All of us have ordinary material hanging around on our benches. What I mean by ordinary material is the not-hundred-year-old masterpiece-in-the-making stuff. I’m a great proponent of working with ordinary material. As I like to say, it’s hard to mess up really outstanding material (though it can be done); but one of the most fun challenges in bonsai is taking a really ordinary, nondescript piece of material and making something nice out of it.

Well, it doesn’t get much more ordinary than this American elm, Ulmus Americana. I’ll tell you the brief history of it. About three or four years ago, I collected an American elm sapling with a trunk base of about an inch. American elm is easy to collect, but for some reason this one died back to near the base of the trunk. I tossed it off the bench and into the “don’t care if you die” section of the nursery. Dutifully it trooped on, throwing some basal shoots that grew a little bit that first year. It hung in there the next year, and by the third year I decided I’d wire the two shoots and put a little movement into them just for laughs. There wasn’t much to lose, after all. I had some extra bench space, so it got promoted off the ground.

This past year I let the tree run some more, and it gained strength as you can see by the two vegetative shoots coming off the base and apex of the two trunks, respectively.




Today I decided to have a little fun with this survivor. I took off everything that didn’t look like a graceful twin-trunk American elm bonsai-to-be, wired it out and here it is. There’s no branching on the main trunk, but there are dormant buds on the trunk that will emerge come spring. I think this guy may turn into something one day. What do you think?








I’m inclined (no pun intended) to think the above design will work best, but I wanted to see how straightening the main trunk might change the appearance. What’s your take on it?

The key takeaway from this post is that you may have any number of ordinary pieces of material hanging around on your benches waiting for some styling magic. You’re the magician. The main thing is to work on them. Not all will turn into exciting bonsai, but as you gain experience you’ll find that you can make just about anything better. Think of what this will mean for your awesome trees.