Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Bonsai Art & Care |Austin Bonsai Society |Central Texas Gardener

Several members of the Austin Bonsai Society and The Texas State Bonsai Exhibit (including me!)were interviewed about bonsai in Texas recently by the PBS show Central Texas Gardener, and it was just released last weekend.  Practicing bonsai is about growing trees, yes, but it also is about sharing our stories too!

Friday, November 14, 2014

Fuzzy little stow-away

Arctic winds have been pushed down to Austin this week.  Our city is colder than parts of Alaska!  So of course there was a mad dash to tuck away all the Tropicals for the winter, and then pulling any of the borderline sensitive plants (some subtropical species) in for an evening or two. 

Tonight while looking at some of my protected Bonsai, I started cleaning off the odd dead leaf or twig that had been brought down by the wind.  One was this Anaqua, or Sandpaper Tree (Anaqua ehretia), a Texas native, but one that is found in the Southern half of the state.  I tend to protect mine when the temperatures go into the 20's, as we've been warned of for the past 2 nights.  This little tree will have its own posting about its history, but that will come later.  What a messy background!

Cleaning up the tree, my fingers suddenly grabbed something soft which began to move.  I immediately dropped it, and to my surprise, it was an Asp, or stinging caterpillar.  They're not uncommon, but I have rarely spotted them in my area, and had to take a few photos of the fuzzy monster:

 Awww, he wants to snuggle!

I know people have been "stung" by Asps, but I never have, and luckily the venom didn't get into the skin.  Score one point for calloused bonsai fingers!  Here is some light reading on the furry creatures from the Texas Poison Control Network:
The best known flannel moth and stinging caterpillar in Texas is the puss moth caterpillar, Megalopyge opercularis, commonly called an "Asp." This caterpillar is often abundant and may infest shade trees and shrubbery around homes, schools, and in parks. They are of little importance as enemies of shade trees, but they can cause a severe sting. When a puss moth caterpillar rubs or is pressed against skin, venomous spines stick into the skin causing a severe burning sensation and rash.  Puss moth caterpillars are teardrop-shaped, and, with their long, silky hairs, resemble a tuft of cotton or fur. Their color varies from yellow or gray to reddish-brown, or a mixture of colors.

I guess reminders like this are important - be careful of what lurks in your trees when you take them inside!  


Monday, September 22, 2014

Flowering freegan Crepe

The Crepe Myrtles have just loved the weather this year and so I thought I'd post a quick update on my Crepe Myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica) #12 which I wrote about last year here: Freegan bonsai - crepe myrtle

This is one of the large, full sized tree Crepes and produces big leaves, big flowers and quite a bit of space out to the ends of the flower bracts.  Still, the color is intense, much stronger than in the photograph.  Others are blooming too, but they will need their own blog story told.

Summer in the South is a time that's full of flowers and these are always a welcome sight!

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Boxleaf Euonymus #43 - a prize in every box!

Friends, fun and a weekend of Bonsai - I never miss one of the Lone Star Bonsai Federation state conventions.  This year it was hosted by the Houston Bonsai Society, a great group with a lot of energy.  As usual, the workshops and critiques were thought provoking, the vendors brought way too many goodies that shrank our wallets (oh the handmade bonsai pots and handcrafted wood stands!), the exhibit featured some of the best Bonsai in the state, raffles kept the atmosphere fun and light, and wherever you turned there was some event taking place whether it was the Emerging Talent Competition or the late-night Pub Committee. 

One thing that I did not expect though was to win one of the prizes of best trees in the exhibit, judged by the visiting artists.  You can imagine my surprise at the banquet ceremony as I'm sitting crossed-legged and barefoot on the floor taking photos for the club newsletters when they call my name.  I was awarded Best Broadleaf Evergreen for my Boxleaf Euonymus in the Exhibit.  I was touched and honored, and was given a laugh when I came down from the stage and heard someone say "congratulations hippie!"  Ah, my people!

Here is my full (small) display from the show: a small Boxwood, a Wood-Violet accent and the Boxleaf Euonymus.  It was chosen by the visiting artists: David DeGroot, Arthur Joura and Pedro Morales.

2005 March. The story of this tree, Euonymus japonica 'Microphylla' began in my neighborhood.  A new family had moved into an older home and wanted all the older shrubs removed.  The estimate is that the bushes had been there for about 30 years.  It was my luck that I happened to be biking down that street that day and noticed they had dragged two shrub stumps out to the curb for trash pick up.  At the time, I didn't even know what variety of plant they were, only that the bark had an interesting deep reddish color with tiny white streaks.  The internet is your friend in plant ID!

2005 March. They were nothing to look at, at this point, just two big clumps of trunks that were all fused together at the base.  I soaked the dry root-balls overnight to rehydrate them, and the following day began washing the old mud from the roots and trying to detangle the trunks which proved impossible.
2005 March.  I couldn't get a tool in-between the roots to pry them apart.  I tried to imagine leaving the multiple trunks together, but I couldn't see the design.  There had to be another way.  On the ground it went:

2005 March. And out came the electric chainsaw!  I cut as carefully as I could, avoiding the important surface roots and trunks as much as possible.

