Rulebreaking 101 – Crape Myrtle

rulebreaking 101 – crape myrtle

Sneak Peek

I enjoy breaking rules when something good comes of it.  One of my hardest and fastest rules is to never collect a tree twice.  Well ….

Rulebreaking 101 – Crape Myrtle

And so, way back in 2012 I was invited to collect some white Crape myrtles from a commercial growing field.  The trees were available primarily because their trunks were not straight enough (the anti-bonsai approach to the landscape, right?).  Not that they were all twisty-turny, they just had some low trunk movement which made them fair game for bonsai.  Seeing as how each had a trunk base of 5-6″, and Crape myrtle wood is one of the absolute toughest you’ll ever try to saw, I limited myself to five specimens.

I brought them home and potted them up.  A couple failed to bud all the way up and down the trunk.  One I planted out – this one – and the second stayed in its pot and has grown its way into the ground; I’ll be lifting it next spring.  The others I sold.

So I’ve been mowing around this specimen for years now, and as time has gone on it’s started to take on some interest as a very stout kinda guy.  The more I’ve studied it, the more it has started to intrigue me.  Finally, I decided to break one of my most sacred rules: never collect a tree twice.




Don’t let this picture fool you – the sawing and lifting was awesome and lengthy!  It took me a couple of battery packs to get to this stage.

This is the nebari check before filling in the pot.  This tree has some killer roots – should I say to die for?  Is that redundant?

I could only think “Ogre” at this point.  This tree definitely needs a name.  Any ideas?

That trunk under the mouth of the tree technically makes it a clump – not to mention making it somewhat obscene.  It only lasted a day.




Here we are the next day, after the final editing.  This takes the tree out of the clump category pretty well.  I think I can work with the two leaders on this one, sumo-style.  I can also eliminate one and go for a single trunk line.  Plenty of time to decide.

Here’s another view of the tree.  Could this be the front?  It looks like I’ve got a couple of choices, so no need to make any decisions now.  Besides, who re-collects a tree at this time of the year?  That’s another rule I managed to break this go-round.  But here’s the secret: Crape myrtles are a different breed.  I don’t know of any species that roots as exorbitantly as Crapes.  So that gives me a lot of confidence, considering that we have a couple of months until our first frost.

By way of scale, the trunk on this specimen measures 7-8″ across at the soil.  The root spread is a good 12″.

I spotted the a couple of trunk buds today, meaning I just might’ve gotten away with breaking another rule or two!


Pasture Privet Parade

pasture privet parade

Sneak Peek

Cow pastures are the best place to collect Chinese privet.  Cattle browse the soft foliage, and in time this produces specimens with great character ….

Pasture Privet Parade


Did you know that cow pastures are the best place to collect Chinese privet?  Of course you did, I just said that in the Sneak Peek above.  Here’s the thing.  Privet is a fast growing broadleaf evergreen or, as some would prefer to say, a fast-growing noxious weed.  They grow fast and straight with an untapering trunk or (quite) often many untapering trunks.  If you were growing one in the ground, ideally you’d go out every day or three with your hedge trimmers and give it a whack.  That’s a lot of work, and you’d have to do it for at least 10 years to get a good result.  Unlikely to happen, right?

If you live in a part of the country that’s been invaded by privet, and you have access to cow pastures where they tend to grow near the fencelines, it’s a likely place to find nice specimens.  The cows browse.  The privets keep on coming back.  The process continues.  Over time, you end up with privet specimens that have good to great trunk taper and really nice character.

A week ago I harvested about a dozen pasture privets.  Here are a handful that are already back-budding.  This first one is a good example of a tapering specimen with terrific character that will make a fine small bonsai in short order.

A “Siamese twin trunk” specimen.  The two trunks are fused and twisting, and will make an unusual but striking bonsai once developed.

This is one of the larger specimens I brought home.  Trunk movement doesn’t happen by itself with privet, so it’s clear to me that this one has been worked on by cattle for the better part of 20 years. 

We always want our trees to look older than they really are.  This one is old to begin with, but even if it wasn’t the mottled coloring of the trunk would make it look old.

How about this twin-trunk?  With a base 2″ across but only standing about 6″ to the higher chop, we’re looking at a very fine shohin bonsai to be.

How about this one?  You can almost feel the tough times this privet has been through.  It’s another shohin specimen, but will pack a lot of character in a small space once it’s developed.

And the last one for today.  You can’t beat the trunk movement and taper, and there’s natural shari on the side and in back.  I’m really looking forward to styling this one.

So let me know what you think of my pasture privet parade.  If you haven’t grown Chinese privet as bonsai, you should give one a try.

BC Collecting Trip #5 For 2020

Yesterday we wrapped up Bald cypress collecting season. The winter collecting season (this far south) is driven largely by the weather. Ours has seen some warm spells, and despite a few mornings near freezing it’s just not been enough to keep these trees from starting to push buds. I prefer not to risk collecting right after budburst, so the safest course is to call the season done. Fortunately, we got a lot of very nice trees and I’m happy to say that some of them are already pushing buds. So far so good!

This specimen caught my eye because of the nice twist in the trunk that highlights the deep flute in front of the tree.

