One of the key skills the bonsai artist must learn is how to identify the various species he or she intends to work with. This is especially true when you collect your own from the wild. This is a challenge when you’re first starting out, though I believe it’s a fun one. For those of us who work primarily with deciduous trees, which are usually collected in winter when they’re devoid of foliage, there’s an extra challenge. Identifying species is a matter of examining the foliage, bark, dormant buds (if present), and sometimes flowers and fruit. It’s by far most common to make our identification solely on the basis of foliage.
I posted this photo on January 23rd, along with the lament that I have never had success in collecting larger red maples (as this is what I was sure it was). I was out hunting bald cypress that day, but high water had other plans. So when I spotted this twin-trunk and another really nice specimen I thought it was better to go home with two trees that probably wouldn’t make it rather than empty-handed.
Then the wait began. It took a solid four weeks for tiny buds to appear, but they finally did. What’s more, they appeared in opposite pairs which is exactly the way they should have. Only there was something not quite right about them. They weren’t red. Now, the old saying goes “there’s always something red on a red maple.” Newly swelling buds, flowers, fruit, new leaves, the petioles once the leaves have greened, and then winter buds to complete the cycle. This red maple was missing red buds. What did it mean?
The leaves finally began opening tentatively. They were light green in color. Not red. Hmm. That wasn’t right, either. What’s more, their shape was all wrong. Rather than the normal three-lobed leaves with serrations that red maples sport, these were non-lobed and smooth and rather slender.
It was at this point that I took another look at the bark of these specimens. Now, as the red maple begins developing bark it produces fissures which in time grow deeper and rougher. My first impression here was that these trees were just in the beginning stages of bark development. But with the leaves all wrong, I took a closer look and realized that these were plates forming, not fissures. What’s more, they seemed to be in a pretty regular grid pattern. There’s one group of species I well knew that produced bark like this: dogwood. And what species of dogwood do you find in or near the swamps? Roughleaf dogwood, Cornus drummondii.
I was dead wrong with my tree ID back in January, and I couldn’t be happier about it. That means I get to train two more trees which will feature characteristics like this one:
This is the first and so far the only roughleaf dogwood I’ve trained as bonsai. My experience so far is that it ramifies much better than flowering dogwood, Cornus florida, which I have grown as bonsai in the past. Leaf-size reduction is likewise superior. So with great bark and foliage, not to mention superior trunk character, I think it’s got everything you could ask for. (This tree has been posted for sale at our Miscellaneous Bonsai sale page.)
If you look closely you can see the buds opening on this one, which I re-shot today. I’ll need to chop it back some more next season, plus lose the larger of the two leaders on the main trunk to enhance taper. But I couldn’t be more excited about this new dogwood, now that I know what it is.
Finally, a closeup of the foliage. Isn’t it great? On another interesting note, while the buds on this and the other dogwood I collected emerged light green in color, the new leaves have turned red while unfolding. This mirrors, to a degree, the fall color we sometimes get on our dogwoods. The color is caused by anthocyanins, which produce the reds and purples we see in autumn leaves (they are breakdown products of chlorophyll) as well as in flowers and fruit. As the leaves harden off, chlorophyll production ramps up and the red disappears.