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.

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.

God Bless The Ever-Reliable Crape Myrtle

Living in the Deep South has some advantages.  Fall color on bonsai trees is not one of them.  So imagine my surprise when I noticed this guy last evening.

Lovely fall color, right?  Crapes tend to produce fall color down here when most other deciduous species just end up with ugly leaves that fall off.  So God bless them.  I’ve got splashes of color on my benches right now thanks to the Crapes.

You may recognize this tree as my legacy Crape myrtle from Allen Gautreau.  I repotted it this year and began the redesign work vital to improving the tree.  It’s a bit overgrown, but I needed it to grow out this year before getting another hard pruning this coming spring.  I should be able to achieve nice ramification in 2018.  Another repotting may be needed in 2019; I’ll know better then.  Crapes are super-rooters.

I hope you’re having some nice fall color where you are.

This Crape Is Superb – How Did I Do On The Initial Styling?

I recently acquired a couple of Crape myrtles, Lagerstoemia indica, from a grower, this one and a Pokomoke I’m planning to keep for myself.  The only thing I’ve done to this specimen since I got it was to take off a large leader in back of the tree (you’ll see where a few photos from now).  Today I decided it was time to do some styling – there were numerous shoots coming from the area of the chop, and if I didn’t wire them now the wood would quickly become too stiff for me to do anything about it.






In this photo I’ve done three things: trim the the crown lightly to remove or shorten shoots as needed; remove some dead knobs where pruning has been done before; and put some wire on the lowest left branch.  You can see the style of this tree right off the bat.  It’s going to be a classic Crape myrtle shape.  Isn’t the trunk lovely?  Great movement and taper, and of course the nebari and root base is superb.





Here’s a shot from the back of the tree.  This shows you pretty clearly that large chop point I made.  There are several shoots emerging from the perimeter of the chop point.  This is what I expected and planned for.  I’ll be able to wire a couple of leaders off this point, continuing the design.







And here’s a closeup of the chop point.  Crape myrtle shoots are unique in that once they begin to swell their shape is square rather than round, and this persists for a short time.

My task is to select and wire two of these shoots, then shape and position them properly so that during next year’s growing season they’ll fill in their part of the crown.

This is a good place for a tip on wiring Crape myrtles.  When you go to remove individual leaves, such as those near the base of a branch, you must carefully pull them off directly away from the base.  If you don’t do this right, a slender string of green bark tissue will peel off down the branch.  This is not necessarily harmful to the tree, but it’s not good technique and frustrate you.  So practice, practice, practice.

Now I’ve selected and wired two of the shoots (I’ve already taken off most of the ones I didn’t need).  These shoots will thicken some before fall of this year, and next year they’ll really take off.






Another shot of the back of the tree.











And the finished styling.  I trimmed the crown to shape for today, meaning the amount that would make the tree’s silhouette look as it will once the detailed work is done in the crown.  Next spring, a harder pruning needs to be done, followed by a complete wiring of the new growth once it’s out.

The base of this tree measures 4″ above the root crown, and it’s about 28″ tall.  The flowers are white.  If you’re looking for a large, stunning Crape myrtle specimen for your collection, this tree is available at our Crape Myrtle Bonsai page.

The Humble Crape Myrtles Are Pretty Happy

Bonsai is high art, but it’s also a learning process.  You and your trees, cooperating to make something that’s more than the sum of its parts.  You’ll learn something on every tree that comes into your care.  And not just the big collected specimens that are all gnarly and old and beat up by life.

When we last left the saga of this small Crape myrtle, Lagerstroemia indica, it had responded beautifully to being wired and placed in a bonsai pot.  Within mere days it had started pushing new buds, which quickly became shoots.  I was particularly interested in the two lower-trunk shoots.  Why?  Because strong shoots get thick very fast, and everything “downstream” of those shoots gets thicker as they do.  In the case of this tree, I had a great opportunity to get thickening of the lower trunk.




Here’s where we are today.  You can see that there’s rampant growth all over the tree.  What’s more, those two shoots on the lower trunk are really taking off.  You know what this means.  I’m going to get a thicker trunk, which is just what a good bonsai can always use.

Now, it’s important to consider one other thing now that we’ve got all this nice growth, namely, I don’t want to do any pruning at all for a while.  Why?  Because strong growth thickens everything “downstream” of it.  So not only will I get a thicker lower trunk on this specimen, I’m going to get a thicker specimen period.  Ideally, I want the trunk base on this tree to be at least 1″ in diameter.  I think I can get this in a growing season, meaning between now and next summer.  So for now I just let this guy grow, and plan to remove wire when it binds and perhaps do some fall trimming in the upper part of the tree.

