The Wonderful Cedar Elm, And A Lesson On How To Gauge Success

Cedar elm, Ulmus crassifolia, is one of the very best species for bonsai and especially for beginners.  They are “sturdy” trees, not being bothered by much in the way of pests and diseases.  They’ll take a good bit of abuse and neglect without objection.  They grow fast which allows for rapid development.  And they put on a nice rough bark at a fairly young age.

This past April I made a trip to Cedar elm country, having been invited by an old and dear bonsai friend to collect some specimens from his parents’ property.  To be sure, a January trip would have been better suited to lifting these trees, but it just couldn’t happen till April.  I figured that if any species could stand up to being collected out of season, Cedar elm would be one of them.  So I jumped at the chance.

A week after I’d gotten the trees home and potted up, they were all showing buds.  I’d collected just under 20, including a handful of larger ones, a handful of smaller ones and a handful of in-betweens.  Now, I’m generally leery of trees that pop buds a week after being collected, but there wasn’t anything to do about it so I just waited and watched.  Within four or five weeks, all of them had put on shoots ranging from an inch or so up to about six inches long.  I was encouraged, but I knew not to get too far ahead of myself.  And sure enough, they all stopped pushing new buds.

This is an important phenomenon to understand when you collect deciduous trees.  Usually you won’t have any fine roots on a tree collected from the wild.  This is all right – in fact, I’m convinced after 30 years doing it that it’s not even desirable.  Within a couple of weeks after collection or at budburst in spring if you collect in the dead of winter, your tree will produce trunk buds from stored food.  These buds will grow into shoots that will push anywhere from a few inches up to perhaps a foot in length.  At this point most species will pause their growth, and this pause is for a very important reason: it’s time for the tree to make new roots.  This is absolutely the critical point in the collecting process.  The tree has expended all of its stored energy making foliage to produce food plus, equally importantly, the hormone auxin which stimulates adventitious root growth.  If this process succeeds, new roots are made.  If it fails, the tree dies.

This is one of the in-between size Cedar elms I collected.  Nice trunk with some good character and starting to bark up.  As with the others, it pushed new growth over the first four or five weeks on the bench.  Then it stopped growing, as the others had.  It just sat there for at least a week or two, and did nothing.  Then one day when I was checking on things I noticed some tender new growth starting up.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s the tree today.  I photographed it from this angle in order to show you one of the key ways you can gauge your success with certain collected species.  Notice the color of the growing tips?  When you get strong growth on certain species, and Cedar elm is one of them, the growing tips produce a considerable amount of anthocyanins along with chlorophyll.  Anthocyanins are what give you the red and purple colors of fall foliage, and they play an antioxidant role in both foliage and fruit (think bluberries, cherries, etc.).  This may be why the plant produces more anthocyanins when it’s recovering from collection, but I’m not certain.  One thing I do know, it’s a way to gauge the success of your collecting effort with Cedar elm.  The initial shoots I got were just green; they were produced by stored food.  When the second round kicked in, I got the reddish color, larger leaves and stronger shoots.  I knew the tree was growing roots at this point.

Unsurprisingly, the smallest trees I collected produced roots first.  I’d potted two sets of three each, with the idea of making group plantings out of them.  Here’s one of the sets.  Nice variation of trunk size, nice trunk movement, nice taper, and the beginnings of bark.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Two months after collection, here’s this little group today.  The shoots are strong, with many well over a foot long.  And I could tell by wiggling them in the pot that they’d put on a nice volume of roots.  So I decided I’d take a chance and see if I could make something out of them.

 

 

 

 

 

First a trim.  It’s likely I’ll have to remove some root in order to get the group into a pot, so taking off some foliage will maintain the balance.  Looking at these trees, can you tell which is the main tree and where the others need to go?

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s what I came up with.  I think it’s a wonderful composition.  The primitive square pot is by Chuck Iker, and the color I think goes really well with the planting.  Once the group gets established and resumes growth, I’ll do some wiring and branch positioning.  But not today.

Notice that I’ve wired the three trunks together near the bottom to keep them stable while the roots grow together.  This is a trick you’ll need to employ sooner or later.

I plan to post this group planting for sale in a few weeks, assuming I didn’t cause any trouble today.  Given the good root development, I’m confident these trees will respond very well to their new home.

I’d love to hear what you think about this bonsai-to-be.

A Few New Bonsai I’m Working On

I collected this Parsley hawthorn, Crataegus marshallii, in February.  Though it was a decent piece of material, I knew there were quite a few years ahead of it in order for it to become a presentable bonsai.  Then a thought occurred to me.  That nice slender trunk emerging from near the base had a ton more character than the relatively straight main trunk.  Wouldn’t that make a much better bonsai, and much sooner to boot?

