure its own stability.  Now, I removed the tap root from this tree when it was just a seedling, but the fact is live oaks and most other deciduous/persistent-leaf trees lose their tap roots at some point in life, being left with only their radial root systems.  Another fact about live oak is that you are unlikely to ever see one get blown over in a storm (I’ve never seen it happen personally).  This tells me they have an amazingly stable root system, and given the fact that the root spread of a tree goes a good distance beyond the spread of the tree, and we all know how far a live oak can spread, those roots must go on just shy of forever.  Anyway, I had to cut these roots back drastically to fit a bonsai pot.

A little wire, a little soil and a Byron Myrick oval later, here’s what I ended up with.  The tree is fairly tall at 18″, but I think I can make a good statement with it by keeping the spread in check.  I’m thinking literati Live oak bonsai.

What do you think of this one?  Does it speak to you?

A Shohin Willow Oak-To-Be – You Can’t Stop The Bonsai Collector

So you’ve already seen the wintry cover that blew in yesterday for me.  Our high today looks like being about 38F, and this means a lot of things remain and will remain frozen at least until tomorrow.  Does that stop the bonsai collector?  Bah!

So here’s a Willow oak, Quercus phellos, I’ve been growing in the ground for a few years now to thicken up.  It’s done just what I had in mind early on, namely, grown two trunks from near the base which would eventually produce a nice tapering shorter specimen.  Even though I have two options for chopping, my eye is on the thinner of the two trunks.













Step one was to chop the trunks down to remove the bulk of the growth and allow me to get closer to the base.  By the way, you may see advice along the lines of leaving the trunk of your specimen long so you can use it as leverage when you’re ready to bend the tree over and get at the taproot.  This doesn’t work in practice – you can only use about two feet of trunk to do this.  Anything past that tends to be so flexible it just bends over and does you no good.









Here’s the tree, out of the ground with the roots washed off (in a puddle – my watering system is still frozen solid) and cut back to fit a bonsai pot.










And now the key chops are made.  Don’t these proportions look awesome?  The tree has a base of 1.5-1.75″ and is now 7″ to the chop.  I see a finished height of less than 12″, which means this is going to be a shohin Willow oak bonsai in 3-5 years.  Notice the awesome radial roots!








I happened to have a couple of tubs of soil stacked one atop the other.  This is the only reason I had soil to work with that wasn’t frozen into a solid chunk.  I also had to water the tree in that shallow puddle of water left over from the storm, as that was all I had outside to work with.  But no matter.  You can’t stop the bonsai collector!

A Quick Water Oak Bonsai-To-Be – Lift, Chop, Pot

It was so much fun making a quick Hackberry bonsai last weekend that I did the same thing with a Water oak, Quercus nigra.  This tree is a volunteer that has been growing on my property for several years now.  I liked the form it took naturally.

If you look closely you can see a nice twin-trunk that has grown on its own that way.  Though I could certainly reduce this specimen to a single trunk, I decided to lift it to see what all was there.










Here’s the tree lifted, with the roots washed.  There’s too much in the top of this specimen, but it’s a lot easier to see the trunk base.  I like what I’m seeing.  Remember, selecting deciduous (and some broadleaf evergreen) bonsai material goes along the lines of trunk then rootage.  If you’ve got a good trunk – good size, movement, taper, character – you can make good roots and you’ll certainly have to make the crown.

I also have good roots with this one, by the way.

Next came the proportioning.  The tree was way too tall and way too “spready” when it came out of the ground.  So I simply cut back everything that didn’t look like a bonsai and brought the silhouette inward so the tree made proportional sense.









And here we are, a quick Chuck Iker pot later.  Doesn’t the color of the pot go well with the color of the leaves?

You may be wondering, When does this water oak go dormant?  Well, water oak often will hold its leaves most of the way through winter.  It’s not quite like live oak, which loses its leaves as the new leaves are emerging, but boy does it come close.   A neat feature of the species.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this one.  I think I’ll either try to wire the branches, which are too straight, or simply cut them off altogether and start from the new buds I’m sure to get where the branches used to be.  What would you do?

A Quick Hackberry Bonsai-To-Be – Chop, Lift, Pot

And so, armed with some new handmade pots that I wrote about yesterday, my trigger finger has suddenly gotten itchy.  To satisfy my need to create bonsai, I went out to my growing area and decided this Hackberry, Celtis laevigata, could be successfully lifted and made into something that can look good immediately this spring.

This one has been in the ground about four years, starting its bonsai journey as a pencil-thick seedling.  This past year the tree put on a lot of strong growth, which helped thicken the trunk base to about 1″ diameter.  But there’s a really long and straight section of trunk that continues on from the lower trunk area, which by the way has some nice movement.  What would you do with something like this?







Here’s the answer I saw.  By taking off the main trunk at the point where those two nice sub-trunks emerged, I now have a rudimentary crown for a bonsai that just happened to grow on its own for me.  Makes sense, right?  So the next move was to cut the tree out of the ground.











Another really nice thing about this Hackberry is that it came up with a good root system.  Since the tree did not grow in place from seed, there wasn’t a tap root to have to deal with.  So I’ve got a head start on good radial roots and a fibrous root system.








Now everything’s been pruned back where it needs to be for now.  I’ve established a nice set of proportions in the crown of the tree that complements the size and height of the trunk.  The roots have been cut back to fit a bonsai pot.  And isn’t that trunk movement and character nice for a young tree?









And so, taking one of those nice Byron Myrick ovals I wrote about yesterday, I’ve now got a neat little Hackberry bonsai-to-be.  Assuming all goes well, this tree will have a pretty complete broom-form design by the end of the 2017 growing season.  I’ll post it for sale sometime in the spring.

Let me know what you think.  Have you worked with Hackberry before?