I’m Happy With This Chinese Elm, But Really Perplexed

As you know, I love to push the envelope in bonsai.  I’ve always been a curious sort, and I ended up being a scientist for the first part of my work career, so my doing bon-science now should hardly come as a surprise.  I like to try stuff, what can I say?

Part of the “canon” of bonsai is that you only collect certain trees at certain times of the year.  Well, I’ve already done in part of the canon because I collect my Sweetgums in May and June, and don’t hesitate to collect American elms from winter through summer.  I’ve had success collecting oaks in summer, along with Cedar elms.  So you really don’t know until you try.

This post is about Chinese elm, Ulmus parvifolia, so let’s get to the point.  First of all, Chinese elm is one of the very best species for bonsai – with the qualifier that you shouldn’t buy an “S-curve” Chinese elm, which is a crime against nature, so get one from me if you can.  Anyway, I field-grow them to size.  Last Saturday I decided to lift one I’ve had in the ground for three or four years, because it had the requisite number of direction and taper changes, in this case four.  I literally built this tree from the ground up.  Here it is, after lifting, washing, dusting the cut ends of the lateral roots, and potting.

It’s pretty awesome.  No S-curve here.  From the terrific nebari up into the trunk, the taper, the movement, it’s got a super start.  As with all deciduous trees I work with, it’s at “ground zero.”  That means I start with a bare or mostly bare trunk, and wait for buds to emerge at the right spots.  Usually with Chinese elm, I get them where I want them.

At this point I set my “clock” for two weeks in the future.  The tree was lifted on 7/29, so that meant I should see new buds on 8/12.  I placed it on the bench in a shady spot, and went about my business.


Here’s a shot of the tree today.  You may wonder why I took the trouble to photograph it again.  Well, here’s why.









In five days the tree is full of swelling buds!  To be sure, I always expect good performance from Chinese elms.  But I don’t expect a specimen I lifted from the ground less than a week ago to be pushing buds!

I guess this will fit nicely into my bon-science lessons learned.  I admit to having some trouble with Chinese elm specimens collected in the dead of winter.  It’s always puzzled me why that was, but I adjusted and now only lift Chinese elms once the buds are starting to swell in spring.  But now, woo hoo! I can lift them in summer too.

The next step with this tree is to just neglect it except for watering.  I should have shoots to make branches out of in about three or four weeks.  I’ll wire up a design, then ignore the tree some more into winter.  Next spring it should be ready to start taking on some character.  The nice thing about this specimen is it has all the taper it needs already, so by the end of the next growing season I should have a complete tree structure.  Nice!

Let me know what you think.  Leave a comment below.

7 Replies to “I’m Happy With This Chinese Elm, But Really Perplexed”

  1. robert gardner

    your warning about elms is the usual s shape is so wrong along with all the junipers that you see in the same shape. How many trees do you see in nature that grow that way unless its a pine growing on a cliff around 5000 feet. Pleased keep up the great work and the way you help all of us novices. Only been doing this for about 20 years and I am still in the learning process.

  2. John

    Nice tree start. I look forward to seeing the progress. How thick is the trunk and how high to the top chop at this stage?

    • Zach Smith Post author

      John, the trunk base is 1.75″ and it’s 12″ to the tip. Given that the tip is fairly thin, I’m thinking this tree shouldn’t end up more than about 14″ tall when done.


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