Bonsai for Beginners – Part 8 – Pests, Pets, Partners & Posterity

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There is yet another thing that I feel needs addressing before I dive fully into describing individual taxa and how to care for them, and that thing being the beings that might share your household with you and your trees.

Let’s start with a sad anecdote about partners. I don’t have a partner, but my older brother is married. And when I started expanding my bonsai collection and some of my trees started to look really impressive, he wanted to try it too. I have him one really good indoor bonsai, Cupressus californica and one mediocre but with good potential Ficus benjamina. The trees prospered for a while and looked good, but my sister in law shuffled them around the house to places where they “look good” until she shuffled them on top of the cupboard above the kitchen counter. When I have seen this on my visit, I warned them that the trees won’t survive that, because they need a lot of sunlight in vegetation. It is possible to display trees in a hallway or some other place for a while to decorate your home, but ultimately they are living beings and their needs must be met. My sister in law made appreciative noises and pretended to care, but she only shuffled the trees into places where they were even worse off. Until they died, as I predicted.

I have begun to suspect ill intent, but I could not prove anything and I could not say anything even if I had proof. My brother was determined to have bonsai trees, he bought some, he even successfully poached some from the forest against my advice, and I bought him a healthy Pinus pentaphylla, the most iconic Japanese bonsai species, and I chose a tree with really great potential. The trees seemed to prosper for a while, and then they suddenly all died and my brother lost all enthusiasm at all that labor wasted.

For a long time – until last year, in fact – I thought he has just been unlucky. Trees die, it happens to me all the time. But recently I learned that he was a victim of a concentrated effort of his wife’s family. His father in law got bitter after he split with his mother in law, he got drunk and he babbled out what really happened to someone and it came in a roundabout way to me. They deliberately sabotaged all my brothers’ hobbies and I was deemed as persona-non-grata in the household. Their family deemed all hobbies as a waste of time, only activities that make money or are work around the house were allowed. And I came in there with my perfidious influences on my brother and their grandchildren like reading books and growing useless trees in a pot and reminding my brother of his own hobbies like making models and playing chess.

The high-end trees that I gave my brother were indeed deliberately shuffled off into places where they withered and died, under the pretense of appreciation. And when they could not do that with the outdoor trees because my brother put his foot down and claimed a piece of garden for his hobby and told them to back off, they have secretly put dish detergent into the barrel he used to collect rainwater for his trees. To my knowledge, my brother still does not know this and I won’t tell him. He is happily married. But I can’t stand his wife and his mother in law.

So before you start growing bonsai trees, make sure that people who share your household are OK with it. Do not just assume they are.

I also do not have children. And I do not currently have any pets, but I used to. For both children and pets apply the same rules as for any garden- or potted plants. Make sure that anything poisonous is out of their reach so they cannot nibble at it. Or better yet, make sure they cannot nibble at any plants at all. If you are cat-owned, you will have to make extra sure your owner does not knock any pots off the shelves to teach you a lesson.

Some plants are more poisonous to birds than they are to mammals, so if you have parrots and let them out of their cages, you too need to be extra careful. For outdoor bonsai, this does not seem to be a problem. Local birds never nibble on local flora if said flora is inedible or poisonous, and I never had them nibble on small trees when big ones are nearby either. And I have never seen local birds try eating indoor plants when I put them outside. Indeed having a bird feeder near bonsai trees has even helped a bit with pests because the birds do like to sit in the trees and they pick off any wintering eggs and pupae they find while there – especially tits are helpful in this regard.

The almost inevitable companion in your household once you start to grow any kind of plant are pest insects.

Worst of these are scale insects. They tend to attack mostly evergreen plants with hard leathery leaves, like Laurus, Ficus, Citrus, and Myrtus and once these fuckers get a foothold, it is really difficult to get rid of them. I have managed to finally destroy them by a combination of mechanical removal with concentrated water spray from a small nozzle- that allows for mechanical removal from even the least accessible nooks and crannies -but the spray must not be so strong so it would poke holes in the leaves. What also helps is to wash leaves and stalks with a cloth soaked in rubbing alcohol or cheap vodka, to destroy the eggs. Sometimes even more drastic measures are necessary, like severe pruning of the tree and trimming of all leaves. Insecticides are usually useless, they do not penetrate the hard shells very well.

