Cathy’s Massage Studio and The Elastic Fig

cathy’s massage studio and the elastic fig

Sneak Peek

Some of you know that Cathy is the artist behind the Bonsai South website. Most of you don’t know that she is also a licensed massage therapist. We’ve been working on her studio now since construction began last year, and it’s almost done. She wanted a bonsai she could keep inside, in order to enhance the atmosphere for her clients. I gave it a lot of thought, and the answer just sort of happened.

Cathy’s Massage Studio and the Elastic Fig

Some of you know that my wife, Cathy, is the artist behind the Bonsai South website. Most of you don’t know that Cathy is also a licensed massage therapist (also a naturopathic doctor, though they are not licensed in our state). We started work on her studio last year while she was going to school every other weekend two and a half hours away. It’s been a long construction haul – interrupted by the virus which shall go unnamed – but is now nearing completion. Today the electrician installed the light over her cabinet, and I worked on the trim painting. The plumbing gets installed this coming Friday, we’re hoping the countertop will come in really soon so the contractor can install it, and Cathy will be seeing clients in two weeks. It’s been quite a journey!

One thing Cathy asked me to do for her was to create a bonsai that she could keep in the studio to help foster a relaxing atmosphere (though she does not do relaxation massage, except on rare occasions). I gave it a lot of thought, seeing as how I don’t do a lot of tropical bonsai, and one day the perfect idea struck. Why not an elastic fig?


What the heck is that, right? Ficus elastica, or what we commonly call the Rubber tree, is a very agreeable houseplant. If you tried to think of a species that can survive low light, lack of water and only occasional feeding, you’d be hard-pressed to come up with anything better.

Well, what is this sad-sack looking specimen in the photo to your left? It so happens to be the toughest plant I know, having been in my care/not-care for the past two decades. We originally got this Rubber tree from Cathy’s dad’s funeral, where a well-wisher had sent it as a gesture of condolence. As is common when funerals are over, the plants end up in various homes. This one ended up in ours. We’ve never been big houseplant people, but this one found its spot and has been with us ever since. It did have a close call one year when I decided to plant it out, in a spot near the house I hoped would be warm enough through winter to keep it alive. That was a definite miscalculation. It died back to the ground during a freeze. I thought it was a goner, but when spring came it pushed some new growth from the base, and we now had a multi-trunk Rubber tree. I dug it back up, and never asked it to survive a freeze again.

I’ve taken cuttings from this plant through the years. They always take. One of them I’d had in a pot for a few years actually started looking like something bonsai-ey. So when Cathy asked for an indoor bonsai for her studio, I knew the answer.

This daughter tree did not have all of this branching when I first tackled it a couple of months ago. It backbudded especially well, and I was able to make a nice tree structure from the newly emerging branches. I then root-pruned and potted it into this Lary Howard round. It’s not your classic bonsai, but the leaves do actually reduce with cutting back and ramification, and I’m very confident it’ll be happy in Cathy’s studio.


In case you’re wondering about Sad Sack up there, it was overdue for a root-pruning and repotting. Here it is with some fresh soil and very little foliage. I see new buds already, which means that in about two months this tree will be a solid bush.

And that’s the story of Cathy’s massage studio and the elastic fig. To learn more about what she’s doing, you can go to her website – Cathy Smith ND LMT.

Bonsai Odds & Ends – Oak, Fig, Maple

I love working with unusual species, and making bonsai that defy the normally accepted rules for design. Here are a few examples of current projects.

First off is a Red oak, Quercus nuttallii, that I collected in East Texas a couple of years ago. (East Texas lies at the extreme western end of the range for the species). This is another example of a tree that decided to only bud low on the trunk. I let it get strong last year, and this year chopped the trunk way back. It’s nothing to write home about at present, but I have a leader I let grow that was cut back hard earlier this season. My original thought was to just grow it out. However …

Considering how big the leaves of a Red oak are, it struck me that making a shohin bonsai out of this specimen will absolutely fly in the face of bonsai orthodoxy. Imagine a tree only 8-10 inches tall, with pretty big oak leaves. That’s got to be something pretty cool, if I can pull it off. the base of this one is 2.5″ across, so it’ll taper pretty dramatically when all is said and done. I’m thinking it’ll make a nice statement.