I wired and potted this tree a couple of weeks ago.  It’s finally sprouted some new buds, and these are growing quickly into shoots.  But notice a couple of things.  One, I don’t seem to have any buds near the base of the tree.  And two, there are no new buds anywhere on the branches I wired when I first styled the tree.  What does this mean?

One thing that will become apparent as you work on more and more trees is that they don’t always grow exactly the same as one another.  In this case I have two white-flowering Crapes.  They were grown from cuttings taken from the same tree, and grown the same way.  The initial styling was very similar.  But they’ve responded quite differently.  Why?

I don’t know, and that’s the best answer I have.  In a way it’s good.  Though you never see two bonsai that are exactly alike, you do see rough similarities and the fact is we want our bonsai to be unique art forms.  From a development perspective, I’ll have the challenge of thickening the lower trunk on this specimen and in the end it may not happen as I want.  But that’s okay.  When you’ve been doing bonsai for a long time, you learn to go with what your trees give you and to make that work.  We can only force things so much.

I solved today’s problem by simply cutting back the slim branches I’d wired and positioned last time.  They may produce buds now; they may not.  I’ll adjust the next development step accordingly.



Crape Myrtles From Humble Beginnings

Crape myrtle, Lagerstroemia indica, is one the very best species for bonsai.  They take to pot culture very well, root like gangbusters and flower freely in captivity.

In the world of bonsai, you’ll encounter Crape myrtles of many varieties, sizes and stages of development.  For example, here’s a tree that has been in training for over 25 years.

I’ve been posting on this tree over the past several months because it had reached a point where it was overgrown and had to be “rebuilt.”  It got a hard-pruning and repotting, and has responded with renewed vigor.  Now it’s on to building ramification.  It’s about to bloom also, and I plan to let it do so (it’s a classic purple).  The tree is strong.





A couple of weeks ago I included this Crape in a post about trees I’m working on for sale (this one has white flowers).  Even though it’s not a large specimen, the design is classic Crape myrtle.  And the key, as with most bonsai, is in the proportions.  The branch spread that I’ve established must be maintained in order for the tree to look larger than it is.  Now, shoots are going to shoot and that’s a good thing.  But my job will be to chase all of that growth I’m going to get back in toward the proper silhouette.




And wouldn’t you know, in just a couple of weeks this Crape is really going at it.  There are new shoots all over the tree, including two near the base.  Do you know what that means?  That means I have a way to induce trunk thickening by encouraging sacrifice branches near the base.  I’ll most likely put a little wire on each of them, in a week or two, in order to gently guide them into a growing space that allows them to ultimately run free and long.  By later in this growing season, I’d predict they’ll be two to three feet long.  And everything below them will get thicker as a result.

This specimen is a bit larger than the one above, and the design is going to be different, but the plan is the same.  Within a couple of weeks I should have buds all over the tree, including some near the base.  I’ll encourage those to grow, as in the tree above, which will allow me to thicken the trunk base of this tree through the use of sacrifice branches.

It’s important to remember that regardless of the size pot you grow your trees in, basal thickening will be a slower prospect than if the tree were grown in the ground.  If you do limit yourself to container growing, however, there are techniques that can help you somewhat overcome the limitations.

Stay tuned for progress reports on these Crape myrtle 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.

What About That Perfect Crape Myrtle Plan? It’s Awesome

Remember how earlier this year I repotted and worked on this legacy Crape myrtle, Lagerstoemia indica, that my friend Allen Gautreau bequeathed me?  The large branch in the tree’s crown had grown too thick over the years, and needed to be removed.








At the time I noted that it was a safe bet that the tree would produce one or more buds right near or at the spot where the branch was removed.  This indeed did happen, and I reported on it in the next blog installment.  And now we’ve reached the next milestone in this process.




The perfectly-placed shoot has now grown long enough and thick enough to be wired and positioned.  As I recreate this branch in the upper part of the tree, I need to be sure that each step occurs at the right time and in the right way.




Now the wire is on.  Always be sure to anchor your wire securely.  In this case, you can just see where I’ve made a couple of loops on the mature branch to the left and below my new shoot/branch.






Now the shoot has been positioned where I want it.  And this is hardly a random choice.  Each branch on a bonsai needs to have its own space.  As you work your way up a tree during an initial wiring, your first few branches are more or less guaranteed to not conflict with one another.  It’s when you start getting into the more crowded parts of the tree that you run the risk of defying the natural requirements of the branches.  What this means in simpler terms is you shouldn’t have branches shading out one another.  It isn’t sustainable in the wild; it’s no more sustainable in a bonsai.  So getting back to the crape myrtle, I positioned my new shoot/branch in such a way that there’s no other branch directly above or below it.  Not only does this satisfy the branch’s need for its share of sunshine, it also makes for a better design.

