Bald Cypress Development – Two Styles, Two Points In Time

bald cypress development – two styles, two points in time

Sneak Peek

There are two basic styles of Bald cypress bonsai – pyramidal (formal/informal upright) and flat-top. Their development and the speed at which they develop could not be more different.

Bald Cypress Development – Two Styles, Two Points in Time

There are two basic styles for Bald cypress – what we call “pyramidal” style, which is just what it sounds like in its silhouette, and what we call “flat-top,” which is the mature stage of the species’ growth where the bulk of the foliage is found in the very apex of the tree but has spread out. The pyramidal style can be formal or informal upright. Flat-tops typically are informal upright in their trunk style, though there’s certainly nothing wrong with a formal specimen.

The other factor I apply when deciding on a style for a BC is the base to height ratio of what will be the finished tree. Take this specimen on the right, for example, which was collected in 2017. With a base of 6″ (that’s measured 6″ above the soil), and a trunk chop at 26″, we can figure on a finished height of about 40″. With a ratio of height to base as large as this, the flat-top in my opinion would not be believable. So when I collect trees with this sort of ratio, I’m automatically thinking pyramidal style.


It took a couple of years for this tree to get well-established, but once the strong growth kicked in I was able to being its development. This photo is from 2019.

The tree was purchased by a client in 2019, with the understanding that a lot of the development work lay ahead. For a tree this size, you can expect to spend about 10 years getting the styling and new apex in reasonable shape to make a showable bonsai. This photo is a good example of where you can be in five years.

I did another round of styling on the tree you see in the photo above, then potted it into this mica pot. The branch structure is in very good shape. The leader has been through multiple rounds of grow and chop, and is thick enough at the base to allow for a bonsai pot. More thickening is necessary – that’s obvious from the photo. But the completion of that part of the development process can be done with the tree in a training pot. All that’s required is to let the leader grow out without any pruning through the growing season. Then it gets cut back next year, another leader is allowed to grow, and the process is repeated. In the meantime, the branches get thicker and they grow out and get cut back.

As I said, developing a Bald cypress of this size in the pyramidal style is a 10-year project. We’re in year five. There’s no question that in five more, the tree will have reached a “finished” state.

Now on to the other style of BC bonsai, the flat-top. I posted a blog on this tree just over a month ago. It was collected a year ago, and given that it was reasonably suited to both bonsai styles I decided to go with the flat-top style. It’s certainly a quicker way to get to a showable tree.

Here’s the beginning. It doesn’t look like much, does it? But there’s always method in the madness.


Here we are five weeks later. Well, a lot has changed! I’m taking advantage of one of the most important characteristics of Bald cypresses – apical dominance! You see, when making a flat-top BC you want the apical dominance in order to move the development along as quickly as you can.
After all, the main thing about a flat-top BC is the FLAT TOP. That means growing the top quickly and vigorously. BC’s always comply. As you can see, in only five weeks I’m able to move into the second phase of development. Contrast this with the pyramidal style. The second phase doesn’t happen in year one. In fact, if you ask youself what is the second phase of training a pyramidal BC, you might have to scratch your head. It goes like this: branch growth and root system building, with a leader selected well into year one; pruning away competition for the leader in year one, wiring and training up the new leader; in year two, making the angled cut at the original trunk chop to begin the tapering transition process; wiring a branch set and managing energy between the leader, the lowest branches and those between the lowest branches and those nearer the apex. That’s phase two, and it “blends” or morphs into phase three. Phase three is chopping the leader and regrowing a new one, to create taper in the leader; continuing to manage branch energy downward; carving the angled cut if you haven’t already, so when the callus grows over it remains smooth. Phase three is a continuation of the one before, and continues for three years or more. At this point you’re getting closer to a realistic tree form.

Bear in mind that all this while you can literally create an entire flat-top Bald cypress bonsai. And it’s not because the flat-tops are typically of smaller trunk size. It’s because with the flat-top you only have to focus on and manage apical growth, of which you’ll have more than enough. Just look at this tree. I’m in year two with it. Even in a bonsai pot, the apex is growing strong enough to allow me to complete, or mostly complete, the design of the crown. When the year is over, all I’ll need to focus on is keeping the crown in check while I thicken and ramify the lower branches.

In a nutshell, these are the two styles of BC bonsai and timeframes for their development. I love both styles, so I can’t say I have a preference. I just know which one I can “complete” faster.

