For All You Timid Root-Pruners Out There

I regularly cause a lot of anxiety by how drastically I root-prune newly collected trees.  To be sure, it takes some courage to start really chopping on your deciduous trees the way they need to be, but once you figure out they don’t mind it does get a lot easier.

This Bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) a client bought last fall, which surprised me the other day by starting to pop buds all over, is actually a different case in that it’s been container grown to size.  My bonsai friend and sometimes supplier Bill grew this tree from a young seedling, developing the trunk by the grow and chop method.  He did an awesome job of creating taper.

But the roots, man oh man, he actually got them to buttress in the growing container by keeping the tree’s roots submerged in water all the time.  It’s a technique I plan to try myself.  Notice how deep the growing container is.  And notice how the roots have burst through the container.  When I got it from Bill, he had the whole tree stuck in a 5-gallon bucket.  I knew I had a root-pruning job ahead of me.  With the tree popping buds, I had to take care of this today.



The first step was easy – just saw off what won’t be needed.  I went ahead and took it down to about how deep the eventual bonsai container will be.  There’s no point in leaving thick roots that will have to be chopped again down the road.













The rest of the container removed.  The roots have conformed themselves to the shape of the container.















Container-grown trees always produce coiling roots; in fact, you’ll see many container-grown trees, and Bald cypress is one of the worst, that have really horrible-looking roots owing to this phenomenon.  I believe that Bill’s technique of growing the tree in a very deep but not too wide container, and keeping it submerged, prevented this problem from happening.









Here’s the shot that is sure to make some folks cringe.  There’s just not much left of the root mass, now is there?  But this is all that’s needed.  If you’ll look closely at the third photo above, you’ll notice one very interesting fact: there are no nice fresh white feeder roots.  It’s not time for them to begin growing yet.  BCs push foliar growth first, whether on a newly collected tree or a container-grown tree.  Once the shoots start pushing, that’s when the new root growth begins.  This probably won’t happen for another couple of weeks.  But I’m taking advantage of the habits of the species to go ahead and do this necessary work now.






And finally, the tree in its new (temporary) home.  The pot is only a 3-gallon, but it’s plenty since no further trunk thickening or taper building is required.  All of the branch work can be done starting from here.

The base of this tree is 3.5″ across, 3.5″ above the soil surface.  It’s chopped at 22″, and should finish at about 28-30″.  The buttressing is very uncommon for a tree this size.

Let me know what you think.  And are you chopping your roots hard enough?

I’m Seeing BC Buds!

This winter has been pretty awful.  In addition to being colder than usual, it’s also been wetter than usual.  That does not make for a pleasant time.

Just over the past few days we’ve seen temperatures moderate a bit – and by that I mean it gets into the 60s during the day.  Everything’s still ugly, but if temps continue like this (and that’s the prediction) then certain species are likely to start swelling their buds.  The other day I noticed buds on an American elm I collected last month.  Bald cypress is absolutely one of the best at this.  I went out this evening to take a look at everything, and one of my cypresses from last fall I’m holding for a client has buds that are about to open!  These trees all come from south of here, and as I’ve mentioned before they often exhibit “memory” of where they came from.  What this means is, my very large cypresses in the yard that I planted 18 years ago will sit there for another month with no activity at all.  The collected trees from down south will be out by then and making shoots.  Very exciting!

In the meantime, here’s a fun thing to do.  Help me figure out the best front for this large BC.

Option #1

When I pot these specimens in plastic tubs, I always pick what I think is the best front.  Usually I get it right.  But not always.  In this case, you can’t argue with the nice movement in the trunk and the buttressing roots.  This is a really nicely buttressed BC, with great taper and character.







Option #2

When I was watering this evening, this view of the tree caught my eye.  It is more or less from the left rear corner of the tub as seen in photo 1.  Once again there’s beautiful buttressing and flaring.  In addition, this view has a broader surface spread than the first one.  I’m thinking that it makes a bigger visual impression this way.  So now I’m torn.

I’d love to know which front you prefer.  Leave me a comment below.

February Sucks, Styling Helps

Every August I think August is the suckiest month, then along comes February and I remember there are worse things than killer heat and humidity.  To help make February less sucky, there is some work that needs doing on trees being developed.  If you have some deciduous specimens that need wiring, this is a good time to do it.  You can see exactly what the structure of the tree looks like, and what needs to be done to make it better.  So don’t hesitate to get the wire out and go for it.

I collected this Bald cypress, Taxodium distichum, in Winter 2017 and began training it into a flat-top specimen once it had some nice shoots going.  Last September I slip-potted it into this Byron Myrick oval.  I think the tree looked pretty impressive considering how quickly this whole process happened.  But of course there was plenty of work left to do.












