Hornbeam Harvest Part 2

I made a collecting trip with a new bonsai friend today, and we got some really nice American hornbeams (Carpinus caroliniana).  Among the nicknames for the species is “Musclewood.”  This is because as it matures the trunk of a hornbeam will produce sinewy-looking ridges that run vertically along and sometime around the trunk.

Here’s the biggest specimen I got today.  The trunk base is 4.5″ at soil level, and it’s 18″ to the chop on the main trunk.  As you can see, it’s a twin-trunk with the two trunks really snugged together.  I have a vision for it, so once it comes out I’ll get to work and see if my idea is going to work.

Aren’t the roots terrific?  The muscling on this specimen is subtle but there.  You can even see it on the small branch stub I left.








This is the best specimen I got today.  The trunk base is 4″, and it’s 19″ to the chop.  There was a secondary trunk growing in back, and I went ahead and cut it off.  The trunk will need carving there, but that will only enhance the character.

The muscling is much more prominent on this one.  And the radial roots are awesome.











I love the movement, muscling and character of this specimen.  It’s smaller than the other two, with a trunk base of 2″, but the roots are still great and if you’re looking for a smaller American hornbeam that has great trunk character, you’d be hard-pressed to do better.

This one is chopped at 16″.  It might could stand to be chopped another 4″ or so.  That’s something I can decide later.

Let me know what you think.  These trees should be budding in about eight weeks.

Hornbeam And Huckleberry Trunks

I posted a blog a couple of weeks ago about new American hornbeam and Huckleberry specimens I’d collected.  That post disappeared when we changed hosting services.  I don’t feel like trying to recreate that blog, so here’s a replacement to show you a few nice trees that will hopefully survive lifting and come available in about two months.

Here’s a nice smaller hornbeam specimen (1.5″ base on the main trunk).  It’s actually a triple-trunk.  The main trunk has really nice taper and movement.  The two smaller trunks are proportionately smaller, which is just what you want, so I think this could make a terrific multi-trunk bonsai in just a few years.






Continuing the theme of multi-trunk bonsai-to-be, this hornbeam is a very elegant twin-trunk.  Think of them as “close companions.”  Most twin-trunks don’t feature the trunks quite so close together.  I’m looking forward to seeing how this one looks once it’s designed.  With a base of 1.75″, it’s a good size also.









This hornbeam also has a 1.75″ trunk, and really great trunk character.  I chopped the trunk to a smaller branch that was growing straight up.  It’s not quite a formal upright, but it’s definitely an upright specimen and the height should be emphasized when it’s designed.













This Huckleberry has a pretty stout trunk, 1.75″ at the base, and also good taper.  It should produce a decent number of trunk buds, which will allow for good design choices.










This specimen is smaller than the one above, 1.25″ at the base, but really nice character and I was able to chop to a smaller trunk (which I left too long, but you can always chop more).  That makes for really good taper.  It’s currently 9″ from soil to apex, so when it gets chopped and then grown into a bonsai the finished height could well be less than 12″.  I’m really fond of shohin bonsai.  How about you?


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.

It’s Showtime! How To Prepare Your Tree

My local bonsai club is having its fall show this coming weekend.  I’ve been pondering which of my trees I’d like to show, and today this one caught my eye.

This, you might say, is one heck of a hornbeam.  The American hornbeam, Carpinus caroliniana, is one of the best deciduous species for bonsai, especially if you’re a beginner.  This one has a trunk base of 5.5″ above the root crown, and is 28″ tall from the soil surface.  I chopped the trunk when I first collected it back in 2011, and I’ve been working on it since.  I’ve reached the point where the only real macro development step left to do is flesh out the very apex of the tree.  I’ve grown and chopped the apex several times now, in order to build taper.  It’s come out pretty well, I think.

