I ain’t never seen a bush so full that needed trimming like this one. That’s an epic bush. A biblical bush. Like out of the 70’s/early 80’s. Wowser! 

How’s this one?  

 This one is sparse but still full. Def in need of some grooming too. 

 And then this one: 

 it’s all spiky and weird. Modern, with an amateur feel to it. 

Joking aside, today you’ll be seeing three different holly trees, for your amusement and peruse-ment. Let’s begin with the first one, an ilex crenata “soft touch”.  

 The foliage is very much like my favorite holly, the dwarf yaupon (which is tree number two above) but it’s leaf is more of a chromium oxide green than the Hooker’s green of the yaupon. And the leaf has more of that curved quality most most hollies have.  

It’s a slow grower too. It took me years to find a trunk like this in a nursery. 

And I actually found three with decent shohin sized trunks with good taper. 

It is considered a Japanese holly but not the usual deciduos one we see all the time with those awesome red berries (which is ilex serrata).  

 This cultivar, “soft touch”, grows like an i. Vomitoria “schillings” though. Look at those branches! Day-um. And this was at a wholesale liner nursery! Hard to believe. 

I’m not really sure how well this variety will respond to bonsai techniques but, using reasoning and logic (I know, I know, where has that gotten me in the past? Remember when I said it was foolish to use copper on ficus because you’d be removing it in a month? Yeah, that bit of logic got me in big time trouble…..) it is safe to say that this tree will respond to pruning, else it wouldn’t be sold as a hedge plant. Sooooooo……just a little pruning…..but first, I’m hoping the roots can handle some cutting too. And if I kill it, I have those  two more left .  

Let’s see the root ball…

 Not bad. Lots of good feeder roots. This is a good start.  

The “nebari”, such as it is, needs some cleaning up. 


That’s better.   Not really but it’s as good as it’s going to get. I’ll pot it up here I think.  
 That should help it. 

Turning to the top, I think I’ll reduce it a bit to make it easier to move around.  

 I’m thinking a little off the top.  


Good. Getting there.  

 Now, many people would stop there. Not me. You know me. If you are plant butchery averse, divert your eyes and scroll down quickly.  


And more.  

Uh oh….  


 I know it seems brutal but it’s necessary. And I’ve discovered some more trunk it seems. 

And it does have to fit in a bonsai pot after all. This is a bonsai blog. 

  A little wire, some soil and…. Ready for my close up Mr. DeVille!
I’m hoping this survives the treatment. Really. I’m pretty sure it can handle the top pruning; that whole hedge thing. It’s the root pruning in worried about. I’ve handled several types of hollies but not a crenata yet. We shall see. 

To sooth those traumatised by that last tree, let’s work with the ilex cornuta next, a Chinese holly.  

 This is an interesting (to me and a few I’m sure) specimen for this type of tree. It, too, is a very common hedge plant (usually planted where you wish to keep people out of, like under windows and such), so the trunks tend to be, well…trunk like. This looks to me like it could possibly be a root cutting even. Don’t ask about the pot, I was traded this plus a few other trees for some more finished bonsai. I think the pot came from a thrift store. With the right tree it could be a masterpiece work of ceramic. 

I do have experience with this variety of ilex. I won’t defoliate fully and I’ll keep green tips. It likes to shed branches and I don’t have many to lose.  

 They call it’s Chinese holly, and the binomial name (ilex cornuta) means horned holly.  

 These leaves above, with their vicious spiky thorns on the margins, are the origin of that name. Merciless. If you compare the last two pics you’ll notice that the tree can display two types of leaves. If you let it grow the less mean-looking leaves will present. If you’re trimming often you get the evil ones. It might be a defensive response, but I’m not sure. They will reduce in size by about a half if you keep up the trimming and increase ramification enough.  

This is why I think it’s a root structure in working with. 

 The normal habit is a thick, mostly straight trunk.   

 I like this, it’s very twisty and skeletal. 

As much as I like the pot it’s in, I’ll need to change it.  


I don’t have the pot I want so I’ll use a terra cotta pot for training purposes.  

 You’ll notice the extra drain hole on the side, this is called an azalea pot, which need good drainage. The holly will benefit from this as well, they are water-wise plants. 

It has good roots, very fibrous, and it’s in good bonsai soil too. 

It needs an angle change.  
 Oh yeah. Let’s get it moved. 




Pruning and wire  Pretty neat. 

Next: the big boy.  This one is full of fire ants. I hate fire ants.    All those red/orange specks are ants.  They had a veritable colony in the roots of this tree. Some liberal spraying of napalm and a lit match later…….actually, just insecticidal soap is all I used to kill them.  They may seem like super-ants, being able to build living bridges and floating ant islands and all, but, individually, they are just as fragile as you and I. If an ant colony goes to war, it’s only strategy is attrition. When they run out of the poor workers, the queen loses. There’s a lesson there. Anyway, die fire ants, die!

This tree looks like it’s been worked on before.   

As verified by the wire still on it.   

The base is over eight inches wide.   

It, too, was part of that trade.   

I think I might have come out on top. It just needs a little trim….. 


Some root work.   

I’m thinking a deep-ish training pot.   

Maybe a little more rootwork.   

And that’s it.   Well, fertilizer, water and sun and all that. 

So now you are wondering “Uhhhh…..What the hell?” Right? 

Well. The second holly will be the quickest to look like a bonsai. It’s easy to see where it’s going.  

 Semi cascade. Crescent pot. Easy to see. 

The ilex “soft touch” has a rudimentary structure.   Here’s a somewhat accurate idea of what I think it will turn out like-with proper branches and all that.   

And lastly, but not least-ly, the chunky beast. 

This next virtual future is totally fictional. The extrapolation is really only based on where I left the stubs.  
The pot will be smaller, of course.  

 But it’s a few years from that. 
The new branches will explode from many varied places all over this ilex. It’ll look like a bush again in no time. 

And just to show that I know what I am talking about with ilex, here’s a pretty one I just cut back for the spring.  

It’s a shohin, only about 7″ tall. The pot is a Taiko Earth by Rob Addonizio. 

I’ll provide updates for y’all as the trees grow. Or die. See you later. 

6 thoughts

  1. It’s been too long since you made an ilex post. I missed them. A nice variety of finds this time. I’m surprised the big one had such a small canopy in the virt. Gonna go sumo for sure?


  2. Holy cow. You are brave. You obviously need some firewood. I would like to see a future post. But good on you. They have come out looking ok…so far. I hope that transplant shock isn’t too brutal.


  3. I have an Ilex soft touch. I got really lucky and found one with a 2.5″ trunk, with fantastic taper and root spread at a big box store a couple of years ago. It survived a bunch of bad beginner mistakes I made, though it did drop most of its leaves at one point, but is fairly healthy now. I am thinking about potting it now, though I’ve never removed more than about 1/2 the root system at one time and it is still in a rather deep (7-8″ or so) pot. I’m quite interested to hear how your’s turns out, as it will be time to start working on Ilex in Charleston in a couple of weeks.


    1. The soft touch died. The other two soft touches I had died as well. Being out of zone by a full number didn’t help them live
      The big trunked ilex schillings did well. I sold it a few years ago.
      and the other ilex is still around. They grow slow so it hasn’t done much in development


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