How To Make Great Designs A Little At A Time

I’ve shown you this Bald cypress forest, Taxodium distichum, in previous posts.  It was bequeathed to me by Allen Gautreau, and old bonsai friend I’d known for 25 years.  Allen did a really good job of designing this forest, including a nice selection of trees based on trunk size and height, and the composition is pleasing.  It has the look of a forest.  Over time, the trees took on an aged appearance, which is just what you want to happen.  And Allen had paid attention to detail on the individual trees, ensuring they exhibited a natural growth habit.

This forest has needed repotting since I got it, but I’ve put off the chore for no particularly good reason.  A couple of weeks ago I defoliated it, in preparation for the work (which I should have done at the time, but just didn’t get to).  The roots were really grown together, of course.  This is something to bear in mind whenever you repot a forest.  Do you separate the trees or repot the mass of trees as a group?  Well, it depends a lot on what needs to be done in regard to the composition.  If the composition is as you want it, then repotting can consist of pruning the roots around the edges of the forest in the pattern of the trees’ footprint.  This provides growing room for new roots, which is the purpose of repotting in the first place.

On the other hand, if you have to change your composition you’ll be faced with the chore of separating the trees.  This is done by cutting apart the root masses.  If you’re able to lift the forest out of the pot to get at the roots better, then by all means do so.  If not, then you’ll have to cut into the root mass in the pot to achieve the separation.

The only real problem I saw in this forest was the arrangement of the smaller three-tree group.  I felt the two trees on the right of this group should be closer together, which would enhance the visual depth of the group and thereby the composition itself.  It was a small change, but I thought making it would improve the composition a great deal.  So with that in mind, I set out to cut apart the forest.

But first, the trees all needed a good trimming to restore their silhouettes.  I shortened most of the branches and removed some unnecessary ones.

Once that was done, I started with the main tree and used my root-pruning shears to get down into the root mass.  My plan was to move this forest to a vintage Richard Robertson tray, which I felt would give it a more “swampy” appearance.  I started with the main tree because it’s the basis of every forest composition – the linchpin, as it were.  Where you put this tree determines where the others need to go.  I didn’t plan to reposition the main tree, but nonetheless it needed to be planted first.

The others then took their places, with the edits that were needed on the smaller group.

Here’s the end-result of the work.  Notice what I did with the three-tree group.  I actually repositioned the far-right tree behind and to the left of the middle tree – with a slightly narrower trunk, it can now provide much more visual depth to the group along with the overall composition.

I probably removed about half of the root mass of each of the trees in this repotting.  I don’t expect this to slow down the recovery much at all.  With the new buds pushing now, I should have a new flush of foliage in about three weeks.

Let me know what you think of this forest in its new home.

How I See This Wonderful Bonsai Journey. How About You?

Don’t be alarmed.  I promise not to wax lousy with philosophical babble about bonsai.  But I do want to try and convey is how I see the art and pastime, and hopefully I’ll hear from you so we can compare notes.

As most of you know, I got passionately into bonsai almost 30 years ago.  I was determined to use the native species that grew where I live, figuring if they didn’t survive bonsai training it could only be my fault.  I’ve pretty much stuck with this niche since that time, and I’ve had my successes and failures.

Being in the bonsai business means I’ve had a lot of trees come into my possession and go right back out again.  Like a flowing river, I suppose.  I don’t mind; I really enjoy the business.  I love being able to provide great raw material, and designed bonsai and bonsai-in-training to clients all over.  And it’s given me a lot more trees to work on.

I figured out years ago that what I enjoy best is bonsai design, that is, taking a piece of material and creating from it a representation of a mature tree in nature.  I’ve written before about all of the factors that go into achieving this goal: proportion, composition, forced perspective, complementary elements, and so on.  Plus add to this that the subject of the artwork is alive, grows in a way that we’re intent on altering, has certain biological needs that are not fulfilled by its living in a shallow, small container, and is subject to attack by all manner of pests and diseases while we manipulate its shape to suit our vision of it.  It’s nothing short of a miracle that we can even hope for a positive outcome.

