I collected this sweetgum, Liquidambar styraciflua, in 2011. In 2012, with a season of vigorous root growth behind it, I decided to go ahead and put the tree in this very nice Paul Katich pot. The reason I felt comfortable doing this is with the trunk already “developed” naturally, all I had left to do was build the branch structure. This is easily done in a bonsai pot. I had no particular need to thicken the trunk of this tree, and it already had nice taper from the base to where I chopped; finishing out the tapering into the crown would be a snap.
As the new growth emerged on this tree, pretty much all I’ve got is a few tender shoots I’ve wired into position (the lowest branch came with the tree; I decided to keep it to get a head-start on at least one branch).
Two months later, check out the progress. Sweetgums grow fast! This is especially true with newly collected specimens. They want to regain their strength in order to get big and tall, just as they’re programmed to do. So they’ll push a lot of growth with this goal in mind. It’s our job to keep the growth in check and direct it as needed to build a tree structure.
Fast-forward to May of 2013, and I’ve got a complete set of branches. To be sure, there’s a lot of work ahead for this specimen. It’s one thing to have new branches that have been created from strong one-year shoots, quite another to have the secondary and tertiary branching vital to making a potted tree a bonsai. Nevertheless, this is a pretty satisfying stage of development for a tree only two years out of the ground.
Now we see the tree in Fall 2014. With another year of development behind us, the tree is starting to get some ramification. With sweetgums, this is a somewhat time-consuming process due to their natural growth habit. New shoots emerge as clusters of leaves with a central growing tip. While it’s all right to pinch out the growing tip on a developed branch/branchlet, you don’t want to do this during the primary development phase on any branch. You allow the shoot to extend for a bit, then pinch out the tip just before your internodes get too far apart. This allows for new buds to emerge from the leaf axils along the new branch.
Here’s the tree in May of this year, after I defoliated it in preparation for repotting and root work. If you compare this photo with the one just above, you can clearly see the tree is building ramification and taking on more and more the appearance of a real tree – a real bonsai is emerging. I’m getting closer and closer to that point where I can focus on refinement and, as needed, renewal pruning.
And a final shot from today. If you look closely you can see an issue with this tree that I’m dealing with: the sole right-side branch in the middle of tree weakened and won’t likely make it to 2016. To compensate for this I’ve got two adjustments in the works: I’ve wired down a branch higher in the apex, which looks like it’ll give me the balance I need; and there’s a new shoot emerging roughly halfway up the trunk on the right-hand side. I’ll let this shoot grow out next year to gain strength, wiring it into position.
You’ll find it’s not all that uncommon for your trees to lose a branch over time. The true artist is prepared to redesign in order to compensate. And quite often, what comes from a redesign is better than what you started with.
Let me know what you think of this tree. I’m really pleased with how well it’s developed.