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.

Getting Ready For 2018

Now that winter has set in, it’s time to begin working on the 2018 growing season.  The “official” collecting season begins on January 1 and goes through about March.  Sometimes the weather throws this schedule off, but most of the time it’s a reliable 12 weeks during which most species I offer can be lifted with good success.

It’s always nice to get a head start on the season, which as of now means two weeks during which I can identify and lift specimens that can be offered next year.  Here are a couple that seemed ready to begin their lives in pots.

Here’s a Water oak, Quercus nigra, that has been growing on my property for several years now.  I’ve chopped it back in order to build taper, in preparation for its ultimate styling as a bonsai.  Since the trunk is now thick enough to work with, today seemed like a good time to go ahead and harvest it.

What a mess!  When you look at a specimen like this, it’s not all that easy to see what you ought to do with it.  But trust me, in here is a bonsai.  You just have to be prepared to identify and create a trunk line.

If you can compare this photo to the one above, I think you can get an idea of how to go about finding your trunk line.  The basic process involves identifying progressively smaller upright branches that when chopped to produce a smooth tapering from base to tip.  In this case, there’s the trunk base which rises about 5″, then a slimmer leader emerging from this point on the trunk that rises another 3″, then a final smaller leader that completes the trunk line that’s 9.5″ from base to apex.

As you grow trees to size, this is the process you’ll follow most of the time.  You allow the tree to grow, then you chop back, then new shoots take over (apically dominant, so they want to run), you chop them back when their thickness is sufficient, and the process is repeated.

This specimen is now potted and the chops sealed.  Isn’t the taper terrific, not to mention the trunk movement?  Come spring, it will throw buds in suitable places along the trunk which I can wire into place.  I expect this specimen to be a nice shohin Water oak bonsai in just a few years.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now onto this American elm, Ulmus americana.  I’ve been field-growing this tree for about five years now, and it’s gained a lot of trunk thickness quickly (trunk base 2.75″).

There are two problems with this specimen: one, that thick high root on the right-hand side of the tree; and two, the swelling that has occurred at the original trunk chop point (where multiple leaders emerged and grew unchecked for too long).

Since I have a nice set of radial roots, I’m attempting to make the offending root look right by splitting it.  Where it’s chopped it should heal over, and the spot on the lower trunk that’s bare should also roll over fine.  Now, what about the thickness of the root?  In a year or two, this root can be split longitudinally and the center area carved out.  Once this heals over, the appearance should be natural.

Failing this, it should be possible to layer roots in the trunk area above this big root, and eliminate it entirely.  But one thing at a time.

As for the swelling area, I simply chopped that off.  I’ll come back and carve it this next growing season to make the appearance look smooth.  It’ll heal over in a year or two.

 

 

 

I did a final chop of the two leaders I’m keeping.
American elm grows with such vigor that I should have a smooth transition into the upper part of this tree by the end of the 2018 growing season.

If you’re looking for Water oak or American elm, stay tuned for new material this coming spring.  If you’d like to be on our wish list for these species, drop me an email.

 

Winter Work – Design Evaluation

We tend to hunker down in winter, since our bonsai aren’t growing and the weather is often miserable.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t make progress with our bonsai.  In fact, once the leaves on our deciduous trees have fallen, we have an ideal opportunity to see the “bones” of the tree and evaluate/re-evaluate the design.

I’ve been working on this Chinese elm, Ulmus parvifolia, for a few years now.  It has reached a pleasing point in the design process.  The lower part of the tree, all the way to the crown area, is essentially done.  The ramification has really advanced over the past year, and I’m actually going to need to thin the tree somewhat in late winter.  I’m not complaining about that, mind you.  As for the crown, the “bones” of it are taking shape and I expect it to fill out completely within the next two growing seasons.  All in all, this tree is coming along beautifully.

When you study your trees, you have to take the time to consider them from all angles.  Now, most trees are not “360°” bonsai, meaning they don’t look equally good from all angles.  This is not a problem.  Pretty much all bonsai have a definitive front, and with good reason.  So you build the tree with this in mind, in accordance with the various rules.

Here’s the back of this Chinese elm.  Nothing wrong with the tree from this angle, that some judicious pruning won’t fix in a couple of months.