Wooly aphids are similarly persistent and obnoxious and similarly difficult to get rid of. Here I did not in fact succeed and I am battling with them for years now on one pine. The problem with these is they tend to attack conifers like Pinus, Picea, and Larix and they nest themselves into the nooks and crannies around the needles, twigs and in the bark recesses, where they cannot be reached at all. Some even attack roots and those are usually a death sentence. I used to keep them at bay with a timely spray of daisy extract with a drop of detergent, but daisies disappeared around here for whatever reason and since then I am only left with washing them off mechanically either with water spray or with a toothbrush. I might need to try a commercial insecticide.

Aphids can also be a problem. Birds and spiders do help with their management however, and they are much more susceptible to insecticides and even ordinary mechanical removal than the previous two. They tend to attack mostly soft, freshly growing stalks and leaves of Hibiscus, Tilia, Acer, and others with similar growth patterns (probably my new persimmon would be susceptible too by the looks of it).

Since these pests prefer different plants, mixing the species on your windowsill/bench etc. does help to prevent their spread. Yes indeed, social distancing works for trees too.

Ants are not a pest in and of themselves, but they can spread all three above mentioned pests around your collection outdoors if they are present, because all three produce honeydew and ants love them.

Spiders in a bonsai tree are desired and should not be disturbed if possible. I am sure there are some people who would like to know this.

Fungal (and bacterial) diseases come in many varieties and are mostly species-specific. You must make your own research should you encounter one. Some species are more prone to them than others. The best help is prevention and fungicidal spray. If a tree catches a fungal disease that attacks wood it is usually the end of it. You might try cutting away the whole infected branch and burning it – you might catch it in time and save the tree, but most likely it will get damage that takes years to heal, even if it survives. Fungal diseases that attack leaves /needles are less threatening and can be mitigated by the removal of old fallen leaves/needles in the fall, but not always. Even these mild fungal diseases are detrimental to the tree so they should be avoided.

On the other hand, mycorrhizal fungi are desired. Even a bonsai tree starts to prosper and grow better if it manages to get mycorrhizal fungus on its roots, the effect this has on for example oaks is remarkable- I have observed nearly double growth rate in trees with fungus against those without it, but I did not conduct a proper scientific experiment, so you only have my word for it.

Lichens on roots, branches, and bark are also desired, they add the illusion of old age. They are also an indicator of health and proper care because they grow very slowly and are finicky.

Therefore any application of fungicidal sprays on bonsai trees must be done with care and deliberation and in a targeted manner and not in a “spray and pray” fashion.

One pest that I have not seen mentioned in any of my bonsaist literature are water voles. They do not get to the trees on benches, but if you take them off the benches for wintering during a tough winter, they can get in and wreak total havoc. In 2011 I have lost this way several prime trees and many others were damaged to such an extent they still did not recover. Voles also destroy a significant portion of any trees that I plant in my garden, I was unable to replace my cherry tree due to them and I have to plant new trees in my coppice two-three times before they survive long enough to be vole-proof. Having a cat helps, although they do not like to eat voles too much. But they do kill them and scare them off. The problem in my garden was also less severe when we had a dog, And it was nearly non-existent when an owl was nesting in a nearby spruce tree. However the 2011 disaster has happened when we had two outdoor cats and a dog, but the voles were safe under half a meter of snow. Voles are a mortal enemy to me. Forget capture and release traps. You can either be on the side of the trees or on the side of the rodents, not both. So killing traps, regularly checked and put safely with proper bait in order to not catch shrews or birds by accident, it is.

