Welcome to my bonsai blog!

Welcome to my bonsai blog!

Look around! Use the Search box, browse the Archive, and leave comments. Click on any picture to enlarge it.
I would be honored to have you follow my posts. There are two ways to do that.
-- If you have your own blog, use Join this site
to have notifications of my posts sent to your blog's reading list.
-- If you don't have a blog,
use Follow by Email: new-post alerts will be sent to your email address. Pictures aren't included; that's just how Blogger does it. For the pictures you come here!
Fora and vendors that I can recommend from experience are listed in the right sidebar.
For more about the ads, and just why I enabled them, please see "About the ads," below.
"And the LORD God made ... trees that were pleasing to the eye ..." Gen. 2:9, New International Version.

"Bonsai isn't just something I do; it's part of what I am." Remark to my wife and daughter.

Sunday, December 19, 2021

NOT Stronger at the Broken Place

(Members of the Ft. Wayne Bonsai Club will have seen this material already, with some different wording, in a recent "Stuff from Steve".)

 Stronger at the broken place. Have you heard that expression?

It comes from the world of medicine, and has to do with the healing of a broken bone. If the broken ends of a bone are close enough to each other and the bone is otherwise healthy, those broken ends will begin to knit together. New connective tissue is laid down between them and then impregnated with calcium, becoming new bone and filling in the break.

And what often happens is that even more bone is added than was originally there. When that occurs, the result is that the healed bone becomes, literally and truly, stronger at the point where it broke than it had been before.

The expression is also used metaphorically, especially of relationships. I know very well one couple who, I am sure, would not hesitate to say that their marriage was once badly broken but is now stronger than it was before. (And their next anniversary will be their forty-fourth.)

The expression can be true of bones and marriages. But, alas, it is not true of trees.

When a woody branch or trunk breaks, the break can heal over if the broken ends are immediately aligned and immobilized, and sealed to keep out pathogens, excess moisture, and air that could cause an embolism in the water-conduction channels. But the thing to remember is that the broken wood itself will not heal. Broken living wood will never knit together as broken living bone will.

What happens is that the broken cambium and phloem layers will heal and repair themselves if given the chance. Then the cambium will start laying down new wood across the break, bridging it. Little by little that new wood will build up, thickening and strengthening the trunk or branch at that point. But underneath, the break in the wood is still there and still broken. The tree will wall off the break by chemical means so that no infections can invade the rest of the tree from it, and keep growing. But the break will always be there, down inside, and - the thing to keep in mind - as a result, a weak point will always be there.

I got an unexpected demonstration of these facts earlier this year. I did a live styling demo using a bunjin lilac at the 2018 Cherry Blossom Festival. People nearby heard the loud Crack! that announced that I had, shall we say, overestimated the flexibility of mature lilac wood. The trunk had broken more than halfway thru.

I immediately realigned the trunk to close the break, slapped on zip ties to hold it, covered the break with cut paste and vet bandage, and immobilized the trunk with sturdy wire. Here’s a picture of the repair job, taken the next spring.

The wire is supplying most of the force to keep the break closed.
The vet bandage lets the bark "breathe".

The tree leafed out and grew well the next year. In spring 2020 I removed the wire, vet bandage and zip ties. The new wood that had been laid down across the break to that point was strong enough to support the trunk. The blue ellipse marks the break site.

Spring 2020, almost two years after the break. Enough new wood has been
laid down across the break to support the trunk in normal conditions.

Close-up of the break site, spring 2020. You can see some of the swelling that
accompanies the healing-over process.

I don’t know if I forgot, or simply didn’t fully realize, that broken wood doesn’t knit and the tree was still weak at the break site. In any event, I didn’t apply any new reinforcement. That was a mistake. I discovered my error this spring, 2021, when a storm with strong winds came thru one nite. I went out the next day and found that the new wood at the break site hadn’t been strong enough to stand up to the wind. It had snapped, letting the original break in the trunk open up. By the time I found it, it had been that way for at least twelve hours. I immediately closed the break, fixed the trunk in position with a screw, and slathered cut paste liberally all around the break. But the damage was done. Within a week and a half the tree looked like this. It did not recover.

You can see the cut paste I applied after I repositioned the trunk.
Sadly, my efforts were too late.

So remember: when living wood breaks, it will not knit back together. The tree, given proper care, will bridge the break and proceed to lay down new wood across it. A time may come when enough new, healthy tissue is laid down that you will hardly be able to see that anything was ever damaged. But the tree will always be weak at the point of the break, and you will need to remember that.

:-|  :-|   :-|

Friday, October 8, 2021

Reworking a Ponderosa's Apex

      Regular readers have seen pictures of this tree before. It's a ponderosa pine, Pinus ponderosa, collected by Andy Smith in 2017. I bought it from Andy in August 2019 and styled it with his assistance. It was repotted in the spring of 2020, and grew well for the rest of that year and into this one. Here's a picture after repotting. Please forgive the cluttered background in some of the pictures.

