Who doesn’t love the idea of working with trees collected for bonsai? Absolutely no one! Great collected bonsai material is just as inspiring as collected treasure, because that’s really what it is. Every one of us has at least a little treasure hunter in them. When you combine this with the idea of spending 10 to 100 years less time developing the material than if you grew it from seed or cuttings, there’s no better shortcut to our goal.

Let’s start with the basic benefits of the collected tree, namely, age and character of the trunk. Now, what can sometimes misdirect the beginner bonsai collector in the wild is ramification. In my 30 years of collecting trees, I’ve seen this phenomenon countless times. There are many agents in nature that will give rise to the ramified small tree – think of cattle browsing or the fencerow whacking that a road crew or property owner may do. This can easily give rise to the ramified, twiggy and, alas, unsuitable specimen. The beginner is easily fooled by such specimens. As you gain experience, you learn to look beyond natural ramification for the tree’s trunk. It’s here where you find great bonsai. If you don’t like collecting your own, but rather purchase them from various purveyors (such as yours truly), look closely at the trunk. Why is this? Because both roots and shoots can be grown in just a few years. A large trunk with great character and bark may take 20 to 100 years to grow. This is where you get a great bonsai from a collected tree – in the quality of the trunk.

Now, let me state here one of the very few exceptions to this rule, namely, the bald cypress. There’s no substituting an old trunk for buttressing roots in a collected BC. They can’t be created in a few years. It usually takes a trunk diameter of at least two inches to start getting root flaring on a BC; it takes at least three inches, almost always more, to get real buttressing. The deep, deep buttressing comes about when the trunk diameter reaches five inches or more.

Water-elm5-9-15Okay, so you have this Water-elm trunk (populated with some brand-new shoots). If you ignore the shoots and focus solely on the trunk, you can easily see that it exhibits a lot of great qualities for bonsai. The base has a nice flare where it emerges from the soil. Check. The trunk has good movement starting near the base and running all the way up. Check. The trunk (which has been chopped to the smaller of two leaders) has excellent taper, which is essential to creating the forced perspective necessary to fool the brain into thinking the tree is taller than it really is. Check. Given the size of this tree, it’s estimated that it could be as old as 75 years. There’s really no way to create the character of this trunk in just a few years, so this points up the great benefit of hunting (or acquiring) great collected stock.




Now we move on to the next phase of creating a great bonsai from a collected tree. If you study this photo carefully, you can notice a number of things that are going on. Let’s start at the base. Compare the base of the tree in this photo versus the base in the photo above. Notice that there’s an even nicer flaring to the base? One of the techniques utilized with newly collected large specimens for bonsai is burying the lateral roots to prevent their drying out. This helps promote the growth of new roots, which usually emerge at the chopped ends of the larger roots. The larger lateral roots are chopped back hard, to ensure they fit in the eventual bonsai container.

Another thing to notice about this tree, moving upward from the base, is the new branch structure that has been created from the adventitious shoots the tree re-grew. When collected, the tree was much taller, perhaps 10 feet or more. Most of the foliage on the tree was near the top, due to shading from nearby trees. The trunk was chopped back to about two feet. This forced the tree to push new growth down the trunk, which it was eager to do – it only needed chopping and sunshine. Remember, a tree doesn’t really care how tall it is; it only cares that it can gather enough sunshine to produce enough food and other biochemicals to survive and thrive. By the same token, a tree doesn’t much care how many leaves it has – it only cares how much leaf surface area it has, to gather sunshine. This is the secret to ramification.

The next thing to notice about this tree is the area of the trunk chop. This is one of the most challenging spots on any collected tree to develop properly. It’s at this point that the tree must make a suitable tapering transition from the original trunk diameter into something much smaller, then terminate in the apex by way of a trunk line that continues to taper quickly and smoothly to what is essentially a vanishing point. This takes time, but by no means more than 3-10 years depending on the size of the trunk. Again, this is something that can be done relatively quickly, much more quickly than creating trunk size, taper and character starting with a seedling or cutting.

Water-elm6-5-16-2It’s almost always the case that more than one thing is going on at the same time during development of a great bonsai from collected material. Just as in the photo above we were creating a juvenile branch structure from new shoots, in this one we’re creating the beginnings of ramification while continuing development of the tapering transition in the tree’s apex. You may also notice in this shot that a new shoot popped on the trunk below the others. I’ve taken advantage of it to create a new number one branch – so it’s not as far along as the others, having only leaves along its length rather than secondary shoots. Moving up the trunk, I’ve wired secondary shoots and positioned them, bringing this part of the tree into the next stage. The new apical leader has thickened, has been cut back and has now produced secondary branching that will ultimately result in a full crown.

Water-elm7-1-16-1In this most recent photo of the tree, every part of the tree is fuller than it was just a month prior. It’s actually been pruned back to a nice silhouette prior to this photo being taken. The foliage density is about double what it was. The primary branches continue to thicken. At the site of the original trunk chop, the new leader continues to thicken as well, which in time will produce the illusion that the tree is much taller than it measures. Notice also that I’m in the process of rounding the crown – this is a more natural appearance for deciduous trees than a pointed apex which is typical of pines.

It won’t take but another couple of years to really bring this beautiful collected tree to a good state of refinement – to make it a great bonsai. The key to it all, in my opinion, is the established character that only time in the wild (and a good eye at collecting time) could produce.


Here’s a newly collected Water-elm that came home last month. As in the example above, it’s only a trunk. But it’s got good character and good rootage (buried at present to protect it). All it needs is to grow some shoots suitable for a branches and a new apex, and then undergo those tried and true development techniques illustrated above.









And here’s step number one, in progress.

Are you routinely working with great collected material? If not, you can use techniques you already know to add some great bonsai to your collection.