I’ve blogged before about edible fig, Ficus carica. I made this one from a cutting a couple of years ago, and it’s now grown into a decent shape. The base is up to 1″ at the soil, and as you can see it produced a good bit of fruit this year. I may pot it next year, if I think it’s ready.

Edible fig is one of those species you can’t make much headway wiring. It’s best to just prune them to shape – with the understanding, of course, that they decide which branches to keep and which to shed.

I’m posting this Boxelder (Ash-leaf maple), Acer negundo, with trepidation. I know, it’s a terrible species for bonsai and I don’t hesitate to share my disdain for them. At the same time, what’s bonsai without a challenge? So I lifted this one in August(!), and defied it to live. Naturally it did. Had it been a prize anything else, it would have audibly croaked as I lifted it from the ground. But not Boxelder!

If you’re going into bonsai no man’s land, you have to go all the way. So I wired and pruned this survivor. Now I ignore it till either the wire bites in or next year, whichever comes first.

Let me know what you think of all this.

The Nice But Annoying Ficus On My Desk

So we had our first freeze this past week, earlier than normal and earlier than I would have wanted, but that’s the way it goes. What that meant in practical terms is that it was time to bring in the tropicals I’m planning to keep for myself. A couple ended up on my desk where they’ll keep me company through the winter. One was this nice Green island ficus, Ficus microcarpa.

I’ve been looking at this tree for almost a week now, and frankly it’s been annoying me. Why? Well, though at first glance it just looks healthy and full of foliage it’s overgrown and in great need of pruning. If you spend a minute or two studying the tree, you’ll see the usual suspects: branches pointing downward, branches pointing upward, interior foliage that obscures the trunk or branch base, branches overgrown beyond the proper profile of the tree. This makes for a disorderly bonsai – in fact, you could argue that it makes for a not-bonsai but rather a little bush in a shallow pot. It’s why we put effort and rules into the endeavor in the first place.

After the first cut, that short branch jutting toward the front of the tree. It has no place on this bonsai.

My next cut was an upward-pointing branch coming off the left side first branch.

Same thing happening on the right side first branch, an upward pointing branch that needed to go.

Here I took out the last section of the right side first branch to shorten it.

Another shoot on that right side branch cut off, bringing in the profile a little more.

Here I’ve shortened the branch on the left-hand side up near the apex. It had grown out too far.

I’ve turned the tree here so you can see the long branch on the right. It’s just too long.

One quick snip, and it’s back in line.

Moving upward from this view, now I’ve shortened the branch higher up. It had also gotten overgrown.

This was the toughest decision I had to make today. Looking at the first (left side) branch on this tree, I have a shoot jutting forward that emerges from the bottom of the main branch. I can keep this one, but if I do I’ll have to lose the one above it. If I do that, I’ll need to wire the keeper and position it properly, as it can’t stay where it is. I think the best choice is to just take it off.

I think I made the right choice. I’ll prune the sub-branch I kept next year in order to direct the growth where I need it. This will work better than the alternative would have.

And after the final touches. I took out some interior growth to open up the tree. Now the structure is a lot easier to see, and I’ve got the profile back in perspective for a tree this size. Of course, it’ll grow a lot more next year (and even some during winter), but that’s okay. It’s all part of the process of creating a bonsai.

Let me know what you think of today’s work and especially the blog layout. I like the format, with photos side by side that are easy to compare. Do you agree?

What A Nice Surprise This Ficus Gave Me!

