I Like Collecting Odd Species Too – And Even The Impossible

I’m somewhat a creature of habit when it comes to bonsai. I have a group of species I prefer to work with, and whenever I go collecting I pretty much stick to the known. But that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy the occasional odd species. As for the impossible? Well, I mostly steer clear of them, but ….

Let’s start with the odd. I don’t work with pines all that much, but I’ve made it a goal of mine to learn more about them. I truly love the way pine bonsai look – but I haven’t had much success in the past.

On yesterday’s collecting trip, I ran across this unusual specimen. It was growing up through a fence, though fortunately none of the fence wires had been engulfed by the tree. After cutting away some of the wires, we got it disentangled. I took as much soil with it as I could, knowing that there would be mycorrhiza on the roots that must not be disturbed. When I got it home, I put it straight into a nursery container and surrounded it with my normal soil. But no root disturbance past cutting off the tap.

Where’s the front of the tree? I don’t know yet, and fortunately I don’t need to know for some time. The main thing is that the tree live and gain strength in a pot. Then I’ll figure the rest out.

What species of pine is this? I’m not sure, but I’m thinking short-leaf pine, Pinus echinata.

This one measures 2.75″ at the base, and is 26″ to the tip of the taller apex.








Now on to the next odd species. I collected this one last week. I believe it’s a Sweet bay magnolia, Magnolia virginiana. Southern magnolia is common down here and commonly thought of. I wouldn’t attempt to make a bonsai with Southern magnolia. But Sweetbay magnolia? Well, it’s an odd species for bonsai but why not? Now, I have no idea if this species can be collected successfully, no idea if it’ll backbud and no idea if it can be trained. So we’ll just wait and see how all of those things go.

The base on this one is 3″, and it’s 11.5″ to the chop.


And finally, the impossible. Here we have the venerable Sycamore tree, Platanus occidentalis. Among the champions in terms of leaf size, these clock in at 4-8″ long and wide. This wouldn’t be so bad, considering that some species feature dramatic leaf-size reduction in a bonsai pot, but you can tell just by looking at Sycamores in the wild that they don’t want to produce small leaves and ramification. I’ve never seen a Sycamore bonsai, and I’m sure I know why. But this particular specimen came up near a larger one I had taken down when I cleared my property a few years ago. The nice thing about it is, it’s grown with some trunk movement. They’re usually arrow straight without any hint of taper. So as long as I’m going to tackle the impossible, I figured this was as good a subject as possible.

The trunk base on this one is 3″, and it’s 20″ to the chop. I can hardly wait for the giant leaves to start appearing.

I’ll keep you posted on the progress. In the meantime, let me know what you think about any of these.

The Rare Deep-South Winter Wonderland

Yesterday we got a rare bout of freezing rain and sleet, enough to put a light coating on everything. Well worth documenting.

Temps fell to the low 20’s this morning. This shouldn’t be cold enough to kill anything on my benches, especially since it’ll warm up a bit today.

This JBP Has Been Abused And Neglected – Can It Take This?

Several years ago I bought 50 Japanese black pine, Pinus thunbergiana, seedlings. I hadn’t worked much with pines but wanted to give it another try, and I knew that JBP does very well here in the Deep South. Hence plenty of raw material.

I planted about 30-40 of them in the ground, most in a clearing at the back of my property; the rest went into either pots or another ground growing area in full sun. Then I waited to see how they’d do. I lost some the first year, then more the second year. By the third year it was time to have some trees removed from my property, and the tree cutters found a great spot to roll the logs prior to removing them – right over the bulk of my pines. I didn’t find any trace of them.

Now I was down to about eight seedlings left. I did some in-ground training on the ones I’d planted out of harm’s way, and left the ones in pots alone. Another couple of years went by, and one by one they all died – all except for one lone specimen in a pot. I ignored this survivor, except for feeding and overwatering it. I had stuck it in a pot with really lousy soil – I’m not even sure how I put that soil together, it was so mucky. But the tree trooped on, growing ever so slowly.

