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.

Survey Results – What Are Your Bonsai Friends Up To?

Last weekend I posted a survey in order to get a better idea of what you’re interested in bonsai-wise.  Although I communicate with many of you either occasionally or even often, it’s not for sure that I know exactly what it is you really want out of bonsai.  I mean, I know what I want for the most part – but I also know that that’s not necessarily what you want.  So it made sense for me to just ask.  The response was very good, with 20% of you taking the time to share your preferences.  Here’s what I learned:

How long have you been in bonsaiFirst of all, I thought it was worth finding out how long you’ve been actively involved in bonsai.  I was a bit surprised, but glad, to see that over 30% of you have only just begun in the art and hobby.  Bonsai is a wonderful pastime, as you know, but without newcomers it eventually “dries up” as its older practitioners pass on.  There always needs to be “fresh blood” in the bonsai world, and I think this is clearly happening.  I know this because when you add the newbies to those who have been at it for five years or less, the total jumps to over 50%.  I think this is just wonderful.

What size bonsaiNext I wanted to find out what size bonsai you prefer.  Bonsai come is all sizes up to about 48″ tall, so there’s a size for everyone.  But there are certain very dedicated bonsai folks who are really into either tiny bonsai, the mame/shohin sizes, or massively large ones.  The results of the survey bear this out, with about 10% liking really small trees and 10% liking really big trees.  Fully 80% of you like them all, and I have to count myself among you.

What species do you likeThe next obvious question is what species you prefer.  The answer on this one was pretty substantially skewed toward deciduous species.  Now, it’s not clear to me if this is related to my own preference.  I make no bones about my love of deciduous bonsai, and therefore that’s what you mostly see written about and shown on my site.  It would only be natural if the site attracted bonsai enthusiasts who also share my preference.  But I do think it’s a good indication that 30% of you like all species – and to be truthful, I really love great pine bonsai and certain tropicals.  I just don’t work with them often.

What are your sources of materialNext I thought it was worth finding out where you get your bonsai material from.  This is obviously important to me, because I’m here to serve those needs for you to the greatest extent I can.  But it’s pretty clear from the chart that over half of you collect and grow at least some of your own bonsai material.  I think this is to be expected – after all, while I collect a lot of my trees I also grow from seed and cuttings and every now and then I’ll even buy some material.  No one has or can provide every species worth growing as bonsai, and I sure don’t plan to try.  I know what I’m good at and what I do a good job of providing.

What do you buyHere’s an interesting chart.  For those of you who buy material, the overwhelming majority go for either pre-bonsai or bonsai-in-training.  To be honest, that’s just what I would answer.  The design, the shaping and compositional creation of bonsai, is almost all of the fun of the art, at least for me.  And this seems to be true of you as well.  Oh, don’t get me wrong, I can spend hours viewing finely-wrought bonsai.  There’s nothing like the quiet dignity of a tree growing in a shallow tray that looks for the world like its massive counterpart in nature.  But at some point you can’t help but want to take a piece of raw material and bring it to that state yourself.  Hence the 85%-plus of you who buy either pre-bonsai only or a mixture of pre-bonsai and partially trained trees in bonsai pots.  Once it gets your personal touch, you’re connected.

What size is your collectionThe next question I asked was about the size of your collection.  As many of you know, I’m a huge proponent of having at least 50 trees to work on (and not solely for mercenary reasons).  This is because of my dedication to the bonsai principle of benign neglect.  I challenge anyone to overwork more than 50 trees.  It’s a snap to overwork one or a few.  This is especially a problem for beginners to the art and hobby, because they know their job is to “train” their bonsai.  The problem with training our bonsai is that it’s not a full-time job.  You wire, then shape, then wait.  And wait.  And wait some more, until that branch gets set or that leader is thick enough to require removal of the wire.  If you have one or two trees and you wire them out, each day as you look at them you get that old itchy trigger finger.  Bonsai can only take so much love before they keel over.  So I say make sure you have enough trees.  About 85% of you agree, and that’s just outstanding.

What is your skill levelNext it was time to find out how you rate your skill level.  Again I was very pleased with the results, because they tell me that most of you are relatively new to the art of bonsai.  This is wonderful.  I see from this chart that about 75% of you are well into the basic learning phase of your bonsai journey.  This is one of the purposes of my website and business, to pass on things I’ve learned and to help you get better if I can.

