The Bougainvillea Studies

Pablo does not approve. He’s sittin’ over there passing judgement on my weeding skills. Like he can do better, he’s just a disembodied, floating wooden face with a disagreeable temperament. 

I guess I need to do some weeding, forthwith. Or maybe he just doesn’t like the material I’m working on. 

Half rotten….

The leaves worm eaten and thin…..What is it? 

It’s a purple bougainvillea cutting I made maybe ten years ago. I’d better get to those weeds….I believe they are what’s called “Brazilian pusely”Or a whole bunch of common names like Mexican clover or Brazilian calla lily. There is a Florida pusley but there there are two differences, one, the fruit, and two, the roots. I don’t have a pic of the fruit at the moment but I can show you the roots. 

They’re reason I can identify this as the Brazilian pusley (richardia brasiliensis) and not Florida pusley (richardia scabra). The Florida versions don’t have these tuberous root bodies. Control of the weed is difficult because of that tuber; if you pull the weed and don’t get all the root…..

The damn thing will sprout back from what you left in the dirt. 

And glyphosate will kill the top but not the roots. I read through a full study on the control of this weed in orange groves in Florida and I learned some interesting facts. The Florida pusley was more prevalent in groves about 30 years ago and is considered an annual and was easily controlled with herbicides like glyphosate.  But the Brazilian pusley has taken over the niche in the orange groves because of its resistance to the herbicides. And because of the shalllow footage of citrus it is damaging to the roots to dig out the Brazilian pusley tubers. So they stay. I, fortunately, am skilled at the removal of these tubers, and the tortoises love them. 

There are some references to the pusley being a magnet or host for nematodes. I can’t find definitive citations for it so I’ll just leave that info their for future research. All I know is that there isn’t any nematode evidence on these bougie roots. Which is, I understand, a problem in Florida for a bougie, but I’ve never had it on one of mine….yet. 

Before I put it into a pot, let’s look at the trunk. 

It is half rotted away, I need to carve it and my carving tools of choice today are, a wire brush….

And my fingers. 
The fingers break off the most-decayed parts. Easy. 

The brush reveals the grain. Purty cool. 

I had to break out the old pocket knife to evict some ants. Do you see them? 

There they are!

So long my little collectivist friends….

The reason I addressed the wood cleaning first was to protect the roots from the damage that all that carving movement causes.  A bougie cutting takes a long time to make good rootage that’s thick enough to be considered a nebari (in English, that’s what the botanists call the buttress. Probably a better word as that brings to mind a swollen bottom portion of the tree, but we use Japanese often in bonsai) and I didn’t want brakage. 

See, not much to look at and terribly fragile (like me and my ego)  

As I brush this deadwood, especially on a bougie, it’s in my best interest to wear a mask. Scary! It is a fungus that causes the wood to rot, after all, and we don’t need fungus in the lungs. There we go. I will treat with lime sulfur in a few weeks, not for color but to kill that fungus. 

Now for the pot. I’ll go traditional I think. A nice square one, commissioned from the most non/traditional bonsai guy himself, Robert Stevens, for the 2009 BSF convention. 

Because the bougie is a cutting and has very few roots, I’ll need a rock to build this tree upon. 

Or at least to lean upon. 

That’ll do, that’ll do. This tree, as I said, is a cutting. About 7-8 years ago I collected a big trunked bougie and rooted a bunch of cuttings off of it. I was bored I guess. The main collected trunk I gave to my friend, Erik Wigert, at Wigert’s Bonsai, mainly because he is the best bougie bonsai artist in the USA. He’s no slouch with other trees, mind you, but his work with bougie has made other artists reconsider the possibility of the species for superior ramification, branching, structure and, most importantly, horticulture. Here’s the tree I gave him, pic from December 2015: 

He is on Instagram, go follow him. 
The tree again, this time defoliated, from August, 2015:He achieved that structure in 5-6 years. What would take 20-30 yrs on other trees. Amazing. 

