Ezo Spruce Formal Upright Styling

One of my favorite species for bonsai is Ezo Spruce…

Although we don’t have the wonderful collected Ezo that the Japanese have, sometimes one can find cutting-grown Ezo that are often perfect for forests or formal uprights. It has a very small needle and ramifies rapidly. There are also a number of really eye-catching North American spruces that one can collect, like Engelmann, Colorado, Sitka, and Black. They are a little coarser in feeling, but all exhibit a similar ease of cultivation in a pot that Ezo has and some are legitimately stronger growers.

Spruce is one of the conifers that can backbud all the way back onto trunks, even into barked up areas. (This is called epicormic growth, for all you plant nerdies.) Certainly backbudding that deep into the tree really changes what you can do with it.

This formal upright Ezo spruce has been a Seasonal student project for a couple years now, and in the final photo you can see where the tree is now. At this stage it could be transferred to a bonsai container, so we’ll be looking at that this spring.


This was the beginning—the Ezo Spruce before we started working on it in 2014. As is, you could call it an ‘almost but not quite’ formal upright…so we decided to change that.


This photo gives an idea of the branch choices that needed to be made.


A few SeaStudents with those serious ‘wiring faces’ that can happen in the studio… There is some light movement to the trunk, and the solution to make this a true formal upright was to have an iron rebar tied to the backside, which would remain in place during the years we set the branching.


After the student’s initial styling. You will notice a lot of multiplicity and bar branching on this tree…I don’t agree with the guideline that calls for all bar branching to be cut off, as for a tree like this it often results in a very simple and thin tree. For the true long-view design, branch density is very important. Hence there are a lot more branches here than the basic guidelines would suggest. We also left some long stubs so that any sap that comes out won’t mar the bark. We’ll cut them flush in a year or so. The tree has a long way to go, no rush.


This and the next two photos are following some regrowth, and the student’s rewiring of the tree in the fall of 2016.


From this view the rebar that makes this tree very straight may be seen. Especially with a true long-view formal upright tree that would be seen at a great distance, the trunk not being authentically straight can be the thing that makes it lose scale and look like what it actually is, a small tree in a pot.


Ezo Spruce, 46″ / 117 cm  high. I know this is far beyond the 3 ft / 1 m guideline, but here in the Pacific Northwest our tape measures are stretchier… Choosing appropriate branches on formal uprights is one of the most challenging decisions of any bonsai form. I tend to think that if we slavishly follow the triangular shape for a very tall formal upright, with each branch slotted exactly in length, we often make a young looking Christmas tree. The really tall forest trees I see around in the Pacific Northwest, like the true firs and Douglas Firs that can reach 300′ / 90 m tall, well, they just don’t do that. The branch length variation adds a lot of visual interest, and is also closer to what I see in the old forests, so that is what I tried to do with this tree. The crown will broaden, so please don’t send me messages saying I’ve made a pointy tree…yes, today it is, but it won’t be in about three years. The tree’s crown will round naturally…and for a very long-view tree like this one, those old trees look almost pointy from a quarter-mile away anyway. A very small rounded crown is all that is needed.

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  1. Morten Albek says:

    Very nicely done and a good read. Look forward to a future update when the tree matures a little. It has a natural feeling that fits the nature around Northern Europe too i feel. Being from there 😉

  2. John DeMaegd says:

    I live in a zone 5 area (Indiana) so we never see Ezo spruce. I have long wished we did, the small needles and other characteristics you pointed out make me wish for one more, but I will stick to what works here. Thanks for the Info. John

  3. Thomas Urban says:

    Wonderful tree Michael. I also imagine the tall and old Doug firs at the end of forests or where Weyerhaeuser logged a large area and you have the transition to old growth. I need to go make a formal upright now!

  4. crust says:

    Exciting! Thank you for sharing your nuanced analysis. I appreciate all the small justifications and the lucidity–it gives me confidence as I approuch my trees alone.

  5. Graham says:

    Hi Michael, really like the variety of recent posts (before during and after)…please keep it up😎. When potted up will it slightly lean towards the viewer? Also with your vision of this tree will you remove or Jin any of the lower branches (indicating it growing within a mature forest) or is the tree to be seen at great distance growing alone?

    • crataegus says:

      Very slightly forward; most formal uprights do not lean as much as informal.

      And I’d envisioned the tree growing alone, so the low branches will likely be retained.

  6. Felix Laughlin says:

    Michael, wonderful piece on the Ezo, and love the result. These always remind me so fondly of the late Saburo Kato and his profound and lasting contributions to the art of bonsai. I wish more Ezos were available in the US. Best wishes for the Holidays! Felix

  7. dencurrob says:

    Well expressed. I have a Sitka that I will try to develop along these lines. Thanks, Michael.

  8. Edward Juozokas says:

    Thank you for your pearls of bonsai wisdom.
    My question: will a Birds Nest Spruce bud back readily?
    Thanks, Ed

  9. garyswiech says:

    I love it. I wish Ezo was hardy enough to grow here in Wisconsin. Black hills spruce, Picea glauca var. Densata, is much hardier and does very good here. It looks much more realistic than the Dwarf Alberta spruce which is commonly used.

  10. Tommy says:

    wondering why you didnt leave longer stubs of the cut off branches to make into jins, you feel it doesnt fit the design or so?

    • crataegus says:

      I didn’t feel jins fit into this particular tree, but that’s always an option. Also useful for guy wires, even short term. On old formal uprights of spruce, one doesn’t see a lot of jin. They don’t seem to last long in the wild.

  11. Wilson says:

    I appreciate your more natural, and honest approach to styling. If people are thinking only rounded apex are acceptable, they need to hike more. Using our vast and varied trees as inspiration for design is hopefully catching on! Nice work!

  12. This tree is amazing. This is what I have always envisioned in a formal upright!

    It could be almost any species when view from afar.

  13. Hey Michael, how does this tree look today? This is my favorite formal upright tree,

  14. Markus says:

    I love bonsai, and this is my favorite tree right here!

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