Does Design Drive The Tree, Or Tree Drive The Design?

does design drive the tree, or tree drive the design?

Sneak Peek

We’re all familiar with the established styles of bonsai.  Almost all of the trees we create will fit one of them.  But sometimes the tree drives its own design, and you have to be prepared to go with it.

Does Design Drive the Tree, or Tree Drive the Design?

I bought this Roughleaf Dogwood (Cornus drummondii) back in May, and I’ve been waiting for it to get stronger in the apex before working on it.  You can see why I got it – it’s got killer bark and deadwood.  Now, deadwood on deciduous trees is uncommon and some of you may reject the whole idea.  I get it.  But I think there’s a place for deadwood on certain deciduous trees, and frankly if it doesn’t belong you can usually sense it immediately upon viewing the tree. 

Regardless, if you study this tree for a bit you’ll come to the conclusion, as I did, that it’s probably not going to fit the standard informal upright mold.  To be sure, there are cases where you can skillfully “force-fit” a tree to a standard stsyle.  And then there are those times when you just can’t.


So this is looking a bit like a windswept style tree, right?  I can’t argue the point.  But to my way of thinking, just because you have all of the branches pointing in one direction on a tree doesn’t make it a good windswept bonsai.  This is probably an arguable point with this tree, but as I studied the work I’d done it just wasn’t saying “windswept” to me.

So I turned the tree to a position that has a few things going for it: one, the very fine nebari is better shown from this viewing angle; two, by changing the position (using a block for now, and then potting it this way) I get a more viable design; and three, you can still see the fine bark and enough of the deadwood.  I call it win-win.

What’s the downside of this tree-driven design?  I don’t have any back branch at this time.  This problem can be solved one of two ways, either by the tree pushing a bud in back (which is entirely possible, but most likely not till next spring), or I can do a foliar fill using the side branches and wiring sub-branches into the back space.

What do you think of this tree?  Am I way off base with my design concept?  Do you prefer the windswept look?  Let me know.

Fun With Dogwoods

fun with dogwoods

Sneak Peak

Dogwood (Cornus) is one of those species that just about anyone you ask would say they’d love to have one.  Yet they’re uncommon as bonsai.  The Flowering dogwood, Cornus florida, is a Southern icon.  Yet as bonsai they’re hard to come by and not so easy to develop.  Their cousin, the Roughleaf dogwood (Cornus drummondii), on the other hand, is a delight as a bonsai subject.  Here are a couple I’m working on.

Fun With Dogwoods

I picked up some Roughleaf dogwoods recently from another collector.  I was really excited to get them, because I’ve worked with the species for about a decade now and they are simply a delight as a bonsai subject.  Their flowers aren’t as showy as the Flowering dogwood’s, but they more than make up for it by their tendency to have a denser foliage and a much more vigorous growth habit.  Combine that with awesome bark and naturally good trunk character, plus ease of cultivation, and you’ve got yourself a real winner.

This specimen may not look like much at first glance, but there’s a hidden gem here.


If you look closer at the tree, the hollow in what’s going to be the front really stands out.  Who knows how it came to pass – maybe a mowing crew passed by some time ago – but regardless it’s going to make one of the unique features of this future bonsai.

In case you were thinking that those two trunks didn’t seem to hold much promise, this is the trunkline I spotted when I first got the tree.  The base is terrific, and now I’ve made the taper stand out.

One other thing worth mentioning with this chop is: notice all of the energy demand I removed from this tree.  I took off probably two-thirds or more of the branching with the chop.  That energy is going to be redirected into the remaining trunk, and that’s exactly what I need.  The branches on this trunk are thin, though not necessarily weak, and by redirecting the energy I can count on them to take off and thicken up as they grow.

I’m planning to keep this specimen for myself.  The trunk base is a solid 3″, there’s nice taper in each of the trunks, all of the tree is barky, and there’s even dead wood.  Now, I know we’re not supposed to have dead wood on our deciduous trees, but it’s common to see this on older dogwoods.  Their wood is good and dense, and holds up well.  So if it makes sense on your dogwood bonsai, I say go for it.

