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.

Impressive And Unusual Bonsai-To-Be – Dragon, Grape, More Sycamore

“Dragon” the Water-elm put on a lot of growth last year, as you can see in this photo where I can’t get it all in the frame.  I left it to grow without any restraint last year because the branches need to gain heft.  But there does come a point where you have to prune to encourage more growth – plus you can see the apical leader is very close to being just right once I carve out the shari into it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

There comes a point in the life of most bonsai where you can put away the wire and just use “grow and clip” to achieve your design plan.  I’m pretty much there with this tree.  I used wire to set the direction of the new branches and leader that grew out starting last year.  Once those were established, I got all the back-budding I needed to enable me to select secondary branches.  Going forward, all I need to do is select those new shoots pointing where I want them.

 

 

 

 

Here’s something different.  A couple of years ago I collected this Muscadine, Vitus rotundifolia, which is our native grape here in the South (and elsewhere; it ranges up to Delaware).  I liked the twists of the “trunk,” so I figured what the heck?

Yesterday I decided it was time to do something with this Muscadine – after all, it had gone to all the trouble of growing like vines grow and seemed not to mind container life.  So I grabbed a suitable pot and went to work.

This Chuck Iker round has a nice dark glossy glaze, which I think complements the bark color very well.  I trimmed back the tendrils, so now it’s time to just wait and see what happens next.  I’ve never grown Muscadine, but love exploring new and unusual species.  Grape bonsai are not commonly grown, but there are nice examples out there.

 

 

 

 

I’ve been sharing with you the progress of this Sycamore, Platanus occidentalis, since I got a wild hair and dug it up earlier this year.  So far it’s been one of those crazy fun projects.  I have no idea if it’s going to make a good bonsai, but I’m sure going to give it my best shot.

And I swear I had no plans to go out and get any more Sycamores, but one day I noticed that one growing near the back of my property had fallen over.  I assume this happened in a recent storm, but frankly it didn’t make sense to me.  When I examined the tree, it was clear that either I needed to finish taking it out of the ground or it was a goner.  So I figured what the heck?

 

 

 

 

 

Here’s what came out of the ground, minus most of the trunk and the bulk of the foliage.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And potted up.  I’m pretty confident it’s going to live – I don’t know that you can kill Sycamore – but given how short a tree this is, making something like a bonsai out of it should be an even bigger challenge than the first one.

Privet, Ginkgo And Trumpet Vine – New Bonsai To Be

I collected this Chinese privet, Ligustrum sinense, during the winter and put it directly in a bonsai pot.  While this is not something you can do every time, if you’re fortunate enough to collect a suitable trunk you can eliminate a preliminary step in creating a nice bonsai.  What do I mean by a suitable trunk?  It’s one that has sufficient taper from the base to the chop point to allow you to build the basic structure of the bonsai before the first repotting comes along.  With a small enough trunk diameter at the chop point, you can grow out a leader and thicken it sufficiently to make the tapering transition satisfactory right in the bonsai pot.  And by the time you’re ready for the first repotting, the root system is already used to growing in a confined space.

 

From January till today, roughly the span of two months, this privet has thrown a nice set up shoots for me to work with.  Though it’s a bit early, there’s no reason not to go ahead and wire some branches and the new leader.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There’s not much to this bonsai-to-be now, is there?  But I have branches that are going to grow out and thicken, along with a new leader in position.  In about a month, I’ll most likely need to remove this wire and rewire everything.  Regardless, this bonsai is on its way.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I have been fascinated with Ginkgo, Ginkgo biloba, ever since I can remember.  A good bonsai friend gave me a handful of small specimens last year, and I left them alone to continue growing out.  A couple spoke to me and said they’d like to have their own bonsai pots, so I accommodated.  This is the second one I’ve potted up this year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We have our share of Trumpet Vine, Campsis radicans, hanging around the house.  And hanging on the house.  Although it produces beautiful flowers, it also tends to insert itself into any crack between the boards on your house.  I probably don’t have to tell you what happens next.

And so, the obvious answer is to grub up the monster vine and make a bonsai out of it.  Once again straight to a bonsai pot – why bother with an intermediate nursery pot?  And now I wait to see how it wants to grow.

If you have an interest in a Privet, Ginkgo or Trumpet vine bonsai, these trees will be available a little later this spring.  Email me for pricing and/or to put you name on one.