Okay, so what do you need to do to prepare a tree to show?  There will be some slight differences from tree to tree, but this list is fairly comprehensive:

  • Trim out all crossing branches, downward pointing branches, and branches that dart back into the tree or into the branch – the ugly ones that don’t belong, in other words
  • Remove upward pointing branches that cannot be used in the tree’s design; it’s a little hard to explain the difference in this blog post, but with experience you’ll know which is which
  • Trim to the tree’s correct silhouette
  • Remove ugly leaves
  • Trim pruning nubs – carve and smooth if need be
  • Clean the trunk
  • Clean the pot; oil unglazed pots (baby oil mixed with pumice works well)
  • Do any remedial or cleanup carving the tree needs
  • Treat carved wood, meaning jins, sharis and uros, with lime sulfur at least a week in advance of the show (to allow time for normal weathering)
  • Top dress the soil surface; pluck any weeds that have popped up
  • Place moss on the soil surface if you like (this is optional)

I have to do all of these things to this tree, so let’s get started.

I’ve done the bulk of the trimming and nub pruning in this photo.  It looks a good bit “cleaner” now, and the silhouette is restored.









I took my Dremel® to the big uro at the front.  It needed more carving; it’s much more flush with the trunk now, which helps it look more natural.










In order to top-dress the soil surface, I had to actually shear away a layer of the surface soil (along with a lot of roots).  Will this harm the tree?  No, I took at most 5% of the root mass.  American hornbeam roots like crazy, so I know the pot is chock full of fibrous roots.

In this photo I’ve also cleaned the trunk.  I used a 50:50 mixture of distilled white vinegar in water, sprayed on with a small spray bottle, and an ordinary toothbrush.  This works remarkably well.




I needed to do a little remedial carving of the trunk chop.  The wood was mostly quite durable.  I removed the small amount of punky wood, then brushed on some lime sulfur.  Once it has weathered, I’ll treat this area with wood hardener.





I took the opportunity to do a 360° portrait of this tree while I was show-prepping.  Here’s the right side.










And the back.










And the left side.












Back to the front, following the top-dressing.  I may put some moss on the soil before showing it; haven’t decided yet.

A question often asked is should a tree with wire on it be showed?  The purists say no.  I say a tree that’s fully wired shouldn’t be showed, but if there’s minimal wire present I don’t feel bad about doing it.  To each his own, I suppose.

Let me know what you think.

Bad Roots Or No Roots? How To Make Your Own

Happy Fourth of July!  There’s nothing like grilled meat, potato salad, watermelon, and the rest of the fixins followed by some fireworks.  Except for bonsai, of course.  Today I want to tackle what makes a lot of bonsai folks cringe, but which when you master it will pay awesome dividends.  By that I mean making roots where there are none and you need some.

When you’ve been in bonsai long enough you’re going to encounter one of the banes of the bonsai artist, namely, bad or no roots.  And by this I mean those nice surface roots, what is known as the nebari.  Ideally your bonsai, being a tree after all, is supported by a stable and attractive set of roots.  There should be at least three, the minimum to produce an impression of stability.  But what happens if you have an otherwise really nice tree but the surface rootage is bad or AWOL?

Here’s a classic example of this phenomenon, an American hornbeam, Carpinus caroliniana.  What I liked about this tree when I collected it is the rough bark, which is not normal for American hornbeam.  With good taper and an unusual growth habit, I thought and still do that this tree has the makings of a great bonsai.

The problem with this tree is that it has an unstable nebari.  There are flaring roots on the sides and in back of the tree, but across the front it’s just totally flat.  While this can be overlooked or covered with extra soil, that’s really not the solution to the problem.  The solution to the problem is to put roots where there are none.  That’s right, it’s time to partially layer this tree (*shudder*).

Now, you may be like some when faced with this chore and just avoid it.  Truth be told, many years ago when I was new at bonsai I avoided it like the plague.  I mean, they make it look so easy in the books and articles.  Well, sometimes in order to get better at something we just have to tackle those chores that seem more trouble than they’re worth, rather than avoid the issue altogether.  I hope to make it seem a little less daunting to you with this step by step lesson.

So, the first step in the process is to remove the soil from the area to be layered.  You can see the flat area I mentioned above.  The trunk just goes straight down into the soil, which frankly is ugly.  What we need is one or two roots that emerge from this area, ideally not coming straight toward the observer.



Now that I have the area where I need roots exposed, I’ve peeled away a section of bark all the way down past the cambium layer and just into the sapwood (or xylem).  It’s important to make this area wide enough so that when the growing callus begins to form it won’t be able to heal over before roots emerge.  This is true, by the way, whether you’re doing this type of operation or air-layering to make a new plant.