What age rangeAge (yours, not your bonsai): I’m 61 and soon to be 62, and in almost 30 years of pursuing the wonderful art of bonsai I have heard countless times, “We need more young people in bonsai.”  Well, I think this chart speaks for itself.  Almost half of you who responded are, from my current outpost in life, what I would deem young.  I got really hooked myself at age 33.  At that time I would have considered young to be 15, plus or minus.  And you do occasionally see teens whacking at trees in newbie workshops.  But the most reliable source of new bonsai enthusiasts is that demographic who catch the bug after about 25.  It gets better once child-rearing is over, because with kids in the house you spend most of your shaping work (and about all of your money) on them.  Once that’s over, you move on to organisms that stay put, never talk back and never wreck your car.  What’s not to like?

What is your biggest challengeNow we come to the final, and perhaps most interesting, question of the survey – What is your biggest bonsai challenge?  The overwhelming majority of you, 70%, said that designing your trees is the biggest challenge you face.  If you add the 10% who said maintaining the design of their trees is their biggest challenge, it’s pretty clear that for most bonsai enthusiasts it’s all about making our trees look right.  This is hardly surprising.  Bonsai is a representation of a mature tree in miniature size.  So how they’re designed, and how that design is maintained over time when the tree wants to grow differently, is what it’s all about.

Doing a Better Job for You

I’ve devoted a lot of effort in my blog posts to show the process I go through in designing bonsai.  This seems to fit very well with your own biggest challenge, so look for more of the same.  I will try to do a better job of explaining the design principles that go into my thinking as I illustrate the steps in training my trees.

Also, it looks like most of you are interested in bonsai that fit the “in-between” sizes, rather than really big or really small.  So I’ll focus on expanding my stock of in-between’s.  I don’t like lugging all that many huge bonsai around, especially as I’ve gotten older, so this should save some wear and tear on my back.  Win-win.

Once again, thank you for participating in the survey.  As 2016 starts to get long in the tooth, I hope your bonsai collection has gotten bigger and better and you’ve learned a few things from my posts.  I’m always available to answer questions, so feel free to email or post comments.







Creating A Dogwood Bonsai

Dogwood8-4-16-3I posted a blog on this Roughleaf dogwood, Cornus drummondii, this past Thursday.  The tree was collected in January of this year, and after a slow start really took off.  As I mentioned Thursday, the tree has a lot going for it in terms of character.  Given that plus the fact that the tree has recovered so well and quickly, I decided that today I would go ahead and do the initial styling on it.  One thing I wanted to avoid was allowing the new branches to get too stiff to bend in 2017.





This view is from the back of the tree.  I wanted to illustrate the design principle of making your decisions beginning with things you are very sure of, then moving on through to the things you aren’t so sure of.  In this case, there’s a long and straight branch emerging at a sharp angle from the main trunk that, for reasons I can’t explain, I left on the tree.  Clearly this branch has to either be removed completely or reduced greatly in length.  I was able to cut to a new shoot down the branch, so I did that to get started on the “editing” of the tree.


Here you can see that I’ve shortened the offending branch.  It’s not likely to play a part in the final design, but I left part of it on for now (you can always cut more off of the material you’re working on; putting something back on that you just cut off doesn’t work at all).






You may recall from Thursday my impression that I would be cutting to the branch shown here moving off to the left at a good angle, as my primary trunk line.  As I studied the tree this morning, I changed my mind.  The reason for this has to do with how the tree emerges from the soil.  While that particular trunk line could be made to work, I have in mind a round pot for this tree and based on this I felt the tree should terminate in a more upright position.  Now, if down the road I change my mind (or the tree’s new owner does so) there won’t be any problem in restyling the tree.  But for now, I decided to go with the upright trunk line.


In this photo I’ve cut back the old leader – which was going to happen regardless.








Here I’ve used a wooden block to move the tree into its ultimate potting angle.  This will help me as I choose and position branches.










The main trunk gets chopped back to the where the new leader emerges from it.






After much editing of shoots that won’t be part of the final design.  You can see the bonsai starting to really take shape.  Isn’t the trunk character terrific?










Here I’ve wired all of the branches and the new leader, and positioned them.














I slip-potted the tree into this nice Byron Myrick round, to the greatest extent I could, in order to prevent damage to the roots.  I did have to trim some to fit the tree in the right spot in the pot, but overall they got “bruised” to the minimum possible degree.

