trunk building oaks

Sneak Peek

Most of the time we can get a good trunk line with our collected trees. Sometimes, however, you have to rebuild almost from the ground up.

Trunk Building Oaks

I collected this Water oak, Quercus nigra, from my iris swamp two years ago where it had grown up as a volunteer. The lower trunk was especially interesting to me, considering that having grown in such a wet environment it really took on a lot of character as the tree got bigger. With a base measuring 2.5″, I figured I’d have a nice oak bonsai about 20″ tall give or take.

Alas, as sometimes happens this tree did not push buds all the way up the trunk. With oaks, you frankly don’t know going in. You just lift them and hope for the best (at least that’s been my experience). Oaks are great bonsai subjects, so the effort is always worth it.


Here’s what I ended up with (in September of last year), after letting this strong shoot run. The base of the tree makes this effort continue to be worthwhile. You just have to have “future” vision.

This is more or less the way you always build trunks from specimens like this one. You let a shoot grow out, then you cut it back to just above a node so the tree will push a shoot from there and allow you to continue building.

Doesn’t look like much, right?

Now we’ve got almost another year’s growth on the tree. I put some wire on the shoot that grew out following the second chop, so I could get a little movement in what’s going to be the trunk and avoid having it become boring (too much work goes in to allow that to happen).

Here are a couple of tips for handling your trees during the trunk-building phase. One, pay no attention to all of those branches that have chosen to festoon the leader; they’re all going to get chopped off, sooner or later, because we’re trunk building (remember?); and two, always remember to keep a node close to where your leader is emerging from its origin. If you don’t do this, you’ll end up with an empty length of trunk that may not work with your design. You can always not use an extra shoot. If you’re missing one in a spot, that may only be remedied by grafting.

As I’ve noted before, whenever you carve on your deciduous trees you need to carve until you find living tissue. In this case, I ended up with a very nice angled chop which is going to be needed sooner or later – so why not now?

There’s nothing more to do on this tree for 2020. I need additional thickening at the transition point, and the fall engorgement of the branches should help with that. Come 2021, I may be ready to build the next section of trunk.

Here’s another oak that didn’t bud quite like I wanted. I’m pretty sure it’s a Willow oak, Quercus phellos, as the leaves are mostly willow-shaped and for species in the wild this is common.

So during the 2019 growing season I was able to do a little wiring of what the tree gave me. This is something you’ll no doubt do on many occasions, if you collect trees.

If you study this photo closely, you’ll be able to see where I chopped back the leader from the shot above, after it had grown out about five feet (and thickened, which was the goal). I’ve wired up the new leader, and wired another branch/leader on the right side that can be used in the design. My goal with this specimen is the so-called broom-form, which is very common for oaks in the wild.

I’d love to hear what you think about these two oaks. Leave me a comment below.