You Can’t Fix Stupid, But I Found Out You Can Measure It

I posted a couple of blogs earlier this year about the stately Sycamore (aka Plane tree), Platanus occidentalis.  As I said at the time, I’ve never worked with the species before as it just has these huge leaves and doesn’t look all that inclined to produce much in the way of ramification in pot culture.  At the same time, the bark of the mature Sycamore is just gorgeous, stark white under exfoliating greenish-tan.  If you’ve ever seen one, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

Recently, out of the blue, a reader asked if I had any Sycamore bonsai available.  I offered the first one I collected this year.  I had originally planned to just keep the tree and work on it, just so I could see what might be made of it.  But hey, I’m always glad to help out a fellow bonsai enthusiast.

The only problem was, I was now devoid of a nice big Sycamore specimen to work on.  However … a few years ago, a volunteer sprang up near the back of my property.  I decided it would be fun to work on, so I chopped it low one season, with the intention of building taper over the course of a few seasons.  But I never got back to working on it again, and it sorta kinda took off on me and got out of hand.

Here it is now.  What I noticed about it is the nice fork in the trunk.  If you do any collecting, this is one of the handy ways to find a tapering trunk in the wild.  Often they will split at  some point low on the trunk, which will allow you to cut to the smaller one and achieve a nice taper right off the bat.







You can make this chop first in the collecting process, if you so choose.  It’s not an absolute, and you have to be prepared to seal the chop point relatively soon after making this cut.










Several minutes later, I’d dragged the tree to my potting bench, washed it off and chopped back the roots.  Not a bad almost formal upright tree in the making.













In case you haven’t yet picked up on the real size of this tree, here it is potted in its growing tub.  Yes, the trunk is about as wide as the tub is deep.













And that means, while you can’t fix stupid (meaning it’s kinda stupid for an old dude like me to be lifting trees this size) I found out you can measure it.  Here’s the whole tree, once I cut off those two trunks.  Stupid is about 25 feet tall.

I did say earlier this year that I was limiting the number of really big trees I planned to keep for my collection.  They’re just way too heavy to be lugging around.  This tree probably weighs about 40-50 pounds all by itself, and 80 or so in its tub.  I do want to find out if I can make the leaves reduce in size enough, and the branching ramify enough, to make this species a potential bonsai candidate.  One benefit to the size of this tree is I don’t need as much leaf-size reduction to make it look good.  Plus, if I can get to the point where the bark starts exfoliating, it should make quite a show.

8 Replies to “You Can’t Fix Stupid, But I Found Out You Can Measure It”

    • Zach Smith Post author

      I’m sure it can be done, Bob, though I haven’t myself. Chinese ash, Fraxinus chinensis, appears to be a great subject. I’d say try it and see what happens.

  1. robert gardner

    sometimes stupid is a welcome trait What I looking forward to your bending the trunk to
    get some curves in it A 25 foot Bonsai man what a treat, will be fun watching your progress on this one Please keep us all informed.

  2. robert gardner

    another thought on your 25 foot project. when you cut off roots on a large tree will they always respond by putting out new rots. I am dying to try something like this but really afraid of making a large coaster. Thanks for all your great info.

  3. Nathan Bill

    Did you do this in September? I live in 6A, and I always was under the impression that late winter/early spring was the window to collect. This has never made complete sense to me since when planting landscaping trees fall is a really good time. I understand the ground protects the roots a bit better than our pots, but if you bury the pots or protect them in other ways from freezing I wouldn’t expect much difference.

    I collected a sweetgum out of necessity last month but I was also planning to try a few sycamores and was curious if I should try now or if it is too late. Do you expect to see any budding on yours before next spring? If you collect at this time do you take off all or most of the leaves to put the tree in early dormancy? Also, I am surprised how much of the root mass you take (although I do see some feeder roots at the bottom). In general, what species can tolerate this hard pruning of the roots when collecting?

    Thank you! Love the blog.

    • Zach Smith Post author

      Nathan, the Sycamore was collected in August. Regarding late summer/fall collecting, the difference between this and planting landscape trees is that the latter come with a root system. Since I defoliate my collected specimens, late summer and fall are not the times of year when root regrowth is most likely. So I don’t recommend it.

      This is all about deciduous trees, by the way. I don’t work with junipers and have not had any significant luck collecting pines.


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