Notice one more thing in this photo.  The top of my cut is made just under the point where the flaring roots to either side begin to flare away from the straight part of the trunk, so they will look like they match up with the others.  The new roots are going to emerge from the top edge of this cut.  Remember how a tree works.  Roots are fed by nutrients that are transported down the inner bark (or phloem) from the leaves.  Roots are not made by an upward flow of nutrients, so nothing is going to happen at the lower edge of this cut.

Now get enough rooting powder to cover the area where you want the roots to be.  You can put this in a small dish, or if you’re really lazy like I am you can just put it in the palm of your hand.



Mix a little water with it to make a paste.  And for God’s sake, don’t be as messy doing it as I was.






Next, steal a small artist’s brush from your child or grandchild and “paint” on the rooting powder paste under the top edge of the cut, where you want to stimulate root growth.  (You can return the artist’s brush later, when they’re not looking.)



Thoroughly wet some long-fiber sphagnum moss and pack it up against the whole area you skinned.






Wrap the trunk of the tree with plastic film – Saran® wrap works well.  You can buy some fruit at the grocery store and put it in one of those handy bags, then when you get home toss out the fruit so you have a bag to work with (just kidding; fruit is awesome).  No matter what you use, make sure it’s placed tightly against the trunk.


Next tie above the layered area with some twine, to help make sure it remains moist.  Water can flow down the trunk during watering to help maintain the moisture level.







After trimming off the excess twine, add some soil over the edges of the plastic wrap to finish the job.  Now it’s time to set the tree aside and ignore it for a number of weeks.






About eight weeks, to be precise.  You can usually figure on about this timeframe when layering a tree.  Carefully unwrap the plastic, at which time you will typically see new white roots emerging from the sphagnum moss.  Just like here!





Another angle and a little closer.  Don’t remove the sphagnum moss at this time.  Keep it in place, which will help the new roots stay moist.  It can be removed at the next repotting.




The final step is to add soil to cover the new roots fairly deep with bonsai soil, which will help keep them moist.  You can also add some surface moss to the soil over the spot where the new roots are.

I hope this encourages you to try your hand at layering.  It can make such a big difference for your bonsai.

More New Collected Trees – Aren’t These Just Great?

Today was another opportunity to collect some great new material.  Here are a few of the trees I brought home today.

First up is yet another terrific Bald cypress, Taxodium distichum.  This one has a 5″ trunk 5″ above the soil surface, and is chopped at 27″.  The buttress is superb, and runs down into the soil.  I always bury my newly collected trees deep, to ensure the surface roots don’t dry out.  In the case of this cypress, the buttressing runs way down into the soil.  When this one finally gets raised in its bonsai pot, the effect is going to be stunning.












How’s this for a great American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana)?  The base is nice and wide, the taper outstanding, and the muscling is so typical of the species.  The basal diameter is 3.5″, and it’s 20″ to the chop.
















And last but not least, here’s a really awesome Parsley hawthorn, Crataegus marshallii.  I’m planning to keep this one for myself.  I just love the fluting in the lower trunk, and it’s got nice taper in a relatively short specimen.  The trunk base is 2.5″ above the root crown, and I’ve chopped it at 13″.  I’m planning a finished height of about 18″.

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

Did Some Collecting Today – Check Out This Great Hornbeam

Today I went out in hopes of collecting some bald cypress.  The water was up, however, so I had to fall back to Plan B.  I ended up with some yaupons, huckleberries and even a pine.  But the best find of the day was this tree, a truly great American hornbeam, Carpinus caroliniana.

This one checks all the boxes.  The flaring root base and radial roots are terrific, the trunk has very nice muscling and movement, and the taper is great.













I’m thinking this view shows off everything better.  What do you think?















And here it is, after I dusted the cut ends of the roots and potted it up.  Notice how the roots are buried, to ensure they stay moist.  And of course the trunk chop is sealed to prevent it drying out.

The base on this specimen is 4.5″, and it’s 24″ to the chop.  I would expect the final height of this tree will be about 32-34″.  The plan for this year is to let it grow out to get established in its nursery container.  I’ll wire the primary branch structure sometime in late April.  And of course there will be a new leader that will be allowed to run in order to produce a tapering transition from where the chop is into the new apex.

I should know in March whether I was successful with this one.

