How To Make Something From A “Lazarus” Tree

Once you’ve done bonsai long enough you will have killed your share of trees.  We won’t go into all the causes, but it’s pretty much a given that sooner or later you’ll lose trees to weather or climate: weather from too much heat and not enough water or from freezing; climate when you try to grow a Japanese white pine in the Deep South (I gave that as an example because I did it early in my bonsai career); fill in the blank here ______ with your own tragedy.

This Water-elm, Planera aquatica, was off to a good start as a triple-trunk specimen back in 2013.  Then came the winter of 2014 and that icy snowy freezing event I’ve written about before.  Most of my Water-elms were killed dead as a doornail.  A couple came through fine (one on the ground, the other in an oversized tub); a couple sprouted from the root base.  This was one of the latter – a “Lazarus” tree, as it were.

There really wasn’t much left of it, but it went to all that trouble to stay alive so I decided to put it in the ground and see if I could grow it back out into something.  That happened in 2014.  True to its determination to stay alive, it continued its regrowth in the ground and I more or less ignored it while it did so.

This year I decided to lift the tree in order to see if I had anything worth working on.  Here’s my initial effort.

As you can see, the tree has a nice broom-form structure that happened without any intervention on my part.  That’s just the way it grew.  If you look more closely at the base, you can see that the regrowth occurred over/around deadwood that actually existed (at least partially) when I first collected the tree.  The photo above shows the shari at the base of the tree, which was a really neat feature.  This wood is pretty solid, considering that it’s been in contact with the soil for many years.

Today I decided it was time to work on this specimen.  I also needed to move it to a different pot, because the one I started it off in was too large and (to be honest) too expensive.

I did a lot of “editing” of the branch structure, removing superfluous branches that didn’t add anything to the design.  I also did a little wiring and positioning of branches to fill out the tree.  Once it gets some ramification going, I think it’ll be a pretty decent specimen, especially for a tree that nearly died.

The training pot it’s in now is in better scale with the tree.  It may ultimately find its way into a handmade pot; time will tell.

For purposes of scale, the root base is 2.5″ across (including the dead wood), and the tree is 17″ tall.

Let me know what you think of this tree.  It’s had quite a history in just a few short years.

4 Replies to “How To Make Something From A “Lazarus” Tree”

  1. tim

    I have a tree that rose from the dead. Its a b.c. I had in the ground and it didn’t show any signs of life for almost an entire year. One day in late spring last year I decided I was going to make coasters out of it. I walked back to my growing area with saw in hand and I noticed it was lousy with buds! Its now one of my absolute best attempts to date. I’m so glad I didn’t think of coasters a few days earlier. Does this and your elm classify as lemonade? Almost everything I have fits that description.

  2. tim

    I’ve seen you mention the winter of 14 many times over the last few years. Do you know specifically what it was that decimated your elms or was it just extra cold? And was there any other species that were killed? I like to see how people deal with the many adversities of bonsai so thanks for the post. Theres nothing better than a tree that showcases the scars of a tough life. Love it. Is it almost elm season?

    • Zach Smith Post author

      We had a freak snow storm followed by icing and 15F for a couple of days. My mother had passed, and I simply wasn’t able to put my trees on the ground to protect them. They froze to the benches. I lost water-elms, beech, winged elm, and others. Hawthorns and bald cypress came through fine, though.


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