I remember, me being an old guy in bonsai, when the legendary Jim Smith was still having his “Sunday Under the Oaks” styling classes every 4th Sunday of the month at his Durastone nursery in Vero Beach. His nursery was amazing, with all kinds of tropical trees to choose from. And his pricing was astonishing. Most everything was priced by container size. 8 inch containers were $12.50, ten inch were around $25, and so forth. It didn’t matter if that tree in the 8 inch container was 7 inches thick at the base, that was the price.

The cost went up to $15 eventually but the same rules applied. Those were the good old days (nostalgia used to be considered a mental illness back in the day too).

Todays subject came from those good old days. A Portulacaria afra, (dwarf jade, elephants food, spekboom, pork bush, port, whatever you want to call it).

That’s the current front, above. A tree from a client, Kurt. This is the second tree he’s brought to me (yes, I did get pics for the first, and may do a post on it). This tree has grown since he got it from Jim Smith, but not by much. He got a deal. As is, I’ve seen trees of this quality being sold for several thousand dollars recently. And he’s done a good job on it. I’m honored he brought it to me to work on.

Looking at the root spread (“nebari” in some Japanese nurseries) and the overall shape of the tree, I suggested we change the front to here:

Not only is the root spread better, but the movement of the trunk is more evident.

He said, and I quote “OK”. The tree needs a bigger pot to make it look more stable as well, and that’s what we will figure out next.

Another drawback with using the original front is the tree, as potted, leans backward.

You can’t see it in this pic (pictures lie. I’ll get roasted for this, but, as an honest bonsai artist I should say it, when you see bonsai pics online, you’re not seeing the real tree. Flaws can be hidden, bad compositions in the pot are unseeable, and the back, and sides are not in the pic. In order to see what a three dimensional tree looks like, you gotta go to shows, or collections, and really see them in person. That’s a fact. So go to those shows, visit the National Bonsai and Penjing museum in DC, or local collections like Heathcote in Ft Pierce FL, where The Jim Smith Collection is, or Elandan Gardens, Dan Robinson’s place, in Washington State, or visit shows, exhibits, local nurseries. Bonsai Mirai in Oregon, though you have to pay to get in, will open your eyes. Go and see the trees. It’s worth it and your trees will be better for it. )

Here’s a side view of todays tree:

It’s leaning backwards.

But, with the new front (side view)….

….It’s pretty much upright. This is important in the composition of a bonsai. A tree that is upright (front to back) or leaning somewhat forward, tricks the eye into believing that a tree is bigger than what you think it is. And bonsai is (this is where I reach into my bag and bring out the stock phrase) basically, the Art of taking a relatively small and young tree and making it look like a big and old tree. We do this by using certain tricks of proportion, perspective, ramification and taper. In this case it’s called “forced perspective”. By leaning a tree towards you, your mind believes it’s a tall tree looming over your head.

Let’s get started. Remove the tree from the pot.

When I repot a dwarf jade, I try to be careful not to damage or cut off big roots.

It’s considered a succulent, and any big cut or damage I make could be a place where rot can set in.

I sent these next two pics to my client and asked him which pot he liked. An unglazed brown:

Or a glazed blue.

The brown one is slightly bigger, and brown might look better with the tree (it’s been said that a brown, unglazed pot is always a correct pot for a bonsai. That attitude is changing, as with many things in bonsai, because tastes are changing. But I’m not going to argue that today, that’s a deep rabbit hole that gets into discussions about rules vs guidelines, and subjective criteria for judging Art, number systems and tape measures, and, more importantly, too many people adhere to what they’ve been told, and not anything in the world can change their mind).

Myself, I like the brown. But…

Kurt chose the blue. and it’s his tree. Which do you like?

As the line in the movie commands, “Let us begin..”.

Snip this guy wire…

Looks like it held. Now let’s thin out all the crossing branches, everything growing down, most growing up, all that jazz (the constant reader understands, the new reader must needs read the previous 500+ articles of the blog. Maybe start On this article, Ramification, the next step.

I added two more guy wires, and some regular wiring. I won’t bore you with all the details this time. But I will give this advice: when repotting a portulacaria, it is best practice to not water the tree for at least a week, or until you see growth. The reason is the one I stated above about removing big roots: all those cuts and scrapes from the repotting session could introduce fungus and cause rot into the root system. By letting it dry out, the tree compartmentalizes those wounds, effectively sealing off the damage. I know and do this from experience, I’ve lost some good trees to being impatient.

The finished tree:

A long, outro shot below, for perspective. Sorry for the mess.

What it looked like before:

And now, this time with some drama.

See what I mean about a photo changing what a tree can look like. That’s the same pic from three pics above, cropped, saturated, darkened.

And that’s that. Hopefully this article gets you to take a look at a tree you’ve had for a long time and maybe see it differently, and to get you out into the world to see trees in person.

3 thoughts

  1. Outstanding job on an old tree Adam. Changing the front made a huge difference. Oddly, Portulacaria can look great in blue pots


  2. Well done Adam…..one of my favorite species…great little starter gifts to give to friends……..and yes it is easier to fool a man than convince him he’s been fooled…..(Mark Twain)

    Liked by 1 person

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