Bonsai for Beginners – Part 5 – Last Bit of Tree Physiology (possibly)

Previous post.

You didnae thunk I was done, didya?

I talked about the influence of apical dominance on tree buds, I talked about types of growth, but I did not talk about tree buds themselves. So let’s do that now.

Not all tree buds are created equal. As written in the last article, in some trees the buds are just small leaf-precursors bunched up together, in some trees they are covered by modified leaves to protect them during winter and in some trees they contain thus hidden precursors to whole twigs. However, there is more, much more, to them than even that.

You have probably noted that most buds form at the base of leaves and needles, but that is not the only place where they form. They can occasionally also form on injuries, from the meristematic tissue, just like roots can in some plants. And while the buds that form at leaf bases, but do not develop because they are inhibited by apical dominance sometimes may lose their ability to grow altogether, but in many trees, they can be re-activated and start growing under the right conditions. In some trees, buds can even form on roots, and that is where suckers come from – and those can be pretty annoying.

As a beginner, you are best off with plants that have at least one of these two properties – either forming meristemic buds on injuries or waking inhibited buds. They are both godsent. Plants without these properties can be grown as bonsai, and indeed are grown as bonsai, but they require often specific approach and advanced techniques.

The reason for this is simple – contrary to what I found to be a popular belief, bonsai do not grow slowly and keep their shape. They do grow slower than they would normally, but this is achieved in part by cutting the roots and by cutting the twigs. When you stop pruning your bonsai, in a few years you get a huge mess (which many people find out when they buy the mass-produced little trees sold as bonsai in supermarkets). And when you plant it in free soil and stop pruning, in a few years you get a normal-sized tree. This means that bonsai get bigger each year, but you once they reach the size you want, you need to keep them near that size for a long time. And that means occasionally having to cut back to older wood, removing twigs and branches and growing new ones in their stead. In some plants, this can only be achieved by grafting.

That is, unfortunately, another strike against coniferous trees, especially pines and spruces. I have seen what seemed like a revived old-tree bud sprout from a spruce trunk, but it is a rare occurrence that I think happens only under very exceptional circumstances. On a pine that cannot happen at all.

That is still not all. There is more to tree buds than that.

Many trees are grown as bonsai not for the beauty of their foliage, but for their blossoms. But trees often require special conditions in order to form blossoming buds. Sometimes it is given by the age of the tree, sometimes by the position of a tree-bud on the twig, sometimes by both and some more like the temperature in winter etc. This issue is quite species-specific and cannot be summed up succinctly.

So for a beginner, the best option is trees that can grow back from older wood and that are not grown for their flowers but for their leaves/needles. That does not mean however that you should avoid other plants altogether, it only means that once you start seeing any success with those, you are no longer a beginner.

Next, I will write where to get your first tree and write a short list of species/genera suitable for beginners. Later on, I will write about each of those in more detail.


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