The tree has been bare for about a month and a half now, and you can clearly see in this photo that it’s just beginning its journey as a bonsai.  I’ve got some primary and secondary branching, and that’s about it.  But in 2018 this branching is going to grow quickly and strong, and I’ll need to be sure to keep it in check.  Cypress shoots, especially apical shoots, thicken amazingly fast.

For today, though, wiring out these branches is going to help further establish the design I have in mind.










This work took about 20 minutes.  I’ve got wire on just about every branch that will make it through winter (the smallest, thinnest BC shoots tend to die off over winter; this is normal).  And I’ve positioned all of the branches in order to continue development of the tree’s structure.

I anticipate that this bonsai will be showable by fall.  It certainly should be fully developed by the end of the 2019 growing season.  Although I had planned to train it through 2018 and then offer it for sale, it’s time to free up some bench space so I’ve gone ahead and posted it for sale at our Available Bonsai and  Bald Cypress Bonsai pages.


More Great BC Material – Collecting Trip 3

The weather was dodgy today, meaning we had a torrential downpour all across South Louisiana.  We did have the good fortune to be able to collect a few nice trees before the sky really opened up, however.  Here are a few photos to give you an idea of how we did.

This is the biggest tree we got today, and probably the most unusual.  Out in the wild, Cypresses tend to grow with very straight trunks that sometimes feature just a little movement.  This particular specimen evidently had something happen to it when it was much younger, and it subsequently righted itself which produced a neat curve in the trunk.










The tree looks good from either side.  I’m thinking this may be the better front.  What’s your preference?

The trunk is 6″ across 6″ above the soil surface, and it’s 27″ to the chop. This is going to be a powerful Bald cypress bonsai.












How about a formal upright BC?  I collected this one because of the terrific fluting and buttressing all around.  It’s a classic specimen BC.  The trunk is 5″ 5″ above the soil, and it’s chopped at 24″.
















This is probably my favorite from today’s group.  The trunk is 4″, and it’s chopped at 25″, but I just love the buttressing roots, fluting, trunk movement, and taper.  I see a very nice informal upright Bald cypress bonsai with this one.  I think I’ll hold it for training.

Our BC stock is growing for 2018.  I’m planning two or three more trips, so I should have something for everyone who’s contacted us.  Stay tuned.

I’d Like Your Opinion On This

After posting yesterday’s blog, a reader commented that I should include a standard reference object in order to make it easier to gauge the size of certain trees.  Here’s a photo of the really big two-tree Bald cypress specimen I showed you yesterday:

I’ve never done this before though I have seen other vendors do it, so I’m wondering what you think.  The Swamp Pop bottle measures 2.25″ in diameter at the base.  The larger of the two trees measures 7″ across 7″ above the soil surface.  Does the bottle help put it into perspective?

Great Bald Cypress Material – Collecting Trip 2

So, four days ago we had a couple of inches of snow here, and temperatures around 15°F for a couple of nights.  Today it was 60°.  That could only mean one thing: go collect more Bald cypress!

Here’s today’s haul.  I focused on larger specimens today, which means I looked for good buttressing.  It’s the classic BC look, after all.








This may be the show-stopper for the day, another of my famous “natural companion” Bald cypress bonsai-to-be.  The larger of these specimens has a 7″ trunk (7″ above the soil level) and is 33″ tall.  The smaller one has a 4″ trunk.  While they are not connected at the base, their roots are intertwined and they didn’t separate as I cleaned them up, so the only conclusion I can draw is that they’re meant for each other.












Here’s another cool specimen.  The trunk is 4″ 4″ above the soil level, and it’s chopped at 24″.  Aren’t the roots terrific?  A little different than usual.
















I’m really excited about this one.  The trunk is 5″ 5″ above the soil, and it’s 29.5″ to the chop.  It’s deeply fluted and the trunk has beautiful movement.  I’m planning to hang onto this one for a few seasons and train it as a flat-top.  It’s going to make a great impression when it’s done.














My heart skipped a beat when I saw this tree.  It’s got a knee coming off one of the radial roots, and a really nice one at that.  What’s fascinating about this is the fact that the trunk of this tree is only 3.5″ above the root crown.  It’s also got subtle fluting, and lots of radial roots that can be exposed when it gets to a bonsai pot.

This is just a killer Bald cypress (maybe it’s the show-stopper of the day).  The trunk is chopped at 26″, and I think a flat-top will accentuate the knee better than a more traditional upright style.