 

 

 

 

Here’s the tree just recently.  Allowing for all those shoots growing out, I’ve made just a few minor snips.  Can you see where I cut back?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I cut back the three branches on the slender trunk, and then simply removed the thicker trunk altogether.  Does this tree make a statement now?  I think it does.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve been making Edible figs, Ficus carica, practically since I got the parent tree from my mother.  One I started about five years ago was a twin-trunk.  I put it in the ground about three years ago.  This year I decided to separate the smaller of the two trunks and pot into a bonsai pot.  It’s a pretty nice starter bonsai, don’t you think?  The trunk is 1″ in diameter and it’s 14″ tall.  And it will fruit in a pot.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m very fond of Crape myrtle, Lagerstroemia indica, as bonsai.  Not only are they horticulturally simple to grow, they bloom profusely in a bonsai pot.  This is a white-blooming variety that I made from a cutting last year.  I was able to wire a nice Crape myrtle shape into it and go right into this Chuck Iker round.  It’s 14″ tall.  I would expect it to resume growth in a couple of weeks, and it just might go ahead and bloom this summer.  Time will tell.

I’ll be posting these trees for sale sometime this summer.  Stay tuned.

Getting A Leg Up On A Bald Cypress Bonsai

I often try to get a leg up on developing bonsai.  I typically do this by selecting trees I’ve collected that don’t need any trunk development, or at most only minimal development.  What does this mean?  If you collect a tree and chop the trunk, and at the point of the chop the trunk is more than about 1.5″ in diameter, the speed with which you can build a tapering transition at that point will be tremendously slowed in a bonsai pot.  Because you have to devote so much time and energy to just getting this right, developing the tree’s branch structure is hampered.  So in the end you don’t gain much in the way of time.

This Bald cypress, Taxodium distichum, presented me with the opportunity to get a leg up on developing it into a bonsai.  The trunk base is 2″ across, and you can see just by examining the photo that the diameter at the chop point is right around 0.75″.  That means all I really have to do with this tree is to develop the branch structure.  So this was a perfect candidate to go straight into a bonsai pot (this gorgeous Chuck Iker round).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fast-forward to today.  The shoots have grown long enough that I can reasonably go ahead and wire them.  That means I’ll get my branch structure off to a good start.

Incidentally, from the very beginning this tree struck me as suiting the literati style.  It’s very tall for its trunk size, 24″, so with two options available – make it look shorter or accentuate the height – the obvious answer to me was to make it look really tall.

The dead snag, which originally I’d hoped would be a secondary trunk, will actually benefit the design I have in mind.  So it stays.  As for the foliage pads on the main trunk, my goal is to draw the eye upward and give the impression of a very tall swamp-dweller.  The best way to do this is to focus all of the foliage in the uppermost part of the tree.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Less is more.  After removing all of the foliage in the lower 80% of the trunk, I was left with three branches and the apical leader.  I knew before I started working on them that they would always need to remain very close to the trunk in terms of the tree’s silhouette.  So armed with that knowledge, the wiring and positioning were a snap.

I also shortened the side branch in the apex of the tree.  I’ll make a dead snag out of it, to complement the one that appears on the shorter trunk.  Both will be stripped of bark and treated with lime sulfur, but probably not until next year.

I’ll post updates as this tree develops.  In the meantime, I think I’ve got a nice Bald cypress bonsai on the way.  What do you think?

The From-Scratch Design – How To Control Details

As you know by now, I more often than not collect deciduous tree trunks.  Though I seek good size, movement and taper, I seldom come home with a branch structure.  But that’s okay.  That just means I have complete control over the branch structure and can tailor it to the inherent character in the trunk I was after in the first place.

This Water oak trunk, Quercus nigra, only one stub away from complete “trunk-ness,” is a prime example of how we control details to make our design work properly.  The intention with this tree is to produce a classic oak design.  You can see countless examples in nature, meaning you have a great pattern to work from.  Do an Internet search or snap a few photos of trees that have a trunk line like your bonsai-to-be.  It can really help.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I had already done the initial wiring of this tree when the shoots had extended several inches (once it got going, this tree grew very fast).  While I was generally satisfied with the work I did, there was one detail that simply did not work.  Can you spot it?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Once I had taken the photo of this tree following the initial wiring, I knew I was off on the number one branch on the left.  Why?  Even though it actually does have some bend in it, it doesn’t have enough to produce the right visual appeal and this certainly is true to the camera.  This was a critical problem, and could not go unresolved.  I decided to wait a couple of weeks, though, because the shoots were still tender and I didn’t want to risk unwiring and rewiring the branch.

