Unusual Material for Bonsai
These are notes from a discussion and workshop of less common trees led by Jerry Carpenter and Gordon Deeg, based on trees brought in by our members. This version includes photos of many of the different species to help you identify the tree. These photos come from a variety of different sites – credits are listed at the end.
Ficus – Sensitive to low temperature as they are a tropical plant. Jerry noted he brings his inside when outside lows reach 50-degrees. He keeps his home cool so the transition reduces stress from any temperature change. In the summer clip leaves back regularly to 2 leaves on a branch to achieve reduced leaf size. Plant mostly in Akadama adding a small amount of pumice. Ficus will benefit from yearly transplanting. Using a humidity tray and watering daily will provide additional humidity, do not allow plant to sit in water. If you have a ficus on ginseng root you can tell easily if you are not providing the right humidity and water routine. The thin skin/bark on the ginseng will show cracking and or wrinkling. Will actually pump up and smooth out with proper hydration. See Ficus Basics.
Fig – Yes your regular fruit bearing fig. The leaves of this tree can be reduced. Cut the leaves back to green stubs in summer to reduce leaf size.
Stewartia – Prefers partial shade. Flowers for a very short time on new wood, typically at a time of year when few other trees are flowering. Related to the Camellia with simple and similar flowers. Smooth, very decorative orange bark that peels somewhat like a crepe myrtle. Stewartia trees will back bud.
Serissa – Small delicate bush. Treat similar to an azalea when repotting. Never bear root. Blooms delicate tiny white or pink rose like flowers. Flowers from early spring through late autumn. Buds back. Be sure to open up enough for light to get inside to support back growth as wanted. Serissa will look ragged when not pruned regularly. Prune after flowering to keep its fine dense form dead-heading spent flowers to prolong the blooming period. Serissa prefers partial shade, specifically sun in the mornings and shade in the afternoons. Not tolerant of drought or freezing temperatures.
Silverberry – Cut back to 2 leaves, over and over to reduce leaf size by 50% or more. Transplant early summer through September. Silverberry’s offer many style options dependent on material. May bloom and provide red berries, plant somewhat finicky.
Azaleas – Work on them in June. Cut back in early spring so no leaves except for small leaf buds at tips. Do this again after bloom cutting back to 2-3 leaves. Older trees are handled differently, be more conservative leaving more leaves. Allow to bloom when strong maybe every other year. Be sure to cut flowers and remaining flower buds off after main show is over to reduce stress on the tree. Remember Azaleas are a bush. If top is weak leave more on top vs bottom to keep the top strong as you trim and cut back. A bush maintains strength from the bottom, while a tree pushes strength to the top. Keep this in mind as you identify your plant and progress with styling and maintenance. Do not bareroot when repotting.
Mickey Mouse Bush – Ochna serrulata. Commonly known as the Mickey Mouse Bush due to the flowers bright-red sepals that resemble Mickey Mouse’s face. Grows fine in sun or part shade but does not tolerate frost well. Mickey Mouse adapts well to light pruning. Normally a bush but can be a tree growing to 20-feet. Very unusual to see as a bonsai.
Japanese Snowbell – Styrax Japonica – from Japan having small white or pink bell shaped flowers. Prefers cool shady location and appreciates being moist. Has been grown successfully as a hedge in Oregon, can also make a very graceful feminine bonsai.
Rosemary – Spring is the best time for repotting. Cut back and then repot. Do not bareroot. Fine to cut branches from bottom and sides. Here is a great tip from Gordon that applies to all plant material. Before cutting roots around any root ball, remove tree from pot and poke around roots to see where main trunk ends and roots start to be sure you don’t unknowingly cut off all the roots. Sometimes the trunk can end deeper under the soil line, and may end up to the side of the pot. Unless you investigate, you have no idea what treasures may be hidden beneath the soil.
Corokia Cotoneaster – Actually is not a cotoneaster at all being related to the dogwood family. Clip and style. Few folks including myself have had bad experiences such as loss of branches when attempting to wire and style. When trimming always cut flush. Repot in the spring only, not during the heat of summer. Silver gray stems with tiny leaves, in spring have tiny fragrant yellow flowers. Full sun to part shade with good drainage and summer water. Frost hardy but will get tangled looking layers becoming a challenge to style, but fun and beautiful when the owner is persistent.
Bald Cypress – One of just a few deciduous conifers. Natural growth pattern is a wide expanding canopy but many style more like a redwood. Known for what is referred to as “its knees” which is its very thick elongated trunk. Develops “cypress knees” only in wet swampy conditions, but will adapt and grow in wet or dryer conditions. Features short needles arranged in pairs along slender branchlets. Their coloring ranges from yellow-green in spring to soft green in summer to reddish or orange/brown in autumn.
Pieres Japonica Shojo – (Pie-ear-is) Blooms are pink or white cascades of little flowers off stem ends on new wood. Leaves can be reduced similar to schefflera. After blooming, cut back. Note that cuts result in 3 stems. Cut back to last growth or to 1 or 2 stems on each branch while styling. Prefers sun to part shade. Grown mainly for its flowers in spring.
In much of the world oaks are considered unusual for bonsai but in California we have some wonderful oaks that can be made into bonsai. See Oak Basics for more info on caring for oaks.
Goldcup Oak – A canyon live (evergreen) oak. Leaves have small smooth edge, elongated oval in shape with pointy tip and rounded base. Glossy green color leaves with a prominent spine on topside and a dull golden hue on the underside. Cut leaves back to 2 leaves at branch-lets when shaping for style.
Corkbark Oak – The leaves are 4 to 7 cm (1.6 to 2.8 in) long, weakly lobed or coarsely toothed, dark green above, paler beneath, with the leaf margins often curving downward. Train same as the goldcup. Watch roots. Buttress may tend to be fist like. Work the roots out when repotting. Place a rock under the trunk and force the roots to grow out vs down. May also develop bumps initially on the base. Those that are unsightly can be gradually picked off to improve spreading and nebari.
Some photos come from past Kusamura Annual Shows. Others, come from a variety of sources. To the best of our knowledge, reproducing them here should be OK.
Ficus – Fickr / Mike (link)
Stewartia – Greenwood Bonsai Studios, UK
Serissa – Wikipedia / Forest & Kim Starr (link)
Rosemary – Australian Bonsai Community (link)
Silverberry – John Naka, found at BetterBonsai
Mickey Mouse Bush – Top Tropicals (link)
Styrax Japonica – Wetlands Studies and Solutions Inc. (link)
Corokia Cotoneaster – Filcker / John Sullivan (link)
Pieres Japonica – 48-Flowers.com (link)
Gold Cup Oak – Flickr / Kerry Woods (link)
Bald Cyprus – “Bald Cypress” by Kej605 – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons (link)