Last year I began to get more interested in some tropical species, among which was Green island ficus, Ficus microcarpa. This year I’ve been working on stock for the future, along with getting a jump-start on some offerings. I had bought a few larger specimens of both Green island and Willow leaf ficus, including this Green island I decided to keep for myself.









As you can see from the progression photos, this little guy has come a long way in just over two months. They never stop growing, even indoors during winter, so I figured it would fill out pretty quickly.

But there’s more to this one’s story.

At our last local club meeting, on August 15th, the theme was tropical bonsai and I decided to bring it in in large part to show off the Chuck Iker pot (one of the primary reasons I’m keeping the tree). A day or two before, as I was checking on my trees, I happened to notice this one was actually pushing an aerial root from the left-side branch! It was only an inch or so long, and jutted straight out from the branch. I literally have no experience with tropical species that produce aerial roots, so while I was enamored with the baby aerial root I had no expectation that anything would come of it. I mean, we don’t live in the tropics despite our oppressive summer humidity. So I truly expected the root to wither away.



Imagine my surprise when I noticed, a few days ago, that this aerial root had actually found its way down into the soil! I literally did nothing but ignore the tree. And then a couple of days ago, I noticed yet another aerial root emerging from a back branch – all on its own.

Is this the way to make aerial roots on trees? Well, it’s obviously not an applied technique as it just happened. I’ve heard of such techniques as putting drinking straws around the roots to increase the humidity around them. I don’t know how well this works, to be honest. So going forward, I guess I may end up learning a thing or two.



I’d love to hear what you think of this nice surprise I got. Do you grow tropicals? Do you have any experience with aerial roots on ficus?

How To See A Bonsai In Your Material

How often have you sat staring at a pre-bonsai specimen, wondering what the heck to do with it? You’re certainly not alone. Even seasoned pros sometimes have to study at length before the design becomes apparent. I always counsel that the trunk of your tree is where everything begins. Is it stout, or feminine, or hunky, or gnarly, or curvy? There’s infinite variety out there, and it’s a sure bet that along the way trees will catch your eye that produce an immediate “Ah ha!” kind of reaction. As you get more experienced making bonsai, it does get easier to see the bonsai in any given piece of material. You never get past being stumped on occasion; but it’s really nice when you know just what to do.


This is one of those cases where “Ah ha!” happened pretty quickly for me. As I studied the tree, I just saw a spreading bonsai that was less tall that it was wide. “Low-slung” came to mind. And for this sort of tree, you need a shallow tray to pot it in. I happened to have this Shawn Bokeno oval on the shelf, and it was just the right size.

Speaking of size, can you tell how big this tree and pot are? Well, the tree is only about 12″ tall from the soil surface. The pot is 6″ wide and only 1″ tall. Isn’t that something?


So, in case you were having some difficulty seeing where this tree might be going, here’s a better way to view it. You can’t see in this photo that the base of the trunk emerges from the soil in a curve that continue on up into the trunk. When you see angles like these, you’ll also see the harmony that either exists on its own or that you can create or enhance. In this case, I’ll be using wire to enhance the curviness of the trunk and major branches.


Now the unneeded branches have been trimmed. It’s easier to see in this photo what the ultimate design is going to be. As you gain experience making bonsai, you’ll be able to see these designs almost immediately in your material. Then it’s just a matter of cutting away the stuff you don’t need and wiring the rest.


Now the wire is on, and the shape of this bonsai-in-the-making is just about done.



Potted and given its finished shape (for today).

The long branch on the right can stand a bit of trimming, and this will happen as the tree recovers from today’s work.

But the important thing to take from this sequence of photos is the process of going from raw material to potted tree. I “saw” this design as I studied the raw material. The important thing about this is it only left me with some training techniques to perform. Ultimately, when we make bonsai our job is to spot the design in the material and bring it to fruition. It’s not always easy and it doesn’t always happen on the first go-round. But with time and practice, that happens more and more frequently.