Now, there are some who criticize his traditional pine tree styling of a broadleaf evergreen, but, you know what, first, bonsai is an art, and a bougie is one of those species that are, what I term, a plastic tree. Meaning, in the original definition of the word plastic, malleable. Some other trees I consider plastic are junipers, some elms, trident maples, most ficus, pines, etc. What I mean is that they can be styled in various tree forms (pine tree, deciduous, banyan, live oak, cascade) because the natural growth habits are not that strong and, therefore, not fighting you. Conversely, it’s tough to make a cascade swamp maple because the bottom branches want to die back. But you can make a cascade bougie. Or a live oak tree style juniper. Or a pine tree style elm. 

Secondly, they are his trees, and this is his “style”. How many bonsai artists are there in the world who can boast that their style is recognizable? Not many. 

Thirdly, I think it’s just jealousy. Erik has developed his own way of doing things and he does it well. Better than most everyone else who might criticize him. And I’ll leave it there (Although I might shorten the bougie a bit….myself……sorry Erik. Heeheehee!) 

Now, ladies and gentlemen, the main event! Time to wire! 

Some establishing shots:

I need to bend these lengths. I’d say the top is about 1/2″ thick and the next length is about 1/3″ thick 

The weakest part of the whole tree is where the dead trunk meets the upper living potion of the tree. That means I’ll need to wrap the wire around the deadwood. Not my first choice but you gotta make it work before you make it pretty. I think it’s 5mm aluminum. It makes a difference which way you wrap the wire as to which way you bend the branch. 

I’ll be going to the right and twisting the branch clockwise, so my wrap goes clockwise as well. The angle of the wire on the branch makes a difference too. Where the bend is going to be less severe, your angle should be more acute (if you layed a protractor with the flat side running along the branch, the angle might be 30-40 degrees). If your bend is going to be more severe, you angle it at 45 or more. This gives better coverage and less chance of breakage) 

Ready for the bend? Cross your fingers! What works, in the absence of a branch bender, is to use the wire and pliers to help with leverage.  

As I bend I make sure to listen and to keep an eye on the outside edge of the bark. Those cracks above on the bark are ok, you can even expose some of the green underneath. Just be careful of deeper cracks that appear beyond the cambium later. 

First bend. 

As you continue the bends further up the trunk, you can go back to increase the earlier bends. The stress on the bark lessens over time as you are working on the tree. Just don’t over do it. 



Down. And I just cut the height in half. Without a single cut. So you don’t have to scroll up, the before:…….it was touching the roof of The Nook, now it’s touching the bench. 

Some more wire. I should note that it’s a dangerous thing to work with bougies, this one has small thorns, but that makes them stealthy. I mean, damn, I’m bleeding all over! Sorry. 

Every branch…..
In the next pics you can see the various wire coil angles I was talking about…..…..some of the anchoring techniques I’ve discussed in previous posts……… well as the placement techniques. 

Are you ready for the whole tree?


 Too bad, let me talk about the aesthetic ideas I’m trying to express with a bougie like this. 

I’m taking my visual cues from the treatment of the Japanese ume (prunus mume) variously called the Japanese plum or apricot. I won’t steal any photos from the internet to show you the idea of a rotten or withered trunk on the ume, just look up “ume bonsai” on the google machine thingy (in today’s digital age, it’s easy to get sued for using a pic without permission, and I ain’t got the money to defend myself, sorry). I’ll wait until you get back (you can go to Bonsai Tonight and  this page in particular for some interesting ume)………

Are you back? You see now how the flowers and the rotten trunks are a sweet and sour contrast? I can’t grow ume in Florida, but I can grow bougies, so it’s been my goal to develop a style of bonsai using the old trunks I’ve been saving. Here’s one you might recognize:

Here’s one I just styled: 

This one is on the bench for tomorrow: 

And a future subject of a YouTube video.

Now, granted, the bougie doesn’t have the cultural, culinary, and even medicinal significance that the ume has in Japan (though it’s quite ubiquitous in the warmer parts of the world and has an ethos all its own) but the Art we practice is mainly visual, and the contrast between the ephemeral, and decayed nature of the withered trunk and the flaming beauty of the bougie bloom does make for a bold, but still subtle, statement about bonsai and the question of making Art out of living things.  

Are you ready for the reveal or have I made you click off the page with my talk of philosophy and Art? 

For those of you left…..or who scrolled past without reading….

The left-ish side……Being in a square pot is almost the same as being in a round pot. 