Here’s one example of this seemingly impossible mission, my big Riverflat hawthorn.  Today I gave it a light trimming to restore its silhouette and remove crossing branches.  This tree has a 3″ trunk base and is about 30″ tall, and fits the category of large bonsai.  I’ve been training it now for eight years.  I personally think it’s wonderful.  It really does look like a mature tree in nature, which of course is the goal of bonsai.

 

 

 

 

Today I also made this American elm bonsai-to-be.  The trunk base is somewhere between 3/4″ and 1″ in diameter (depending on how high it’s ultimately potted), and the tree will probably be 14″ tall when done.  This is not a large bonsai, nor is it a shohin bonsai.  It’s just one of those in-between trees that has (I’m convinced) a lot of potential down the road.  The emphasis here is on “down the road.”

But here’s the thing.  I got just as much pleasure in making this ordinary bonsai-to-be as I did in the refining trimming of my much more impressive Hawthorn bonsai.  If I hadn’t told you how small this tree is, you might have thought it was much bigger: after all, American elm leaves can get as big as 5″ long.  So size was not really a factor here.  It was all about the designing and potting of the tree, making the composition by choosing the elements of tree, pot, ground cover, and so on.  I can see art in this rather ordinary elm specimen.  Do you?

Now for a real challenge!  I’ve done my share of growing Bald cypress from seed, and this is one example of a specimen started from seed a few years ago.  Last year I tried to grow a bunch in standing water, but that experiment really went south.  So I ended up potting the trees into gallon containers and leaving them alone.  This one grew in such a way that I could chop to create taper, but otherwise it had ended up shaped like a bow.  Really ordinary material.  In this photo you can see it without its foliage, which I stripped off in order to work on it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

In this photo you can see the big flaw in this specimen.  It just bows over, and that’s no design feature!  But not to worry.  Wire can fix many things.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So after a few minutes of really enjoyable wiring and shaping and trimming, followed by potting up the little guy, here’s what I came up with.  Do Cypresses grow as windswept specimens?  Well, I can tell you from living in Hurricane Katrina Land that there are many examples of Live oaks along the Gulf Coast that ended up this way, so I have no problem making a Bald cypress with this design.  One thing’s for sure, if I don’t like it I will get trunk buds that will give me a more traditional design if I choose to change it.

This one was fun as well.  I know from experience that Bald cypresses mature quickly in a bonsai pot.  Within a couple of years, the trunk is going to take on a grayness that hints of age even in a small specimen.  As I work on the branches, they’ll begin to make the tree look like more than what it is now.  This Bald cypress bonsai is about a five-year project to something really nice, despite its humble beginnings.

The point of all of this, I suppose, is to make a clear distinction between bonsai as a spectator sport and as the active working of trees and pots into artistic designs.  I don’t mean to minimize bonsai displays in club and other sponsored shows, so don’t get me wrong.  But that’s the very temporary result of all of the design work that encompasses many years of effort and vision.  And that, for me, is where bonsai is at.  Bonsai is 95% vision, sweat, work, setbacks, and more work, and about 5% kicking back and saying or thinking, “Man, that looks awesome!”

That’s my take.  What’s yours?

 

The Wonderful Cedar Elm, And A Lesson On How To Gauge Success

Cedar elm, Ulmus crassifolia, is one of the very best species for bonsai and especially for beginners.  They are “sturdy” trees, not being bothered by much in the way of pests and diseases.  They’ll take a good bit of abuse and neglect without objection.  They grow fast which allows for rapid development.  And they put on a nice rough bark at a fairly young age.

This past April I made a trip to Cedar elm country, having been invited by an old and dear bonsai friend to collect some specimens from his parents’ property.  To be sure, a January trip would have been better suited to lifting these trees, but it just couldn’t happen till April.  I figured that if any species could stand up to being collected out of season, Cedar elm would be one of them.  So I jumped at the chance.