Here it is in the pot. This specimen is more or less prototypical of what a natural-looking Bald cypress should be: flaring base with good buttressing roots, great trunk taper and character, and usually just a little movement to make for a good start. Since BC’s bud so prolifically, it’s really easy to make a great bonsai structure in a relatively short timeframe.
I got two surprises this trip. Here’s the first one, and you could call it a “small big surprise.” Notice the nice fluting of the trunk on this BC. How big a tree would you say it is? BC trunks don’t typically get the nice fluting until they’re at least 3″ across near the base. This one is just over 2″ at the soil! In fact, it’s the smallest cypress specimen I can ever recall seeing with trunk fluting. A really big surprise!
Here’s the other surprise for the day, and it’s actually a big surprise. As I cleaned up the tree, I discovered a very large hunk of wood where there’s normally just a taproot (occasionally a double-tap). At first I thought it was just caught up in the root base, but as I continued to work on it I realized it was part of the tree! But still, I couldn’t explain how it came to pass.
If you look closely you can see some dark wood that rests between two of the buttressing roots. This wood appears to be the remnant of a one-time BC trunk that died. I can say that it’s very solid! So the plan will be to drill a hole down through this hunk of wood, since it doesn’t currently drain, then treat the dead wood with lime sulfur.
Here’s the tree, potted. The trunk is chopped at 25″, so the taper is just superb. And of course you can’t top that trunk character. I’ll need to carve the sawn part of the remnant trunk you saw in the previous photo, but that should help to really make this an unusual specimen for the Bonsai South collection.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on these specimens.

BC Collecting Trip #4 For 2020

Today was BC collecting trip #4 for 2020. As usual, we had great luck.This may be my favorite specimen from today’s group. Some BC’s just have that flat-top look, and this is one of them. The base is 4″ and it’s chopped at 30″, which will make a tall and elegant specimen. The flaring root base is outstanding, and the fluting is good too.
It’s easier in this photo to see just how nice this tree is. If someone doesn’t make a flat-top bonsai out of it, I plan to do so myself.
This is the most unusual specimen we got today. It has an interesting root off to the left, what you might call a “flying buttress.” It will work best in a bonsai pot if you can see through the base, so the tree was prepped with that in mind.
You can’t see the flying buttress here, but that’s how we pot ’em.
This is the largest specimen we brought home today, with a trunk base of 4.5″. The photo doesn’t do the fluting justice. It will make a fine upright classic BC bonsai.
Here’s another upright specimen with great fluting up the trunk. The base is 4″.Some of my BC’s from prior years are pushing buds now, and even though we have a couple of cold nights ahead of us I don’t think these trees will hold back much longer. They were collected a good bit farther south than we are, and they do tend to remember where they come from.Let me know what you think of these cypresses.

BC Collecting Trip #3 For 2020

Today was our third Bald cypress collecting trip for 2020. The goal was to bring home somewhat smaller material, mostly in the 3″ +/- trunk size. We were definitely successful.

This is a good example of our haul. The base is terrific, and you can’t argue with the taper and movement of the trunk.

In the pot and buried deep.
This is a very cool specimen. I’m not sure if that secondary trunk can be part of the design, but I’m leaving it for whoever buys the tree (or myself if it ends up hanging around for a while). Regardless, the base is very impressive and I love the turn in the trunk. And of course, you just can’t ask for better taper.
All tucked in.
This one caught my eye. It’s not something you’d make on purpose, but it was out there just growing away and I’m thinking it’s bound to make a unique bonsai. The trunk isn’t huge, just 2.5″ across the base, but it packs a lot of character.
Potted up. Now we wait.
Once again, here’s one that caught my eye. That root you see at the right is not a knee, but it packs so much interest and character I couldn’t not bring it home. There’s a very nice bonsai in this tree.
It still looks great, even buried deep. But once that root gets exposed again in a bonsai pot, this tree will really impress.

Let me know what you think.

BC Collecting Trip #2 For 2020

Our second BC collected trip for 2020 happened yesterday. As often happens, the weather did not cooperate. On the plus side, the rain was not Noah-worthy so we plowed through and got the job done.If you’re into big classically styled Bald cypress bonsai, this is the sort of specimen you’re after. Beautiful flaring, buttressed base, great trunk taper, chopped at just the right spot to grow out and finish up around 40″. This one is just about a perfect formal upright, which for the trees I collect is very unusual.
Here it is in the pot, shown from what should be the best front. The root base is buried, of course, to keep the roots from drying out.
Here’s another one the same size (5″ trunk), but more along the lines of what I usually find. This one will make a superb informal upright BC bonsai of the classic pyramidal style.
And in the pot. I love the fluting of the trunks of these trees, don’t you?
Here’s an unusual specimen. The trunk is the same size as the ones above, about 5″ across (that’s measured up the trunk about 5″ above the soil level once it’s potted), but I ended up chopping it lower because the trunk lost taper above what you see as the chop point. That means this tree will ending making a “stouter” bonsai when all is said and done. The two trees above are chopped at 26″; this one at 19″.
Here it is in its training home.
This is the most unusual specimen I brought home this trip. The trunk is not all that thick, but the flare at the base is just massive and in the final potting of the tree I plan to expose most of it. I’m confident it will make quite a statement!
All tucked in and waiting for the weather to warm up.If we get mild enough temperatures, I expect to see budding on these trees in early to mid-February. At that point or soon thereafter we should know who made it and who didn’t.Let me know what you think of our latest haul.