 

 

 

 

 

Today I unwired and rewired the branch, then positioned it properly.  Notice how just a subtle movement makes a world of difference?  Now there’s much better harmony in the shapes and attitudes of the branches.  In nature you’ll see a general upsweep in the main branches of trees, with the sub-branching exhibiting movement into the horizontal plane.  In this tree, notice how there’s a sub-branch on this lowest left-hand branch that moves in just this way.  This will be repeated all the way up the tree.

I’d love to hear what you thought of this blog post.  Leave me a comment below.

Impressive And Unusual Bonsai-To-Be – Dragon, Grape, More Sycamore

“Dragon” the Water-elm put on a lot of growth last year, as you can see in this photo where I can’t get it all in the frame.  I left it to grow without any restraint last year because the branches need to gain heft.  But there does come a point where you have to prune to encourage more growth – plus you can see the apical leader is very close to being just right once I carve out the shari into it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

There comes a point in the life of most bonsai where you can put away the wire and just use “grow and clip” to achieve your design plan.  I’m pretty much there with this tree.  I used wire to set the direction of the new branches and leader that grew out starting last year.  Once those were established, I got all the back-budding I needed to enable me to select secondary branches.  Going forward, all I need to do is select those new shoots pointing where I want them.

 

 

 

 

Here’s something different.  A couple of years ago I collected this Muscadine, Vitus rotundifolia, which is our native grape here in the South (and elsewhere; it ranges up to Delaware).  I liked the twists of the “trunk,” so I figured what the heck?

Yesterday I decided it was time to do something with this Muscadine – after all, it had gone to all the trouble of growing like vines grow and seemed not to mind container life.  So I grabbed a suitable pot and went to work.

This Chuck Iker round has a nice dark glossy glaze, which I think complements the bark color very well.  I trimmed back the tendrils, so now it’s time to just wait and see what happens next.  I’ve never grown Muscadine, but love exploring new and unusual species.  Grape bonsai are not commonly grown, but there are nice examples out there.

 

 

 

 

I’ve been sharing with you the progress of this Sycamore, Platanus occidentalis, since I got a wild hair and dug it up earlier this year.  So far it’s been one of those crazy fun projects.  I have no idea if it’s going to make a good bonsai, but I’m sure going to give it my best shot.

And I swear I had no plans to go out and get any more Sycamores, but one day I noticed that one growing near the back of my property had fallen over.  I assume this happened in a recent storm, but frankly it didn’t make sense to me.  When I examined the tree, it was clear that either I needed to finish taking it out of the ground or it was a goner.  So I figured what the heck?

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s what came out of the ground, minus most of the trunk and the bulk of the foliage.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And potted up.  I’m pretty confident it’s going to live – I don’t know that you can kill Sycamore – but given how short a tree this is, making something like a bonsai out of it should be an even bigger challenge than the first one.

Bald Cypress Design Work – How To Maintain That All-Important Silhouette

You’ve been following along as I’ve worked on this Bald cypress, Taxodium distichum, starting from a nice stick collected this past winter.  The initial work was done a couple of months ago, when the new shoots had hardened off enough to allow for wiring without popping them off the trunk.

This tree has continue to grow with great strength, so much so that I can’t let it continue without undertaking the next phase of styling.  Why?  Simply because the tree is running too far outside its planning silhouette to allow for a compact design if I don’t make it happen starting right now.  The initial wiring I did on this tree was to establish primary branches and the primary leaders in the planned flat-top.  Now I have nice secondary shoots starting to extend.  This is going to quickly cause an overgrown bonsai-to-be.  It’s a mistake I see all the time.  Remember, our goal is to create the illusion of a taller, older, bigger tree than what faces us in the shallow bonsai pot.  We do this by paying careful attention to the proportions of the tree.  There’s an appropriate trunk thickness to height ratio, an appropriate trunk thickness and height to canopy spread ratio, appropriate-size leaves in relation to the overall size of the tree, and so on (these aren’t precise numbers, but rather a range that works visually in fooling the brain).  Perhaps the most critical of these proportions is the ratio of trunk thickness and height to canopy spread.  This Cypress is a tall tree to begin with, measuring 31″ from the soil.  My goal is to work with and even accentuate this appearance of height.