Leave a comment below and let me know what you think.  I’d love to hear from you.

Thank You For A Great 2016 – This Year Will Be Even Better

Happy New Year to all of you!

And many thanks to all of you who helped Bonsai South grow in 2016.  We’ve been doing better each and every year since I relaunched the business in 2010, and I’m happy to report that 2017 looks like it will be another record-setting year.

What can you expect this coming year and into the future?  The mainstay of our business is obviously larger collected specimens of various species – Bald cypress, Hawthorns, Oaks, American hornbeam, Sweetgum, Elms, and so on.  We’ve also done well with field-grown specimens of not only these but also non-native species such as Chinese elm.  Our plans for 2017 include adding more species along with greatly expanding our growing field; obviously we will also continue the tradition of collecting the best material we can find.  We expect to roughly double 2017 production, with plans for much more in subsequent years.

I get a lot of inquiries about new material, as you can imagine.  The Winter 2017 collecting season begins now, so in the coming weeks I’ll be posting photos of new collects.  When spring gets here there will be lots of new material for sale.

As always, we welcome any specific requests for trees you may have.  Just send me a note via our Contact page.




An American Hornbeam – Nice, Unusual And Challenging

American hornbeam, Carpinus caroliniana, is hands-down one of the best bonsai species for beginners.  I’ll be out looking for new material next month, but in the meantime I had this lone specimen left on the bench.  I collected it last year.  What I liked about it, aside from the size and obvious potential, was that it featured rough bark.  This happens sometimes with hornbeam, but frankly it’s unusual.

This tree took its time coming out in Spring 2016, so I fed, watered and otherwise ignored it.  Only recently did I take note of how well the leader thickened up as the growing season drew near its close.  That told me one thing, that the tree had produced a great root system.  This is typical for American hornbeam.

Given the fact that next month it’ll be time to go collect new hornbeams, I thought it might be a good time to play around with this one (it’s hard not to make bonsai, regardless of the time of year).

The first order of business was to address the chop.  The tree had produced a  nice bud right at the chop, and that bud had grown into a very strong leader.  No time like the present to make the angled cut that will produce the tapering transition needed in the apex.





Here’s the tool of choice for this operation – a trunk splitter.  It takes a bit of practice, but you eventually become adept at figuring out just the right spot to begin the angled cut.






This is as far as I can go with the trunk splitter.  Now it’s time for the knob cutters.











And this is the final result.  Now I have a good angled cut that takes the original trunk right into the new leader.  As the leader grows and fills out, it’ll continue to thicken which will make the tapering transition look smooth and natural.






Given how strong the tree’s root system is, I felt it was perfectly all right to go ahead and put it into this nice unglazed Chuck Iker round.  I’ve wired the branches in the apex and wired up a new leader.  Once the 2017 growing season is over, I think this will be a stunning tree.  And isn’t the fall color nice, too?

This tree does have one significant flaw I need to address next year.  It lacks a nice surface root in the front of the tree.  I plan to layer it this coming spring.  Given how vigorously hornbeams root, I’m confident I’ll be successful.

Do you grow American hornbeam?  Have you had good luck with the species?  Leave us a comment below.


American Hornbeam In Fall – Last Pruning For 2016

American hornbeam, Carpinus caroliniana, is one of my favorite species for bonsai and a great choice for beginners.  This particular specimen has been with me through six growing seasons now.  This past year I repotted the tree, which gave me a good opportunity to do some work on the roots, and of course the tree responded as hornbeams always do.  Here’s where it ended the growing season:

hornbeam11-20-16-1I let the tree grow out because it continues to need thickening of the branches, plus following the root-pruning I didn’t want to begin the pinching and refining process in the same year.  This can be done starting next year.












This operation took me about 15 minutes.  I removed all of the downward pointing branches and the crossing branches, and brought the profile of the tree inward.  I also shortened the very long leader, which was allowed to grow unchecked to continue thickening the transition point as I build taper in the apex of the tree.  I left this cut long, just to protect buds that are already apparent lower down on this leader.  I’ll recut in the spring, and begin the process of finishing the very top of the tree.

Stay tuned for updates on this specimen in 2017.  Also watch for new hornbeam stock, which should start appearing around March or April.

Comments are welcome, as always.