I really like the way this Dogwood bonsai turned out.  By doing the initial styling and potting this year, the tree can get a head-start on next year’s development.  All that’s left at this point is to thicken up and develop the crown of the tree, and pinch and prune the branching to create ramification.  Roughleaf dogwood is much easier to develop into a well-ramified specimen than its cousin the Flowering dogwood.  Don’t get me wrong, I love both species, but each has its own features.

If you’re interested in native species as bonsai, this tree is available at our Miscellaneous Bonsai page.  It ships in September.

Benign Neglect Pays Off Again

I have written on more than one occasion about the principle of benign neglect as it pertains to bonsai.  Because bonsai is a hands-on pastime, the beginner often becomes convinced that creating and maintaining their trees is almost constant work.  In fact, aside from daily watering and checking for any pest or disease issues, bonsai is a lot less doing than you might think.

Dogwood5-8-16I wrote a blog about the species Roughleaf dogwood, Cornus drummondii, earlier this year.  I’ve worked with dogwoods on a limited basis over the past 25+ years; this occasion has really opened my eyes to a fine native species for bonsai.

I collected this specimen on the same day as the one in my blog post.  I think you can readily see the potential – great old bark on the trunk, nice taper and movement, and there’s even a bonus natural shari thrown in.  This tree, along with the other one that had been growing nearby, apparently had suffered the fate of many trees growing alongside a highway.  The occasional weed control project, perhaps, with bush knife or some tractor-mounted horror.  Maybe someone parking too close and scraping the lower trunk.  It’s not hard to imagine, though you can’t be sure exactly what happened.  As a bonsai artist, all we can say is “thanks.”  So much great material comes from the good “un-intentions” of others.

This photo is from May 8th, by the way.

Dogwood7-3-16-1It took a good while before the growth kicked in on this specimen.  Here we are two months later, and I’m finally getting some shoot extension.  Collecting was successful; now we’re getting somewhere.











And lastly, today’s appearance.  The roots are firm and the growth is rampant.  Because dogwood wood really gets stiff once it hardens off, the tree needs an initial styling soon.  Fortunately, with a good set of roots the tree won’t mind, even at this time of year.

This is another example of (mostly) benign neglect.  I’ve fed this tree and watered it.  Not a single leaf has been trimmed or pinched.  I’ve moved it on the bench less than two feet from where I first set it.  The only active thing I’ve done is to stabilize the trunk (see the photo above) using a native American pottery shard wedged against the edge of the pot.  And that … is it!

The moral of the story is, your trees don’t love your attention near as much as you love giving them attention.  To borrow the timeless Japanese principle, less is usually more.  As you continue on your bonsai journey, this principle will get easier to apply.

Final note: I’ve included some detailed comments in the captions on the first photo above, to give you an idea of my thought process in planning the design of this tree.  To be sure, there’s often more than one potential design in a tree.  You as the artist get to make the final call on the raw material you start out with.  For those trees I go ahead and design before posting, I try to find the best expression of the tree I can.  Balance and harmony, in a mature representation of a tree in nature, are the desired end-result.  This takes a good trunk line, taper and movement; well-placed branches; and finally, diligent pruning and pinching to produce foliage in scale.

Roughleaf Dogwood Initial Styling

Dogwood3-25-16-2I collected this Roughleaf dogwood, Cornus drummondii, earlier this year.  This photograph, taken in late January, gives you an idea of the quality of the specimen.  It looks even better in person!  The tree was a little slow in coming out – this shot from March shows the buds just starting to emerge.  Growth was fairly slow well into May, but then it just exploded.




See what I mean?  I’ve been planning to dive into this tree for three or four weeks now.  Today I had a client in for a workshop, so I took the opportunity to walk through the initial styling of a significant piece of collected material.











This represents the better part of an hours’ work.  A lot of extra branches were removed, simplifying the design.  Our bonsai are expressions of a tree distilled to its basic elements.  Too much does not make for a better bonsai.  So in producing this basic branch set I’ve begun the process of making a believable bonsai.

As part of this process I removed the larger of the two leaders on the main trunk, going on the principle of enhancing taper whenever possible.  I’ll have additional carving to do in the area where I removed the larger leader this coming spring; for now, I wanted to keep the invasive work in check because this tree will have less vigor going into the depths of summer and I didn’t want to overtax it.  When you do this type of work on your trees, always bear in mind the time of year and the characteristics of the species you’re working with.  Although Roughleaf dogwood is far more vigorous that its cousin the Flowering dogwood, it does slow down in summer.

