Several years ago I began growing the Sweetgum, Liquidambar styraciflua, you see below in a nursery container. It grew fairly typically for Sweetgum, nice and straight as it reached for the sun attempting to become 80 feet tall. Periodically I would chop the growing trunk to a smaller branch and then let it grow some more. I also had allowed a couple of low branches to run wild, in order to thicken the trunk base.
In August of 2014 the young tree had reached a point where I felt it was time to give it a tree shape. In the photo at left, you can see the very young shoots that have been wired into place. You may also be able to see the point where I chopped the growing trunk, in order to bring the tree back into proportion.
Fast-forward a year, to August of 2015. Those tender young shoots I had wired a year earlier now have some heft to them, not to mention pleasing movement. This is one design principle to always keep in mind: trunk movement should be reflected in branch movement. You don’t want a curving trunk and arrow-straight branches. This is why we wire young branches, so they won’t look static to the eye when the bonsai is being viewed. Also, when you wire young branches be sure that you put both up and down and side to side movement in them. Otherwise the bonsai will not look as realistic as a natural tree.
Here’s the tree just over a month later, after trimming the strong growth to produce a nice silhouette. At this stage of development, I’m left with working in the crown area of the tree. This Sweetgum bonsai is about 70% of the way to “completion.” I know that 2016 is going to be the time when I finish the design.
It’s now April 9th, 2016 and this Sweetgum, now very rootbound, is waiting to push buds. In fact it’s lagging other specimens for this very reason. So with the basic design development about 90% complete, there’s really no reason not to put this tree into a bonsai pot. If you look closely you can see two new buds along the leader emerging from the chop halfway up. These will be wired to provide two branches filling up the empty space that currently exists. I’ll let them grow out, then wire and shape and let them run. Once they harden off, it’ll only be a matter of pinching and developing the ramification needed to complete this part of the tree.
It’s a little hard to see in this photo, but the two lower branches are chock full of buds. These will ultimately produce the ramification needed in the lower part of the tree.
One more thing to notice in this photo is how drastically I root-pruned the tree. It’s common for new bonsai enthusiasts to shy away from the drastic root-pruning trees need in their development phase. What this results in is trees with rangy, poorly tapering surface roots. This critical element of bonsai design can’t be overemphasized.
This tree has a trunk base of 1.25″, and it’s 13.5″ to the tip of the apex. It’s available at our Sweetgum Bonsai sales page. Ship date late next month.