The right-ish side……It means the front is a larger arc than say the front of the tree in an oval or rectangle pot. 

And my current front. 

I think it turned out well. 

So, whether you think I’m crazy for working on material like this, which might die in the next windstorm (but, don’t they all have the possibility of dying?)  or crazy like a fox for trying to sell a piece of marginal material (I might note that the pot is a collectible and therefore the tree is not for sale) that’s been taking up space on the benches, you gotta admit it looks cool, don’t you?  Wait for it to bloom!

That’s all for today, I’ve got to go outside and work on some trees, I’ve been traveling way to much recently and the nursery is suffering from it……toodles!

Posted in Art, branch placement, carving, Horticulture and growing, rare finds, wiring | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

An unknown ficus, to me

Well, I’ve exhausted my research and I can’t find the name. It’s the subject of today’s post. Some of Florida’s best and brightest can’t find out the species so I think I’ll call it ficus “jim smithii” 

Since I can’t find the answers on the interwebd, let me find some more profound answers by working on the tree instead. Its ficus from the late, great Jim Smith, the quiet giant of Florida bonsai, who never spoke ill of anyone, followed his own path, stayed true to himself, and accepted others for their strengths and weaknesses. He was generous to a fault and had no jealousy. He wasn’t a saint, by any chance. He had enemies and rivalries, of course. But what he did, his actions, his generosity, the time he gave to others, that’s what people remember. 

And, of course, his bonsai are legendary. Not just the quality but the trees he introduced and made popular. There’s the portulacaria, the many ficus species, the propagation techniques and the styling. I’m probably laying it on thick but, well, he is still a big influence in Florida and tropical bonsai. Heck, there’s even a plaque in a museum in China commemorating his achievements in bonsai. 

What does all that have to do with this ficus?

 Well, it’s a species he brought into the bonsai scene in the USA and yet, he didn’t have an exact ID on it. He called it “ficus exotica”. Of course, we all know that the name “exotica” is already being used for a variety of Benjamina. This is clearly not a benjamina. Though it has dieback like one. But so does the salicaria. And, though it’s a similar leaf, it’s not a one or the “89” variety of the salicaria (willow leaf).  

The bark has the texture of a salicaria but the color of a microcarpa. Hmmmm….NFS? That means, Not For Sale. I got the tree from a friend and I tend to not sell those. 

The first work I need to do is to clean up all the crossing roots. Theyre pretty bad too. It was a cutting, I’m sure, and has probably been in a pot like this for 20 years. 

Let’s take it out of the pot and…….whoops!

Ants!Fire ants, specifically. Let me just get the hose and evict them. If there were more ants I might use an insecticidal soap but this is just a minor infestation.  There we go. 

Now, for some handy dandy tools, my trusty, homemade wire hook……

Some concaves

I’m not sure if they take as root cuttings but I’m sure going to try. Regular stem cuttings too, gotta keep the legacy going. 

Let’s get to the root of the problem….. WAIT! What’s that? Aha! A borer larvae, the bastard. It’s a juicy one too. 

Look at those teeth! 

Good and fat! You know what that means? Right, it’s gonna be dinner. 

No, not mine silly……watch! 

Borers are a big problem more south of me and on the coasts, but this winter was kinda warm and a lot of bugs that should have been killed by the cold, weren’t killed by the cold. So I’m seeing more aphids, thrips, and now, I guess, borers. Gotta be vigilant. 

Enough blood sport, back to work……
That’s the best I can do for the roots. It, like many ficus, doesn’t have many roots to work with. It’ll survive but it’s going to take a few years to really develop a nebari. And ficus do that best in a bonsai pot. 
Some soil….

And we are ready for pruning. 

This first one has to go. It’s coming straight out at you, way too low. 

Here are a few on the inside of a curve. 
Anyway, you know the drill…..gone


Too skinny too low. 

Here’s the tree after pruning. One thing (or two, if you’re counting it that way) I’m leaving is the double branch on the bottom left. It’s generally taught to beginners to have only one branch coming from one spot. But I need some visual weight there. It is the first branch and should usually be the heaviest. So sometimes two is better than one. 

So I’m keeping both, I’m going to wire them and let’s see what happens. Double the wire….

…..a little bending. 

Moving on up the tree…..

