In the afternoons, on schooldays, I get to sit and wait for my children to get out of class and then I chauffeur them home. As I wait for them, I sometimes use this time away from the nursery to work on trees. Sometimes I nap. 

Before you get all huffy about me spoiling them by not making them take the bus, or walk home, they go to a charter school that is too far to walk home from (about a two hour walk) and bus service isn’t available. (For those who are wondering, a charter school is a publicly funded operation but not run by the normal school board. In Florida this is an option to send your children to, if your local school does not have a passing grade when it’s ranked by the state. There’s all kinds of arguments and debate as to whether this is a valid or even fair system but this blog isn’t a political one, so please let’s not even broach the subject. I will not entertain the comments). 

So today, instead of napping or eating M&M cookies, I worked on a Brazilian raintree.  I got the tree in a Central Florida Bonsai Club auction back in June. It was originally designed,  and then donated, by Donnie and Bill, who are members of both the CFBC and the Bonsai Society of Brevard (they’re overachievers, I know). But I saw something exciting and unique in the tree, so I put my hand in the air, with my wife beside me giving me the look, and won the bid. I slept on the couch that night. 

After getting it, I pruned and wired it, as it was in need of some attention. Here it is on, what looks like, a rainy summer day. I set the bones, so to speak. 

Now’s the fun part, continuing the development. I love this stage, the main branches are mostly set, and now you get to really give the tree a mood. 

Of course, my first step, as you may suspect, is a defoliation. Which I think I may need to explain a little. I think that many people misunderstand the why, when, and the process itself. 

First things first, I only defoliate when appropriate. What that means is I only do it when the tree is healthy, when the time of the year is correct, when the species or variety can handle it, and when it’s necessary. 

It is November. I live in Florida. The tree is a chloroluceun tortum, the Brazilian raintree (sometimes misidentified as a pithecellobium tortum). The trees buds are turgid, even, to mix metaphors, pregnant, with energy. They are swelling, ready to burst. But, through observation, experience, experimentation, I’ve come to learn that BRT’s have a hard time dropping their old leaves (many tropicals have this same problem) to make room for the new leaves and branches (often, the new bud occurs at the base or the crotch of the leaf petiole, where it attaches to the stem. By removing, defoliating the leaf, we are utilizing a hormonal response that activates that bud to begin growth). By defoliating, we spur new growth, faster. 

As an addendum to this, if a leaf is off color, damaged, or shaded, it is better to cut it off and grow a new leaf than to allow it to remain and steal energy from the tree (and here’s another one, why do you think many ficus species drop all their old leaves, if you suddenly change their light exposures, like when you might bring them inside for the winter? The answer is: it’s more economical for a ficus, and most tropicals, to drop old leaves that were grown for one light exposure, and grow new ones, than it is to try to adjust the current leaves for the new light exposure). Here’s a truism: tropical trees like to grow; they don’t need a dormant period. What that means is we can push them more than temperate or even subtropical or broadleaf evergreens (like a holly, or boxwood). 

So as I’ve been talking, I’ve also been wiring. Well, maybe not, but I just put that image in your head, I also just made you think of a peanut shell as an athletic supporter. 

Back at the parking lot, just off my rear bumper, I think all the wire is on and the branches are just about in place….
But the kids are here, take a quick pic, and it’s back to the nursery, and The Nook. 

If you’ve been paying attention to my BRT stylings of late, say on Instagram or on Facebook, you’ll notice that I’ve been a little more twisted than usual.  

I think I’m beginning to really understand the way they grow, and to be able to put that branch in the right place so that the leaf, which is a graceful compound leaf, lays on top of it just right. 

At least, I think so. 

I’ve also been playing with structure. 

And focal points, or accents. I’m really getting tired of the cookie cutter trees you see so much of in today’s bonsai. 

Just look at that shadow, it screams old, gnarly, mean, twisted. You don’t get that kind of emotion out of an informal upright Christmas tree. I’m bored of those mediocre, middle of the road, status quo, vanilla trees at this point in my life. I’ve been doing bonsai for a long time, I’ve had my fill of moyogi, boiled potato trees. Give me something tortured, tired, bizarre; I’d rather take the “substandard” material and use some techniques to make it look old. 

Here’s a thought to ponder, one which has made me think too much of late:

 “For every artist, once they reach a certain level
at a certain age, and once they become famous enough, They face this problem. They have to confront what their original intention was. They will also face a lot of people’s questions and doubts. The more successful an artist is, the more dangerous the situation is.”

~ Liu Xiaodong 

I think a lot. I’m in my head too much. I have words and doubts and great emotional ups and downs, soaring heights where the atmosphere is thin and heady, and dark, endless depths where it seems like the air is tar, stifling in odor, burning and mindless. 

But when I work, all that goes away and the tree sings to me. Soothes my spirit and takes on the emotions that plague me. I like this tree. What do you think? Let me have it, I’m a big boy, responsible for my own actions and able to wipe the drool from my own chin, tell me I’m wrong, but be prepared to back up your arguments. 

7 thoughts

  1. Hi Adam
    Firstly, coming from the UK, I cannot make any comment on the natural nature of BRF trees as I know nothing about them, however, whilst I respect your opinion as an artist I feel I must defend the more traditional style trees. Not necessarily the Japanese one as I also like an quite often prefer European styled trees.
    I too have been involved in bonsai a long time, 45 years give. or take but unlike you I am an amateur and hobbyist. I totally agree that personal preferences change. I myself having been into lots of deadwood, large pines and junipers now find myself in love with acres, horn beams, hawthorns and other deciduous varieties.
    I very much enjoy your blog and your attitude to life in general but just wanted to get m tupence worth in as we Brits say.
    Rock on and best wishes to all in Florida.


  2. My house is filled both with antiques and modern furnishings, I like both classical music and more recent musical genres. I like that many of my bonsai have different styles also…from “traditional” to “interpretational,” each one has its own feel, and unless I’ve grown it from seed, I prefer to let the tree tell me which way it wants to look, rather than forcing my ideas onto it. I have the great fortune of being in Adam’s monthly study group, so I get the chance to bring trees that challenge me, so Adam can envision interesting futures for them and help me made that happen. To me, variety is far more interesting than just one style.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Adam,
    I like that tree very much. I’m all about ‘artist choice’ design. But the pot is way too deep for that tree 😉

    Best regards from Poland,


  4. My 2 cents: The tree is gnarled and twisted, which is what you say you were going for. The main trunk achieves this effect through sharp turns, deadwood, and scarring. However, I don’t think the main branch on the bottom right has the same feel. It is too straight and unharmed compared to the feeling I get from the rest of the tree. I guess the branches further out look older than where they originate, but really the tree should get younger as you travel up and out from the base.


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