I really didn’t want to write this post as anything other than a straight update and technique post. But I seem to have not only thrown a rock at a hornets nest, but I’ve knocked it down and danced naked on top of it, twerking for the target practice of the hornets.
Great image, right? A big, white ass riddled with livid red welts being swarmed by angry hornets.
My last post has, shall we say, enlivened the debate about how we, as a bonsai community, have been treating newcomers.
I showed my friend Paul Pikel the Reddit forum for bonsai and all the replies from my last post. It is not an exaggeration to say that he was horrified.
First and foremost, most professional bonsai teachers and artists are willing to share their knowledge with beginners. I have observed this many times and the teaching is done with grace and élan.
Secondly, some experienced bonsai practitioners and growers try to project an air of authority that is off-putting. Some, mind you, not all.
This next part is where I’ll get in trouble. Ready?
The third group are the intermediates. They seem to be the worst offenders when it comes to handling beginners.
The main problem is that these intermediates think they are occupying a higher pay-grade than they really are. It’s human nature.
This is really going to sting but…..I don’t care how long or how little you’ve been in bonsai, there are some old timers who’ve been in bonsai for 30 years that are still intermediates and there are some professionals with great art (like Michael Feduccia) who can count on two hands (and still put their pinky out when sipping tea) how long they’ve been practicing the art. Aptitude and attitude counts. It’s a mindset that, even though you can spout out what the C.E.C. of akadama compared to D.E. granules is, or you understand when and how and why to equalize the energy distribution on JBP candles, you still have a lot to learn, that puts you into the advanced category. It’s this knowledge that you don’t have all the answers that makes you more receptive to beginners.
I often categorize myself as a “know-it-all”. I do know a lot, but I realize that I don’t know it all. I probably use reference materials and google searches more than most people because I am unsure of what I know.
Do I consider myself advanced?
Anyone who categorizes themselves as advanced probably isn’t. I’ve done advanced work, I’ve done some small bits of master level work, but I’d consider myself journeyman status. Still seeking knowledge and spreading what I know.
Which brings us to the second theme of this post.
I know, for an absolute fact, that this tree was a “ginseng” ficus.
Yes, I am going there again.
Did it start out like this one?
As an aside and a point to be made, the tree just above is an example of a grafted “ginseng” ficus. Which means that the original foliage was replaced with what looks to me to be the “retusa” or “tigerbark” foliage.
Which answers a question someone had about cutting off the graft and if the original foliage would grow back.
It seems that most people who are anti-ginseng use the phrase “they’re grafted” in a negative way.
Most Japanese pines and junipers are grafted. I have that nugget-of-fact on very high authority.
The grafted ginseng actually have better foliage, retusa or golden coin or some other; dense, close internode, and smaller leaf size. Which makes the grafted easier to develop actually.
And I’ll give you the point that the original, f. microcarpa growth habit is more difficult to work with.
But, if we go back to the black pine example, do you know how hard it is to work on them?
Let me illuminate.
The needles are big.
It has a whorl growth habit.
The bark doesn’t begin to age for ten or more years.
Bud back? Hah! It takes years to ramify a black pine. And only using a specific, timely, and meticulous feeding, pruning, wiring and potting schedule.
And yet! YET! It’s one of the most popular bonsai species.
Oh, did I mention that they’re easy to kill?
And let’s not even talk about junipers.
Maybe a little.
The biggest complaint about the “ginseng” is it’s bulbous, non-treelike trunk.
I totally agree.
But I have a few things for you to think about when considering the trunk of the “ginseng”.
The trunk is actually the root system of a seedling ficus microcarpa that has been raised above the soil to give it a fatter trunk. We do that all the time with trees.
They are young plants. If I showed you this young trident:
Or this ilex:
“Oh, that needs about 5 or ten years in the ground before you can even think about it being a bonsai”.
Or if I showed you this Eugenia:
You’d say that it needs a trunk chop.
Which are both valid, constructive pieces of advice.