 

How To Learn To Go With The Flow – Don’t Worry, Your Trees Will Insist

A couple of years ago, I wrote a blog on using vines for bonsai.  In it, we began the tale of a neat Trumpet vine, Campsis radicans, that I collected on my property and started working on.  It wasn’t long before I was able to report this progress.

Isn’t this a wonderfully “bonsai-y” designed Trumpet vine?  I mean, you’ve got a nice curvy trunk that tapers because I was able to cut to a smaller leader.  You’ve got the shoots you need to make a branch set.  All that’s needed from this point is to let the thing grow and then make pruning decisions.  And then pot the new bonsai in a suitable pot the next spring.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Well, this Trumpet vine had other ideas, as you can see from this photo I just took today.  That new leader decided not to live.  The branches made out of shoots did grow out, but then some of them died off.  But the vine hung in there.  I wasn’t sure what it was going to do this year, then I noticed some buds pushing.  It’s alive!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Clearly this vine is going to decide for me what it’s going to end up being, regardless of my ideas.  I have found this to be true as often as not in my years in bonsai.  I suspect you will, too.  The trees you work on will sometimes, despite your best efforts, not behave in the way you want them to.  At which point you can either get angry or frustrated, or learn to go with the flow.  We usually have a design in mind for our trees.  When this design plan doesn’t work out, I’ve usually found it best just to go with the flow and see what else I can do.  In this case, I pulled the vine from its (deep) pot, uncovered the rest of the original trunk, cut off the roots growing above that spot, and ended up making a literati bonsai-to-be.

Is the Trumpet vine going to go along with my new plan?  Well, I don’t know but if it comes through today’s man-handling I’ll post an update.  Who knows, I might just end up with a neat bonsai.

Survey Results – What Are Your Bonsai Friends Up To?

Last weekend I posted a survey in order to get a better idea of what you’re interested in bonsai-wise.  Although I communicate with many of you either occasionally or even often, it’s not for sure that I know exactly what it is you really want out of bonsai.  I mean, I know what I want for the most part – but I also know that that’s not necessarily what you want.  So it made sense for me to just ask.  The response was very good, with 20% of you taking the time to share your preferences.  Here’s what I learned:

How long have you been in bonsaiFirst of all, I thought it was worth finding out how long you’ve been actively involved in bonsai.  I was a bit surprised, but glad, to see that over 30% of you have only just begun in the art and hobby.  Bonsai is a wonderful pastime, as you know, but without newcomers it eventually “dries up” as its older practitioners pass on.  There always needs to be “fresh blood” in the bonsai world, and I think this is clearly happening.  I know this because when you add the newbies to those who have been at it for five years or less, the total jumps to over 50%.  I think this is just wonderful.

What size bonsaiNext I wanted to find out what size bonsai you prefer.  Bonsai come is all sizes up to about 48″ tall, so there’s a size for everyone.  But there are certain very dedicated bonsai folks who are really into either tiny bonsai, the mame/shohin sizes, or massively large ones.  The results of the survey bear this out, with about 10% liking really small trees and 10% liking really big trees.  Fully 80% of you like them all, and I have to count myself among you.

What species do you likeThe next obvious question is what species you prefer.  The answer on this one was pretty substantially skewed toward deciduous species.  Now, it’s not clear to me if this is related to my own preference.  I make no bones about my love of deciduous bonsai, and therefore that’s what you mostly see written about and shown on my site.  It would only be natural if the site attracted bonsai enthusiasts who also share my preference.  But I do think it’s a good indication that 30% of you like all species – and to be truthful, I really love great pine bonsai and certain tropicals.  I just don’t work with them often.

What are your sources of materialNext I thought it was worth finding out where you get your bonsai material from.  This is obviously important to me, because I’m here to serve those needs for you to the greatest extent I can.  But it’s pretty clear from the chart that over half of you collect and grow at least some of your own bonsai material.  I think this is to be expected – after all, while I collect a lot of my trees I also grow from seed and cuttings and every now and then I’ll even buy some material.  No one has or can provide every species worth growing as bonsai, and I sure don’t plan to try.  I know what I’m good at and what I do a good job of providing.

