I often get questions about chopping the roots of collected trees, and it seems the question most often asked is, “If you chop the roots back that far, will the tree survive?” The short answer, of course, is always, “Yes, it will.” This is from a lot of experience, by the way, not theorizing. There seems to be a general misunderstanding of the collecting process, and I believe it is rooted in the very stark difference in how deciduous trees respond to the collecting process versus pines and junipers. I’m confident this is true because I can recall reading, many many years ago, that when you collect trees you should collect as much root as possible in order to ensure the survival of the tree. Oh, and you should also make sure you get a lot of fibrous roots when you collect trees (this almost never happens with most hardwoods). I have always been a big fan of deciduous trees, so that’s where my collecting efforts were (and still are) focused. So when I began collecting my own material, I naturally did my level best to collect as much root as possible, as the experts taught, within the constraints of the pot the tree was going into. This seemed to work, so I kept on doing it that way.
Unfortunately, three things made this approach more challenging than it should have been for the ultimate goal of making great bonsai. One was the fact that the larger radial roots tended to always sprout new growth from the cut ends, and not all along their length. This in turn created the second problem, namely, when it came time to place the tree in an oval or rectangular bonsai pot the radial roots would not fit front to back and required re-chopping (the success of which was not guaranteed). And then there was the third problem, and that is the large radial roots of collected trees almost invariably have no taper near the trunks. Surface roots are no different that the trunks and branches of trees – they should taper from base to tip. Let’s take another look at one of the cypresses I wrote about yesterday. I did indeed get a question about the chances of survival of this tree with so much root removed. But consider two of the points I made above.

  • First of all, this tree ultimately has to fit into a bonsai pot. Leaving a lot more root could jeopardize that part of the bonsai’s development.
  • Secondly, these radial roots are no different than what I see on every tree I collect. No taper. So I’ll have to create it, to make a more believable tree.
In this photo I’ve drawn a line where the soil surface is going to be. This tree, having a 6″ trunk, will need to go into a pot that’s not more than 6″ deep. So cutting the base of the tree is done with this in mind.
In this closeup I’ve noted another fun fact about the recovery of deciduous trees from collecting. New roots sprout from the cut ends of the large radial roots. You’ll get one or two, which may appear anywhere around the root. And you usually don’t get more than a couple. These are the roots that need to be allowed to run, to thicken up, so that the radial roots will end up with good taper in time. Notice in this photo, especially on the roots at the left and center, that they’re chopped a couple of diameters from their emergence point. This will make for a good tapering transition as the fresh new roots grow.
Shifting gears slightly, I thought it would be fun to post some shots of two smaller BC I collected yesterday. It’s only natural to ooh and ah over the really big ones, but I’m often surprised by the quality of some of the smaller trees I bring home. Here’s a good example. I didn’t know for sure what was below the surface when I first stuck the saw in the ground, but after cleaning this one up I was pretty wowed. Isn’t this flaring base and rootage just awesome? I’m seeing a flat-top down the road.
And potted up. If you collect your own, make sure you bury the surface roots to protect them. They’ll get uncovered again when it comes time to go to a bonsai pot.
Check out this little guy. The trunk is even smaller, just 2″ across. But check out the base, the movement and the taper. Isn’t it just lovely?
And potted up. I also see a flat-top with this one. It just has that literati-look, and so a flat-top style will be appropriate. One final note. Do not try to apply anything in this blog post to collecting pines or junipers. It will not work!