Let me know what you think.

My Big Cedar Elm Gets A Pot

my big cedar elm gets a pot

Sneak Peek

We collected this big Cedar elm in 2017. It’s taken five years to build the apex and branch structure. Time for a pot now.

My Big Cedar Elm Gets a Pot

We collected this large Cedar elm (Ulmus crassifolia) back in 2017. The base, bark, taper, and movement were what caught my eye. I knew I’d have to build the whole tree from this stump, but I also knew that it would be worth the effort.


Grow and chop, grow and chop, grow and chop. Wire, prune, unwire, prune, wire, prune, unwire, prune. (Do that for five years.) This is where you can get if you have a good plan and a cooperative species. Cedar elms are hard to beat!

First I did a rough pruning. This is not the time to be doing any detailed training. The goal for today is just to get the tree in a bonsai pot. The rest can be done there.

Now, the primary goal with a rough pruning is to reduce the foliar demand on what will be a seriously pruned root system. Supply and demand are the key things to keep in mind.

Not surprisingly, the tree has grown a massive root system in five years.

When confronted with this sort of thing, and assuming you know where the surface roots are, I recommend just taking your reciprocating saw and cutting the root mass flat (meaning take off most of what you need to be gone). You can get more precise once the rough work is done.

Here’s the final result, after the rough cut followed by scissors to bring the mass in. I think I’ve balanced foliage and root pretty well.

I’ve had this Chuck Iker round for several years now. The color is exquisite. It might not be the right color for the tree, but it does work and I can always change it later on. For now, I think I’ve got a pretty good composition.

Let me know what you think.

Potting & Repotting Season – Beech And Crape Myrtle

potting & repotting season – beech and crape myrtle

Sneak Peek

Spring is all about potting and repotting. Here are an American beech and an old Crape myrtle getting some attention.

Potting and Repotting Season – Beech and Crape Myrtle

I’ve been working on this American beech, Fagus grandifolia, for a couple of years now. Last year I got the tree to really kick in some ramification by a technique of leaf-cutting described in this blog. With a good set of roots already going, I decided there’s no point in waiting any longer to move the tree to a bonsai pot.


I’ve had this Richard Robertson pot for about 30 years now. I figured it would make a good home for my beech – only I discovered that due to the root base “configuration” the tree would not fit deep enough into the pot to keep some roots from pointing a little too much upward.

The lesson here is to always have alternatives (more than one, too!). This pot is a beautiful piece by the late Paul Katich. It’s somewhat too big for the tree, however, it does posses adequate depth. It will do nicely until repotting time.

And here’s the result. I did a little trimming of the branching, and now we wait for bud-burst. I’ll post an update later in spring.

I’ve mentioned on more than one occasion that Crape myrtles are “super rooters.” This venerable old specimen, which I helped my friend Allen Gautreau collect over 30 years ago, is definitely in need of root-pruning. It’s been a couple of years since the last round.


I removed the moss, carefully loosened the tie-down wires, and here’s what I found. Lots and lots of roots.

No need to be shy when root-pruning Crapes. Here I’ve removed about half of the total root mass. The tree will not care; in fact, it will do better for having more room to grow.


Back in the pot.

How many different scoops have you tried for putting bonsai soil in your pots? I’ve used my share, still do, but this is by far the best one ever. Nothing else gets the soil right where it needs to be.


Soil’s in, light trimming done. The tree should bud very soon – this is typical behavior right after a spring root-pruning.

This Crape will be a lot happier now, with room to grow fresh new roots. Repotting is one of the easiest bonsai activities to neglect, and also one of the most damaging ones.

Let me know what you think.

Potting & Repotting Season – Bald Cypress

potting & repotting season – bald cypress

Sneak Peek

Let’s make a formal upright bonsai!

Potting and Repotting Season – Bald Cypress

The BC’s are coming out – these are trees from south of me that “remember” where they’re from, so usually nothing comes out before they do.

This specimen is a fine formal upright in the making. The basal flare is outstanding, taper is just right, and we can tell by the growth (all this happened last year) that the tree is strong. I see no reason not to move it to a bonsai pot and complete the training there.


The first order of business is to make the year two angled chop. The goal of course is to create a tapering transition from the original trunk into the new apex. I need to make the angled chop so that when it heals, the transition will be smooth and look natural. For larger BC specimens, this process takes several years to get right. It’s one of those things you can’t rush.

