We’ve been following the development of this native yaupon holly bonsai, Ilex vomitoria, since I collected the specimen in 2014. At left is a photo of the tree taken on August 24th of that year. You can seen it’s had some rudimentary shaping done to the branches and the new leader I selected. This specimen was clearly destined for the informal upright style – with the nice curve in the trunk and the generally upright attitude, I wasn’t going to try to force it anywhere else.
If you study this photo you can get a feel not only for my design plan, but also for the amount of development work I had in front of me. Notice the number one branch emerging from the right side of the tree. We know from Bonsai By The Numbers (click on the link to read the blog) that this branch should emerge roughly one-third to forty percent of the way up the trunk. Given the fact that the trunk chop is only about four inches up from this point, I’ve clearly got to grow a good third of the tree above the chop. This is not a daunting task, per se – but it certainly requires having a plan and sticking with it. All too often the bonsai artist tries to shortcut this process – they don’t work the design plan, in other words. So patience and perseverance are in order.
This photo illustrates another way you can add to the challenge of pulling off your bonsai design – pot the tree too soon. I’m guilty as charged, but I’m also prepared to work my design plan and that means taking the time and applying the techniques necessary to get there. It will be a slower process but will finish up reliably.
Compare this photo, taken today, with the one above which was taken in April of last year. You can clearly see the advancing design plan. Not only are the branches thicker, but the leader is also much thicker as a result of allowing it to run and then cutting it back periodically.
At this point it’s worth pausing for a bit and taking a little time to explain another principle of design. Study the lowest part of the trunk of this bonsai, from the soil surface to where it makes its first turn. Take a measure of this distance in your mind. Then from the point where it makes its turn, to the point (at the chop) where it makes its next turn, measure this distance in your mind. Notice how it’s roughly half the length of the first section of trunk. Now look at the third section of trunk, from the point of the original chop to where I wired in the next turn. Notice how that section is roughly half as long as the second one.
It’s visually pleasing, for both trunk and branching, to have changes of direction that resolve to shorter and shorter lengths of trunk or branch. It helps the tree look more natural. In this specimen, I think I’ve done a pretty good job of following this principle. Do you think it works?
You can’t help but notice that my crown is starting to take shape. Here’s a closeup to show a recent round of wiring and positioning primary branches, with the ultimate goal of developing them into the fine network of branches that once well-ramified will not only fill out the upper part of this bonsai but also complete the design plan. This tree is three years into its development. In two more I would predict to have a complete design, and a tree I can show.
Yaupon holly is a species native to the coastal regions of the U.S. from Texas up through Virginia, and it also is spotty in Arkansas and Oklahoma. The scientific species name, vomitoria (yum!), is due to the practice of native American tribes brewing a tea from the stems and leaves for purging. I’ve heard local lore that there were ritualistic pilgrimages to the Gulf Coast where this occurred.
For bonsai purposes, yaupon holly is an evergreen with small, glossy dark green leaves that reduce very well in bonsai culture. The male and female flowers appear on separate trees, with the bright red berries of the females persisting through winter and providing food for wildlife. Good quality collected specimens are not especially common, as their growth habit is untapering and arrow-straight. But I’ve had good luck in my efforts. There are a couple available at our Miscellaneous Bonsai page. The triple-trunk specimen is about to get a new pot – I think the current one is a bit large. Regardless, if you don’t have this species in your collection you’re missing out. Neither pests nor diseases seem to bother them, and they grow all season long and especially well in summer. You can find nice varieties in nurseries, and by all means work with them, but at heart I’m a purist so I’m biased toward the original species.