The first chore was to work on the lower trunk.  I chopped off all of it that didn’t look like a bonsai.  I also removed a couple of branches that weren’t needed, and shortened others.

Next I simplified the taller trunk, removed unneeded branches, and then it was simple chore to wire and position the branches.

I think this specimen has a huge potential as a bonsai.  I’d love to hear what you think of both these trees.

Dogwood Work And Potting

This Roughleaf dogwood has made the most of its spring growth. Today’s the day to take the next step in making this tree into a bonsai.
Starting at the bottom, I removed the superfluous shoots in the lower right-hand area in preparation for wiring and positioning branches there.
I started by wiring a young shoot I’d noted in a previous blog, that is emerging from just the right spot at the low trunk chop to provide a foliage mass where I need it.
On the left, I needed more movement in a branch that was already fairly stiff. I wired it with some 3 mm aluminum wire, which allowed me to reposition it where I wanted. You can see that now I’ve gotten all of the low branches in good spots, with some nice movement in each.
I’m a big proponent of “hedging” bonsai in development; it’s a technique I’ve been practicing for over 30 years now, and which has gained popularity at the forum Bonsai Nut based on Walter Pall’s work. Hedging is more or less what it sounds like – you take your shears and shape foliage masses on your tree by rough-pruning to a silhouette. The tree responds by back-budding and increasing its twigging. The added benefit is it allows you to come back and do selective pruning as you build out foliage masses from top to bottom. This is the refinement stage we work toward as we get closer to the best expression of each of our trees.
The final step for today. I’ve had this unglazed Chuck Iker round for a few years now, waiting for the right tree to come along. I’m thinking this is the one. What do you think?

Bonsai Odds & Ends – Hophornbeam & Dogwood

Eastern hophornbeam, Ostrya virginiana, is a good species for bonsai though seldom grown. It’s a member of the birch family, as is its close cousin the hornbeam. The leaves, however, are coarser. On the good side of the ledger, they produce a rough bark when mature which is quite attractive. Another negative is that they’re hard to lift successfully relative to the hornbeam.I’ve had this smaller specimen for a couple of years now, and I think it’s reached a point where I can style and pot it. You can see I let a leader grow out, in order to produce a nice apex tapering from the trunk chop.
Step one: prune the leader. This is not the ultimate length for the leader, but I don’t yet have obvious buds at the nodes so I’ve pruned long to prevent dieback. Once I get the buds I need, I can train the next stage of the leader.
Next comes wiring some branches and doing a final trim for today. You may be able to see the bud on the left side of the trunk about a third of the way up. I want this bud to grow out; a branch lower on the trunk should produce a more stable design.
You may remember this Roughleaf dogwood from last fall. At the time, I mentioned that the second branch on the left side of the trunk is way too heavy. My intent for this year was to simply chop it off at the right time, counting on the tree to produce one or more buds at the base. To that end, I pruned it pretty hard last fall.
The branch behaved better than I hoped it would. If you look closely you can see two adventitious buds, one near the base and the other halfway between the trunk and the first sub-branch. So I have a couple of options for today: either chop the branch near that second bud, or prune more off the branch to push more energy inward.
I took the conservative approach, taking off two branchlets at the end of the branch. Yes, the tree will activate buds where these were removed; however, it will also send more energy to the two buds that popped on old wood. My plan is to prune the branch back to the bud nearest the trunk; that will enable me to carve down the stub of the original branch, and end up with a branch more in scale with the others on the tree.You may have noticed a lot of ugly leaves on this tree. For whatever reason, the tree never dropped its leaves over the winter; they did endure some freezes, so they got some discoloration. But they didn’t fall. My plan is to remove them soon, as there’s plenty of new foliage now.Let me know what you think.

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!