Bippity boppity boo! I use a trunk splitter, which frankly you won’t find a better tool for this work. You start at the bottom holding the tool so that it makes an angled cut. The sharp edges give you just the right amount of grip. It takes a few to several bites with the trunk splitter to rough out the cut, depending on the size of the specimen. This one was just a few. Then I was able to use my knob cutters to finish the rough work, followed by a hand carving tool to make everything nice and smooth.

Here’s the result after I sealed the cut surface. Notice I also shortened the leader. This is also a necessary step in the development process. If you let the leader run without “grow and chop,” you don’t get the taper you need.

I cut the leader a bit long to ensure I get a bud in a good spot. This stub will be cut back again once I have a nice new leader.

One of the biggest challenges in presenting any bonsai is the pot. I figured a rectangle would work well in this case, and sure enough this antique Tokoname piece suits the tree very nicely.

In my small corner of the bonsai universe, the two toughest styles are formal broom and formal upright. I’m not sure which is tougher. With formal upright, a lot of the difficulty lies in the material. It’s a sure bet that not every pole-straight specimen will make a quality formal upright bonsai. This tree definitely makes the cut.

If you’ve been looking for a quality formal upright Bald cypress bonsai, this tree is available in our Shop. It will ship sometime in May.


Bald Cypress Collecting Trip #3 For 2022

bald cypress collecting trip #3 for 2022

Sneak Peek

More specimens from this week’s trip.

Bald Cypress Collecting Trip #3 for 2022

It’s a given that I’ll have Bald cypresses budding out each year before just about everything else – Chinese elms usually being first. Because the BC’s I collect are mostly sourced south of where I am, they come with “memory” and bud at pretty much the same time their brothers still in the swamp do.

I mention this because most of the BC’s on my benches collected in years past are pushing buds. If we get a warm-up sometime in the next couple of weeks, which appears likely, these new specimens shouldn’t be far behind in signalling probable survival. It makes for an exciting time of year!

This is my favorite specimen from today’s haul. It’s not all that big – trunk 3.5″ measured 3.5″ above the soil, chopped at 20″ – but the buttress on it is “wicked.” This is going to make an outstanding BC bonsai.


Here’s the biggest one we brought home, with a trunk measuring 5″ and chopped at 26″. Very nice buttressing.

This is a 3″ specimen, measuring 24″ to the chop. I think it’s a legitimate formal upright to be. The fluting is very good, as you can see.

I always look for obvious flat-top material when I’m out hunting, and this specimen is just perfect for the style. The slender, graceful trunk has just the right amount of movement in it, and the base features radial surface roots that produce a stable and mature appearance.

One thing I really like about flat-top cypresses is that you can finish their development in just two seasons.

Let me know what you think of these specimens. I also run a “wish list,” so if you’re in the market for a nice BC (or other species) just shoot me an email.

Bald Cypress Collecting Trip #2 For 2022

bald cypress collecting trip #2 for 2022

Sneak Peek

More specimens from this week’s trip.

Bald Cypress Collecting Trip #2 for 2022

The weather has taken a cold turn recently. Though we do alternate with moderate days, it seems that every weekend it turns cold again. As far as collecting trees is concerned, cold weather (I don’t mean bitterly cold freezing weather with frozen solid ground) is actually good. Down here it’s not at all uncommon for us to see fairly warm weather in February. Based on what I see in the forecast, that won’t be happening this year. I’m okay with that, as long as we don’t get freaky cold weather in March or April (which has been known to happen).

Here’s a nice specimen we brought home today. The base is 3.5″, which makes for a nice “statement” tree. Height is one of the key natural features of Bald cypress, giving the species much of its character. When you have great taper and a nice flaring fluted base, you’re just a set of branches away from a great bonsai.


This one’s a bit larger than the one above, with a base of 4″ (these basal measurements, incidentally, are taken above the soil meaning in this case 4″ above the soil). So the root spread is bigger.

The character of this one is outstanding.

Here’s another 4″ specimen. The flaring base is a great feature and will give an instant look of age.

This one is the most unusual for the day. What I spotted about it from a distance was the subtle fluting. For a BC this small, in this case with a 2.25″ trunk base, you just don’t find the beginnings of fluting that often.

When I got up close and started clearing around the trunk, I noticed the neat root coming off the side. And on that root is a “knee-like” bump. Very unsual for a BC this small. So this one is very special.

Let me know what you think of these bonsai to be.