an american beech with potential

Sneak Peek

I seldom collect American beech, despite their natural beauty. They’re just way sloooow to train. But sometimes you find one with potential.

An American Beech with Potential

I rarely collect American beech, Fagus grandifolia. Despite their natural beauty, as bonsai subjects they seem to take forever to train. Why? Because you can only reliably get one flush of growth per growing season. With most other species there are two or more, and you can get additional growth or regrowth by hard-pruning. Not so with American beech. If you decide to hard-prune in, say, June, at best you’ll probably get some weak regrowth. Not very rewarding and it doesn’t get you much closer to a design goal.

Now, this is a specimen I spotted two years ago while hunting for hornbeams with a bonsai friend. In winter they’re easy to spot – the clinging golden leaves are a dead giveaway (though you may get fooled if there are hophornbeams around). In the case of this one, there was also a set of branches and considering how long it takes to grow your own set, I had to jump on this possibility. So home it came, looking like this.

Fast-forward ten months, and this is the season’s growth. It’s actually not bad, considering. But if I hadn’t had something to start with, I most definitely would not have had this result in this timeframe.

Fast-forward some more, to today. After two growing seasons, you can see a branch structure taking shape. From the beginning I saw a classic stately beech shape, with horizontal branches and the lovely smooth gray bark. There’s no doubt in my mind that this tree can make a fine bonsai.

Today’s work will be selective pruning, wiring and shaping.

Beech trees hold their leaves through winter because the species is one that does not form an abscission layer when its leaves turn in the fall. But once spring is in the offing, the leaves do release on their own or can be gently pulled off without damaging or pulling off the dormant (and quite prominent) buds. This is essential for ease of wiring.

I’m working my way up the tree, wiring the branches and positioning them. They naturally grow where they want, and while enough time would resolve any odd branch placement issues in the wild, bonsai training demands that we step in and shorten the timeframe (this is never so true as it is with beech).

Continuing the process. The leader needs wiring, in order to continue the graceful line of the trunk. I’ll leave the leader and its terminal (apical) bud intact, as I need another season of strong growth in order to make the tapering transition look smooth and natural. Eventually, the tree will terminate at a height roughly halfway up this leader – but it’s going to take another three or four seasons to do all of the work that needs doing in the crown.

I had a little more work to do on that lowest right-hand branch. Now it looks more in sync with the remainder of the design.

We have another month at least until our beeches start showing signs of budding. Those tight dormant buds will unfurl, and the growth that is “baked in the cake” for this season will push on out. I’ll need to do some pinching, of course, but no other wiring until at least summer.

Let me know what you think of this beech. As the blog title says, it’s got potential.