Some leaf and tip pruning. 

And finished, just about. 

From the side….

And the front. 

The tree, for being a lumpy chunk of wood, has pretty good taper. And the character! Damn that looks old. 
Let me make a few adjustments and……

TA DAA!!Not bad. I think the tree has a good start and a pretty good future. It has flaws, don’t we all, and scars…..and some history. And a tale that needs to be told over some beers. I’ll buy the first round……..see you at the bar. 

Posted in Art, branch placement, Horticulture and growing, philosophical rant, rare finds, wiring | Tagged , , , , | 14 Comments

Some recent projects

If you’ve been following my social media exploits, you’ll recognize some of these trees. If not, why not? I’m twice as clever over on the Instabooks and the Face-a-gram,  not to mention I’m a big Twit when I tweet. 

Let’s introduce today’s cast of trees. 

Green island ficus on the left, winged elm on the right 

Ficus salicaria root cutting

Tiger bark ficus

And a ficus microcarpa (that looks like it’s being molested by Jose) 

Where to begin? Let’s start with the tiger bark…. It’s in an exceptionally shallow pot. The problem with that is it hasn’t grown in the two years I’ve had it (you can read about its beginnings in this post: Bonsai will be the death of me) after reading that you can see how little it’s developed. There were some branches that died back, and it put on new leaves and all, but not much in the way of serious growth. 

The solution:  a more reasonable pot depth. Although it’s obvious a ficus can survive in a pot like this (they can be epyphitic after all, most ficus are strangler figs) it’s not ideal for developing a bonsai. 

So, with that, pot #1  A blue glazed oval or, pot #2….

an older Japanese, unglazed green clay oval. Tough choice, right? 

Let’s look at the rootsNot bad, some fibrous. The soil mass was just about a half inch thick. 

The mix looks like a fine, unsifted mess 

See all the red sludge? That’s why you need to wash your scoria, it’s usually full of dust. Needless to say, I didn’t have to root prune much. But you’ll have to wait until the end to see which pot I chose. 

Next we have a winged elm (wanged elm, if you would) 

Kinda cool trunk, it’s actually a root cutting, 

Spread out the roots. 

One thing I’d like to mention, you don’t have to bareroot a tree the first time it goes into a bonsai pot. In fact, I’m with Boon, maybe remove only half of the old soil. My strategy is to begin with the old soil under the trunk base. That’s the critical area in the root zone of either being too wet or too dry. If you get a good mix in there first, it’s easy to replace the periphery. 

I love this pot, made by a Southwest Florida hobbyist, Lyn Baker. He’s very precise when calling himself a hobbyist too. Sometimes, the best art is created by those not interested in making a living at their art. There’s no compromise that way. When you start doing art for sale, you begin to tell yourself, this is the customers want it, it’ll sell, instead of doing what’s right for the piece. 

Looks good in it. Now for wire and……you guessed it, you’ll have to wait until the end. 

Next, a green island ficus. 

My usual technique, defoliate for growth and wiring ease. 

I leave the petiole intact of course. 

It has good branching already. Its new pot, a Japanese production pot. 

Some wire. 

On some places, I wire for better coverage of the wire, to decrease the possibility of breakage when bending. 

Some places I do it the “pretty” way, just to show I can. Bonsai critics are so mean, you know. Sniff…..

Wired about half way. 

Oh, before I wired, I dressed this chop mark….

The before…….basically, you take a sharp razor and score the edges of the wound. And you remove any decayed wood. 

Then, on this type of tree, with this large of a wound, I decided to cover it with that, oh-so-trendy material all the cool kids are using nowadays, duct caulk (or plumbers caulk, or electricians caulk. It’s easy to find, just go into the Home Depot and ask one of the workers, “hey, I’m looking to get my hands on some plumbers caulk. If you don’t have that, I’ve heard that electricians caulk is just as good for filling holes……..”) And…….of course you get to wait until the end for the finished tree. No scrolling down, I have a program installed that lets me know if you do, and I’ll ban you quick. 

For those curious, my new mix, as of today, is: red and black lava rock (scoria), calcined clay, expanded slate, pumice, and sifted, composted pine bark. The ratio is still 2:1:1:1:1 (the lava I count as one component). I call it the Red, White, and Blue SuperMix®. Look for it soon! 