You can also see a few principles of designing multi-trunk bonsai illustrated in this specimen.  The smaller/shorter tree has foliage that’s lower in the composition than the larger/taller tree.  The larger tree does not have any foliage that is crowding the growing space of the smaller tree; if this happens in the wild, the smaller tree does not get enough sunlight to survive.  The movement of the trunk of the smaller tree reflects, while not exactly mimicking, the movement of the trunk of the larger tree.  This type of composition is usually referred to as father/son or mother/daughter, depending on whether the tree is masculine or feminine.  I think this one qualifies as father/son. What do you think?

This tree may be ready for its first bonsai pot next spring.  The deciding factor will be how much development vigor is needed in the apex of the larger tree.  If this can be done in a bonsai pot, then I’ll certainly take the plunge.


Happy To Be Wrong

One of the key skills the bonsai artist must learn is how to identify the various species he or she intends to work with.  This is especially true when you collect your own from the wild.  This is a challenge when you’re first starting out, though I believe it’s a fun one.  For those of us who work primarily with deciduous trees, which are usually collected in winter when they’re devoid of foliage, there’s an extra challenge.  Identifying species is a matter of examining the foliage, bark, dormant buds (if present), and sometimes flowers and fruit.  It’s by far most common to make our identification solely on the basis of foliage.

Roughleafdogwood1-23-16-4I posted this photo on January 23rd, along with the lament that I have never had success in collecting larger red maples (as this is what I was sure it was).  I was out hunting bald cypress that day, but high water had other plans.  So when I spotted this twin-trunk and another really nice specimen I thought it was better to go home with two trees that probably wouldn’t make it rather than empty-handed.

Then the wait began.  It took a solid four weeks for tiny buds to appear, but they finally did.  What’s more, they appeared in opposite pairs which is exactly the way they should have.  Only there was something not quite right about them.  They weren’t red.  Now, the old saying goes “there’s always something red on a red maple.”  Newly swelling buds, flowers, fruit, new leaves, the petioles once the leaves have greened, and then winter buds to complete the cycle.  This red maple was missing red buds.  What did it mean?

The leaves finally began opening tentatively.  They were light green in color.  Not red.  Hmm.  That wasn’t right, either.  What’s more, their shape was all wrong.  Rather than the normal three-lobed leaves with serrations that red maples sport, these were non-lobed and smooth and rather slender.

It was at this point that I took another look at the bark of these specimens.  Now, as the red maple begins developing bark it produces fissures which in time grow deeper and rougher.  My first impression here was that these trees were just in the beginning stages of bark development.  But with the leaves all wrong, I took a closer look and realized that these were plates forming, not fissures.  What’s more, they seemed to be in a pretty regular grid pattern.  There’s one group of species I well knew that produced bark like this: dogwood.  And what species of dogwood do you find in or near the swamps?  Roughleaf dogwood, Cornus drummondii.

I was dead wrong with my tree ID back in January, and I couldn’t be happier about it.  That means I get to train two more trees which will feature characteristics like this one:

Dogwood3-25-16-1This is the first and so far the only roughleaf dogwood I’ve trained as bonsai.  My experience so far is that it ramifies much better than flowering dogwood, Cornus florida, which I have grown as bonsai in the past.  Leaf-size reduction is likewise superior.  So with great bark and foliage, not to mention superior trunk character, I think it’s got everything you could ask for.  (This tree has been posted for sale at our Miscellaneous Bonsai sale page.)






If you look closely you can see the buds opening on this one, which I re-shot today.  I’ll need to chop it back some more next season, plus lose the larger of the two leaders on the main trunk to enhance taper.  But I couldn’t be more excited about this new dogwood, now that I know what it is.





Finally, a closeup of the foliage.  Isn’t it great?  On another interesting note, while the buds on this and the other dogwood I collected emerged light green in color, the new leaves have turned red while unfolding.  This mirrors, to a degree, the fall color we sometimes get on our dogwoods.  The color is caused by anthocyanins, which produce the reds and purples we see in autumn leaves (they are breakdown products of chlorophyll) as well as in flowers and fruit.  As the leaves harden off, chlorophyll production ramps up and the red disappears.