A ‘Cliff Bonsai’—Western Hemlock Styling

We often think of cliff or rock faces being the place where cascade bonsai get their inspiration. And they do. But there’s another commonly seen growth habit in those steep, rocky areas…

I collected this Hemlock, likely a Mountain / Western hybrid according to Anton Nijhuis, on Vancouver Island several years ago, where, coincidentally, it was growing off a boulder. The leaves were tiny and yellow from the water and nutrition stresses of boulder life. In less than a year it had rebounded and was growing green and vigorous.

The lace rock used in this experiment was purchased without an intention in mind, driven only by the impulse of ‘What a cool looking rock, maybe I’ll use that someday…’ It had several possible inclinations, one of which proved useful for this composition. And so last Thursday turned out to be ‘someday.’

Enjoy the photo essay!


This is what we started with…a chunk of lace rock and a Western Hemlock.


For the attachment to the rock we didn’t need to drill a hole, or glue or cement wires on…the lace rock had a very convenient hole in the back of it, from the gas bubbles in the rock when it was made, before it cooled.


Dismantling the box of the Hemlock. It had such a strange root ball and the trunk was growing in such a curious way that we needed to get inventive with the box building…


Preparing and reducing the roots to fit into the rock cavity with Andrew Robson, who will be starting an apprenticeship here in June.


Apprentice Bobby Curttright and I continuing to size the root ball to the rock cavity.


Our approximation of the relationship between rock and tree. Many of the trees growing off cliffs do not cascade down, but grow up, as suggested by this orientation.


View of the inside of the cavity. We had to drill a few holes in the bottom for drainage. A layer of larger size pumice is underneath this soil mix.


Working soil in between the rock and the rootball.


Our ‘pocket bonsai’… One thing we’ll be keeping an eye on is soil pH, as lace rock might be a bit alkaline. The Hemlock won’t like that much, but we do use a slightly acidified water here in general, and that might be enough to keep it happy. If not we’ll have to get inventive and use a more acidic water source.


The first watering done with very soft rains of the nozzle, the planting being prone to erosion before the establishment of moss.


The first of a four-photo rotation around the rock planting, ending with our preferred front.




This is our front, tree height 24″ / 61 cm. There are a lot of lava flows in the Cascade Range here where the Western Hemlock lives, and lace rock is an igneous/volcanic rock, so there is some alignment there. The curious thing I’ve noticed about trees growing in this upright manner, off a cliff or other steep incline, is that they are not always the oldest trees in the area. The oldest trees are often on top of the rocky breaks, often just a few hundred feet higher up, where things are not crashing down on top of them, or slope erosion doesn’t take the tree down with it. So the styling of this tree, with a fairly small crown and many branches suggesting a mature tree but not ancient, makes some sense to me. Hope you enjoyed our experiment!



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  1. Graham Leonard says:

    A beautiful composition! I love your blog posts – real artistry inspiration.

  2. Don Erickson says:

    Great tree find, even nicer presentation. Love your work!

  3. George Haas says:

    Really beautiful post, wonderful work!

  4. Ray Norris says:

    This is a very cool representation of nature. I love the job you and the crew did Michael. also a big welcome to Andrew.

  5. bonsai eejit says:

    Reblogged this on Bonsai Eejit.

  6. RAY NORRIS says:

    Awesome post Michael i have shared with bonsai club of what is possible with their trees.
    Thank you

    Sent from my iPhone

  7. Miguel Sanchez says:

    Beautiful work! Truly amazing. Where could i find a rock like that?

  8. This is truly wonderful!!!!!! 🙂

  9. somchee says:

    I love the tree but the stone looks like an Easter Egg to me….not a venerable mountain. You are the master, not me and I greatly value your talent. To me it seems to needs a wider base. Tell me why I’m wrong please.

    • crataegus says:

      We were jokingly referring to this as the ‘egg’, so no, you’re not wrong at all. I enjoyed the ‘seed’ reference, but that’s a bit of a stretch. As for the wider base, I tend to think of cliff dwelling trees as precarious. So the narrow base was something I liked about the rock. Thanks, great comment-

  10. Oscar Fernandez says:

    Congratulations, is a nice and inspirational work. Muchas gracias.