Next we turn the tree another 90°, to view the left side.  This present us with an obvious, though minor and easily fixed, problem.  Notice that the back of the tree (to your left in this photo) does not extend as far out as the front does.  As a rule, your bonsai should have greater extension in the back than in the front.  Granted it’s not too pronounced here, but I definitely need to trim back the branches extending toward the viewer.

Now for the really important question.  Do you notice anything unusual about the tree when viewing it from this angle?  Take a few seconds and compare this photo with the first one above.  As I studied them, one very significant thing just leapt out at me, namely, the trunk line has much more character and interest when viewed from this angle.  Notice the subtle curve that progresses from soil to apex.  Notice how the curve becomes more dramatic once you get into the crown area.  And notice that the tapering transition appears much smoother.

The obvious problem with viewing the tree from this angle is one, the placement of the branches, and two, the fact that the crown moves away from the viewer.  For this particular tree, that problem would be very hard to overcome if I planned to make this the new front.  But … maybe there’s no need to.  Why not just turn the tree 180°?

Voila! From this angle, not only does the crown move toward the viewer, I have a workable set of branches in the lower part of the tree.  I still have the subtle curve of the trunk, and the curves I’ve built in the crown look very nice.  I even have a better-looking set of branches in the crown to work from, when viewed from this angle.

It won’t be too much trouble to re-position this tree in its pot come spring.  And that will make my design a whole lot better.

Do you agree with this change?  Let me know what you think.

Fall Color And Reflection

As the year draws to a close, it’s nice to spend some time reflecting on this year’s growing season and how it impacted our bonsai.  Was it a good year?  What new things did you learn?  What surprises (good or bad) popped up?  It’s for sure that you never stop learning in the wonderful art and hobby of bonsai.

Bonsai South has had a great year, and thanks to all of you who helped make it that way.  I’m really excited about 2018, which should be even better.  Watch for new collected trees early next year.

So we don’t get too much fall color here in the very Deep South, so it’s always super nice to see something among my bonsai.  Here are a few trees that have over-performed (even if only a bit).

This Cedar elm, Ulmus crassifolia, is living here until it heads off to a client next spring.  Isn’t the color delightful?

 

 

 

 

 

This Chinese elm, Ulmus parvifolia, has been in development a few years now.  I’m working on building out the crown, and making good progress.  I’m a couple of years away from getting it to look right.

This tree has had a somewhat tough year in 2017, coping with a bout of black spot.  It’s a fairly common problem with Chinese elm, but not too hard to manage.  Most of the leaves are off the tree now, but I have some attractive yellow ones still left.  They’ll be gone within a week.

Bald cypress, Taxodium distichum, produces a really lovely “glowing” rust color in the fall.  There’s not a lot of foliage on this one, but you can’t argue with how attractive it is.  As with the Chinese elm above, this one will be bare within a week.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finally, here’s Rip Van Winkle, my late-budding Willow oak (Quercus phellos).  I left it alone this year to grow out, as it appeared to be sluggish.  Hopefully it will have regained all of its strength by the 2018 growing season.  I got some unexpected color from it, so thought I would share.

I hope you’ve had a great bonsai year, and that your trees are thriving.  Remember we’re always here to help out however we can.

 

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.

Happy Halloween From Me And The Dragon

Today’s Halloween, and Halloween is my birthday, so I took the day off and it turned out to be a perfect day to do some work on the Dragon, my super-duper Water-elm (Planera aquatica).  For those of you unfamiliar with this tree, here it is in “stick” form back in Summer 2015.  A not-so-humble beginning – trunk base 5.5″ across, 42″ in length, nice “dragony” trunk.

 

 

 

 

Here it is back in July, after getting wired and growing and getting unwired and trimmed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s the first shot from this morning.  The tree is developing right on schedule.  But it does need to have the dead wood treated with lime sulfur.  It’s mostly very durable, but I don’t want to see any insect damage.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After the trim and treatment.  I’ll pot up this tree in the spring, once I have the custom pot in hand that I’ll be ordering soon.  I also need to carve out the shari into the new apex.  Easy stuff.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I caught a glimpse of this tree from another angle, and wondered if I had the front right.  I think there are definitely two options.  This one seems a good bit more dramatic.  What do you think?  Speak before it gets potted in spring!

It’s Getting Cold Tonight, Why Not Dream Of Elms?

