A tree prequel….here are three trees that have me intrigued and looking forward to playing with: A Mountain Hemlock, a Vine Maple, and another Mountain Hemlock-


We brought back this massive Mountain Hemlock from the PNBCA convention in Victoria, BC a couple weeks back. Very curious descending branch. This tree was collected by Anton Nijhuis. We’ll be restyling this tree soon, and will be sure to have photos up here for you to laugh and jeer at-


This was an interesting recent capture. I collected this in the Cascades this fall, a Vine Maple in the rocks. It had a massive tap root which I recut when we made the box, and out of curiosity I took a loupe and counted the rings… 180 years old! And with some strong young branches, too. One of those examples that makes you rethink the common conceit that understory trees and shrubs have short lifespans. It’s all about how that tree grew, what the local environment was. Quite thought provoking.


Another recent capture, this Mountain Hemlock nearly slaughtered us trying to move it. Nearly 8 feet tall, it has apexes that all go to the right by pure happenstance. But they all go back at 45 degrees as well, so when you’re standing at this front, it feels like the wind is at your back. One of the most evocative trees I’ve encountered in a long while. Looking forward to doing very little with this one…as opposed to doing quite a bit with the other two!

…with a title like that you’d think I was lost in a poem by Tennyson…but I was only looking at a tree in my yard.

I tend to photograph this Red Maple at this time of year… it was created by Anne Spencer, one of our talented Portland artists who passed several years ago. Some months before she passed, I was honored with a phone call from her asking if I’d want to be the next caretaker of it. Being impulsively impish, I replied ‘Is that a trick question?’ In any event, I’ve had the tree for several years now. Especially in fall, when it’s looking so beautiful, I am reminded of our dear friend Anne.

Bonsai is, in so many ways, the art of change: That constant, lovely, haunting dance of loss and addition.

Your tree is looking well, Anne. It’s been the treasure of my yard, a chest of memories, and a quiet education. It’s sweet to be able to share your tree with others so far away, and so far beyond. It still sits in Portland, Oregon, in the fall of 2014, quietly living on.

Anne's Red Maple

Anne Spencer’s Red Maple

Anne's Red Maple, 1991

Anne kept meticulous notes of her trees, which those of us lucky enough to be stewards of call the ‘adoption papers’. They include detailed yearly notes of what she did and did not do, and photographs of almost every year in the life of the tree. This photo was taken in 1991, one year after she bought the small Red Maple seedling.

Last month I received a curious, lumpy envelope from Canada. Enjoying curious, lumpy packages, I opened it eagerly. When its contents were on my lap I remembered I’d sent a silly email to a Canadian fellow who was planning on attending a Seasonal Workshop with me. He’d asked how he could make a down payment on the class. I somewhat impishly suggested some alternative methods, such as a string of shells, gold bullion, wampum. This is what I received in the mail:


Until a couple of years ago, I’d never worked with Limber Pine, one of our North American white pines. It’s growing on me. Buds back well, nice short needle, strong. Has a nice name, Limber Pine, which comes more trippingly off the tongue than Loblolly Pine, for instance. And it has great deadwood features.

This Limber Pine was styled in a Seasonal Workshop a couple of weeks ago. It was collected by a student of mine, Steve Varland of Backcountry Bonsai, who was able to be in the Seasonal to help style it. Loads of fun!

Photo essay follows our journey with this tree-


Limber Pine from one side…


…and from the other side.


And a couple of shots of the base, with the ‘helix’ roots.


Other side.


We discovered that a large area of the trunk was dead. That is, not obviously dead. We might call it ‘pre-shari’, because it looked just like the rest of the trunk. The bark was still adhering very well, but 50 years later out in the wilds it would be shari. So we took the bark off in those areas to speed up the process a bit… Steve and Bobby work at it.


Jim and Steve beginning the foliage preparation for wiring.


Some big bends were planned for this styling , so on goes the raffia-


The first big wires…Bobby without stripes for some reason. He did well enough without them. Hm.


Setting the branches…


Finishing up…


Our completed tree. Well, mostly completed. For a container next spring, we were thinking of maybe a deep narrow oval, to show off those curious double helix-like surface roots. 32″ high.

Ponderosa is a controversial North American tree. Mostly the debates swirl around the long needles, and their size being a problem with bonsai. I’m of two minds with this. For one, Ponderosa ramifies rather well over time, and needle length comes down pretty good. My misgivings are that for very small trees, ponderosa foliage doesn’t seem well suited. But, for a modest sized tree and larger, we have a really rough and rugged, really quite exciting, pine character. It’s almost the ultimate pine, in terms of wild ‘piney’ feeling.