Let me know what you think of this neat bonsai-to-be.

Shohin Bonsai-To-Be: Three Cheers For The Little Guys

Just because a there’s not much to a bonsai, doesn’t mean there’s not a lot to that bonsai. Take the case of the shohin specimen – a bonsai that is less than 12″ from the soil surface to the tip of the apex. In terms of mass, there’s just not a lot to a shohin bonsai. But in terms of what the bonsai is intended to be – that is, a representation of a large, mature tree in nature – it’s amazing what a shohin bonsai packs into those 12″. Even more amazing is how this is accomplished with no more than a handful of branches.

Today was a rainy day almost from start to finish, so I puzzled around for what I could do outside in the rain. I settled on lifting a Dwarf yaupon – more on that in the near future – and taking a couple of photographs of shohins I’ve been working on in recent days. I think they’ll end up being awesome bonsai. And packing that awesomeness into a very small space.


I’ve been growing this American elm, Ulmus americana, in the ground for the past few years to increase trunk size.

I’ve cut it back a couple of times, planning on a standard grow-and-chop development of the tree into a nice size pre-bonsai or bonsai. Well that’s the normal route you’d take, and so would I.

But recently I decided to see if I could make a smaller bonsai out of this one for a change of pace.


On June 24th I lifted, trimmed, carved, and potted this little guy. The leaves on it are the ones it came out of the ground with. For those of you familiar with American elm, at least from my writings, I have declared the species “King of Leaf-size Reduction.” In the wild, left alone to grow rampantly, they will produce leaves that are easily 5″ long. If you happen to take note of this while scouting for specimens to lift, you might consider the species unsuited to bonsai. Well, that’s certainly not the case. Once you get to the fine development stage of an American elm bonsai, you can expect to get the leaves down to under 1/2″ and even as small as 1/4″ in length. It’s truly amazing.

Which in this case means these leaves would be removed from the tree, with the expectation that I’d get a shoot in every leaf axil with smaller and of course more numerous leaves.


And here we are today, with a lot of new foliage (smaller, of course).

With a trunk base of 1.5″ and a height of less than 12″, I see a broom-form shohin American elm bonsai that will have a terrific structure before the end of this growing season. That’s how fast they grow.


Here’s a Green island ficus, Ficus microcarpa, that I potted up on June 23rd. I’ve grown very fond of the species, and as a result have introduced it to my offerings this year.

This little guy, with a trunk base of 1.25″ and a height of 7″, is another example of a shohin bonsai. It has exactly four branches, not including the apex.

To make this specimen into something believable, I have to get the design spot-on. I mean, when you think about it there’s a whole 7″ in which to make a tree-form emerge. Every branch has to do its part.


A month later, this shohin bonsai-to-be has put on a lot of new growth.

I removed a low branch that was coming straight toward the viewer, opening up the trunk better. I got a bud on the left side of the trunk above the low left branch, and it’s now growing out (that’s my fifth branch). The branch nearest the apex has extended, and I’ve wired and positioned it.

There’s more work to do, obviously, but by the end of summer I expect to have this design mostly done.


And finally, here’s the champion of the blog post, a Dwarf yaupon, Ilex vomitoria ‘Nana.’ I won’t relate the whole story of this specimen just yet – there’s another blog post to be written on it – but consider that the trunk base on this tiny specimen measures 1.5″ and it’s a mere 3″ to the tip of the leader at the left side of the tree. I can tell you this guy is destined for a semi-cascade style. It doesn’t look like much yet, but if you strain a little you can see where it’s going.

Shohin bonsai are ideal for those who have limited space for their pastime. They do present unique challenges, the most obvious perhaps being that they exist in a very limited quantity of soil. You’ll need to make provision for this if you decide to get into shohin. But I can tell you, it’s well worth the effort.

Do you grow shohin bonsai? If so, I’d love it if you’d share some of your experiences with us.