I seldom write about Swamp maple, Acer rubrum ‘Drummondii,’ not because you can’t make nice bonsai with them but because I have had no success collecting larger specimens and maintaining them past a few years. In about year three they start rotting from the chop point down the trunk, and that’s when the fight begins to keep them alive and make something of them. I collected the one below in 2017, as it had a nice appearance and I figured the worst that could happen was it would cost me a little soil, water and fertilizer. If it lives and thrives through next year I’ll post an update and comment on what I did differently; if not, I won’t speak of it again as I already know how to kill collected Swamp maples. With that said, I went ahead and tackled the initial styling and potting of this specimen, because regardless of the outcome it does make for a good design lesson.

There are all sorts of styles of bonsai within the recognized standard forms: formal upright, informal upright, slanting, semi-cascade, cascade, clump, forest, sumo, etc. Sizes from shohin all the way to back-breaker. The important thing to bear in mind is that as you approach the styling of a tree, don’t think so much about what form you want it to take as you do about what form the tree suggests it ought to be. After long experience, as often as not upon collecting a tree you already know the form it’s going to take. I think this Swamp maple is a great example of this principle. The official style it’ll be is informal upright. In the end it won’t look anything like the classic informal upright (moyogi) bonsai with the pronounced curves we expect with that style. Rather, it will look like what it is meant to look like given the characteristics of the individual specimen. And spotting this in your trees is the thing that comes with experience.

Okay, let’s dive in.

Here’s the tree with all its “springy” lush growth. You can see the apical dominance on display.

This must be brought under control, in order to achieve our ultimate design goal.

Ordinarily we start working trees from the bottom; in this case I want to take care of the leader first.

But before getting into technique, it’s vital to step back and take stock of the specimen itself and what it’s trying to say to us.

The trunk is quite straight, but it hardly possesses the precise straightness of a formal upright.

It’s quite tall relative to the basal trunk diameter – no 1:6 ratio here! So it seems more like a forest tree, especially with that small second trunk. And because of this impression on the viewer, certain design principles must be applied in order to create the necessary proportions to pull it off.

But first, let’s take care of the main leader and branch structure.

If you work much with maples, they possess one characteristic that’s both good and bad: opposite buds/leaves/branches.

In this photo you can see this characteristic very clearly.

We know that in bonsai opposite branches, which are called bar branches, are a no-no.

They look unnatural naturally, so you either have to remove one of them or find a way to disguise them.

In this case, I’m going to use the opposing branches in the apex in such a way that the problem goes away.

The next most obvious issue with this design is the strong branch down the trunk. Now, this branch is not out of proportion to the trunk, and though the first internode is pretty far out along the branch this isn’t the reason the branch has to go.

If you’ll look at the first photo above you can see why.

This branch is positioned right over the smaller of the two trunks. While the branch might grow this way in nature, it would also shade out the smaller trunk and likely starve it for light causing it to die. If I keep it, then, I’m creating an unnatural design that won’t work so well visually.

Branch removed, and stub above it cut down.
Here’s the new leader I mentioned above, wired and positioned. Its opposing branch is cut back hard, and when it produces a new shoot I’m going to wire it for a crown branch. This is a common way to take advantage of a bar branch situation.
In this photo you can see the completed rough design. There are two very important takeaways in what I’ve done here.

First is what you can call the minimalist approach, meaning rather sparse branching.

Why do this? As noted above, both of these trunks are quite tall relative to their basal thicknesses.

In such cases employing many branches tends to make the tree look much younger than I want it to. Sparser branching implies age and struggle; age and struggle mean character. Second, the branch spread is going to be kept very narrow. If I fail to do this, once again the tree is just going to look youthful and that’s not my goal.
Here’s the finished composition.

I used one of the outstanding pots I got from my client Lary Howard. The size of the pot has been selected to emphasize the height of these trees. And the colors are straight from the swamp!

Let me know what you think of this Swamp maple.

Do the design principles I discussed make sense to you? Why don’t you let me know how you are going to use these design principles yourself…

Remember to use the new Insider’s Club Form to post your questions and comments. This helps everybody learn and help and this is where I am now posting responses to your inquires and comments. (You’ll find the forum by scrolling up; it’s on your right.)


Remember to use the new Insider’s Club Form to post your questions and comments. This helps everybody learn and help and this is where I am now posting responses to your inquires and comments.