All bonsai, mine and yours included, need more time.
Shit, there are some of Ryan Neal’s and Ed Trout’s trees that need time.
But I don’t think your gonna say that to their faces now, are you?
You’re afraid of them, but a noob, yeah, they’re easy prey, fresh meat to pick apart.
Especially if they have a ficus.
It’s easy to pick on ficus bonsai.
So, the look of a “ginseng” is offensive, I’ll agree.
Have you seen the twisted shimpaku junipers that have been showing up lately?
Some of them, I’d say about ten percent (yes, that low) look good.
Like this one.
The one above was on Jim Gremel’s sales table at the National Show.
Most look like frozen piles of dog shit with a green mushroom top on them.
In my honest opinion.
What they need is more time.
They are made, production style, much like the Chinese S-curve elms, ficus and such.
I would show a picture of a bad one but I don’t want to get sued.
Here’s one that died and is now a tanuki in training that I inherited.
In what universe is that messy, coiled, lump of wood considered tree-like in any way?
I would hazard to say that these twisted shimpaku junipers are the ginsengs and S-curves of the high end bonsai crowd.
P.T. Barnum was right.
Or, maybe, the emperor is naked.
So, if only ten percent of those twisted shimpakus are decent, I would say the same about S-curves and ginseng as well.
How do you like this ginseng?
If that were a pine with a trunk like that, it’d be a very high dollar tree.
And this one from the last post.
Or this one?
You’ll notice that the bark color changes to a light cream from the dark brown over time.
I like this “ginseng”. I’d say it’s about 20-30 years old.
My favorite, Bigfoot, a ficus microcarpa with the same leaf shape as the ginseng.
Eighty, ninety years old at least.
If those last two trees don’t convince you that a ficus microcarpa can become a good bonsai I’m not sure what you consider “bonsai”.
Tree in a pot designed to resemble a natural tree (somewhat stretching the definition with some junipers out there but..), can be pruned, wired, styled etc., so that the branching and foliage is in scale with the size and design of the tree.
Is that bonsai? How easy is it to create bonsai using “ginseng”?
I’d say that ficus microcarpa is about the same difficulty level as a trident maple, all things equal. I grow both. The ramification, the trunk growth, the leaf reduction, the budding back; these all are pretty much the same with the two trees.
How about we go back to this tree and let me work on it?
Let me show you instead of tell you.
This was how I received the tree a few years ago.
It was a “ginseng” at one point, the man who I bought it from told me the story of how he got it. It was then that I first suspected that a ginseng ficus was just a seedling f. microcarpa.
The man’s story, along with seeing real seedling ficus at Jim Smith’s nursery, being grown by Jim Van Landingham, are what confirmed it.
All of the seedlings Jim V was growing had caudex-like trunks.
Much like these two seedlings I found growing in some ficus I got at Old Florida Bonsai.
That’s right, vindication!
Why? It’s because Richard Turner doesn’t grow or sell ginseng ficus. He either collects trees from the wild or grows from cutting/seed. He doesn’t import at all.
So now we have the “Aha!” ficus, what did I do?
I chopped it back, of course.
Then I let it grow out and I, yep, you guessed it, chopped it back again.
And wired it.
At this point I also drew a picture of my final goal for the tree.
You’ll see how far I’ve come at the end of this post.
The first step is defoliation.
Let me clarify why I do this and why you should defoliate a ficus too (it seems that people skip over the “why” parts a lot and then misrepresent my work).
First reason: it let’s me see the tree.
Second reason: I will be wiring. Leaves get in the way.
Third reason: I am repotting, if I don’t defoliate, the leaves will fall off anyway, repotting and defoliating at the same time stimulate the tree to grow faster than doing each one seperately.
This I have experience with.
Now, we are talking ficus. Not elm, not maple, not hornbeam etc.
A tropical tree, of which most (not all) respond the same way, especially bougainvillea but not Serissa or bucida spinosa. Or Fukien tea; let them drop their leaves by themselves (which they do whenever you change anything about them, especially moving their location, like from the nursery to home).