For a size reference: I'm just over 6 feet tall, or 184-185 cm.

Notice where's the tree's apex is, and how the trunkline sweeps around in a single arc, similar to a letter "C" or a "(" parenthesis sign. I was never very happy with that simple arc. It was too plain, too regular for my taste, even with the movement just above the base; too much like a "stick-figure" tree. 

I spent many hours studying the tree, trying to decide what I could do increase the visual interest of the trunk. The tree is about 45 years old (estimated) and perhaps my most valued. You can see its girth in the picture. Most of the trunk could not be changed without using techniques with which I am not familiar enough, and I had no wish to take a chance on ruining its image. I finally concluded that a change in the direction of the apex would increase the visual interest as I wanted, would enhance the tree's image, and was within my skills. A little consultation with a professional helped me decide.

Over the last several months of subscribing to Bonsai Mirai Live, I have learned a good deal about the annual phases of growth in temperate-zone plants. As I described in an earlier post (you can see that post here), a temperate-zone tree such as a ponderosa spends the first part of the growing season producing foliage to supply itself with metabolic fuel. Then, at a certain point in the season, production of new foliage shuts down and the tree's resources start to be directed into production of new vascular tissue, including sapwood and root tissue.

In pines, the start of this transition is signaled by the shedding of three-year-old needles. The vascular-growth phase is also the second-best time of year for major structural work on a temperate-zone tree, so the shedding of old needles signals the start of this work window in a pine. My ponderosas started shedding old needles in mid-September.

My goal, as I said, was to introduce a change of direction in the upper trunk and orient the apex to the left. This picture shows the upper part of the tree after the old wire had been removed. Some of the branches had relaxed a little, but not a lot; they had been wired for two years.

In spite of the angle of the picture, the apex was still oriented to the right.

One of the top branches had to be removed and an old branch stump cut off before the change could be made. 

A single slanting cut took off the unneeded branch and the old stub.
Cut paste was applied due to the size of the cut.

New copper wire was put on and the bend was made just above the new cut. I made the bend as severe as I could without risking a break - severe enough that a few small tears opened in the bark of what was now the outside of the curve. That was actually OK; they will heal (with a little cut paste to help), and they told me when to stop bending. Several of the top branchlets had to be rolled so that their former undersides wouldn't become their upper sides and be exposed to direct sunlight to which they were not acclimated.

The new apical structure will need a few years to fill in well.

The tree is due for repotting next spring. At that time, its planting angle will be be adjusted and the front rotated to show more of the base. I can't be exactly sure of the new planting angle and new front until I actually repot the tree, but the next picture gives you a pretty good idea of what each will be.

Finished for now. I like this movement and image better.

The orange arrow shows the new apex. As it develops and fills in, I will probably introduce a small movement back to the right, at the very top. I'm going to do what I can to encourage a new bud to break near the base of the branch to the right of the apical area (yellow arrow). If that happens I'll be able to shorten that branch. Adjustments to various other branches will also be needed, given how much of a change I've made in the tree's overall design and character.

Bill Valavanis and Ryan Neil have both recommended that I move this tree out of a rectangular pot; possibly into a round, possibly into an oval if I decide to include that little top fillip I mentioned. I have a large mica oval that will serve until I can find an appropriate ceramic pot for this tree.

For now, I'm giving it a good regimen of several kinds of solid fertilizer, to be sure it has a good supply of nutritional "building blocks" as it recovers from all the pruning, wiring, twisting and general manhandling I did to it!

:-)  :-)  :-)

Monday, September 13, 2021

A Few More Goodies From This Year's Mid-America

     Those who have been to the Mid-America Bonsai Exhibition know that when you enter the Regenstein Center thru its front doors, you pass down an entrance hall to the doors of the exhibition space itself. This year, someone decided to put a row of bonsai down the center of the entrance hall, giving the visitor a foretaste of what waited for them at the end. I think it was an inspired idea!

Looking down the entrance hall toward the Phillips Exhibition Center.

Here's a closer look at one of the trees in the center space (normally a pool), the very first one you encountered. Its trunk just above the nebari is as thick as my thigh. (And I'm not a little guy.)

Trident Maple (Acer buergerianum) with its Hosta spp. companion plant.

Besides the awards given by the Midwest Bonsai Society at the guest master's behest, the American Bonsai Society also gives an award for the best bonsai using a native North American species. This year's winner is this Rocky Mountain Juniper (Juniperus scopulorum); the owner (and, I presume, artist) is Mark Karczewski.

A superb design job, combining harmony with dynamism.

OK, real quick: when you hear "California redwood", what do you think of? The tallest tree species on the planet, right? Would you believe a shohin California redwood, less than nine inches high from the soil?