And lastly – it should go without saying that if your tree is visibly infected or infested, you should not display it. Especially not in an exhibition where it could infect other trees. Visible infection or infestation is an instant disqualifying criterion in competitions, and rightly so. As a beginner, look for any of these when buying a tree and do not take any that is visibly ill. You do not want to carry these unwanted guests into your household.

Bonsai for Beginners – Part 7 – Styles, Sizes and Composition

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In any endeavor, there are purists, assholes and assholish purists, i.e. snobs. No doubt in bonsai circles is no shortage of such people too. I have not met any because I am not involved in any society. I have zero contact with other bonsaists and I like it that way.

I am of the opinion that if it looks like a tree and is grown in a pot, then it is a bonsai. And if it makes the owner happy and the tree is healthy, then that is all that is necessary and it is nobody else’s business to give unsolicited advice on how the tree should look.

However, that does not mean that there are no recommendations that are pertinent for any beginner regarding the style, size, and composition of their first bonsai tree.

First, let’s talk about size. Bonsai come in sizes from just a few cms to several decimeters or even over 1 m tall. And here come in play two factors – the space you have available and your physical strength. Your tree must have enough space to grow in height and width as well, and it must get enough light to thrive. For outside trees, this is not usually a problem, but for indoor, the tree(s) container(s) should be of such a size that you can put them on your windowsill diagonally and the tree(s) should not be higher than about half of the window. That way you can turn them 90° twice a week to achieve even growth and they will get enough light.

© Charly, all rights reserved. Click for full size.

And in regard to strength, square-cube law comes into play, I learned this the hard way. When you double the size of a tree and its pot with equal proportions, the weight increases eight-times. A pot that is visually just slightly bigger can become deceptively heavier and it can happen that the tree is unmanageable without help. Trees at circa 50 cm are a big handful for a single person and anything bigger than that might need an extra hand. But they look soooo damned good and impressive…

As for style, there is a whole Japanese terminology that I have never bothered to not forget. Sure, I have it in a book somewhere and I read up on it thoroughly, but it is not useful to me now. That is not to say that it is not useful at all. As all terminology, its purpose is descriptive, in order to allow better communication. And since I do not communicate about my trees too often, I do not need to remember it. If I need to describe my trees sometime, I can always look it up.

The word “descriptive” is key here. A bonsai is a tree in a pot by definition, so the only criterion here is it should look like a tree. My advice to a beginner would, therefore, be to try and shape the plant you have to look like a tree – any tree – and not try and shoehorn it into some specific style.

Both size and style are to a certain extent also species-dependent. Some trees can take heavy abuse and be contorted into wild shapes, some are fragile, sensitive and brittle, some have huge leaves, some tiny etc.

Regarding composition, the usual rules of art apply. For example, the tree and its pot should fill a picture with 4:3 or 16:9  ratio, the golden ratio applies etc. Most people have an adequate aesthetic feeling to do this properly in my opinion, There are, however, several bonsai-specific rules that are important to mention.

The tree is a statue that has a front and a backside, but it is three-dimensional. So branches should point in all directions, not only to the sides. But no branches should point straight forward towards the observer, it creates an unpleasant feeling when observing the tree, it actually strains the eyes a bit.

The trees are meant to be observed with approx 1/3 of the tree at eye height- for example when they are on a windowsill, you should be appreciating them when seated. In order to achieve the best result, the tree trunk should be bent ever so slightly towards the observer. It creates an optical illusion that makes the tree appear slightly bigger than it actually is. Trees that straight create an illusion of being bent backward and that, again, is not entirely pleasant to look at.

Big wounds, if they are not part of the composition, should be hidden on the back or on the sides. Wounds, like dead branches and hollows,  that are part of the composition should, of course, be visible and therefore positioned either on the front or on the sides. If wounds on the front side are not avoidable, the tree should not be displayed until they heal, but that is not a problem for me – or for a beginner.

And lastly, the pot is a part of the composition, so its shape and color should complement the tree, but it should not clash with it or compete with it. A straight-lined square pot will look strange with a tree that is all twisty-bendy, and plain brown pot will look a bit drab with a plant that has bright red leaves or flowers. When in doubt, an ordinary bowl works most of the time.