Okay, so armed with the plan of bringing in the silhouette of this tree to re-establish the proportions I need, I’ve taken off a good bit from both primary leaders in the flat-top.  Now, you may wonder why I’m working from the top down on this tree, as you almost always start from the bottom when designing a tree.  In the case of pruning to restore proportions, I usually begin in the top of the tree where this pruning is most critical in guiding me through the rest of the tree.  Don’t forget that the illusion of bonsai lies in great part in the concept of forced perspective.  By crafting our trees so they grow smaller in spread rather quickly from base to apex, we’re able to fool the brain into thinking it’s observing a much taller tree than what it really is.  Because most species are apically dominant, they tend to get fuller in the crown much more quickly and “run away” from you.  So by whacking hard starting in the apex, you can correct this issue from the top down which guides your work in the lower part of the tree.

Now how does the crown look?  I’ve taken it in dramatically, and this immediately creates a different viewing perspective on the tree.  It also provides me with guidance for the rest of the work.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And finally, after doing the remainder of the wiring and pruning.  Obviously there’s a lot of work left to be done to complete the design of this tree, but considering it was in the swamp back in February I think it’s well on its way to becoming a fine Bald cypress bonsai.

I’d love to hear any comments you might have.

Ground Growing For Size – How To Make Them Fatter Faster

I posted this photo last December of a Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) I had been growing in the ground for a few years.  The tree started out as something just beyond a seedling, in a nursery pot.  I was developing it in the pot, using directional pruning techniques to create taper and movement.  But the tree just wasn’t fattening up as I wanted it to.  So I put it in the ground, knowing that the fastest way to make a smaller tree into a bigger tree was to give it room to grow.

This photo shows one classic way to get thickening in the base of your tree: letting a low shoot run.  And boy, did this one run!  In the process, I now have a 3″ trunk base whereas I started with a 1″ base just a few years ago.

So I chopped off the low leader in December and sealed the chop, with the idea of lifting the specimen in May (the best time to collect Sweetgums).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And so, on May 1st I sawed this tree out of the ground.  Here it is with its root mass and soil ball (I shook off what I could).  It’s grown like a weed, as you can see.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

First I gave the root mass a good washing off.  I don’t want any native soil, as it’s not needed.  The tree will go into a fast-draining coarse bonsai soil, which will promote regrowth.

I also cut back the long leaders; they aren’t necessary at this point.

Take special note of the branch growing from beneath the large cut.  This is important to ensure I don’t get any dieback into the root from this area.  I was careful to leave the branch collar when I chopped the big leader, also for this purpose.  But this branch is my insurance policy.  I’ll leave it for a year or so (though I will keep it cut back while developing the structure of this tree).

 

 

 

The next step.  All of the foliage is gone now.  This is absolutely vital when collecting deciduous trees that are in leaf.  If you fail to do this, the tree continues transpiring moisture through the leaves and will literally dry out.

I’ve also cut back the roots in the first stage.  You can see one of the coiling roots that will need to go.

You can also see the trunk line of this specimen and the massive taper from the base.  The trunk measures 3″ across above the root zone – so I’d say my ground-growing effort succeeded.

 

 

 

 

Now I’ve got the root zone cut down to size.  Notice how much smaller it is in this photo than in the previous one.  It’s a common mistake to leave too many and too long roots on a collected tree.  Remember two principles when working on the root zone of a newly collected tree: 1) the roots need to be cut back enough so that they will fit in a bonsai pot in the future, including cutting them shallow enough for that same purpose; and 2) they need to be 2-3 diameters long so you can build taper in them when smaller roots sprout from the cut ends.

 

 

 

What’s the best front for this tree?  I have at least a couple of options, and I don’t have to choose now.

Should the trunk be chopped back farther?  I can see a likely spot for a chop.  But again, I have options and don’t have to choose now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After a good dusting with rooting powder, here’s the tree all potted up.  All cuts 1/4″ and over were sealed with cut seal.  This has to be done every time you collect a tree.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And a third possible front.  I’m thinking this is my favorite.

Sweetgums are great to work with.  They grow fast and will regrow from chops very well.  It does take some time to build ramification and get some leaf size reduction.  But all in all, they are one of my very favorites.

Today this tree is showing signs of pushing new buds, so it looks like the harvest was successful.