Earlier this year I noticed this tree had grown a pretty long leader, but had some nice lower branching. Since it had decided not to die, despite every effort on my part, I went ahead and cut off the leader. Then proceeded to ignore it some more.

Today I got a wild hair and decided this valiant JBP deserved a shot at a bonsai pot. So here’s the result:

jbp9-16-16-1It’s a nice looking little tree, isn’t it? While it’s not particularly large, it is at least 10 years old. The trunk has some nice movement, and there’s a decent set of branches. Now, I’m pretty confident this guy isn’t going to last through the coming winter, maybe not even to the arrival of winter, but we do have an understanding between us. It’s going right back to neglect-ville, which is my bonsai secret weapon. If it survives, I’ll drag it out in spring and post an updated photo. If not, then of course we won’t speak of it again.

The Live Oak Made It – Yeah!

Part of my bonsai journey, and perhaps yours as well, has been to try new things from time to time – and sometimes things that don’t make a lot of sense when you first undertake them. Take for example “collecting out of season.” I think we’re all familiar with the admonition to only collect trees during dormancy, in other words winter. While this principle is hard to argue with, it is also not universal. Years ago I figured out that it’s best to collect sweetgums in May, because the survival rate is higher. I learned from local experts that water-elms are best collected in July and August.

A couple of years ago, on a whim, I decided to lift a water oak on my own property in summer. The tree survived, which led me to branch out to willow oak, which also survived. I found that these species can be collected into August. This year I decided it was time to try lifting a live oak, Quercus virginiana, in summer, so in July I dug this tree from my growing bed.

Liveoak7-30-16-3I decided to leave the foliage you see on the tree and to place it in the shade. In a few days the edges of the leaves began browning, so I went ahead and cut them mostly off – I was careful not to cut too close to the petioles, in order to not damage the dormant buds in the leaf axils. Then I waited.










It took a couple of weeks, but finally some buds started swelling. If you look closely enough you can see the new shoots just about to start pushing. As I mentioned in the earlier post on this tree, I do need to cut the leaders back hard – but that is not a task to be done this year. The tree needs to get established in its nursery pot first, which means I wait until next spring to cut. The good news is, live oak grows with surprising vigor in a pot. For a tree that can live several hundred years, it’s not something you’d expect. But I’m all for vigorous growth, so I’m not complaining for a second.

If you’re interested in live oak for bonsai let me know. I plan to offer some for sale next year, and will be happy to put your name on my live oak “wish list.”


Loblolly Pine Initial Styling

Loblolly12-19-15-2This loblolly pine, Pinus taeda, started out as a much taller specimen featuring a secondary leader that was an obvious choice to cut to. Since the tree wasn’t going anywhere as it stood, I chopped the main trunk down to the secondary leader this past summer. If you look closely you can see where the original trunk line was.

The tree responded by pushing a ton of new shoots. I removed most of these and then applied some wire. Frankly, the tree didn’t look like much, so the situation called for a little vision and artistry.









This was a relatively simple solution, but I think you can see what I see as the future of this pine. Next year I’ll let the crown fill out, giving the tree a more rounded top. I wouldn’t mind the descending branch on the left falling a little lower, about to mid-trunk; that can be done during the 2016 growing season as the branch grows out.

I think this loblolly will make a fine bonsai in just two or three years.

If you’d like to continue the development of this tree, it’s available at our Pine Bonsai sale page.

Bonsai Design – Going With The Flow

Creating Deadwood Bonsai – Even When You Hadn’t Planned To

As you pursue the art and craft of bonsai, it’s a sure bet that all of your design ideas will not be realized. While this may sound like a bad thing – we’re in charge of designing and developing our trees, after all – it’s not necessarily bad. If you’ve done any significant collecting of material for bonsai, you’re bound to have run across trees with odd enough (but really cool) “designs” that you would never have thought of if you had had total control.