Hopefully, I have not forgotten anything important here. Next time I will maybe finally write about a concrete species and how to care for it.


Tree Tuesday

In the small Palestinian village of Al Walaja, just outside Bethlehem,  lives an ancient olive tree, that may be one of the oldest trees in the world. It has been carbon-dated to an age range of 3,000 to 5,500 years old and it is the job of one man, Salah Abu Ali, to protect it.

Ali wakes every morning to tend to his family’s orchard. Entering through a neighbor’s yard, he trots down the grove’s narrow paths in a way that belies his age, occasionally reaching down to quickly toss aside trespassing stones; briskly descending verdant terraces, one after another until he comes to the edge of the orchard. It is at this edge where Ali spends most of his day, pumping water from the spring above or tending to the soil. It is where he sometimes sleeps at night, and where he hosts people that have made the pilgrimage to the Holy Land. But many come for the tree, an olive that some believe to be the oldest in the world.

The olive tree of Al Walaja, like all trees in the world, is under threat from climate change and is recovering from a recent drought.  It is also under the added threat of Israeli expansionism.

But the olive tree of Al Walaja has become something else to its residents. Now, it’s a symbol of resistance. The village is a shadow of its former self. Most of the village’s residents were forced to flee their homes amidst heavy fighting during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. “In 1948, we came here and slept under the trees,” Ali says, as Israeli military personnel chant during drills in the valley below. After the dust settled and the demarcation lines were drawn, Al Walaja had lost around 70 percent of its land.
The town was further eroded after Israel captured the West Bank during the Six-Day War in 1967. Israel then expanded the Jerusalem Municipality, annexing around half of what was left of the village.

More recently, Israel’s separation wall threatened to once again cut the village in two, isolating the Al Badawi tree. But residents won a court battle which saw the chain-link wall diverted around the village. The wall now stands just below Ali’s family orchard, separating the new village from the site of the old, just across a narrow valley.

Despite the court victory, dozens of homes have been bulldozed to make way for the Jerusalem Municipality. Al Walaja still sits isolated, hemmed in on nearly all sides by Israel’s separation wall and no longer able to access uncultivated farmland or many of the village’s once-famed springs.

It is because of these threats that Ali guards the ancient olive tree, and he considers it his life work to protect it. Ali now receives a small sum from The Palestinian Authority to take care of the tree, due to reports of Israeli settlers and soldiers cutting down and burning ancient olive trees in other parts of the West Bank.

According to the United Nations, approximately 45 percent of agricultural land in the West Bank and Gaza Strip contain olive trees, providing income for some 100,000 families. “The Palestinians are attached to the olive tree,” Ali says. “The olive tree is a part of our resistance and a part of our religion. With the olive tree we live, and without it we don’t live.”


Story from Atlas Obscura

Bonsai for Beginners – Part 6 – Where to get your first tree

Previus post.

Where you should get your first tree, and what kind of tree should it be, depends on where you live, where you want to keep it and what experience you have. I am living in a temperate climate and therefore my personal experience is limited to the plants that grow around here plus some subtropical and tropical plants that I grow indoors. I also have very limited – and universally negative – experience with Australian flora, so, unfortunately, I cannot give too much info about that. But whatever I write here should be applicable throughout Eurasia and North America.

So first thing first – where you should get your first tree? If you have indoor plants, you should first look whether you have a suitable plant already that could perhaps be converted to bonsai. There is plenty of commonly grown indoor potted plants that are also suitable bonsai species. Two of my most impressive and valuable trees were converted from 40 years old plants that my mother grew.

If you have a garden and want to have an outdoor bonsai, then I would recommend using local species or some decorative species that you might already have. You can either try and take a twig and plant it – many species take root easily – or look around your garden for a seedling that started to grow where it should not have, perhaps too close to a hedge or similar.

Such plants have a huge advantage over anything that you buy in that you can be reasonably sure that they can prosper in the environment you can provide for them and you might already know how to care for them.