What do you buyHere’s an interesting chart.  For those of you who buy material, the overwhelming majority go for either pre-bonsai or bonsai-in-training.  To be honest, that’s just what I would answer.  The design, the shaping and compositional creation of bonsai, is almost all of the fun of the art, at least for me.  And this seems to be true of you as well.  Oh, don’t get me wrong, I can spend hours viewing finely-wrought bonsai.  There’s nothing like the quiet dignity of a tree growing in a shallow tray that looks for the world like its massive counterpart in nature.  But at some point you can’t help but want to take a piece of raw material and bring it to that state yourself.  Hence the 85%-plus of you who buy either pre-bonsai only or a mixture of pre-bonsai and partially trained trees in bonsai pots.  Once it gets your personal touch, you’re connected.

What size is your collectionThe next question I asked was about the size of your collection.  As many of you know, I’m a huge proponent of having at least 50 trees to work on (and not solely for mercenary reasons).  This is because of my dedication to the bonsai principle of benign neglect.  I challenge anyone to overwork more than 50 trees.  It’s a snap to overwork one or a few.  This is especially a problem for beginners to the art and hobby, because they know their job is to “train” their bonsai.  The problem with training our bonsai is that it’s not a full-time job.  You wire, then shape, then wait.  And wait.  And wait some more, until that branch gets set or that leader is thick enough to require removal of the wire.  If you have one or two trees and you wire them out, each day as you look at them you get that old itchy trigger finger.  Bonsai can only take so much love before they keel over.  So I say make sure you have enough trees.  About 85% of you agree, and that’s just outstanding.

What is your skill levelNext it was time to find out how you rate your skill level.  Again I was very pleased with the results, because they tell me that most of you are relatively new to the art of bonsai.  This is wonderful.  I see from this chart that about 75% of you are well into the basic learning phase of your bonsai journey.  This is one of the purposes of my website and business, to pass on things I’ve learned and to help you get better if I can.

What age rangeAge (yours, not your bonsai): I’m 61 and soon to be 62, and in almost 30 years of pursuing the wonderful art of bonsai I have heard countless times, “We need more young people in bonsai.”  Well, I think this chart speaks for itself.  Almost half of you who responded are, from my current outpost in life, what I would deem young.  I got really hooked myself at age 33.  At that time I would have considered young to be 15, plus or minus.  And you do occasionally see teens whacking at trees in newbie workshops.  But the most reliable source of new bonsai enthusiasts is that demographic who catch the bug after about 25.  It gets better once child-rearing is over, because with kids in the house you spend most of your shaping work (and about all of your money) on them.  Once that’s over, you move on to organisms that stay put, never talk back and never wreck your car.  What’s not to like?

What is your biggest challengeNow we come to the final, and perhaps most interesting, question of the survey – What is your biggest bonsai challenge?  The overwhelming majority of you, 70%, said that designing your trees is the biggest challenge you face.  If you add the 10% who said maintaining the design of their trees is their biggest challenge, it’s pretty clear that for most bonsai enthusiasts it’s all about making our trees look right.  This is hardly surprising.  Bonsai is a representation of a mature tree in miniature size.  So how they’re designed, and how that design is maintained over time when the tree wants to grow differently, is what it’s all about.

Doing a Better Job for You

I’ve devoted a lot of effort in my blog posts to show the process I go through in designing bonsai.  This seems to fit very well with your own biggest challenge, so look for more of the same.  I will try to do a better job of explaining the design principles that go into my thinking as I illustrate the steps in training my trees.

Also, it looks like most of you are interested in bonsai that fit the “in-between” sizes, rather than really big or really small.  So I’ll focus on expanding my stock of in-between’s.  I don’t like lugging all that many huge bonsai around, especially as I’ve gotten older, so this should save some wear and tear on my back.  Win-win.

Once again, thank you for participating in the survey.  As 2016 starts to get long in the tooth, I hope your bonsai collection has gotten bigger and better and you’ve learned a few things from my posts.  I’m always available to answer questions, so feel free to email or post comments.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Accidental Wisteria Bonsai Needs Some Work

Last September I wrote about a Japanese wisteria, Wisteria floribunda, I’d rescued after it had been left for dead by a tree service I hired.  Well, another spring is upon us and this pre-bonsai has already been through its annual bloom and the new foliar growth is starting to vine.

