Lately I’ve been having a great time with Cedar elms, Ulmus crassifolia. They’re just such fun to work with and make great bonsai. Hardy, agreeable, suitable for any style. Whether you’re a beginner or a seasoned pro, you should have at least one.
This is one of the specimens I collected in April. The trunk base is 1.5″, but it’s old enough to have bark. The trunk character is really nice, so I know this tree will make a fine upright bonsai.
But there’s a problem with this tree that may not be readily apparent as you study it.
Here’s another view. Notice there’s plenty of branches way down low on the trunk. It’s not at all practical to keep these. Then there’s a cluster a ways up on the trunk, followed by a bare space and then another cluster of branches, and still one more higher up. Yes, this tree put its branches in the wrong place.
There are ways to overcome this problem, with the most drastic being to do grafting. There’s no doubt I could take that approach with this tree in time, but I want to show you another way that not only solves the problem immediately, it can also give you a unique design.
This view of the tree is the front I’ve chosen. I’ve gone ahead and removed the low branches. I’ll take off one more low branch, then it’ll be time to tackle those three branch clusters.
One thing you’ll learn as you work with elms and certain other species, is that when they throw trunk buds they often give you clusters of two, three, four, even five or six branches emerging from about the same point on the trunk. I don’t know why this occurs, but I imagine it has something to do with the tree’s determination to survive.
In any event, sometimes we have too much of a good thing in certain locations on our tree and nothing elsewhere. So we have to adjust (both our thinking and the tree).
Here’s a closeup that shows the problem in more detail. I’ve already removed three other smaller branches from this cluster, leaving the two I plan to use. Yes, I know the rules say you can’t have two branches coming off the same spot on the trunk. The rules also say want you to have back branches, and this tree just doesn’t have a suitable front that gives me any. But I can overcome this problem.
I’d suggest spending some time studying this photo. Beginning at the bottom, I took three sets of two branches each and created a design with them. The Number 1 branch was positioned in the classic way, coming toward the viewer. It’s the way you want to start your upright trees, as it works best.
Now take a look at the second branch of that duo, the Number 2 branch. It’s not too easy to see in the photo, but I pulled the branch upward and then moved it toward the back of the tree. Doing this puts foliage immediately toward the back of the tree, producing depth of view and helping to fill a significant gap along the lower trunk. Once the two low branches get thicker and better developed, it will be easy to see how well this works.
Branches 3 and 4 are wired and positioned toward the viewer and the back of the tree, as with the first two. The final branch pair includes the leader, which was wired and given only gentle movement to maintain the upright character of the trunk.
I included this photo so you can get a better look at the two lowest branches. I know this tree doesn’t look like much right now, but once these branches are significantly thicker and are developing ramification the purpose of keeping them both will be easier to see. The goal in bonsai is to create a balanced specimen with branches in the right spots. We often don’t have a perfect set of branches to choose from, so it’s important to learn how to compensate.
For now I also need to leave the dead stub at the top of the tree. Next year, when the leader is sufficiently thick, I’ll remove the stub and carve the transition point. By that time I should be well on my way to having a nice Cedar elm bonsai-to-be.