Here’s the f. salicaria root cutting. In a pot. 

Now for the ficus microcarpa. The choices are,  this pot:

Or this one:

Here’s a look at its development from last year. 

I chose the unglazed rectangle. 

Jose wanted the blue glazed rectangle. Sorry pendejo. Ha hah! 

Now, for the reveals! 

Tiger bark ficus:I went with the deeper glazed oval. It needs the room to grow. No wiring yet, maybe in a month or so. 

Winged elm:I know, kinda odd, but wait until it fills in. 

Ficus salicaria root cutting:It’s going to stay just like that for a while. When I posted it on those social media sites, it was like the bonsai people turned into bonsai styling fascists. They insisted I cut it back to one or two branches, fit it into a mold, use a cookie cutter to make it look like they thought it should. So, in the spirit of discomfort and annoyance, I shall keep it as thus, for a while. 

Next, last, the cascade green island ficus:

I like this one best, it’s so unusual and the structure is complex, more than just a single cascading “tail”. The exposed roots, the angle of the potting and the front. Even the contrast between the refined pot and the wildness of the tree. 

I like it! 

I think the next post might hit on some more trident maple grafting. What do you think?

Posted in Horticulture and growing, maintenance, pictures, progression | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

But, but, but….are these bonsai? 

In all my trips across the Florida Panhandle, on I 10 in and around the Tallahassee area, I kept seeing this sign. Me, being the itinerant bonsai guy I am, had always driven by in order to get to the next club or client. But, with my last Gulf Coast tour, I had a little time, so I decided to stop on my way home. It’s in a little town called Cottondale. I made my way from the highway, it wasn’t too far. When I got there I was greeted by this-A “Wall of Bonsai”, one could call it. If you can’t see, they’re little junipers in plastic pots for $20. I posted the pic on the social media webs. Wow! All I can say is that it caused a bit of a stir. There were quite a few comments for and against. That’s what this post is about. 

Now, Bonsai by Dori is the name of the place. Dori is the owner, a lady, actually (all you gender and race assumers out there who thought it was an Asian gentleman, shame on you!) I asked permission to take pics, which was in February, 2017, explaining why some of the trees are not in full leaf or are looking sad. 

Legend has it that Dori used to travel around the South, stopping here and there to sell her wares, much like a missionary, but spreading the word of bonsai instead of Christ. Depending on who you talk to, her vehicle was an old station wagon, or a pick up truck with a camper in the bed, or even an old class C motor home.       An exposed root azalea….

Whatever vehicle she drove, it is said that she sold thousands of trees like this, setting up on the roadside, in the dust and heat of a Southern highway, proselytizing bonsai (and making a living too). Trident maple….

One could even call her a modern day Johnny Appleseed, but with junipers (Dori Junipertree?). There are probably many bonsai artists and practitioners who were inspired by this lady, and won’t admit it. There are probably countless others who’s interest died out when their tree died, much the same way that a man’s faith might have died out when those traveling, fire and brimstone preachers in olden times took down their tent and left a village for the next town over the hill. Bald cypress……

Well, one day, as is their want, and as the legend says, her vehicle broke down in, you guessed it, the sleepy community of Cottondale Florida. 

Exposed root azalea…..

Being the shrewd business woman she is, she decided to settle down and make Cottondale her home. Or maybe she was tired of the heat, the 7-11 hotdog lunches, the hot smell of asphalt wafting off the highway. Whatever it was that made her choose to settle, it’s gained her fame and infamy. And, like I said, a decent living. She probably makes more in bonsai than about 80% of the bonsai professionals out there. A mixed planting of juniper and elm and azalea…..

Her fame came from being the feature in Southern Living Magazine and various PBS programs and news stories. Schefflera….

Her infamy comes from that Wall of Bonsai and people in the know proclaiming that, no, Virginia, those aren’t really bonsai. 

But….in case my prose has been so scintillating and dazzling, and you’ve been just scanning over the pictures, you’ll see that she does have some “real” bonsai for sale. Ficus microcarpa….….with pretty cool trunk and roots. 

Now, I realize that many people will criticize her styling, or lack of, but I won’t. I prefer not to do that unless asked by the owner. I think that too many people believe that, because they have a platform, they have the right to voice their opinion. 

