Back in 2010 I collected some specimens of American beech, Fagus grandifolia. I’ve always loved the way beech bonsai look, especially in their winter garb. The prominent buds and light gray to almost white bark make a beautiful statement. Unfortunately, American beech is not the best bonsai subject. This is primarily due to its very slow rate of growth. You get one reliable flush of growth each spring, with an occasional second flush in late spring to early summer. As you can imagine, this makes training beech for bonsai a lengthy proposition. And while there’s nothing wrong with taking a good while to train a tree, it’s easy to get frustrated and simply ignore the slow growers.
I’ve been mostly ignoring this beech for six years now. As you can see, my benign neglect has resulted in a pretty decent piece of material to start getting serious about. My new leader has grown out and thickened (though not enough, yet), and I’ve actually got a good bit of ramification without doing anything. If only I could use this technique on more species!
Today seemed like a good time to put some effort into this very patient tree. The first, most obvious order of business was the stump left when I originally chopped it. There’s carving to do here! So I pulled out my trunk splitter, knob cutters and Dremel.
After trimming off a few branches that had no further business on the tree, I tackled the stump with my trunk splitter. This is about the best tool I’ve found to get started on an angle cut, because I can grab the exact spot I want every time. So a few of these cuts later, here’s what I had.
In this shot you can see the work I’ve done a little easier. You can also see that the new leader emerges at a fairly sharp angle. More on this later.
The next step was to use the knob cutters to take the wood off bite by bite, enhancing the tapering transition between the original chop and the new leader, followed by the Dremel to smooth all the carving. The work with the knob cutters took me just a few minutes. However, when you’re first learning to do it, it’s most definitely not the most natural work with a tool you’ve ever done. It’s nothing like using your concave cutters or shears. Grabbing the right spot on the tree takes some effort, and it’s common to try and remove too much wood all at once. Eventually, though, you get the hang of it. Like with anything else, you get better with practice.
In this photo you can see the smoothed final result. While the transition remains obviously too dramatic, it’s not hard to see that a few years from now it’ll be much more pleasing. Also, in time the carved section will become an uro which should be very attractive. That particular work was not a chore to be done today, however.
Here’s the tree turned around and shown from the opposite side. While I think the base of the tree looks better from the other side, because the new leader moves away from the lower part of the trunk line at a fairly sharp angle, by turning the tree this problem goes away.
I did a final trim and wired one of the branches in order to position it properly. When you wire beech, you have to be very careful not to damage the bark which is very thin. This takes some experience.
When you put together a list of species that are easy to grow for bonsai, American beech never appears. They do have some great qualities, so if you’re a more advanced student and would like a head-start on a nice American beech bonsai, this tree is for sale at our Miscellaneous Bonsai page for a very good price. The trunk base is 3″ in diameter and it’s currently 24″ to the tip of the new leader. Ships now or in spring if you’re up North and don’t want to risk overwintering.