My great Riverflat hawthorn, Crataegus opaca, is finishing up year six in my care.

The leaves will be off the tree soon, but just as the deciduous tree gives us different looks throughout the year I like this in-between one too.


For those of you who haven’t worked with collected trees yet, this photo above (the earliest one I have for this tree) is very instructive.

While you may have the impression that the tree came from the wild just like this, except for the wire that’s obviously on some of the branches, I can tell you it did not. When I collected it, all of the branches that held foliage were higher than everything you see on this tree. I chopped it dramatically. Why? Because bonsai is all about scale and proportion. I wasn’t going to bring home a 10-foot tall tree; there wouldn’t have been any point in doing so, because you don’t make a bonsai out of a 10-foot tall tree.

So where do you begin, and how do you “calculate” what you’re bringing home to make into a bonsai?

First of all, let’s think height. Most bonsai are not more than 48″ tall. There are good reasons for this, not the least of which is you can’t lug around a tree that size very much. Don’t get me wrong. I love big bonsai. But I also love not having back trouble. So I limit the number of really big bonsai I maintain. With that in mind, let’s figure that our average bonsai is going to be around 20″ tall. A 20″ tall bonsai ought to have a trunk that’s about 2-3″ across, at the soil surface or above the root crown. When you go out to lift a tree from the wild, you want to zero in on those trees you can work with in order to create good proportions from soil surface to apex. That means a tapering trunk to produce the forced perspective you need. And you have to be prepared to build a quickly-tapering leader near the apex. My rule of thumb is that I’ll chop the trunk at a point where its diameter is half what it is at soil level. This works beautifully.

The next thing to consider with a newly collected trunk is the branch structure.

You’re going to need one, of course. Deciduous trees are pretty good about producing trunk buds. These tend to appear at points where leaves originally appeared as the seedling was growing up. You can’t see those dormant buds anymore, most of the time, but they’re there. With a little luck, you get some new shoots to work with. In the photo above, you can see the result. This is what you build your branches out of.

I’ll post more updates on this tree in 2018. The one thing I’m waiting for is flowers. It takes time for a hawthorn to produce flowering spurs in a bonsai pot. I like to think I’ve gotten that far. There’s been very little hard-pruning of this specimen this year, as it’s reached a good stage of maturity as a bonsai. So I’m hopeful about flowers. But time will tell.

I added the first photo above to the Progression on this tree. It’s becoming a really interesting story.