A week after I’d gotten the trees home and potted up, they were all showing buds.  I’d collected just under 20, including a handful of larger ones, a handful of smaller ones and a handful of in-betweens.  Now, I’m generally leery of trees that pop buds a week after being collected, but there wasn’t anything to do about it so I just waited and watched.  Within four or five weeks, all of them had put on shoots ranging from an inch or so up to about six inches long.  I was encouraged, but I knew not to get too far ahead of myself.  And sure enough, they all stopped pushing new buds.

This is an important phenomenon to understand when you collect deciduous trees.  Usually you won’t have any fine roots on a tree collected from the wild.  This is all right – in fact, I’m convinced after 30 years doing it that it’s not even desirable.  Within a couple of weeks after collection or at budburst in spring if you collect in the dead of winter, your tree will produce trunk buds from stored food.  These buds will grow into shoots that will push anywhere from a few inches up to perhaps a foot in length.  At this point most species will pause their growth, and this pause is for a very important reason: it’s time for the tree to make new roots.  This is absolutely the critical point in the collecting process.  The tree has expended all of its stored energy making foliage to produce food plus, equally importantly, the hormone auxin which stimulates adventitious root growth.  If this process succeeds, new roots are made.  If it fails, the tree dies.

This is one of the in-between size Cedar elms I collected.  Nice trunk with some good character and starting to bark up.  As with the others, it pushed new growth over the first four or five weeks on the bench.  Then it stopped growing, as the others had.  It just sat there for at least a week or two, and did nothing.  Then one day when I was checking on things I noticed some tender new growth starting up.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s the tree today.  I photographed it from this angle in order to show you one of the key ways you can gauge your success with certain collected species.  Notice the color of the growing tips?  When you get strong growth on certain species, and Cedar elm is one of them, the growing tips produce a considerable amount of anthocyanins along with chlorophyll.  Anthocyanins are what give you the red and purple colors of fall foliage, and they play an antioxidant role in both foliage and fruit (think bluberries, cherries, etc.).  This may be why the plant produces more anthocyanins when it’s recovering from collection, but I’m not certain.  One thing I do know, it’s a way to gauge the success of your collecting effort with Cedar elm.  The initial shoots I got were just green; they were produced by stored food.  When the second round kicked in, I got the reddish color, larger leaves and stronger shoots.  I knew the tree was growing roots at this point.

Unsurprisingly, the smallest trees I collected produced roots first.  I’d potted two sets of three each, with the idea of making group plantings out of them.  Here’s one of the sets.  Nice variation of trunk size, nice trunk movement, nice taper, and the beginnings of bark.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Two months after collection, here’s this little group today.  The shoots are strong, with many well over a foot long.  And I could tell by wiggling them in the pot that they’d put on a nice volume of roots.  So I decided I’d take a chance and see if I could make something out of them.

 

 

 

 

 

First a trim.  It’s likely I’ll have to remove some root in order to get the group into a pot, so taking off some foliage will maintain the balance.  Looking at these trees, can you tell which is the main tree and where the others need to go?

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s what I came up with.  I think it’s a wonderful composition.  The primitive square pot is by Chuck Iker, and the color I think goes really well with the planting.  Once the group gets established and resumes growth, I’ll do some wiring and branch positioning.  But not today.

Notice that I’ve wired the three trunks together near the bottom to keep them stable while the roots grow together.  This is a trick you’ll need to employ sooner or later.

I plan to post this group planting for sale in a few weeks, assuming I didn’t cause any trouble today.  Given the good root development, I’m confident these trees will respond very well to their new home.

I’d love to hear what you think about this bonsai-to-be.

I Just About Killed This One, But It Taught Me A Good Lesson

Who can forget this image?  Back In March I lifted this Live oak, Quercus virginiana, from my growing bed with the intention of putting it directly into a bonsai pot.  The tree had a nice structure with a good set of branches that would allow me to create a bonsai-to-be right off the bat.  What could go wrong?

Well, I got some comments back regarding how hard I’d cut the roots.  The word “Ouch” was even used.  But this is what I had to work with.