Do not buy anything that has “bonsai” in the name. Neither a good expensive tree nor one of the mass-produced cheap ones in supermarkets. In the first case, you probably would not be able to take proper care of the tree yet, and in the second case you would not be buying a bonsai but a crippled plant that can become one in a few years at the best, or will die soon no matter what you do at worst. The cheapo “bonsai” from supermarkets can be a good source of twig cuttings for your own planting though, sometimes it is the only way to get your hands on certain species. And absolutely never buy “bonsai kit”. There is no such thing as bonsai seeds. Those are ordinary tree seeds in fancy packaging and without proper care will, therefore, grow into ordinary trees – if they germinate at all.

Do not poach trees in the forest or on someone else’s property. There are environmentally friendly and IMO morally OK ways to do it – for example trees that grow near train tracks or roads and are periodically cut down for maintenance because they are a weed – but it is still illegal and you should not do it without the permission of the property owner. And then there is, of course, the morally reprehensible poaching in parks and mountain forests. In Japan poaching of trees for commerce has lead to significant environmental damage in mountainous areas for example. Yup, the Japanese are not above commercializing their heritage and destroying their environment in due course. And to poach a tree without it dying requires a lot of experience, take my word for it.

If you lack suitable species at home and cannot find anything in your garden and therefore must buy something, then buy plants of suitable species at your local gardening store. Look for plants that do not have overtly visible scars from grafting and are healthy and with a bit of luck, you can find a tree that can be converted into a bonsai within one-two years.

And here a very short and incomplete list of species/genera, in three categories. The taxa are listed in no particular order from the top of my head. I only write about species/genera that I have personal experience with or can reasonably extrapolate to from closely related taxa. And because English tree nomenclature is a complete nonsensical mess, I will only use Latin names.

  1. Ideal for a beginner:
    Indoor – Myrthus communis, Hibiscus sp., Laurus nobilis, Fuchsia sp., Crassula ovata, Serissa foetida, Adonium obesum, Punica granatum
    Outdoor – Acer sp., Betula sp., Larix sp.,  Ulmus sp., Taxus sp., Ligustrum sp., Buxus sp., Carpinus sp., Tilia sp.
  2. Not ideal, but still suitable with caveats:
    Indoor – Ficus sp., Euphorbia milli, Portulacaria afra, Olea europaea
    Outdoor – Juniperus sp., Thuja sp. Cupressus sp., Chamaecyparis sp., Thujopsis sp., Pinus sp., Fagus sp. Malus sp., Prunus sp., Illex sp. Cedrus sp., Tamarix sp., Crataegus sp.,
  3. Not suitable for a beginner at all:
    Indoor – Podocarpus sp., Eucalyptus sp., Annona sp., Citrus sp., Camelia sp., Cuphea hissopifolia
    Outdoor – Picea sp., Fraxinus sp., Salix sp., Populus sp. Vitis vinifera, Forsythia sp., Corylus sp., Visteria sp., Calluna vulgaris, Vaccinium sp., Azalea sp., Rhododendron sp., Sambucus sp., Hedera helix

Each of these taxa may get their own extra article in due course. I will start with some of the most suitable ones.

Tree Tuesday

A frosting of fungus ©voyager, all rights reserved

I found a few nature made pieces of wood art the other day while I was walking with Jack that I thought I’d share today. I’d prefer to share your tree photos, though, so now that it’s springtime, why not take your camera for a walk and grab some pictures of your local trees in bud or bloom. I think all of us would like to see the progress of spring in your part of the world, and I love reader submissions. Really, I do. Don’t be shy, our address is over there in the sidebar, underneath the colourful percolating head where it says email here.

Wormwood ©voyager, all rights reserved

A Tiered Garden ©voyager, all rights reserved

Bonsai Tree – Well, Thats Officialy Weird…

Previous Post.

Today, the terminal bud started definitively growing. There is no longer any doubt that it is alive and that last years’ growth did not go down the drain. Persimmon seeds are rare, so I am a bit fussier about this tree than I am for example about pomegranates or hibiscuses. So these last two weeks I was worried that the terminal bud is dead.