Back to the ficus.
It’s begging to be repotted.
I can do this now, I’ll have at least a month of minimum nighttime temps of 60f or higher (it is late September) . I don’t bring my trees inside for the winter like many colder climate bonsai people do, so I have to be careful with my timing. I’ll have nights that get to 33f where I won’t protect the trees. Such is the Florida bonsai life.
If whatever winter protection you use can assure above 60f temps, go ahead and repot now. Just remember that you still need light to stimulate growth.
Speaking of light.
This is the front of the tree, which is also the side facing the sun.
This is the back, or shady side.
This tree was shoved into the greenhouse with most of the back shaded.
What do you see?
More aerial roots on the backside.
The front got more water (higher humidity) but more sunlight. The back got less water (lower humidity) but less light. Can we make a conclusion here? Just maybe.
Now, where was I?
That’s right, defoliation.
I’m also removing the unwanted new shoots, like the one growing straight up on the above pic.
Cut the leaves, strip the foliage, make the tree naked, cut, snip, snip, cut……
Uggggh, it’s endless….who said that these trees didn’t have dense foliage.
Where’s my broom? Damn it, who stole my broom?!
Now what’s my next step?
I’m going to prune for taper.
This branch is too big.
And the apex is a bit tall with some branches lacking taper.
That will make a good cutting.
Next step, repotting.
It needs it.
With a ficus you should do this about once a year.
I rotated the front of the tree about 15 degrees counterclockwise.
I do believe I’m making progress.
It looks like a banyan-style bonsai to me.
The Japanese don’t consider the banyan-style to be one of the “classic” styles or ficus as proper bonsai (even though Kimura has a ficus microcarpa “retusa” in his collection) but it seems to me that, with the waning of bonsai in Japan and the waxing of it in the rest of the world, the Japanese may just become another voice, and not the authority, on what species we use for our art.
To summarize (since about 2/3rds of you only look at the pictures)
The so-called ginseng ficus is a seedling ficus microcarpa that has had it’s caudex-like roots raised to artificially make the trunk look bigger.
It can be grown out (or air layered or cut down) to make it look more tree-like.
This process takes time, like all bonsai development does.
Only half of the ginseng ficus have grafted foliage.
And most importantly, be nice to beginners. We need more people in the hobby, business and art of bonsai. By calling their tree (whether it be a juniper mallsai, an S-curve tree, a twisted shimpaku or a ginseng ficus) a piece of crap and saying it’s not real bonsai is either just ignorant, or stupid. You choose.
We have a name for trees that haven’t been developed yet, how about we use it; PreBonsai.
“Sorry Fred, but, ya know, junipers of that size need a little more growth in them before they can be called proper bonsai”
” Wow Cindy, that ficus needs about 5 or 10 years of growth before the trunk looks like a tree, if you want it to look like a bonsai”
And when these new people say
“isn’t a bonsai just a tree in a pot?”
“Bonsai is actually an art form using small, living, relatively young trees and shaping them to look like large and old trees, employing the principles of line, form, dimensions and scale to create that illusion. Much like how a landscape painting has a sky and trees or mountains and a portrait should have a face, a bonsai should look like a tree”
And that should be that.
It won’t though.
It feels a little like a Peter Warren blog doing this here but, to quote:
People are people
So why should it be
You and I should get along so awfully
So we’re different colours
And we’re different creeds
And different people have different needs
It’s obvious you hate me
Though I’ve done nothing wrong
I’ve never even met you so what could I have done
I can’t understand
What makes a man
Hate another man
Help me understand
Help me understand
Now you’re punching
And you’re kicking
And you’re shouting at me
I’m relying on your common decency
So far it hasn’t surfaced
But I’m sure it exists
It just takes a while to travel
From your head to your fists
-Martin Gore, Depeche Mode-
Peter would link to the song though.
Aw hell, here you go http://youtu.be/ErnMC7xokQ8