This ponderosa is modest in size, 26″. That’s enough size to get beyond the long needles, and then it’s also a bunjin, which is one of the best applications for the species. Needle size will also go down a lot over time.

Before I bought the tree, it had been left to grow for some years without any kind of management. Ponderosa will quickly revert to a strong primary bud and weaken anything on the interior when this happens. A few of the branches were really weak. But there were also small buds everywhere, waiting to push.

And that’s the background for this tree! I’ll fill in how we reset the energy and the styling in the photos:


The tree as purchased. Been in a pot a long time. Strong exterior shoots, weak interior…the usual pine issues when left fallow for a while.


One of the intriguing parts of this tree, a burly base that looks as if it’s coiling to spring off the pot.


The inclination and front that had the most promise.


After branch and shoot removal, and trimming needles in stronger areas.


Bobby and I were working on this ponderosa while Seasonal students had their own project. Here we took a break to discuss what the heck we were doing with this pine, and why. What THEY were doing will be featured in next week’s post—the styling of a limber pine.


I need a haircut. One of my favorite T-shirts, underneath all the little blue yaks are words that run ‘yak yak yak yak yak yak…’


Bobby removing the annoying long jin.


Our final tree. Might go on an interesting piece of rock this coming spring. What I like about this tree is how the trunk meanders all over the place to end at a relatively unlikely location. Leaning tree. Pines are the great individualists of the bonsai world. One of the big decisions of the styling was leaving that low left branch, which in usual bunjin styling would be removed. That would have made a much simpler, easier to appreciate tree. But leaving it adds a lot of tension, counter-pull, and character, which is a pine feeling. It’s tempting to make our collected trees too vanilla and easy on the eyes. They lose a lot of their soul if we do.

Gary Wood Seminar

My apprentice Bobby Curttright and I were looking forward to this all month! Long time friend Gary Wood came west to share his tree wizardry with us in a seminar last weekend. I always thought his last name was a karmic promise…

Gary’s knowledge of trees, their inner workings, and how they respond to stimuli including sharp bonsai implements is nothing short of encyclopedic. And he’s an inventive, nearly prophetic thinker. For one, his own observations had him almost ten years ahead of the research on the role of auxins and sugars in determining plant growth.

A dozen lucky folks from the Northwest converged on my studio for Gary’s fact-filled, humorous day.


Gary has a deeply whimsical, treeish wisdom, as if Mark Twain and Demeter, the Greek goddess of agriculture, had had a love child. He does look a bit like Twain, doesn’t he?


Gary in the backyard on his seminar day. He enjoyed my mug collection. The cats enjoyed hiding his glasses. We all enjoyed his teaching.


Maestro Wood often led 50 ft. ‘field trips’ out into the grounds when he wanted to point out something on a tree.


It was a great fun day! We’re all still nibbling on your thought-provoking presentation. Thanks Gary-

I suppose that title needs a bit of explaining. About 4 1/2 years ago I grafted this Rocky Mountain Juniper (collected by Randy Knight) with some curious shimpaku foliage that I took a shine to. The shimpaku foliage was a bit coarser than we see normally, and I thought it would look good on a tree with a rugged, expressive character.

So that’s the backdrop for the Day of Yikes…

When a tree is grafted with an entirely different foliage type, some day, eventually, the original foliage needs to be cut off. Although with a bit of practice there’s little worry, really, it is still a bit exciting to finally (after years of waiting) yell out ‘Yikes!’ as you make that final pruning cut.

The tree did fine.

And this summer Bobby rewired it for the second time. The following is a series of photos from the last two years, from the Day of Yikes to about four minutes ago, when the last shot was taken.


Mistake number 1, which I’ve repeated I don’t know how many times: Photograph your tree before cutting off that which you’d really like to have in the first photo… Seasonal students ‘replace’ Rocky Mountain Juniper branches cut off in 2012.


…what’s left is the post-Yikes euphoria, and a tree wearing new foliage. The juniper was grafted in 2009 with two small shimpaku veneer grafts on original Rocky Mountain branches that were about 1/3″ (0.8 cm) thick.


And two years of growth later, just before Bobby started to rework the tree a few weeks ago. It was roughly wired in 2013. The jins from the original Rocky Mountain Juniper branches were cleaned of their bark. I think some more jin work might need to be done on this tree, to marry the old and new jins better. I’m still looking at it. They are a bit jarring, but then it’s a jarring tree.


Starting to look like a bonsai. The pads on the bottom still need a bit of time for development, especially the lower left where we’ve let some shoots grow long for a longer eventual pad over there. Will post some updates in the future-


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