 

 

 

What you can’t see from this angle is that the roots were even worse than they appear here.  When primary trees are first establishing themselves, they produce really big roots in order to both stabilize themselves as well as to provide a pathway for nutrients to flow to the tree.  This is how they survive and prosper.  For reasons I can’t explain, they don’t consider the needs of bonsai artists as they grow.  And that’s why we have large cutting tools.

So I ended up with the specimen above.  It fit nicely in its bonsai pot, so my next move was just to wait.

 

 

 

Here’s the result, by the way, of all that digging and chopping and potting and wiring.  I think it’s really easy to see the bonsai here.

At this point I need to interject a fact about my bonsai experience.  I’ve never worked with field-grown Live oak before, only collected specimens.  Collected specimens are treated very similarly – lift, root-prune, top-chop.  We almost always don’t have any foliage left, but that’s okay since it all sprouts out from the collected trunk and any branches we might happen to have retained.

In this case you can see I have a nice bit of foliage.  Since this was a Live oak and since it was March, I figured there’d be no harm in leaving all the foliage on the tree.  Foliage can help stimulate root growth.

March is also that time of year when Live oaks drop their foliage and put on a whole new set.  If you’ll look closely, you can see that while most of the leaves on this tree are darker green meaning they’re hardened off, there’s also a good bit of light green fresh foliage.  Keep that in mind.

Within a week or so, my Live oak root-whack-job looked about like this.  There was a total of about six small fresh green leaves still on the tree.  Everything else had browned and fallen off.  I wasn’t sure why those green leaves hung on, but I have no problem ignoring trees when it’s in their best interest (more often than you might imagine).

The rest of March passed.  All of April passed.  All of May passed.  I personally passed by this tree daily, looking at it and shaking my head.  Finally the remaining few leaves were starting to blacken on the tips.  My awesome extreme Live oak root-pruning lesson was evidently a failure.

Then, about two weeks ago, I was passing by my failed experiment and something caught my eye.  In the space between two of the four remaining leaves with a little green on them appeared to be a swelling bud.  My thought was, “You gotta be kidding.”  I went and got a magnifying glass.  When I looked closer, not only did I see that I was right, I happened to spot another larger bud on a branch higher up in the tree.  Amazing!  Had I failed to kill this tree after all?

Here’s the tree today.  As you can see, it’s produced buds all over and the new growth is starting to push.  What’s more, every branch that I’d wired initially to make the design came through the whacking I gave the roots.  So at the end of the day, even though I’ll probably never cut roots back quite as far as I did this time I think I’ve proven you can cut them back a lot farther than you think.

I’d love to hear any comments you might have.

 

 

My Tropics Dream – The Tropicals Will Have To Do For Now

Well, it’s officially summer and if we ever get out of this rainy pattern it’s going to heat up and the spring breeze will be O-ver.  This means we get tropical temperatures without any of the other benefits of the tropics.  No white sand, no crystal clear blue-green water, no ocean breeze.  What can you do?

Last year I got a cutting from a Green island ficus, Ficus microcarpa, owned by the elder statesman of our local bonsai club.  I had admired the tree for years, but never tried my hand at it because keeping tropicals in a non-tropical environment was not something I was prepared to do.  But I finally got the urge.  I love the appearance of Green island ficus.  The leaves are bright green, small, glossy, and round with a slightly pointed tip.  Here’s my first Green island ficus bonsai-in-the-making.

It’s not much to look at, but considering where it began I’m happy with it.  In a bonsai pot it isn’t going to grow very quickly or with as much vigor as it would in a larger nursery container, but I’m not in a huge hurry with it.

This past winter I learned something about this species that just amazed and excited me.  Each time we were threatened with a freeze I brought it inside and set it on my desk.  Typically it would stay in for a week or so before going back out.  But each time I brought it in, I noticed that it kept on growing.  The species is not a super fast grower, but it seems to grow some all the time.

So now I had an indoor bonsai species to work with and enjoy.  How could I say no?  This one has been such a pleasure that I made my mind up to venture into a few other indoor species – Willow-leaf ficus, Portulacaria afra (Dwarf jade or Elephant bush), and Bougainvillea.  It’ll be at least next year before I have some of these species for sale, but I’m sure enjoying the development process.