© Charly, all rights reserved. Click for full size.

However, I did not worry that the tree itself is dead. Because it did, in fact, begin to grow just one day after my last post. Only it did not start to grow at the tip. It sprouted a second trunk near the base. Which grows slowly, but steadily, ever since. This week the leaves started to get bigger and I have started to turn the plant 90° clockwise daily in order to achieve straight growth.

© Charly, all rights reserved. Click for full size.

However, this is not something that I expected. From pictures on the internet I have assumed that Diospyros kaki are small to medium-sized trees with strong apical dominance, akin to apples or pear trees. But this type of growth, where new suckers start growing at the root base and outpace in growth the main stem is usually the domain of shrubs and bushes, like the common hazel Corylus avellana. And even there it usually does not happen during the second year already, it usually takes a few years to establish the main stem first.

I can only speculate about the cause, so here goes: The root-trimming stopped the inhibition of one of the two buds at the base of cotyledons. Those remained underground in this plant, unlike for example in apple, where they rise above the ground. And since cotyledons are modified leaves, they have buds at their base, only those are usually extremely inhibited and do not start growing unless the main stem is damaged.

This gives me some information about the plant.

First, I will see next year what the root system looks like, but this might mean I will get multiple plants out of this, or one plant with multiple stems. Or that it will be very difficult to get bonsai out of this plant at all because the plant has insufficient apical dominance for that.

Second and more important – it means this species should be strong enough to handle even severe trimming and should be able to start growing even from older wood from extremely inhibited buds. That is, in fact, a very good property in a bonsai tree, because those might need to be scaled back occasionally by trimming several years old branches.

So while this was really unexpected and it is a bit weird, It is not bad news and it makes me hopeful that it will go well. We’ll see how the growth pattern develops from now on, I won’t interfere with the trees shape for at least a year at all.

Tree Tuesday

David Milarch with clones of 3,000-year-old redwoods. Courtesy Archangel Ancient Tree Archive

David Milarch is a man on a mission, and his goals are ambitious. He is trying to save the Ancient Giant Redwoods and, in the process, save the planet.

Years of droughts and shifting temperatures have already driven these evergreen giants out of some coastal zones they once inhabited. The trees can live for as long as 2,000 to 3,000 years, but some scientists think, the way things are going, that they could disappear from California in a fraction of that time.

Milarch spends his days tracking down the heartiest coast redwood specimens he can find, cloning them in his own lab, and then planting them in carefully chosen plots where they can thrive, hopefully for millennia. One site is a new experimental bed in San Francisco’s Presidio, part of the U.S. National Park system. Milarch’s goal is both to strengthen the coast redwood gene pool with clones of the strongest individuals, and to store loads of climate-change-causing carbon—more than 1,000 tons per acre of redwoods, more than any other kind of forest in the world. It’s a complicated mission with a simple philosophy: Save the big trees, and they’ll save us.

Milarch is well qualified for the mission as are his two sons, both of whom assist him with the project and the foundation.

If you strike up a conversation with Milarch, you’ll get his life story inside of 10 minutes—from his motorcycle gang days in Detroit to the revelation that set him on his current path, involving a near-death experience, angels, and a disembodied voice that dictated a plan he wrote down in the wee hours of the morning. When he woke up fully the next day, he says, “There was an eight-page outline on that legal pad. It was the outline for this project.”
The angel who tapped Milarch for this mission seems to have picked the right person—not only is he an able tree-vangelist, but he is a third-generation shade-tree grower. His sons Jake and Jared, both of whom work for Archangel, make up the fourth. So he knows all the secrets of getting balky arborial species to reach their potential by locating the healthiest specimens, clipping and propagating them, and then nurturing delicate new trees.