Wisteria5-14-16-1I had made a mental note to remove this specimen from its tub, wash the root mass thoroughly and get a good read on its integrity.  As I mentioned last fall, large collected wisterias tend to turn to rot in just a few years, and this one was going down that path.  On a positive note, it seemed to have reached a point where the rot had arrested, leaving me with something that just might turn into a bonsai.

Wisteria5-14-16-2

 

 

 

 

The cleaning was a time-consuming process, owing to the serious root mass along with an immense number of weeds (caused by a little too much benign neglect, eh?).  It took me the better part of 15 minutes to get everything washed.  In this photo you can see the result.  Another of my goals was to reposition the tree with an eye toward its eventual ceramic home.  While the original recumbent position wasn’t bad, it also wasn’t that good.  A more upright position was called for.

Wisteria5-14-16-3

 

 

 

 

 

 

After some judicious root-pruning, I put the tree back in a growing tub (since that was the smallest thing I had available to plant it in).  Not only is it in its new position, I’ve turned the tree so that the living side as opposed to the hollow side is exposed.  While both are interesting I like this side better, plus it has some very nice surface roots which have developed over the past few years.

Though there’s no predicting for certain, I expect this wisteria to continue flowering each spring.  I’ll post a photo of it next season.  For now, I plan to feed it and treat it to some more benign neglect *ahem* while being more diligent about plucking weeds.

By the way, I didn’t make mention of this last fall but this wisteria specimen could be over 100 years old.  They come up as volunteers around here, and seek out trees to grow up into.  This also tends to keep them safe from normal yard cleanup activities, provided you like wisteria of course.  I do.  And a few of the oaks I had removed were large enough to be in excess of a century old.

The trunk is 6″ across, and the tree is 30″ tall.

Let me know what you think of this wisteria by leaving me a comment below.

Bonsai And August

Do those two words actually go together?  Can you do anything in August besides water your trees and watch them endure the heat?  The answer is a qualified yes.  To be sure, you don’t want to go root-pruning and repotting your deciduous trees in August.  Though I don’t grow them, I understand junipers can be worked on in August.  But in the part of the bonsai world I inhabit, there are limited things I get to do – but very important things, nonetheless.  I can do a late summer wiring of trees I unwired earlier in the summer due to swelling of branches.  I can do some pruning of overlong branches.  I can cut back an apical shoot that has done its job for the season.  In other words, I can work on the fundamental design of my trees, in anticipation of next spring.

I can even do an initial wiring, for example on this trumpet vine, Campsis radicans:

Trumpetvine8-29-15-1The new tendrils have grown out and are now sturdy enough to wire.  I still have to be careful when doing so, but I know as long as I don’t flex the tendril at its base I won’t have any trouble.

 

 

 

 

 

Trumpetvine8-29-15-2

 

 

 

 

This was fast work, as I only had three “branches” and the new leader to wire.  But this bonsai-in-the-making now has its basic shape.  This is one of the really great things about the art of bonsai: making the most out of not so much.  In this case, I can express an entire mature tree in nature in only four shoots.

What’s next for this specimen?  It’s in the process of storing food for the coming winter.  Trumpet vine is deciduous, so metabolically the plant is only “thinking” about survival as it’s going to be dropping its foliage in about six to eight weeks.  As for me, my only chore is to keep it watered and watch the wire for any signs of binding (which I don’t expect).

Wateroak8-29-15-1

 

This water oak, Quercus nigra, has really taken off for me this year.  Fast growth, properly managed, is just what you want when developing your bonsai.  Fast growth means fast branch creation, fast crown formation and fast ramification.  In the case of this tree, I’m building it completely from the ground up so fast growth is allowing me to build taper and branching.  There are two primary efforts going on simultaneously with this tree: one is creating a tapering trunk, and the other is establishing the basic branch structure as I go along.  Now, with this specimen you’ll notice that my first three branches are fairly close together.  This would certainly be all right for a shorter tree, but I’ve decided this one needs to be on the order of 16″ tall.  Because of this, I can’t leave all of the low branches.  I have to select a first branch, then prune accordingly.

 

Wateroak8-29-15-2Now I have only one low branch, which is in a good position to be my first branch.  It’s about six inches from the soil surface, so if my tree ends up being 16″ tall it’ll be in just the right spot.

Notice I’ve also clipped the leader.  It’ll be cut back farther next spring and a new shoot selected to run wild, continuing the process of building the trunk.  I left it overlong so there won’t be any risk of dieback during winter.