So, too, it often is with trees after they’ve come into our care. We begin with a design plan, which is usually given to us by how the tree has chosen to grow. We dutifully wire and shape branches and new leaders and wait patiently as the designs take shape. Most of the time we get what we set out to do, at least in the beginning. But on occasion a tree will decide to give up a branch; sometimes a storm makes a change we didn’t have in mind; sometimes a family pet or wild animal enters the design picture.

Loblolly10-3-15-3You last saw this loblolly pine bonsai, Pinus taeda, back in early October. I noted at the time that the first left-side branch needed chasing back in, as it was simply too long for the design plan. What I didn’t notice at the time was that the branch was simply weak; why, I don’t know. So the tree made the decision for me in regard to being overlong; it let the branch go.










Here’s the difference a month made. There’s been no harsh weather, no unusual dryness, no insect attack. The branch just died. This happens in the wild, as well. We just took a vacation road trip, and I couldn’t help but notice countless pines along the way (mostly loblollies, as it’s the predominant pine species in the Deep South) that had lost just a single branch. So at this point I’m willing to conclude that it’s not unexpected for this to happen with the species. I haven’t been working with loblollies but for a few years now, so I’ll learn more in time as I gain additional experience.

Loblolly11-16-15-2So a design decision has been made for me, which it turns out won’t be bad. This is because coniferous bonsai look older and more mature with dead wood features – primarily jin and shari. This tree lost a branch; time to make the most of it.


What follows is a tutorial on creating deadwood bonsai – which primarily consists of jin and shari, but in this case is limited to jin. Now, you don’t have to wait for your tree to lose a branch in order to add jin. With that said, however, you have to be as diligent in designing a jin or shari feature as you are in building your tree’s structure. Most of the time, less is more (this rule obviously does not apply to certain pine or juniper bonsai that are built around extraordinary natural deadwood – you’ve no doubt seen pictures of such specimens). In the case of my tall, graceful loblolly pine, I don’t need a lot of dead branches to make the appropriate artistic statement.

First of all, you only need three tools to create jin on your trees, and every bonsai artist must have these three tools regardless of the type of work planned: concave cutters, wire pliers and a sharp grafting or X-Acto® knife.

So let’s begin learning some basic deadwood bonsai techniques. Step one is to simply shorten the dead branch. Not too short, but not too long either. This looks about right to me.

Loblolly11-16-15-3Step two is bark removal (in the wild, the bark eventually falls off dead branches as they dry out before ultimately become bleached out by the elements). This is a two-part process, the first part of which is to cut through the bark completely around the branch as its base – you use your knife for this operation, as I’m doing here.










Next I take my pliers and, gripping the bark along the branch, crush and twist it until it separates from the wood beneath. For branches that are either still alive when turned into jin or recently dead, the bark comes off very easily.











And the result…. Isn’t it interesting how much of a difference this already makes in the tree’s appearance?







Step three is making the jin look believable, that is, not like someone just killed the branch, shortened it and removed its bark (which I did). This again is a two-part process, the first of which is to make two longitudinal cuts, at 90° angles to each other, into the tip of the branch. To do this, use your concave cutter as I’m doing in this photo. Don’t cut too far in along the branch; just enough to allow you to grip and separate three of the four segments by peeling them back with your pliers. This makes the jin look more natural.










Now, with your pliers carefully grab one of the segments at its tip and peel back toward the trunk. It’ll tear roughly along the direction of the longitudinal cut you made in the previous step. Repeat this process with two more of the segments. As you tear back the wood, be sure that you taper it into the branch so that it looks more realistic.

Finally, use your carving knife to complete the tapering down to a sharp tip.









This is the completed jin. It needs to dry out for a week or two before I apply lime sulfur to whiten and preserve it.







Loblolly11-16-15-9Here’s my loblolly pine, redesigned to make use of the dead branch. Compared to the original photo above, I think the tree is much improved. What do you think?