Jake Milarch of the Archangel Ancient Tree Archive packs up saplings that were sent to Oregon for planting. Courtesy Archangel Ancient Tree Archive

It’s a long, complicated process that involves cloning and Milarch manages it all with an eye to the future. The saplings are nurtured with compost and drip-fed water when dry, and in time, Milarch plans to plant underbrush species that will not dominate the young trees. He also plans to selectively thin the trees as they grow, allowing the most dominant to take over.

It isn’t a cure-all for climate change, but it is an important part of the answer.

As University College London earth scientists Mark Maslin and Simon Lewis point out in The Conversation, reforestation is hardly a magic bullet against climate change. It can take centuries, even millennia, to have its effect, and that’s time the climate problem does not have. Some of the land areas earmarked for reforestation in the Science study may end up too hot for forests by the time people get around to planting them. “Reforestation,” Maslin and Lewis write, “should be thought of as one solution to climate change among many.”
Even if champion trees aren’t an answer by themselves, Milarch is determined to see them at least become part of the answer. If there’s anything worth being downright messianic about, he figures, it’s creating eternal groves of thousand-year-old, self-replicating giants that could benefit all humankind. “We have a list of the 100 most important trees to clone. We have our marching orders. We know where we need to go,” Milarch says. “I raise my hand every morning and I say, ‘Use me.’”

I don’t believe in angels, but whatever it was that sent Milarch on his quest, I’m thankful for it. If you’d like to know more about this vital project please visit The Archangel Ancient Tree Archive Website.


Story via: Atlas Obscura


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.

Bonsai Tree – Wake up Already Dammit!

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The persimmon tree did not change leaves color at all in the fall, which is a bad sign, but eventually, they fell off and did not dry on the plant, which is a good sign. I have stored it together with my citruses and other subtropic plants at 10-15°C, but about a month ago I have re-potted it together with my Ulmus parvifolia bonsai because those both started to grow already due to the abnormally warm winter.

© Charly, all rights reserved. Click for full size.

© Charly, all rights reserved. Click for full size.

During that, the plant had very nice and healthy roots. The main root was not overly long and it was not carrot-like at all, which is the worst that can happen. As you can see, it had nice and bushy side-roots on the whole length, an ideal situation. So I have cut off half of the main root and the cut was, again healthy-looking, white and wet. I covered the cut with lots of charcoal and I planted the tree in a wider and shallower pot than it was before

Lastly, I moved it into my room to be able to better control the substrate humidity to avoid root rot. I have expected the tree to wake up in the warmer room and start growing, but so far nothing and it is making me anxious. After all, my Ulmus parvifolia grow like mad despite being in the coldest room in the house.

And today I realized that I need not try and cope with that anxiety alone, so here you have it, now you can be anxious too. Ain’t I grand?

© Charly, all rights reserved. Click for full size.

The terminal bud is still bright green and the top leaf is soft to touch and that is a good sign.

But it does not grow, dammit. Maybe this tree reacts to daytime length before it starts growth?

Bonsai for Beginners – Part 4 – Another Bit of Tree Physiology

Previous part.

This bit is, alas, often not discussed in bonsai literature as much in detail as it should too. Some books mention it in passing, some do not mention it at all. The talk is about types of tree growth. (note – the used terminology is my own, I have long since forgotten the official technical terms and anyway I am too lazy to search for them in foreign language)

There are three basic types that every bonsaist needs to be aware of, and it is vital to know which type each of your plants has because they determine what kind of care they require to get turned into a bonsai and survive the procedure.

1 – Continuous growth.

This does not mean that the plant grows continuously throughout the year, although usually when a plant does grow the whole year, it has this type of growth. But the growth might slow down or stop completely in certain conditions, like drought or cold or insufficient daylength. However, when the growth slows or stops, it does so without any apparent change in the plant’s physiology. No special structures develop, the plant just stops growing and when the conditions get right again, it continues. The “buds” are simply a bundle of small leaves/needles bunched up together.

In temperate regions, typical representatives of this type of growth are some evergreen conifers, like junipers or thujas. It is most typical for many subtropic trees – citruses, olives, and hibiscus. And of course tropical plants and succulents, like a ficus and money tree. This type of growth have mostly evergreens, although there are deciduous plants with it – for example, russian olive (Eleagnus angustifolia) and fig tree (Ficus carica), but they are the exception, not the rule.

