In bonsai we learn the real lessons by doing. With that said, there’s no way to learn everything about every species of tree or shrub in every specimen that comes into your care. The closest you can come is if you have many specimens that are all the same size from the same origin and you can practice real science on them. Otherwise, you piece together lessons along the way into a set of guidelines.
Back in September I got the itch to start making something out of this Bald cypress (Taxodium distichum). Now, this tree is not going to end up at the National Arboretum. At the same time, something very nice can be made out of it. It’s got some trunk character from its time in the swamp, and a little curve to the trunk along with just about ideal taper. There’s even a stabilizing root in the right spot (to go along with some radial roots that will develop well in a pot).
There’s more to this tree’s story. Way back in spring, it budded weakly and I had become convinced it wasn’t going to survive collecting. It stubbornly refused to die, while also stubbornly refusing to put on much growth. So I set it on the bench and left it alone to live or die. After several months it started to push some “survival growth.” What’s survival growth? That’s the second round of growth that is fueled by new roots. Deciduous trees will push a round of buds and shoots after you collect them. The roots come next. If your first set of shoots extends just a few inches and then stops, your tree is at risk and likely to die. If the growth continues on and gets stronger, you know there’s roots down under.
Anyway, this tree finally decided to live by pushing a second round of growth that extended with vigor. So I decided to wire a design into it with the idea of making it more than it looked like wanting to be. Then I ignored it a while longer, and wouldn’t you know, it pushed a few more shoots that said “I’m getting stronger.”
Today I took the opportunity to do an experiment with Bald cypress. We can call this experiment “Fall root-pruning and potting of Bald cypress displaying limited vigor.” Even though the tree clearly recovered from its early torpor, it grew nothing like most of them do through summer. So there’s definitely a risk in disturbing its roots at this late point in the season. But you know, if it survives and prospers next year, I will have learned a very valuable lesson about the limits of Bald cypress.
Here’s step one. This photo was taken after I cut off a pencil-thick root growing straight down, that incidentally had a nice bunch of fibrous roots at the end. I would have preferred not doing this, but nothing ventured nothing gained. My goal here was not to do a slip-potting, but rather something more drastic. It’s the only way to really push this envelope.
And now the tree is installed in its training pot. I don’t know if you noticed, but if you compare the first and second photos of this tree you can see the new shoots that sprouted up near the top of the tree, along with the extension of the apex to the tune of several inches. Nice late-season strength.
Now I go back to ignoring this bonsai to be. There’s not much growing time left this year, but I do expect renewed growth in the root zone and possibly even a little above ground. Then we’ll see if winter can derail us.