Notice how long my new branch is.  I resisted the urge to trim it because there’s more thickening that needs to happen before I “cool off” the growth.  By allowing the branch to continue to run, it will thicken along its entire length but especially so at the point where it emerges from the trunk.

I couldn’t resist posting a photo of the nice fat strong bud at the end of my new branch.  It’ll extend another several inches before I trim it back to within the tree’s silhouette.  I expect this to happen in just a few weeks – crape myrtles love to grow in the summer.  (I should also get profuse blooming with this specimen.)

Did you find this blog helpful?  Leave me a comment below.



Here’s A Pretty Reliable Bonsai Tip You’ll Need Someday

You may recall the hard-pruning I did to Allen’s Crape Myrtle back in February when I also repotted the tree.  At that time, I pointed out that there was a branch up near the crown of the tree that had grown so heavy it was as thick as the trunk itself.









I removed the branch completely, noting that the tree would most likely produce a bud right where the branch was removed.  This is a pretty reliable bonsai technique you will need sooner or later.  As our bonsai mature, it’s not unusual for branches to get as thick as the trunk where they emerge.  This is a no-no, of course, as it harms the proportions of the tree and makes the tree less believable.  So if you want your bonsai to look right, you’ve got to take action.

So if you compare the photo above with this one, you can see that there are four shoots that have emerged from the trunk near where I chopped off that offending large branch.  And one is in the perfect spot for a replacement to Allen’s original branch.





After removing the superfluous shoots, I’m left with just the one I want.  It’s still tender, so no wire today, but in another three weeks or so it’ll be time for positioning.




I did a light pruning on the new growth today, but that’s all.  The tree is very healthy, and may even bloom this summer.  I’ll post updates on its progress.

Allen’s Crape Gets A New Pot – More On How To Make Your Bonsai Better

I mentioned recently that it was time to repot this nice old Crape myrtle bonsai, Lagerstoemia indica, that was gifted to me by my late friend Allen Gautreau.  In addition to the needed repotting, this tree is also seriously overgrown and needs to be brought back in.  Though it does look nice, and you can see the many years of care that have gone into creating and maintaining this bonsai, it’s just gotten out of proportion.

Another thing you many have noticed about this tree is that it’s in a container much too large for it.  The trunk base of the tree is 1.75″ above the root crown, while the container is a substantial 4″ from foot to rim.  Those are not good proportions.

In this photo you can see I’ve already brought in the silhouette of this tree.  It’s a good start, but there’s more to be done.  Of particular concern to me is that really large right-hand branch up in the crown of the tree.  It’s every bit as thick as the trunk at that point, so in order to correct that proportion the best thing I can do is remove the branch entirely and start over with it.

You can also see in this photo that the tree has been turned a bit, in order to make for a better potting angle.  That large root coming straight toward you in the first photo is now not so glaring.  Allen had identified the new potting angle, by the way, a few years ago.  So I’m going to make this happen.

A quick whack later, and the offending branch is gone.  Most deciduous species will produce buds at the point where a branch has been removed, so I’m counting on this characteristic to give me a new shoot to rework into the branch that’s now missing.

Notice that I’ve also drastically reduced the silhouette of the tree, especially in the crown.  The illusion of height for this specimen is back.





Crape myrtles can make some roots!  I don’t know when the last repotting was, but I can guarantee you that before this season’s over, everything I cut off today will have regrown.










Now the roots are combed out.  For old, established bonsai such as this one, you usually only need to worry about creating some peripheral room for new, young roots to grow.  The main surface roots are usually fine, so you can limit the cutting to around the edges and off the bottom.







Here’s the tree’s new home, a nice Byron Myrick oval.  You can see how much root I took off to make the tree fit right.  Now I just need to tie it down and fill in with fresh bonsai soil.










The final result after the repotting is done.  Now tree and pot are in much better proportion.  The root base of this crape is really nice, measuring 3.5″ across at the soil.  This produces the impression of the tree gripping the soil, plus there’s real age (35+ years) along with training age (25+ years) that gives this bonsai super character.  You can see how much loving care has gone into it over the decades.






Always remember to seal those big cuts!







This is one of those trees that also looks good from the back.  Though I think the other viewing angle is best, there’s a lot going for this one as well.

Before we leave today’s study of this Crape myrtle bonsai, there’s one more reminder about working on your trees.  If at all possible, take photos and study your work.  The camera will show you things you may have missed in person.  Case in point, notice that sub-branch pointing straight up on the lowest left branch?  Ugly!



So a little wire and a little bending makes this problem go away.  Today’s work is done …

… or is it?  Now I can see that sub-branch on the lowest right-hand branch that’s running way too far across the tree.  So once I post this blog, I’m off to grab the concave cutters and fix that problem.

What do you think of this Crape myrtle bonsai?  I’m really pleased with it personally, and I think Allen would be as well.