In the meantime, I went ahead and picked up a few Green island stock plants so I could offer a few for sale.  These came out of Florida, where they’re grown en masse for landscape planting.  The pots are by Chuck Iker.

The trunk base on this one is 1.25″ and it’s 8″ tall.  It came with a few aerial roots, which hopefully will come through the transplanting.

 

 

 

 

 

 

This one has a 1″ trunk base and is 6″ tall.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I think is my favorite of the three.  The trunk base 1.25″ and it’s 7″ tall.  The pot really makes this composition.

I anticipate these guys will resume growing in a week or two, and will be able to ship out in about a month.  If you’re interested, simply go to our Ficus Bonsai page.

Crape Myrtles From Humble Beginnings

Crape myrtle, Lagerstroemia indica, is one the very best species for bonsai.  They take to pot culture very well, root like gangbusters and flower freely in captivity.

In the world of bonsai, you’ll encounter Crape myrtles of many varieties, sizes and stages of development.  For example, here’s a tree that has been in training for over 25 years.

I’ve been posting on this tree over the past several months because it had reached a point where it was overgrown and had to be “rebuilt.”  It got a hard-pruning and repotting, and has responded with renewed vigor.  Now it’s on to building ramification.  It’s about to bloom also, and I plan to let it do so (it’s a classic purple).  The tree is strong.

 

 

 

 

A couple of weeks ago I included this Crape in a post about trees I’m working on for sale (this one has white flowers).  Even though it’s not a large specimen, the design is classic Crape myrtle.  And the key, as with most bonsai, is in the proportions.  The branch spread that I’ve established must be maintained in order for the tree to look larger than it is.  Now, shoots are going to shoot and that’s a good thing.  But my job will be to chase all of that growth I’m going to get back in toward the proper silhouette.

 

 

 

And wouldn’t you know, in just a couple of weeks this Crape is really going at it.  There are new shoots all over the tree, including two near the base.  Do you know what that means?  That means I have a way to induce trunk thickening by encouraging sacrifice branches near the base.  I’ll most likely put a little wire on each of them, in a week or two, in order to gently guide them into a growing space that allows them to ultimately run free and long.  By later in this growing season, I’d predict they’ll be two to three feet long.  And everything below them will get thicker as a result.

This specimen is a bit larger than the one above, and the design is going to be different, but the plan is the same.  Within a couple of weeks I should have buds all over the tree, including some near the base.  I’ll encourage those to grow, as in the tree above, which will allow me to thicken the trunk base of this tree through the use of sacrifice branches.

It’s important to remember that regardless of the size pot you grow your trees in, basal thickening will be a slower prospect than if the tree were grown in the ground.  If you do limit yourself to container growing, however, there are techniques that can help you somewhat overcome the limitations.

Stay tuned for progress reports on these Crape myrtle bonsai-to-be.

Parsley Hawthorn Literati – Going In A Great Direction

Just over a month ago I decided it was time to do an initial styling on this Parsley hawthorn, Crataegus marshallii.  There was never any doubt about the future for this bonsai-to-be – it was going to be a literati.  The literati style is, for lack of a better term, the way for the bonsai artist to do the unusual with either less-than-stellar material or exquisite material.  It may be the purest artistic expression available to us with our trees.

In the case of this tree, it met all of the “requirements” for the literati style: tall, slender trunk with only modest taper; graceful, character-filled trunk movement; a concentration of growth near the putative apex.  The only think I had to do was bring out the best design for this specimen.  After the initial styling, I thought it was another step closer to the goal.