Let me know what you think of today’s catch.  I’m really excited about them.

More Collected BC Fun – Hard Chops And Small Stars

I often get questions about chopping the roots of collected trees, and it seems the question most often asked is, “If you chop the roots back that far, will the tree survive?”  The short answer, of course, is always, “Yes, it will.”  This is from a lot of experience, by the way, not theorizing.

There seems to be a general misunderstanding of the collecting process, and I believe it is rooted in the very stark difference in how deciduous trees respond to the collecting process versus pines and junipers.  I’m confident this is true because I can recall reading, many many years ago, that when you collect trees you should collect as much root as possible in order to ensure the survival of the tree.  Oh, and you should also make sure you get a lot of fibrous roots when you collect trees (this almost never happens with most hardwoods).

I have always been a big fan of deciduous trees, so that’s where my collecting efforts were (and still are) focused.  So when I began collecting my own material, I naturally did my level best to collect as much root as possible, as the experts taught, within the constraints of the pot the tree was going into.  This seemed to work, so I kept on doing it that way.

Unfortunately, three things made this approach more challenging than it should have been for the ultimate goal of making great bonsai.  One was the fact that the larger radial roots tended to always sprout new growth from the cut ends, and not all along their length.  This in turn created the second problem, namely, when it came time to place the tree in an oval or rectangular bonsai pot the radial roots would not fit front to back and required re-chopping (the success of which was not guaranteed).  And then there was the third problem, and that is the large radial roots of collected trees almost invariably have no taper near the trunks.  Surface roots are no different that the trunks and branches of trees – they should taper from base to tip.

Let’s take another look at one of the cypresses I wrote about yesterday.  I did indeed get a question about the chances of survival of this tree with so much root removed.  But consider two of the points I made above.  First of all, this tree ultimately has to fit into a bonsai pot.  Leaving a lot more root could jeopardize that part of the bonsai’s development.  Secondly, these radial roots are no different than what I see on every tree I collect.  No taper.  So I’ll have to create it, to make a more believable tree.







In this photo I’ve drawn a line where the soil surface is going to be.  This tree, having a 6″ trunk, will need to go into a pot that’s not more than 6″ deep.  So cutting the base of the tree is done with this in mind.










In this closeup I’ve noted another fun fact about the recovery of deciduous trees from collecting.  New roots sprout from the cut ends of the large radial roots.  You’ll get one or two, which may appear anywhere around the root.  And you usually don’t get more than a couple.  These are the roots that need to be allowed to run, to thicken up, so that the radial roots will end up with good taper in time.  Notice in this photo, especially on the roots at the left and center, that they’re chopped a couple of diameters from their emergence point.  This will make for a good tapering transition as the fresh new roots grow.

Shifting gears slightly, I thought it would be fun to post some shots of two smaller BC I collected yesterday.  It’s only natural to ooh and ah over the really big ones, but I’m often surprised by the quality of some of the smaller trees I bring home.  Here’s a good example.  I didn’t know for sure what was below the surface when I first stuck the saw in the ground, but after cleaning this one up I was pretty wowed.  Isn’t this flaring base and rootage just awesome?  I’m seeing a flat-top down the road.











And potted up.  If you collect your own, make sure you bury the surface roots to protect them.  They’ll get uncovered again when it comes time to go to a bonsai pot.















Check out this little guy.  The trunk is even smaller, just 2″ across.  But check out the base, the movement and the taper.  Isn’t it just lovely?
















And potted up.  I also see a flat-top with this one.  It just has that literati-look, and so a flat-top style will be appropriate.

One final note.  Do not try to apply anything in this blog post to collecting pines or junipers.  It will not work!


Fascinating Facts About 10 Bonsai Species

There’s not much growing at this time of year, so I got to pondering some fascinating facts about 10 of the species I grow as bonsai.  Here they are, more or less alphabetically.

Bald Cypress, Taxodium Distichum – produces more trunk buds when collected as bare stumps than just about any other species.  This makes branch selection almost problematic (too many choices!).















Crape Myrtle, Lagerstroemia Indica – new shoots are square when they first emerge.  As they extend and thicken, they round off.






Flowering Dogwood, Cornus Florida – the beautiful white flowers are not flowers at all (as in flower petals), they’re white flower bracts.  The actual flowers are yellow and inconspicuous, and reside in the center of the bracts.



Elms, Ulmus Species – Tricky to prune larger roots, as the bark will separate easily.  Sawing works better, however, don’t saw straight through from one side or the bark will likely peel on the other side of the cut.  (Even with experience you will likely make a mistake here and there when preparing collected elms.)