2005 March. Amazingly, it wasn't only the surface roots that were fused, the roots were together much deeper as well.  It was almost like a solid block of wood with random holes.

2005 March. After a short time of separating, this is what I came back with: individual trees, sometimes in multiples of 2 or 3, but all had a base and shape of their own.  No longer was it just a random mass of trunks.  This photo is of the clumps, newly sawn apart and separated.
2005 March. This brings us to one grouping with three trunks dancing around each other:

2005 March. I hadn't worked with this type before, so I tried to be careful with the roots, leaving plenty of them and plenty of room in the pot.

2006 January.  I had let the tree grow for the year, removing nothing from the top to try to strengthen the roots.  It had a little die-back, but also produced lots of buds all over the trunks, sprouting multiple buds from each location (as many as 10!).

2006 January.  This is the shot after thinning the extra branches in each of the bundles, cleaning out the few dead branches and putting in a "prop" to separate the trunks in the middle.  The prop was just a few pieces of chopstick lashed together with electrical tape.

2008 February.  Whorl branches were continuing to be removed and over-long shoots were trimmed back to equalize the strength of the branches.  It grew well and popped more buds, but showed me how slow this tree is to develop.

2008 February.  I had to do something about those cut off stubbed ends of the trunks, so they were shaped/carved and the branches were thinned again.  All the main branches were wired as well to give movement and to spread the shape.

2009 March.  This little tree grew well during the last year, filling in nicely.  But this photo shows one of the problems with this species - all branches want to grow straight up.  Even wired out, the growing tip will start again to grow straight up and not out.  This causes a lot of crowding.

2009 March.  The branches were thinned again and wired.

This year was tough on the tree, a bad infestation of Euonymus scale attacked and seemed to persist through many different treatments.  This pest seems to take over much more easily in shaded conditions - trees placed in sunnier areas fared better.

July 2009.  Not a lot of growth to show due to the Scale, and some branches actually died as a result.  I didn't like the way this tree was progressing, style-wise.  The top is just too flat and even. 

2009 July. To make the apex more dynamic, the trunks were cut at different heights, using interesting branches that were already there.  It looks sparse again, but the structure is now ready.  Sometimes it just takes a while to work through the design.

2010 July.  With the Scale on the run, this Euonymus had a great year, putting out a lot of growth.  It was allowed to run during the last year and this is the result - much more strength and density.

2010 July.  Multiple branches were again thinned and the remaining ones were wired down and away from each other.  It should be noted that the non-lignified branches of Euonymus are VERY easy to break.  They are almost like a succulent jade or other fragile branch.  Be very careful when working with them if you have important branches.

2011 March.  The left trunk had an odd die-back all long its length.  I carefully pulled away the dead bark and cleaned it, and actually liked the effect of the stripe.  Six years in the same pot, it needed to be repotted badly.  Also it looked like it had filled out enough, that it was about time to get it out of plastic and into a Bonsai pot.

2011 March. A very dense and healthy root ball.

2011 March.  Repotted into a round drum pot with a darkened "nail" pattern.  I felt the color blended well with the trunks.

2011 September.  More density, more branches

2011 September.  Thinned out and wired again.  This continual wiring out of the tips of a plant that wants to grow vertically creates a really interesting undulating branch line over time.  People who work with Pine trees know this well.


 2012 August.  This tree is finally beginning to feel mature.  The branches are beginning to have a light, airy quality to them that years of technique brings, and the trunks are all relating to one another.  The only yearly maintenance is to wire those outer growing tips down, to shorten branches back to the  line of the tree, and to watch for that dreaded Euonymus scale.
2014 April.  Now back to the present.  I need to develop more density in the top of the left trunk and work on its apex.  Right now it is just too loose and open.
If you get the chance to work with Euonymus japonica 'Microphylla' - do it!  There are different varieties of Euonymus as common hedging material, but this variety seems to be the best suited to Bonsai.  There is a dwarf variegated form too, but it grows even slower, so a collected specimen is a must!  The fun of this tree, besides the rarity and interesting trunks is the fact that it was a curbside discard.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Texas Persimmon #4 - burned out hollow trunk

Back in February 2007 I went on a dig in San Antonio, on a 500 acre cattle-chewed ranch that was to soon become a large new subdivision of homes.  The dig was organized to collect material before the bulldozers would come in, so it was a lot of fun, and felt like it had a bit of urgency to it as well.  The intrepid Bonsai hunters stopped long enough for a group photo (I was taking the picture!).

The three of us that carpooled down from Austin collected enough (and unfortunately didn't reduce the tops back), so that by the end of the day the van was practically bursting at the seams with native species bound as future Bonsai.