I’ve been hustling today to finish getting my greenhouse up and heated, so all those tropicals I just had to make this year will survive.  It looks like a light freeze is headed our way tonight.

And this is turn means the weather has broken, so it’s just a matter of time till the leaves are off the trees.  I don’t know if I’ll get any color this year, it’s not common here in the Deep South, but by year-end most everything should be bare.

I’ve had a good and fun year with elms, and truth be told they’re probably my favorite species to grow as bonsai with the exception of Bald cypress.  Here’s an American elm, Ulmus americana, that I lifted in May of this year.  Here’s its story.  It’s been growing on its own as a volunteer on my property for probably eight or ten years, in a not-so-good spot.  It just so happened to be growing in a partly-recumbent manner, and was perhaps ten feet long (tall).  The trunk was 1.5″ across, so not a bad start for something.  So it seemed clear to me that the something should be a raft-style bonsai.  The recumbent section had some roots already, so I just chopped it to size and potted it up.

The photo above is dated 6/17/17.  In just a few weeks the recumbent trunk had grown plenty of shoots.  Those shoots would to be the trunks of my raft-style bonsai.  And given how fast American elm grows, I was going to have to apply some wire before long.

Sure enough, on July 21st it was time to put some wire on.  There were five trunks for sure, so they got wired and shaped.  And back on the bench it went.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On October 1st, this thing had grown so fast I had to remove the wire from two of the trunks in order to keep it from biting in.  I’d also gotten another couple of trunks to add to the raft, making a total of seven.  I was really getting somewhere.

 

 

 

 

 

 

And here we are today.  The growth is over for 2017, but you just can’t argue with the results of five months’ work.  And you can’t help but dream of next year.  I’ve got a lot of American elms I’m growing to size, so hopefully next year by summer I’ll have more to offer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Just to close out this post, I’ll make mention of another favorite elm of mine, Cedar elm, which I’ve written about a lot this year.  While all of my other elms are done growing, the Cedar elms continue to plug away.  This is true even for specimens in the ground.  This one was looking pretty awful at the end of summer, with ugly leaves many of which had dried up; then the temperatures moderated a bit, and it decided to put on some fresh new growth.  It could grow most of the way through November, if we don’t get a killing frost.

 

Can You Wire In Fall? Yes, You Can, Provided….

I often see the question asked, “Can I wire in the fall?”  The short answer is, “Yes, provided….”

That sounds a bit evasive, but as with many things in the wonderful world of bonsai you have to be aware of qualifiers that may come with different species and situations.  I have done my share of wiring in the fall.  I usually do it early in the fall, because there’s a little growing season left for me.  That’s one of the qualifiers.  Wiring puts stress on your trees, even though it’s often not a great deal of stress.  But the tree responds by producing new cells to replace any damaged when bending the branches.  This is very important.  If you live too far north, wiring in fall could result in one or more dead branches because there wasn’t any growth to allow them to recover.  So that’s one of the qualifiers.  Another of course is associated with species.  Some maintain good vigor into fall, such as Bald cypress and Cedar elm, and some don’t.  Winged elms do not.  Sweetgums do not.  Hawthorns do not.

I wrote about this Cedar elm, Ulmus crassifolia, back in September.  Collected in late April, it was slow to recover but eventually really gained strength.  And it’s still growing!  So today I figured it might just be time to take advantage of a fall wiring opportunity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

First of all, here’s a photo showing the extra growth the tree has put out in just a month – a fall month, at that!  This is always a good sign.  It means you can work on the tree without too much concern about causing harm.

The first order of business today is to remove the dead stubs.

 

 

 

 

 

A few minutes later, this is what I’ve got.  I think the tree is already looking better.  Notice how chopping the main and left-hand trunk shorter is going to improve taper.  So it certainly wasn’t a bad thing that they suffered dieback.

The right-hand trunk died back to the base.  Fortunately, a nice shoot emerged from near the base of this trunk that I can use to replace it.  Moreover, it’s toward the back of the tree which is actually ideal.

Now that I have everything chopped back, it’s time to do some styling.

 

 

 

And here’s the basic plan.  I think it’s pretty easy to see what this specimen is going to turn out like.  It has a killer base, mature bark on the main trunk and a really nice design.  I expect to be able to put it into a bonsai pot next spring.

Let me know what you think.

