The back story……

Early February, 2017. Gulfport Mississippi, on a tour. I’m at Buck’s house, working on trees. A lot of trees. I did some carving on a podocarpus. 

Wired it up too. That was fun. 

Did some touch up carving and styling on a Campeche 

Flat top style. 

We drank a lot of beer. 

A ficus buxifolia or ficus lingua. 

In the evening I did a demo for the Gulfport Mississippi club. This is Adam. The cheesyness factor must come with the name. That’s my demo tree, a bougie, he won it in the raffle I think it survived my ministrations. 

Buck has been growing this big ficus microcarpa for a long time. We wired it and did some grafting. Zip ties work well. 

Here’s a Texas ebony that beat me up. But I won in the end, though I had thorns in my fingers for a month. 

But the one tree that I was worried about, that I wasn’t sure was going to live, is this Natal plum (Carissa macrocarpa). I know, it looks rough. It had dried out a little. Ok, a lot. My usual treatment is to trim the tips and leave it alone. But….

Like I said, I wasn’t sure it was going to live at all. What I did, I do not recommend, but, after examining the bark and the green underneath, lifting up the hood and checking the oil, so to speak, I figured it could handle it. There was some life in it.  But if you have a tree that looks half dead, do as I say, leave it be, and not as I did. 

First thing I did was to remove most of those orange and yellow leaves. Most of them. The ones that stayed were the ones that didn’t pull off easily. That resistance told me those leaves hadn’t been affected by  the “droughting” that had happened (when a plant  dries out, xylene gas it released and it triggers leaf drop and root growth. The leaf dropping limits water use through transpiration, and the root growth is to, well, find water) The leaves that were still “stuck” was a good sign. I cut it back as well, as you can tell from the first pic to the third. 

And, still contrary to what I would tell you to do should you ask, I then I wired the Carissa out. I had worked on a Natal plum last time I was in Ohio but I was still amazed me at how flexible the branches are. Especially in its dried out state (I don’t recommend drying a tree out on purpose but it does make branches easier to bend and less likely to break. I’ll illustrate by making you imagine a piece of celery. Yeah, celery. A nice fresh piece, full of water and juicy, is easily snapped if you bend it. Well, except for those annoying fibers. Don’t you hate those? Did you know that rich people and politicians have those fibers removed before they’re served them? Must be nice, right? Anyway, an old, dried out piece of celery is rubbery and you can tie it in knots. If you like that kind of thing…….the same principle holds true with plants, if they’re dry, they bend without snapping. Use this knowledge at your peril though. There’s dry and then there’s crispy).  

Wiring and branch placement was easy, the structure was there, I was hoping the tree pulled through. But still, I was breaking a Rule of Bonsai, don’t work on sick or stressed trees. We’re my observations correct? Did I kill it? Well……

 Fast forward to late June, 2017. 

It’s alive. 

Oh yeah, damn does it looks good. 

We trimmed the long shoots, some more than six inches long (and that’s not bragging). Looking at the roots, I think I’ve figured out why it was able to survive. There’s some mycorrhizae, but right near my thumb, I’m thinking I’m seeing some nitrogen fixing nodules. Now, I can’t find any scientific literature talking about nitrogen fixing bacteria for this species, but it’s not a stretch. I mean, podocarpus do it, and of course any plant in the legume family do it. I have read the research that’s just being expanded on recently about the symbiosis of soil microbes and plants, and how much there is of that symbiosis we just didn’t know about before. 

Anywho, seeing as how healthy the roots are now, I think we can reduce them. 

With a saw. Pretty impressive. Let’s see what we have here…….hmmmmnnnnn…..…..the big chunks are expanded shale (you know, that Haydite stuff), there’s a healthy amount of pine bark, some calcined clay (Turface don’t you know), red lava……I think I’ll leave that here and let you draw your own conclusions. The fact that the roots are amazingly well distributed throughout the root ball speaks for itself. Soil particle size has much to do with root growth. 

Here’s the before, in February. 

And, like a Phoenix rising from the ashes…..By cutting the growing tips and reducing the roots that will stimulate back budding. We kept most of the wire on, it’ll keep for a month or so. Now, close your eyes (well, after you read what I want you to imagine) and picture this tree in a red clay pot (oxblood, if you would) or maybe a rustic, dark colored clay body with cream glaze, spotty and heavily applied. Now imagine the tree covered in pure white flowers. Or better yet, red fruit. Ok, you can close your eyes and imagine it now. 

Like the title suggests, this tree was saved from the brink of going from that dry state to the crispy one. I’m glad we were able to bring it back. It’s also refreshing to work on a tree for a client during a private session and get to guide it a second time. I’m excited to see it again next time I’m through there.  I might be back again in January,  for my Louisiana/ Alabama/Mississippi readers to consider a private session. 

I will stress again, you need to baby sick plants. No fertilizer, just enough water, light trimming. I have experience with trees and lots of dead ones in my bonsai graveyard to prove it. This tree, as bad as it looked, still had life in it. Lots of life. And I felt that what I was doing wasn’t going to kill it. Here’s a story that might explain why I felt the way I did. 

Chickens are from china. There was a big chicken farm in the USA that needed to train some new workers in how to figure out the sex of baby chickens. So the boss called over to China and hired the best chicken sexers in the industry to train the new workers. How does one learn to sex a chick? Well, the master chicken sexer stands behind the new apprentice and, whenever the apprentice gets the sex of the chick wrong, they get a slap on the back of their head. They eventually learn how to tell boy chicks from girl chicks, even if they don’t know how they know. 

The moral? It takes working on trees to learn how to work on trees. And killing them is that slap on the back of the head. 

A big thank you to Buck, for letting me work on his trees, and to Alan, Lowell and everyone else who put up with me for the week. See you guys soon! 

2 thoughts

  1. Someone once said that dead trees are the cost of tuition in bonsai, but I like the slap on the back of the head analogy better. Thanks for the interesting post and sharing all the knowledge — it’s much appreciated.

    Liked by 1 person

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