One of my favorite finds of the day was a Texas Persimmon (Diospyros texana) clump growing on the face of a limestone caprock.  In the middle of the clump was a terrific old burned out trunk that was most likely the "mother plant" before a fire encouraged lots of side shoots and lateral trunks to emerge.  I didn't get a picture of it in the ground, but it was nestled in a 18" high thick patch of native grass, the only thing visible were the tops.  It practically peeled off the rock in one piece.  Here it is once I got it back home.
With the bag removed..

After the weeds were removed and the heavy clay soil was cleaned from the roots:

I cut off the left trunk with a bit of the shared underground root.

All the other thin trunks were attached to the larger one and were distracting and so off they came.  This allowed for a very well-tapered Bunjin-shaped trunk.

Finally it was planted in an rough, open mix soil and left alone to recuperate.  The blue is a calming color ;)
Texas Persimmons seem to grow either very fast or frustratingly slow.  This one took three years to regain strength. Here we are in 2010.  All branches were left alone - no trimming and no wiring.  But as a surprise, it produced many fruit this year.  I left a couple of them on to ripen (they're delicious!), but pulled the rest to save strength for the tree.

March 2011.  The top was finally cut back to a more manageable size and with all that vigor, it's now time to repot.

Strong root growth filled the previous pot, and now there is a healthy brick of roots supporting the tree, enough that reduction isn't an issue.

Tangled roots reduced and everything cut back and exposed.

It's first Bonsai pot, a round, drum mica.  No styling yet, as one stress (root work) was enough at this time.
August 2013, this persimmon has been resting on the bench for too long, it needs some styling work!  Healthy, active growth means that any damage will be repaired quickly.  It's tempting to work on these in the winter when they will partially or totally defoliate, but they are weak in the cold months and often don't recover (I speak from experience!)

A closer look at the shari (deadwood area) up the trunk.  Texas Persimmons have this remarkable effect to the wood: deadwood will oxidize to a dark blackish color and will become rock-hard.  The original damage was fire (I believe), but other traumas have also oxidized to the point that it all blends nicely together.  Very rarely will there ever be enough callousing to repair damage, so whenever working with this species, plan for any wounds to remain. 
I'm always making sketches of my trees, ideas for future styling or possible changes.  These aren't meant to be pretty or even to be shown to anyone, just to be a reference for ideas.  In 2009 I had thought that if possible I'd like to try something different.  A "before" photo of the trunk line at that time:
And then an idea to reduce the height of the tree and give movement to a very straight and boring top section.  Simple bending would snap the very brittle Persimmon wood, but maybe by twisting it while bending, I could get it in the right position.  I've done this with Boxwood, which is also a very hard and brittle wood once it reaches a certain size.

No process photos, unfortunately, my hands were busy!  But with the use of a bamboo lever (couldn't find the right sized rebar), one guy-wire and some green tape to protect part of the affected area, the bend happened just as planned!  Basically I twisted it, so that the crown turned exactly upside down and nestled into position.  Branches had to be repositioned at this point, so some wire was applied to get them in the right direction.  Long branches were left, as well as some extra ones.  I need to get as much tissue growth at the bend/twist part as possible to set the shape
One of the large upper branches was removed (yellow colored wood), and all around the area it was wrapped tightly to protect the tissue from splitting.

I don't use levers often, but they certainly make reshaping easier!  Three points are in contact: in the base of the pot, along the deadwood, and finally at the crown of the tree.  If this bamboo starts to rot before the top is set, I'll replace it with rebar or another kind of metal rod. 
Also there were fruit on the tree again, so I cut all of them off.  
On another Texas Persimmon, I let the fruit ripen - I just love the fuzzy black, marble-shaped fruit.  These are in terrific Bonsai proportions!

September 2013. Lots of healthy growth.  The long leggy branches were beginning to get in the way, so...

Everything was shortened down.  Many more years of styling, wiring and clipping are in its future before it is brought to a show.  Also it's due to be repotted and to have a better pot (with better placement of course).  This fun little tree always reminds me of that dig day with friends in San Antonio years ago!


A note about Texas Persimmons: they are a wonderful, well proportioned native tree with nice sized leaves and fruit.  It has softly colorful bark that ranges in the grey and pink tones which contrasts nicely with the black deadwood (and black fruit - being dioecious you need both the male and female trees nearby to produce fruit).  It has a wide native range over Texas and is long-lived.  So why aren't more people growing these as Bonsai??  Well they're also a bit of a finicky tree too.  Seemingly for no reason, a Persimmon will lose all its leaves and go into a kind of hibernating state for YEARS.  I've had these that will stay alive, but not produce a single leaf for over 3 years, looking completely dead, but still be alive if you scratch the bark.  Sometimes they'll come back to life, sometimes half the tree will emerge at the end, and other times they slowly fade away dead.  I've compared notes with other local bonsaiists and they've had similar experiences.  The triggers I've found have been working on them in the wrong seasons, or when they are weak.  So lesson learned: only work on vigorous trees, and then only in the active growing season.  Only work on the roots when they are about to push growth in the Spring or you may also have a coma patient!  Being one of my favorite native species though.. I'll always accept the challenge!