flat-top bald cypress – how to get started

Sneak Peek

The flat-top Bald cypress bonsai is the fastest to create from scratch. That’s because you get to take advantage of the tree’s apical dominance.

Flat-top Bald Cypress – How to Get Started

I’m convinced that there are two distinctive main styles for Bald cypress bonsai, the classic pyramidal style and the so called “flat-top.” The flat-top style is nothing more than a representation of the older specimens you see in the swamps. Once a BC grows to its natural mature height limit (genetics and all that jazz), the lower branches mostly die off and what you’re left with is a gradually spreading crown that reaches its natural limits.

I’m also convinced, though I’ll certainly get plenty of argument, that certain specimens lend themselves more to the flat-top style than others. For my money, the trunk height to trunk base ratio for the flat-top needs to be bigger to emphasize the height of the tree. It’s supposed to be a fully mature tree, after all, and they tend to get quite tall. Also, the pyramidal style bonsai can be grown from a tree with a nice fat trunk base and only end up at a 6 or 8 to 1 ratio of height to base. The pyramidal, or “Christmas tree” shape also produces the forced perspective that fools the brain into thinking the tree is very tall. This isn’t able to happen the same way with the flat-top, thus the need for a bigger base to height ratio. The tree on the right has a 2.5″ diameter trunk near the soil, and it’s chopped at 26″. So we start off with a height to base ratio of 10 to 1, and by the time the crown is developed we’ll be closer to 12 to 1. (Yes, I hear some of you thinking, that violates a bonsai rule! I suppose it does, but the tree needs to look right and this is how it’s done in my book.)

So if you’re still humoring me, let’s get started with a fun rhyme: in bonsai, less is always more, until it’s not anymore. You’ll often find yourself confronted with trees that are just a mass of branches, foliage and confusion. A bonsai is a representation of a mature tree in nature, not an exact duplicate of one. So we want to boil down our trees to their essence, and that means getting rid of a lot of foliar mass the tree went to a lot of trouble to grow. But that’s okay, the tree won’t mind (with BC, they continue to push trunk buds for quite some time until you finally convince them you’re right).

So here’s the first pass on editing down this BC to a more useable form. I was able to remove all of the lower branches that were trying to grow upward – I don’t need to fight those branches when I have some already growing horizontally.

We also need to keep in mind as we shape our trees that just because we’re doing bonsai doesn’t mean we can ignore all of the natural rules of the road. What I mean in this case is shown in the photo – namely, that empty space on the right side of the trunk near what will be the new apex. When branches get shaded out in nature by those above it, they die. I have seen the same phenomenon in bonsai. I might be able to keep a branch below the crown of this one alive, but it just wouldn’t make sense for it to be there. So I removed all of them.

Here’s the tree after all the high-falutin’ wiring I did to it. That’s right, one wire for two branches, a trim on the left side to “cool” that branch off and push the energy to the right, and a few turns for both. I’ll wait to wire the lower branches until they’re tougher and less likely to snap off – made easier by the fact that I don’t need to convince them to lie flat.


The last chore for today is to carve down the trunk chop. I did this with my spherical knob cutters for the rough work, then I used a carving knife to smooth the whole area. This is especially important at the edges, where the callus is going to start swelling before you know it. I want it to roll smoothly over the chop, and eventually to not look like anything at all but a continuation of the trunk line.

I’ll post updates on this tree as the work progresses. By next spring, I should be able to move it to a bonsai pot.

Let me know what you think.