2 – Continuous growth with a hibernating stage.

During the season, these plants just grow like the first type, adding leaves to their twigs continuously and growing in length. But when the conditions start to signal the end of the growing season, not only do they stop growing, they create specialized wintering buds. These buds then contain a relatively undifferentiated beginning of the next twig. When the hibernation ends, the buds shed their protective layers (modified leaves) and from them emerge twigs that again start to grow in length and adding leaves as much as they can manage.

This type of growth is typical for deciduous trees in temperate regions, like willows, poplars, maples, hazels and many more. I am not aware of any evergreen with this type, maybe holy (Illex sp.).

3 – Growth in spurts.

Some trees take the hibernation stage to the next level. The wintering buds do not contain just the beginning of a new twig, but a complete one with non-differentiated buds. At the beginning of the growing season these whole twigs emerge from the buds, they stretch in lengths and gain girth, but they do not add any new leaves or buds – the number of those has been determined previous year already.

This is typical for firs, pines, spruces and many other coniferous trees of temperate regions. From the top of my head, I only can remember one deciduous tree with this growth type – beech (Fagus sp.).

For a beginner, types 1 and 2 are the best option. Those are comparatively easy to manage, they mostly heal easily from pruning and the pruning itself can be often done at almost any time of the year or in wide enough window not to need to fuss about it too much.

Type 3 is difficult, and thus alas another point against pines. These types of trees cannot have twigs trimmed just anytime and anywhere, they often require being cut during very specific time otherwise the next year’s buds will form where you do not want them.

The worse in this regard are spruces, whose growth is nearly completely unmanageable. That is why you won’t see many very old spruce bonsai trees. More on that later.

Bonsai for Beginners – Part 3 – Basics of Tree Physiology

Previous part.

Of those many books that I have read about the art of growing bonsai trees, only one goes sufficiently in-depth about this issue. Unfortunately, that one book is probably only available in Czech. I will not go too much into depth here, just the basics for your own research should you wish it.

The distinction between a tree and a bush/shrub is not clear-cut, but there are properties that some plants have that make them definitively shrubs – like roses – or definitively trees – like spruces. A rose, no matter how big and old will be unruly and bushy. Spruce, no matter how small, will be a tree, with a definitive main stem.

The most important factor in this is the absence or presence (and strength) of so-called apical dominance. In plants with strong apical dominance, the main stem produces hormones that regulate and/or inhibit the growth of secondary branches. That is the reason why spruces almost invariably have one upright stem with comparatively thin branches – they have very strong apical dominance like most conifers do. Roses, on the other hand, do not have apical dominance worth speaking of. They continuously sprout new twigs from the base of the stem near the roots. Common hazel is somewhere in between – at the start it has strong apical dominance, but the bigger the main stem gets the smaller inhibiting influence it has, it slows its growth and inevitably suckers start to sprout from the base even when the main stem is perfectly healthy and strong.

Apical dominance applies to roots too. Some plants tend to grow long, thing, non-branching roots, some have bushy ones.

It also changes during each season – in many plants with leaves the hormones are produced by the leaves, thus the more leaves there are on the branch/stem, the more it inhibits those below it. That can be used to your advantage for certain species – more on that when talking about them.

For a beginner, plants with strong apical dominance should be avoided, especially fast-growing ones. Many such plants when cut do not branch out but simply the bud nearest to the cut continues as the main stem. Some might even die. Best are plants with some apical dominance, but not a very strong one. But also not so weak as to tend to sprout suckers each season.

That, unfortunately, means that for a beginner or a small-scale grower, the most iconic of all bonsai trees – pines – are not suitable, as well as most of the coniferous trees overall. They are the most difficult to manage and to form, and some of them are downright snowflakes. Best suited are leafy plants, with moderate growth rate.

I will go into more detail when talking about specific species in due course.