My main problem is in her pricing. Portulacaria…..notice the price. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t care how much she charges, the price of any article is whatever a person is willing to pay. I believe in the Free Market. And her customer base is different than mine. I cater to informed bonsai people who understand the time, work, and materials that go into building a bonsai (I’ve been criticized for my prices being too low and too high, go figure…). I might have a shohin willow leaf or elm that’s taken 10 years to get to where I want it and the price will be 2,3, or 4 hundred dollars for an inch trunk and less than six inches tall (there’s a joke there, I’ll leave it to you to figure it out) 


And I’ll have, right next to it, in a training pot, the same species of tree with double the trunk size for  $50. 

Bonsai trees are not inherently valuable. If we were to have a sudden Ice Age, they would be the first to go onto the fire because they require little work to chop them down for warmth (just a little axe and a mini lumberjack mud man yelling “timber”). 

And I don’t know what Dori’s overhead costs are either. She may only rent the land she’s on, she might be leveraged to the point of bankruptcy, she might have six kids (to my four) and they might be all boys, eating her out of house and home. Chinese elm…..wait! Thanks to Peter Bone, and upon some zooming in, I think this is a Chinese privet

But let’s look at the next tree, a trident maple-$225. Not a very impressive trunk, one chop almost 2/3rds up the trunk. Inexpensive pot, not bad ramification but not very much in the way of styling. It could be she paid $80-100 for the tree, then her price is kinda justified. But if she did, I think I might need to interview with her to be her purchaser, I could seriously cut her tree costs. 

It could be she’s had the tree for ten years and she’s adjusted the price accordingly. But, if she’s trying to sell trees, and I think she is, then having that one for ten years is a long time. Or, she could be pricing things so they don’t sell. I do that often. I’ll quote an outrageous price so the person looking at it just puts the tree down gently and goes to the next one. But I don’t think that’s the case, as there were several trees that weren’t for sale. Japanese black pine…..definitely for sale at $1195. Not a bad price really. Another mixed planting…I think she likes them as they tended to be more developed. It’s price is not bad either, $3800, for what it is and the quality of the trees. 

But….$395 for this S shaped Chinese elm? My criticism isn’t for how much the trees are, but for the inconsistency in the pricing. 

Case in point, a boxwood. You read that right-$950. And this juniper, with pretty well defined pads, a good three inch trunk, and adult foliage (procumbens nana, btw) at $210? I almost bought it. But I have three hungry boys to feed. 

Another boxwood…and another. Granted, they could have come from the hedge around her dear beloved Aunt May’s home that burnt down back in ‘o3, the familial homestead where generations of her kinfolk were born and died and all that, but,  by valuing these boxwood at these prices, which I (and any Floridian) can find in retail nurseries for $10-12 each (retail, not wholesale mind you) makes people wonder if those other trees, like the pines and azaleas, that are legitimately expensive, should really be that costly. Remember, bonsai have no real value. They are pretty and may provide some autoerotic inspirations to some bonsai guys out there (you know who you are!) but, like I said, come first snowfall….”Timmmmmber!” 

Let me finish by saying this: Bonsai by Dori is not a bad place. There are good trees there. There are bad trees there too. But, there are bad trees at every nursery, collection, and exhibit that I go to (some even win awards…..).  Bonsai by Dori has introduced bonsai to a good many people. Granted, mostly through these trees…….but, who really cares. She can sell things for whatever she likes, and if people buy them, it’s their money. And she even offers classes to help them care for them; most don’t bother to learn how, they think that they know how already, but that’s not Dori’s fault, she has healthy trees and knows how to keep them that way. 

Bonsai by Dori is good for bonsai. And it’s bad for bonsai. But so is Bonsai Mirai or, for that matter, Adam’s Art and Bonsai. Both of us give out a lot of info on bonsai but, Ryan Neal and I tend to be a bit more exclusive in our choice of customers. We have to be, we work hard building trees to a certain level of quality, we aren’t going to sell one for a boyfriend to give as a gift to his girl because he stayed out too late with the boys last Saturday night and may, or may not, have had a lap dance (even though there was glitter all over his pants…). The trees mean a lot to guys like Ryan and me. So when you call me up to visit my nursery, don’t be offended when I start pre-qualifying you before I invite you over. 