California redwood, Sequoia sempervirens, shorter than my handspan.
Very nicely designed. Owner is Steve Carini.

A small collection of pots was on display, protected by clear plastic cases. The owner, Tim Priest, told me that these pots were the work of a certain Japanese potter who passed away in 1970. Since his death, no one has been able to reproduce his glazes.

The glazes on these pots are now unique.
A closer look at two of them.

The largest of these pots (at the extreme right above, and below) has another unique characteristic. Most Oriental potters stamp the bottom of a pot with an identifying mark known as a "chop"; sometimes there will be two. This pot, for whatever reason, has eight - count 'em, eight - chops on its undersurface! No one is sure why now.

(What's your guess as to why this pot carries so many chops?)

:-)  :-)  :-)

Monday, September 6, 2021

A Tale of Two Ponderosas

 (With a nod to Charles Dickens.)

     When you first enter the exhibition hall where the Mid-America Bonsai Exhibition is held, your eye is guided straight through the room to a double tokonoma which holds the Best of Show and Best of Show Professional. This year was the first time in roughly 30 years of attending that I saw two trees of the same species in those places of honor. Two ponderosa pines (Pinus ponderosa), both yamadori.

The Best of Show and Best of Show Professional with Tim Cox

In the picture is Tim Cox, owner of the Best of Show tree. The Best of Show Professional belongs to Andy Smith of Golden Arrow Bonsai, bonsai professional and yamadori collector. Both trees were collected in 2017, and, I was told, in the same general area and just a week or two apart. Andy obtained his in the course of his regular collecting. Tim, with his son’s participation, collected his under Andy’s guidance. (I didn’t hear how old either tree is and didn’t think to ask.)

Besides both being ponderosas and fairly large, both are obviously mature trees, are obviously in good health, and have been in bonsai training for about the same amount of time. Both have excellent trunk taper, and I would call the basic style of each slanting, but with the apex coming back toward the base almost enough to qualify the tree as a moyogi (informal upright.)

Tim Cox's tree, Best of Show

Andy Smith's tree, Best of Show Professional

But notice also the many differences between them! Tim’s has a more serene look, with few breaks in the canopy’s silhouette and relatively little deadwood. Andy’s tree has a more dramatic, rugged appearance, with almost all the foliage to one side of the tree’s base and noticeably more deadwood - deadwood that hints strongly at adversities the tree has overcome. They even face opposite directions!

(By the way, what looks like Spanish moss hanging from Andy’s tree is not an example of his well-known taste for whimsy, but is another epiphytic moss which in fact grows on trees in the Black Hills.)

Notice also the differences in the pots. Tim Cox recounted to me the hours he spent on the phone with potter Ron Lang, working out details of his pot: the dimensions, the understated rim, the slight convexity of the walls, the vertical corner lines – everything! I think the time and thought that they both put in paid off: I have not often seen a finer pot, or one so suited to the tree it displays. The black slab for a stand works perfectly with the pot and the tree.

Follow me on a brief rabbit trail here. You may notice that Tim’s pot is glazed, with what I would call a "semi-muted" glaze. In traditional bonsai display, a conifer always goes in an unglazed pot - always. But I think this composition works anyway. I agree that an unglazed pot is usually best for a conifer: conifers are not loud, showy trees, and many glazes would call attention to the pot and away from the tree if used with the quiet colors of a conifer. But I personally have no quarrel with the use of muted glazes, in quiet colors such as green and blue, with coniferous bonsai. The only thing I would change in this composition would be to make the glaze a little more muted. - OK, end of rabbit trail.

Andy’s pot is unglazed, and also works excellently well with the tree it houses. The dark color of the clay body harmonizes with the tree’s color tones, and anchors the whole composition well. And the shape of the pot is right for this tree, right down to the spiky scalloping (sorry, I don’t know what else to call it) around the rim which mirrors the spikiness of the deadwood. And the colors and character of his stand work well with his tree, as Tim’s black slab works with his.

Two fine collected trees of the same species, with many similarities but almost even more differences. I haven’t seen earlier pictures of either tree, but we can do some “reverse extrapolation” in our mind’s eye and get some idea of what each tree looked like when it was collected. I’m sure they were quite different even then. What I ask you to take away is this: each artist studied his tree, respected and accepted the features and characteristics it had to offer, and then worked with those to produce a superb and show-winning bonsai.


For the past year and more I have been doing the next best thing to taking bonsai classes: I have been a regular learner and participant in the weekly teaching events, of one sort or another, on Bonsai Mirai. Between learning more about bonsai every week and putting what I learn into practice on my trees, I have not had much time for writing about bonsai! (Some health issues have also interfered somewhat.) But I'm ready to try some writing again, along with everything else, and hope people find it worth their while to read it. - Steve Moore

:-)  :-)  :-)