  11. Bruce Winter says:

    Wonderful movement on the hemlock. Another outrageously original creation! Plenty of acidic water here thanks to the volcano but shipping might be a problem.

  12. carterbeall says:

    That’s awesome! But a question I have is do you use any “muck” on the rootball to hold it in place? Often I have seen people use a mixture of equal parts heavy peat soil, potter’s clay, and sphagnum moss, but I can’t imagine you apply this to the top of the soil judging from your other posts on dangers of hydrophobicity. You mentioned something about being careful of eroding the soil until the moss takes hold, so do you just apply it directly to the soil? It seems due to the gravel like nature of bonsai soil that it would just fall out taking the moss with it on a vertical slope unless otherwise secured.

    • crataegus says:

      Yes, some version of muck is almost essential to anything like this. The Japanese use a sticky organic mud from rice fields/bogs/river bottoms (I’ve heard all of these), called keto, that they mix with various proportions of peat moss and bonsai aggregate soil (akadama/pumice/lava). For years that’s been the standard. I’ve been experimenting with corn starch, shredded sphagnum moss (orchid moss, not peat), and bonsai soil. We’re mixing the corn starch with some water, heating it, and then mixing that resulting jelly with the other ingredients. It seems to work very well, and I much prefer the penetrability of it to Keto muck.

    • crataegus says:

      But to fully answer your question…I don’t like to put muck on the top areas, there’s no need for it, I just put sphagnum up there over the soil, to prevent erosion to some degree and to promote the growth of live moss. So muck only goes on the sides and bottom of a ‘pocket’.

  13. Sage Smith says:

    That’s what I’m talking about!!!!!!!! What a finished product. Bravo guys🙃

  14. anijhuis says:

    When I was visiting you I mentioned that it was Mt and Western Hemlock cross and I just researched that they have been given hybrid status so……….. your tree is actually a ‘Tsuga x jeffery’

    • crataegus says:

      Thanks Anton! I was simplifying because the growth habit seems closer to a Western, but it’s good to know the hybrids are ‘legal’…

  15. Robert West says:

    Love it. Opens my mind up to so many ideas. Thanks for sharing

  16. Paul Krasner says:

    Great composition, Mike. Can a tree like this be purchased somewhere or is collecting the only way? I’d love to try a hemlock.

    • crataegus says:

      Anton Nijhuis is the primary collector of Mountain Hemlock, which is more commonly collected than Western. I think he’ll be at the PNBCA convention this year.

  17. Melvin Zamis says:

    Love it Michael

  18. Lance says:

    Why are you watering now that you have 2 apprentices?… 😀 Beautiful work…looks like you collected/chiseled the rock out of the boulder tree and all!!!!

  19. Graham says:

    Very creative once again Michael….Bobby without stripes…🤔Hhhmmmm

  20. Rick Trumm says:

    Interesting. what I would have done is to have cut the stone flat at the base so it looks like the cliff is not floating in the air. (Avitar)

  21. Dave says:

    Excellent composition. Walking and driving around, I’ve seen many trees growing out of banks with nebari clinging to the soil, but I have never seen this rendered in bonsai till now. I would love to do a river bank composition sometime.
    I not only commend your composition here, but commend your perception of nature as well.

  22. William Lee Kohler says:

    Very creative and unique solution for a great and unique tree.

  23. David Hamm says:

    Wonderful. I love the originality but even more the sense of place i.e. northwest US. I’d like to think that new styles and compositions *should* come from different places on the planet.

  24. Conner says:

    This is amazing! An opportunity to “rescue” a tree and cultivate it’s stresses and hardships into an encapsulation of hardened, weather/carved-beauty.

  25. Skipp Serrano says:

    Nice work, Guys. Thanks for dispelling the myth that trees growing on the sides of rocks always cascade down or out. In eastern Canada I sometimes saw black spruce growing up from cracks in the rock and roots trailing down towards the ground.
    Unfortunately that was before I came to appreciate the art of bonsai.
    Big admirer of your work. Love your posts.

  26. Araxi says:

    Very inspiring as I happen to own a feather rock and wanted to do something similar. I like the way you flipped the lace rock sideways. It looks natural as if the tree has been in the rock in ages, Thank you for reposting it.

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