With that, wherever your talent and interest lie in bonsai, if you’re in the area, I suggest you stop by Dori’s place, you’ll learn something. Promise. 

Bonsai by Dori: 3089 Main St, Cottondale, FL 32431, not too far off I 10 

Posted in goings, philosophical rant, pictures, rare finds | Tagged , , , , , | 17 Comments

In case you missed it, the link to the Bonsai Empire Facebook Live Q&A 

Wow, what a day. I was scheduled for a thirty minute live session but did 45 minutes without any problem. To see the video, here’s the link

Oscar over at promises another live session soon. 

I plan on a new blogpost tomorrow and a few new videos on YouTube soon. See you soon! 

Posted in goings, philosophical rant, videos | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Live Q&A on the Bonsai Empire Facebook Page

I’m excited to share an event with the readers, I’ve been asked by Oscar, from, to participate in a new series of live Q&A’s on the Bonsai Empire Facebook Page. The link to watch and join in is here: 

Here’s a short YouTube video I slapped together promoting it, share it far and wide, if you would. Let’s get the word out about this and really push it through the roof. 

Update!!!! The live session is at 11 am eastern time USA!!!!

Posted in goings, philosophical rant, rare finds, videos | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

A flat-top, bald cypress bonsai story, and a question. 

I posted a pic in the social media jungle a few weeks ago. It caused some debate (aside from the flack I got from the recycle bin in the background, that is).  

It wasn’t really my intention to stir the puddin’ (at that time), I was just showing a tree that I thought was beautiful. But there was one guy that took umbrage to me calling this bald cypress, styled in the flat top style, a bonsai. Its a xstyle created by the great Vaughn Banting of New Orleans some 30 years ago and, I thought, was an accepted style. No, really, a gentleman said the above tree wasn’t a bonsai. It was slightly surreal. 

Let’s follow the development of the tree pic by pic and then we can talk philosophy. 

The tree belongs to Jim Osborne from the Greater New Orleans Bonsai Society. GNOBS for short. In his words:
“Adam, the first pictures are from 2003.”

Yeah, he’s kinda goofy.  Don’t know these guys. 

“The tree was about 8 feet tall. It was collected from the Ormand swamp, just a few miles west of New Orleans. I choose this tree because of its location close to dry land and small size as it was a spur of the moment dig and I did not have the usual collecting tools with me.” Sounds like he didn’t want to get his feet wet….

“Also in the first few pictures you can actually see me making the “trunk chop”

“On that same day I decided to create a hollow in the trunk to add interest, as the tree did not have the usual fluted base.”all of Jim’s pics were printed pics, like real photographs from film and all that even. “In the subsequent pictures you can see it’s development.”

“Branches were chosen and allowed to grow unchecked for a growing season, then cut back.”“This process was repeated for several years until natural taper was created.”“Some further work was done on the hollow and the chop was worked to a point where it flowed into a major branch. At that point the lower branches were kept in check and the upper portion of the tree allowed to grow freely”  “Branches were selected and wired into shape. It is still being refined.” 

“The tree won the Vaughn Banting award in 2011 for design excellence at the Louisiana Day of Bonsai.”

This photo is stolen from Alan Walker, this was the tree in 2011 after winning that Vaughn Banting award. 

“The tree also won the Johnny Martinez award (a Greater New Orleans Bonsai Society award to honor a long time member who had passed away) in 2010 at the Spring Garden Show at the New Orleans botanical garden.” 

Enough from Jim, if he gets to talking you’ll talk all night long. Here are some of my pics showing the carving, the ramification and branch structure.  

Not fancy carving but honest. That’s better, oftentimes, than fancy. 

A flat top is a composition of “Y’s” and “V’s”. 

Filling in the spaces for maximum photosynthetic possibilities. 

Good moss. 

He’s a hobbyist bonsai artist, now, not a professional, and that makes it so much more spectacular. 

Nice ramification shot from the top. 

Good bark character too. It looks old. 

There’s that recycle bin I got in trouble with. 
It’s really a fantastic tree. It’s still developing and 14 years in training is a considerablly short time to achieve it. 