 

 

 

As of today, the tree had put on another strong round of growth (six weeks’ worth).  Based on this, plus a gentle push on the trunk, I concluded that the tree had rooted sufficiently for me to get a little aggressive and pot the tree.  I don’t recommend this for less-experienced artists.  In time, you’ll learn what you can do and what species you can do it with.  (I don’t always get it right myself.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

A little trimming and wiring was in order.  The tree gave me a nice sub-branch in the apex, which is actually going to end up as the final apex, so I simply wired and positioned it.  I trimmed the low-left branch back, trimmed the high-left branch back and wired a smaller shoot on it and continued the branch’s movement.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Picking the right pot for your tree is always important.  In this case, I had a great Chuck Iker round that just came in and I felt it had the size, style and color to suit this Parsley haw.  Here in the south, Parsley haws will produce a nice yellow fall color.  I’m anxious to see if I get some this year, because I think it’ll be complemented beautifully by this pot’s color.

This tree should resume growing in a week or so.  I plan to post it for sale within the next month, so stay tuned.

A Few New Bonsai I’m Working On

I collected this Parsley hawthorn, Crataegus marshallii, in February.  Though it was a decent piece of material, I knew there were quite a few years ahead of it in order for it to become a presentable bonsai.  Then a thought occurred to me.  That nice slender trunk emerging from near the base had a ton more character than the relatively straight main trunk.  Wouldn’t that make a much better bonsai, and much sooner to boot?

 

 

 

 

Here’s the tree just recently.  Allowing for all those shoots growing out, I’ve made just a few minor snips.  Can you see where I cut back?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I cut back the three branches on the slender trunk, and then simply removed the thicker trunk altogether.  Does this tree make a statement now?  I think it does.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’ve been making Edible figs, Ficus carica, practically since I got the parent tree from my mother.  One I started about five years ago was a twin-trunk.  I put it in the ground about three years ago.  This year I decided to separate the smaller of the two trunks and pot into a bonsai pot.  It’s a pretty nice starter bonsai, don’t you think?  The trunk is 1″ in diameter and it’s 14″ tall.  And it will fruit in a pot.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m very fond of Crape myrtle, Lagerstroemia indica, as bonsai.  Not only are they horticulturally simple to grow, they bloom profusely in a bonsai pot.  This is a white-blooming variety that I made from a cutting last year.  I was able to wire a nice Crape myrtle shape into it and go right into this Chuck Iker round.  It’s 14″ tall.  I would expect it to resume growth in a couple of weeks, and it just might go ahead and bloom this summer.  Time will tell.

I’ll be posting these trees for sale sometime this summer.  Stay tuned.

Getting A Leg Up On A Bald Cypress Bonsai

I often try to get a leg up on developing bonsai.  I typically do this by selecting trees I’ve collected that don’t need any trunk development, or at most only minimal development.  What does this mean?  If you collect a tree and chop the trunk, and at the point of the chop the trunk is more than about 1.5″ in diameter, the speed with which you can build a tapering transition at that point will be tremendously slowed in a bonsai pot.  Because you have to devote so much time and energy to just getting this right, developing the tree’s branch structure is hampered.  So in the end you don’t gain much in the way of time.

This Bald cypress, Taxodium distichum, presented me with the opportunity to get a leg up on developing it into a bonsai.  The trunk base is 2″ across, and you can see just by examining the photo that the diameter at the chop point is right around 0.75″.  That means all I really have to do with this tree is to develop the branch structure.  So this was a perfect candidate to go straight into a bonsai pot (this gorgeous Chuck Iker round).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fast-forward to today.  The shoots have grown long enough that I can reasonably go ahead and wire them.  That means I’ll get my branch structure off to a good start.

Incidentally, from the very beginning this tree struck me as suiting the literati style.  It’s very tall for its trunk size, 24″, so with two options available – make it look shorter or accentuate the height – the obvious answer to me was to make it look really tall.

The dead snag, which originally I’d hoped would be a secondary trunk, will actually benefit the design I have in mind.  So it stays.  As for the foliage pads on the main trunk, my goal is to draw the eye upward and give the impression of a very tall swamp-dweller.  The best way to do this is to focus all of the foliage in the uppermost part of the tree.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Less is more.  After removing all of the foliage in the lower 80% of the trunk, I was left with three branches and the apical leader.  I knew before I started working on them that they would always need to remain very close to the trunk in terms of the tree’s silhouette.  So armed with that knowledge, the wiring and positioning were a snap.

