(225) 784 - 2168 zach@bonsai-south.com

Roughleaf Dogwood Styling Work

I recently acquired this Roughleaf dogwood, Cornus drummondii, from a local collector. The great trunk base, taper and movement were what drew me to the tree. The styling is on its way, but there’s always more to do. So today I set out to make a few minor adjustments in advance of Spring 2020.

Beginning at the bottom, of course, the number one left-hand branch and the first back branch were ideal to wire together. Why not the number one right-hand branch along with the left-hand branch? Read on and you’ll find out below.

So the trick with both of these branches is in their positioning. They both start out fine, but since dogwoods tend to produce long arrow-straight branches, you have to introduce some movement into them. Also, both branches needed pulling down a bit, which I’ve done here. Subtle changes, but very important.

Here’s why I left that lowest right-hand branch out of the equation in that wiring job. Notice the slender shoot emerging to the left of the thicker branch? It’s actually positioned much more advantageously than the thicker one; therefore my goal for 2020 will be to remove the thicker one altogether, assuming the slim one survives winter and pushes on next year. I’ll have the opportunity to wire it and introduce movement from the start, and once it thickens up it’s going to be in just the right spot.
Another obvious problem with this tree is the very thick branch on the left side up near where the crown begins. Ideally I’d just remove it and hope for a new bud at the base. However, this is not the time of year for this sort of work. Without the strong growth of spring through early summer, there’s a pretty good chance I won’t get a bud there at all. So I’ll likely make this move in the coming year. For now, though, I trimmed it back pretty hard.

The last thing I can do today is to trim back the crown. It was a little heavy toward the right, affecting the balance of the tree, so with some judicious trimming I think I’ve succeeded for the most part in restoring the balance. I’ll need to do more next year; I’ll accomplish that by allowing the branch moving up and toward the left, where the main trunk line veers off to the right, to run and thicken.

I’d love to hear what you think of this Roughleaf dogwood. Also, I expect to have some pre-bonsai stock available next summer, so if you’d like a nice dogwood specimen let me know.

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, in no particular order.
Bald Cypress

Bald Cypress - Taxodium Distichum

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

Holly - Ilex Species

This 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.
Crape Myrtle

Crape Myrtle - Lagerstroemia Indica

With this species, 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.)
Crape Myrtle
American elm – champion in leaf-size reduction, from 5” long in the wild to under ½” in a bonsai pot. This is the first image to your left. Six weeks later (image to your immediate left), this American elm already has much smaller leaves.  Easy stuff!
Crape Myrtle

Willow Leaf Ficus - Ficus Salicaria

This is 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.

American Hornbeam - Carpinus Caroliniana

This species grows 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.
Crape Myrtle

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.

Wisteria - Wisteria Floribunda

This species 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.

Did You Enjoy?

This was a fun topic for me.  I sure hope you enjoyed the read. Drop me a comment below; I really enjoy hearing from people who love bonsai as much as I love it!

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.