Let’s talk about the flattop style and whether it’s considered “bonsai”. And please, feel free to comment and agree or disagree. All comments, unless lewd, crude or rude, will be allowed. 

You all can probably guess my opinion. My definition of bonsai: “a bonsai is a relatively small, relatively young plant that is artistically treated to look like a big, old tree”

 Now, that’s a very specific definition in that it limits bonsai to the representative side of art, like a landscape painting or a portrait. It should look like a tree. But it’s broad enough to allow for the, sometimes, ultra stylized versions of trees from Japanese artists like Kimura or Chinese artists like Cheng.  It also allows for the natural looks from people like Dan Robinson or Walter Pall. I also believe in the Naka mantra that we should make our bonsai look like trees, and not our trees look like bonsai. 

So where does this all leave Jim’s tree? That particular individual who commented on my original post came out and said that, since it’s not a Japanese style, it’s not bonsai. That poked a lot of bears that day. 

Now, granted, it was the Japanese that formalized the techniques and styles of bonsai, after all. Of course, it was the Chinese that created the art, and then the Japanese imported it. And it is a Japanese word, “bonsai” that the world uses to call these small trees in pots we so love. I get all that. Indeed it was the Japanese that introduced the world to bonsai. They named many of the concepts, from nebari to Jin and everything in between. And it is true that many Japanese nursery owners don’t accept the flattop style as a bonsai style. Or even the bald cypress as a good subject to work with (bald cypress have serious dieback every year on the branch tips, they grow too fast for some Japanese nursery men, and they are incredibly apically dominant, so much so that you lose bottom branches if you don’t keep the top in check and you need to, about every 4-5 years, chop and regrow the top, if it’s in the typical conifer/Christmas tree style, or your top branches get out of scale. To me, that’s a challenge. I’m an artist and I accept the difficulty. But the Japanese nurserymen are, first, businessmen. They grow what sells. A flattop bald cypress doesn’t sell over there. They’re on a serious Sargent’s juniper kick right now. 

All this is interesting if we think of bonsai as strictly a Japanese thing but, you see, here’s a demographic to ponder:  There are more bonsai practitioners in the rest of the world than there are in Japan. Bonsai is, like many “traditional” arts in Japan, is dying out. It could be said that, if it weren’t for the interest in bonsai amongst non Japanese peoples, there might not be bonsai. Proof? How many Japanese nurseries have western apprentices now? Can you name more western bonsai professionals than Japanese nurserymen? How about with the affiliated crafts like stand making or scrolls or suiseki, or even pottery? It’s becoming a global art, whether the old guard like it or not. And when a thing becomes “Art”, that means one has artists who think that maybe the old way of thinking about things might not be the “right” way. 

But this doesn’t mean that there isn’t space for traditional ideas. That’s what the old timers have to understand, what they have done before is a stepping stone to increasing the global appreciation and recognition of “Bonsai” as a true artistic pursuit. If it’s not allowed to grow, it will be relegated to the dustbin of other, quaint, folk arts that old men do when they’re not taking a nap. 

Change and innovation is not necessarily a bad thing. It can be, but it can also be embraced and guided by those that have come before. Like Mr. Kobyashi is doing in this YouTube video from Bonsai Empire. He’s been practicing bonsai for 40 years, and he admits that his past tree styling has been to either win awards (which means to cater to the status quo) or to sell trees (even more so a pursuit of the status quo. Buyers most often buy what they are told is tasteful).watch the video. His goal now is to make art and to bring out the natural spirit of the tree. To, dare I say it, make art. 

Here’s Jim’s flat top bald cypress again. This time with a little better background and on a stand. This is the natural progression of a bald cypress in the wild. It’s what an old, gnarly, broken tree looks like. If you drive the highways through the bayous of Louisiana, or on Alligator Alley in South Florida, it is this type of tree you’ll see. 

I’m gonna call it a bonsai. 

Thank you Jim, my friend, for allowing me to show your tree to my readers and to let me rant philosophically about it. No one is going to read the words really, but they will look at your tree. And that should make up for all the guff that this post will generate. 

Posted in branch placement, carving, goings, Horticulture and growing, rare finds, sculpture, yamadori | Tagged , , , , , , , | 17 Comments