Oh, one last thing about wiring in fall.  Check the wire you put on earlier in the season!  If it hasn’t already happened, fall is the time of year when branches suddenly swell and cause the wire to bite in.  So get that wire off if it needs it!

 

Back To The Drawing Board – A Nice Plan For This Cedar Elm

This Cedar elm (Ulmus crassifolia) I collected back in April just about croaked, but I took extraordinary steps and it appears to have pulled through.  You can see why I worked so hard to save it.  That shari running from near the base most of the way up the tree is 100% natural, and makes for a great feature worth designing around.  But what’s the right planting angle?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is another choice, which does have some positives going for it.  But you just can’t see the feature as well.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I figured out that the tree had way too much slant in it, so I wedged it up for this photo.  Still looks nice from this angle, but now I’ve pretty much lost sight of the shari.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now I think I’m getting somewhere.  There’s still a slant to the planting angle, but it’s not as drastic and makes for a more natural impression (in my opinion).  I think this is something I can work with.

It’s not always easy to see the tree in these collected sticks and stumps, so I often take pencil and paper to the task to come up with a plan.  This is one of those cases that really lends itself to this technique.  Here’s the result.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s a masculine tree, of course, with that big gash ripped into it, so a rectangular pot is called for.  In order to emphasize the lengthy shari, a narrower silhouette is in order too.  Given the tree’s gentle taper, making it look taller is also called for.  So I need the branches to remain close in to the trunk.

This was a great exercise.  Don’t be shy about taking pencil and paper to any of your trees in development.  You may be surprised at what you come up with.

Leave me a comment below and let me know what you think.

Those Devilish Details – How To Make Your Trees Better

You may remember this American elm, Ulmus americana, from a couple of months ago.  I lifted it and put it directly into this neat funky Chuck Iker rectangle.  It dutifully threw new shoots, and I wired an initial design.  So far, so good.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here we are this morning.  Very nice growth, as you can see.  I recently pruned back the leader, as it had grown enough for this year.  But now I have a lot of unruly branches that need attention.  They say the devil’s in the details.  They must have been thinking of bonsai when they came up with that one.

Now, how do you go about tackling the details that will take your tree to the next phase of development?  Here’s a step by step illustration of my thought process and the results.

I almost always begin at the bottom of the tree.  In this case, the number one (lowest left) branch of the tree needs pruning.  You can see in this closeup that a secondary branch has emerged all on its own.  Perfect.  I can cut to this branch, and next year let it run before pruning it again.

 

After pruning.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My next stop is the branch above the number one branch.  Why not the number two branch, the one on the right side of the tree?  It’s not as thick as I need it to be (see two photos down).  Pruning it back would not be the right thing to do at this time.  You’ll commonly see this in the growth of your trees.  Branches tend to grow with more strength in the apex.  Branches also tend to grow with different degrees of strength in the same part of the tree.  Part of developing your bonsai is to balance this growth by means of selective pruning.

Branch pruned.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is the number two branch, the lowest right-hand branch.  You can see that it’s not as strong/thick as the lowest left branch – in part because there are actually two branches emerging from the same spot.  I needed a back branch, so kept them both.

 

Now let’s move up the tree some more.  This branch near the apex is way too strong (not surprisingly, apical dominance you know).  It needs to be “cooled off.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cut back pretty hard.

 

 

 

 

 

Now on to the other side of the tree.  Same problem.

 

 

 

 

 

I unwired it and pruned it back hard.  That’s step one for this branch.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now I used the same wire to rewire the smaller branch I cut to into position.

 

 

 

 

 

Now back to the other side of the tree.  This branch needs to be pruned.

 

 

 

Snip.

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s that back branch I mentioned above.  I don’t want this branch to get too thick, as it might cause undue swelling at the point on the trunk where they emerge.  So I’ll prune it back.

 

 

 

Snip.

 

 

 

 

Back up higher in the tree, this branch is now obviously too heavy.  I’d trimmed the secondary branches that emerged, but more needs to be done.

 

 

 

 

Unwire and prune back.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now I’ve wired one of the secondary branches out as a new leader.

 

 

 

 

 

And here’s the final result.  This is a nice little American elm bonsai.  The species grows so fast that by the end of the 2018 growing season, I should have a nicely filled out specimen.

Let me know what you think.