American elm – champion in leaf-size reduction, from 5” long in the wild to under ½” in a bonsai pot.








Six weeks after the above photo, this American elm already has much smaller leaves.  Easy stuff!









Figs, Ficus Species – Figs are technically among the flowering plants (angiosperms), so where are the flowers?  Actually, the flowers are inside the fruit and never “bloom” as we understand the term.  Typically a specialized wasp enters the tiny opening at the end of the fruit to pollinate it.


Willow Leaf Ficus, Ficus Salicaria – perhaps the most popular fig species grown as bonsai, it is unknown in the wild (meaning you can’t go look at mature specimens in their natural habitat).  The original plant was discovered in a Florida nursery by Joe Samuels, who eventually acquired and began propagating it.  If you have one, it came from this single specimen.






Holly, Ilex species – have male and female flowers on different plants.  The bright red fall berries occur only on the female plants.  The leaves and stems of common Yaupon, Ilex vomitoria, were brewed into a tea by Native American men for use in purification and unity rituals.  These rituals included vomiting, hence the scientific name given by Europeans when they originally classified the species.  Only the Yaupon tea does not actually cause vomiting.  Oops.





American Hornbeam, Carpinus Caroliniana – they grow continuously throughout the growing season, never pausing as most species do.  There’s always fresh new growth.  This trait is almost unique among species grown as bonsai.









Wisteria, Wisteria Floribunda, is quite the bean!  I know we don’t tend to think of the lovely Wisteria in such terms, but as a member of the legume family Wisteria is related to all of the beans and peas.  Once the stunning flowers have done their thing each year, a pod slowly but surely develops until it’s quite obvious by fall.

This was a fun topic for me.  I sure hope you enjoyed the read.

Fall Color And Reflection

As the year draws to a close, it’s nice to spend some time reflecting on this year’s growing season and how it impacted our bonsai.  Was it a good year?  What new things did you learn?  What surprises (good or bad) popped up?  It’s for sure that you never stop learning in the wonderful art and hobby of bonsai.

Bonsai South has had a great year, and thanks to all of you who helped make it that way.  I’m really excited about 2018, which should be even better.  Watch for new collected trees early next year.

So we don’t get too much fall color here in the very Deep South, so it’s always super nice to see something among my bonsai.  Here are a few trees that have over-performed (even if only a bit).

This Cedar elm, Ulmus crassifolia, is living here until it heads off to a client next spring.  Isn’t the color delightful?






This Chinese elm, Ulmus parvifolia, has been in development a few years now.  I’m working on building out the crown, and making good progress.  I’m a couple of years away from getting it to look right.

This tree has had a somewhat tough year in 2017, coping with a bout of black spot.  It’s a fairly common problem with Chinese elm, but not too hard to manage.  Most of the leaves are off the tree now, but I have some attractive yellow ones still left.  They’ll be gone within a week.

Bald cypress, Taxodium distichum, produces a really lovely “glowing” rust color in the fall.  There’s not a lot of foliage on this one, but you can’t argue with how attractive it is.  As with the Chinese elm above, this one will be bare within a week.








Finally, here’s Rip Van Winkle, my late-budding Willow oak (Quercus phellos).  I left it alone this year to grow out, as it appeared to be sluggish.  Hopefully it will have regained all of its strength by the 2018 growing season.  I got some unexpected color from it, so thought I would share.

I hope you’ve had a great bonsai year, and that your trees are thriving.  Remember we’re always here to help out however we can.


The Learning Never Stops – Here Are A Few Survivors

I do all sorts of things with trees, some good and some bad but all with the best of intentions.  The ultimate goal is a great bonsai that really makes you think it’s a real tree.  My preference is to speed up the process as much as possible.  Here are a few examples of trees that (so far) have survived my good intentions.

You probably remember this Cedar elm, Ulmus crassifolia, from a couple of weeks ago.  I was trying to decide which pot worked best, and most of you picked this one.  Last weekend I took the plunge and slip-potted it.  It doesn’t seem to have minded at all.










Here’s another victim of fall slip-potting, a nice Bald cypress (Taxodium distichum).  As with the Cedar elm, it didn’t mind a bit. Not even the slightest protest.

















Here’s a Crape myrtle, Lagerstroemia indica (purple flowers), made from a cutting this year.  What I like about it is the neat movement in the trunk – which was originally nice movement in a branch I pruned off of another bonsai and rooted.  That got me to thinking literati.




I had this neat small pot lying around, so after some quick pruning and wiring and a lot of root-pruning, voila!  A very small literati Crape myrtle.  I don’t know yet, but I suspect it’ll come through fine.