I also shortened the side branch in the apex of the tree.  I’ll make a dead snag out of it, to complement the one that appears on the shorter trunk.  Both will be stripped of bark and treated with lime sulfur, but probably not until next year.

I’ll post updates as this tree develops.  In the meantime, I think I’ve got a nice Bald cypress bonsai on the way.  What do you think?

Rip Van Winkle Wakes Up – How To Know When They’re Really Dead

You may remember my wonderful Willow oak, Quercus phellos, from this photo I took last fall.  I repotted it last spring, and cut back the lowest right branch hard to improve it, and from there just did some light pinching and pruning through the growing season.

This tree has exhibited an unusual characteristic since I brought it home, namely, it’s the last of my trees to come out each year.  Typically this is in mid- to late-April.  I’ve been watching it closely since things started budding in March.  Nothing.  So I began to wonder if the tree had, for some reason, died over the winter.  We certainly had some cold weather, but it’s been through colder weather than we had this go-round.  Of course, you never know for sure what might do a tree in.

Here’s what I’ve been studying now for about 10 weeks.  Lovely tree in its winter silhouette.  Hopefully not a dead skeleton.  The branches had remained supple and many had their juvenile green color.  It just couldn’t be dead.  But days turned into weeks and then months.  No sign of life.

 

 

Two days ago I finally spotted some green on a bud.  Willow oak buds are not inconspicuous, but they lie flat against the branches and look more or less desiccated.  It’s not until the alarm goes off that they swell and you can see green color and bud scales.  I had one bud on the 10th, and by the 12th the tree was full of swelling buds.  Rip Van Winkle was waking up.  My Willow oak was alive!

This brings up something every bonsai enthusiast faces.  How do you know when a tree you just collected, or one that has come through a rough winter, is really and truly dead?  Are there any telltale signs?  How long should you wait before yanking the thing out of its pot and tossing it unceremoniously on the skeleton pile?

First things first.  When collecting new trees, the goal is to get them into nursery containers, tubs or grow boxes as soon as you can.  Typically you won’t have a large root mass on a newly collected tree, and typically you won’t have any roots until you see the tree pushing shoots.  Preceding this is the appearance of trunk buds.  For the most part, once you see trunk buds the tree has at least a 90% chance of survival – provided you don’t hinder the natural recovery process.  This means you don’t move the tree around or otherwise do anything to damage newly emerging, tender roots.  It generally takes several weeks for these new roots to harden off, and you really don’t want to move the tree from the container it’s in until the next growing season at the earliest.

Circling back to the newly collected tree, what are the telltale signs of life or death?  This varies from species to species.  Most will show green when scratched – this is the cambium layer, which is chock full of chlorophyll that does not break down during fall and winter.  Hackberry bark remains green, at the surface, for many years.  Older Bald cypresses typically don’t show green when scratched, a peculiarity of the species.  With that said, many younger ones actually show green at the surface of the smooth areas of bark.  Sometimes you see it, sometimes not.

If you’re gauging life or death by the scratch method, be aware that there’s “juicy green” and dry green. Dry green is more or less self-explanatory; there’s no shine to it.  Juicy green is a bit tougher to gauge, but once you’ve got a little experience you can easily see the difference.  Now, I’ve seen many specimens that scratched juicy green for an extended time, only to eventually dry out.  This can be a lengthy process, by the way.

Another telltale sign is brittle branches and branchlets, for those species that retain the branchlets through winter.  Not all species do.  Typically a tree that’s alive will maintain very flexible branchlets – my Willow oak did just that, so I remained mostly optimistic (on even-numbered days, alternating with pessimism) even after the April “deadline” passed.  Now, don’t use the flexible branchlet sign as your be-all end-all when determining life or death; in harsh winters, some trees will lose branchlets and even small branches they might not otherwise, and then come back in spring.

What’s the bottom line?  Give your trees every chance when spring gets here.  Hang onto them as long as there are signs of viability.  You never know when old Rip Van Winkle will wake up.