Willow Oak – Quercus Phellos

More often than not, when you collect or otherwise acquire a tree you can see right away what it’s going to be in terms of style, size, branch placement, etc. This isn’t always the case, however. Sometimes it’s not immediately clear how to style a tree, or you work on the tree for a few years and make some progress but you’re still faced with challenges in getting the styling right.

Willow oakThis is my amazing willow oak. The trunk base is 3″ across, and the height to the original apex is just 10″. It has thrown branches in the right spots, and they’ve thickened well as the tree has gained strength and gotten used to life in a limited space. The new leader emerges at an unusual angle, but I’m confident it’ll only make the tree more unique.

Yet there’s an obvious problem with this tree. Considering its stature – short and stout – the spread of the tree must be very limited. As it is, the spread is approaching three times what it should be. Now, in order to get branches to thicken adequately to establish the right proportions with the trunk you have to let them run, at least to an extent. But when you do this, the branches don’t have the taper you need. Branch size needs to be in proportion with the trunk; branch movement needs to reflect trunk movement; and lastly, branch taper needs to mimic trunk taper.

Another obvious thing about this tree is that none of the visible branches has sufficient taper, when you take into account how far from the trunk they can extend and still maintain that appropriate spread. This means they must be cut back hard – and cut back hard more than one time.

Building this tree from just a trunk has taken three years to date. I estimate it will take another 10 years to complete all of the steps vital to producing the right branch structure and proportions. The good news is, this tree can go into a bonsai pot this year. It has thrived in quite a limited space since I collected it, so I don’t anticipate any difficulty in completing the structural work once it’s in a more permanent home.

Willowoak6-8-14Here’s a little historical perspective, by the way. Back in June of 2014 this is what the tree looked like. You can see the craggy excess of dead wood in the apex, which had been there since I collected the tree. It wasn’t adding anything to the appearance, so I went ahead and carved it off. The result is what you see above.

What do you think of this specimen? Have you grown oaks as bonsai? Leave a comment below and share your experiences.







Sweetgum – Liquidambar Styraciflua

Next is my “sumo-style” sweetgum. With it I face the same challenges as with the willow oak above, only more so. The trunk base is 6″ across and it’s only about 10″ to the original chop. From this view, you can see the nice hollows in the trunk and my goal is to make them an integral part of the design (of course!). You can also see how vigorous the growth has been. This photo was taken three years after collection.

What’s hidden by all that foliage is a difficult styling challenge, however. I cut this tree back hard in late summer 2014, and this is what I was left to work with:




To me the tree looks a bit anthropomorphic, like someone with their arms thrown wide open. Is there a tree structure lurking in this stump? The easy answer is yes, but the tough part is making it happen. Just as it is with the willow oak, I have to add girth to the branches of this tree while also achieving movement and taper while keeping the spread properly confined. In addition, I have to build the upper part of this tree. Where the new leader joins the original stump there’s too great a difference in thickness. To grow this out properly will take the same taper-building process as with the branches. Luckily, sweetgum is apically dominant so I shouldn’t have any problem getting it to grow taller. The key, of course, will be to cut it back hard repeatedly. How long will the process take? I’m thinking five years may be enough, especially if I keep the tree in a growing tub.

I’m planning to pull this tree for some root work this spring. Sweetgums are vigorous rooters in confined spaces, so you really can’t go more than a couple of growing seasons without some serious cutting. In the case of this tree, I’ve forgotten what it came out of the ground with, though I suspect it left a lot to be desired. But I’m not concerned, since I know the tree will develop roots I can work with as it moves closer and closer to becoming a specimen bonsai.

How about sweetgum? If you haven’t grown one, you’re missing out on one of the best bonsai trees for beginners and experienced artists alike.

When will we have new sweetgums for sale? Hopefully in the spring. Sweetgum collecting season is not until May, but I’m in hopes of being able to release a few pieces before then.