Styling A Nice Little Parsley Hawthorn, And A Great One For Me

I was able to collect a few Parsley hawthorns, Crataegus marshallii, this winter.  Here’s one of the “sticks” that I brought home.  Though it was by no means a big one, I was nevertheless excited to find this one because of this very nice trunk movement.  Sometimes when you’re out collecting, you’ll see a tree and immediately think “literati.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s the stick a couple of months later.  There are lots of nice long shoots, which is just the ticket for starting a literati bonsai.  Literati are bonsai that are expressed with relatively little foliage.  So even though there’s quite a bit on this new bonsai-to-be, most of it is going away.

You may notice that I’ve turned the tree in this photo.  That’s because there’s a neat scar in the lower part of the trunk that I think deserves to be seen.  Except for this, either view is equivalent to the other.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In a few minutes I completed this initial styling.  Well, it doesn’t look like much, does it?  But you can’t miss where I’m going with this tree.

Now it’s time to set the tree on its bench and just leave it alone.  Food, water, neglect.  It’ll continue to put on growth this year – likely quite a bit, if my experience with Parsley hawthorn is any indication – and that means the three branches that are left on this specimen will thicken up as I need them to.  In 2018 this one will begin to make a statement, most likely in a bonsai pot if the growth is strong enough.

The trunk base on this specimen is 0.75″, by the way, and it’s 16″ to the chop.

 

 

 

 

 

This is a more substantial stick that the one above.  It measures 3″ at the soil and is 13″ to the chop.  Isn’t the trunk character great?  When I first spotted this one I knew it was destined for my collection.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I didn’t take a before photo, but trust me when I say there was a lot more growth on this tree before I started the wiring and editing process.  Here I’ve established a good branch set; it’s just a matter now of letting everything continue growing.  I need for all of the branches to get a lot thicker, and that will take the rest of the growing season.

I’ll post updates as this one progresses.  In the meantime, I’d love to hear any feedback you’d like to share.

A Couple Of Oaks On The Way, And A Nice Live Oak Bonsai

Back in January I posted a blog about this Live oak, Quercus virginiana.  Chop, lift, pot.  A nice Live oak bonsai in the making.  A good client of mine thought it would make a nice tree to get some styling practice on, so it got a future home pretty quickly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Today the tree looks like this.  Plenty of new shoots ready for some wire.  The final design of this tree is up to the client, of course, but my plan would be to keep the silhouette of the crown in check so as to make the tree look taller.  We’ll see what he ends up doing with it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I have some other oaks that are pushing strong growth now.  Here’s a nice Water oak specimen (Quercus nigra).  The shoots are still too tender to wire, but by May or thereabouts it’ll be time for an initial styling.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How about a nice shohin Willow oak, Quercus phellos.  It’s all of 7″ to the chop, but I didn’t get any budding in the top 2″ of the tree so it’s going to get even shorter.  That branch a little ways down the trunk is ideal to chop to.  But that doesn’t need to be done now; the tree’s root system has to get established first.  This little guy should be fun to work on.

Now For Something Way Out There – A Sycamore Bonsai

I posted a blog back in January which featured this tree, a Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis).  No one grows Sycamores for bonsai, because their leaves are quite large and the internodal distance daunting.  There is a Sycamore maple, Acer pseudoplatanus, which is uncommonly grown, but it has quite large leaves as well.

This particular specimen was another one of those incidental bonsai-to-be that I encounter from time to time.  I had a very large Sycamore removed from my property several years ago.  This one was either a root sucker or a smaller specimen that grew up among the roots of the larger one.  I didn’t really want another Sycamore where I’d removed the first one, so I dug it up and resolved to make it into a bonsai if possible.

I wasn’t especially surprised when it survived collecting.  Here it is today, with a nice first flush of spring growth.  I’ve only pinched it a bit to keep some of the shoots from getting out of hand.  Time to put some design to it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here it is, distilled down to the essence of a tree form.  Sycamores tend to grow arrow straight.  This one had some curves and taper to the trunk, which is another reason I salvaged it.  And now, with a basic branch set and new leader selected and positioned, it remains to be seen how much back-budding and ramification I can coax out of it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To reiterate the lesson from the other day with the Crabapple I styled, here are the numbers and branch selections for this one.  The first branch, on the left side, emerges from the outside of a trunk curve.  The right branch does so as well, and the back branch completes the trio.  Notice in this case that the first branch, which is 10″ from the soil surface, is about 40% of the distance from the soil to the ultimate height of the tree, which is right at 25″.  The proportions for this tree are 40% open trunk to the first branch, 40% in the “body” of the tree, and the final 20% for the crown.  This, along with the trunk taper, produces the forced perspective that makes our trees look taller and larger than they are.

So what do you think of this Sycamore bonsai-to-be?  I have no idea how well this one is going to work out, but I will give it my best shot.