Pot Choice Exercise: Highbush Blueberry
Growing up in Upstate NY there were a lot of lovely highbush blueberries growing wild in the woods, and I’d always wanted to try one as a bonsai. Took a move to the West Coast—where they only exist in nurseries—to finally get around to it.
Highbush blueberries, Vaccinium corymbosum, have great erratic, natural branch lines if grown slowly. This one had evidently been poking along at a mollusk pace for quite some time and that’s the reason the branches are not straight as an arrow. They are often precisely this straight in lushly growing cultivated rows, where chortling, happy multitudes of blueberry pancake fans congregate (and many just inveterate gobblers).
Visions of nicely tart fruit aside, a couple years back we dug through the available pots and had a pot choice exercise with this specimen in a Seasonal winter session. And we took photos.
One might wonder why I’m posting this in the summertime, and I have no adequate defense except that I found this draft lurking about unposted, and summer is actually about the time of year I begin to ponder pot choices for next spring. So there we are. A blueberry and some pots.
This is what we started with, a highbush blueberry of forgotten variety in a one gallon pot, about 12″ / 30 cm tall
We liked the cracked pot front best
The available containers lined up, with the blueberry tipped at a jaunty angle
The blueberry out of the nursery pot and into our first option
And fourth and final option
Following a feisty round of squabbling in the Seasonal class, the first option won out. This photo is a couple years after potting.
The simple, round pot is an easy counterpoint to the organic nature of the branching. The next two are good options, though we decided to not restate the organic line quality of the trunks with an organic pot. And the fourth is another possible option, but the pot is too large. There were no glazed/colored pots that were of the right size so that limited things for the first potting. The branching was selectively pruned to rein in the vigor of the plant and to leave only those with nice erratic movement.
As any pot choice champions one part of the tree and minimizes others, there’s often a lot of acceptable pot options and many can be argued for to enhance a particular plant element that you like. Think of pot choice as less right and wrong and more along the lines of what feeling you wish to support in the plant.
A bonsai like this is useful in a So display, which is on the playful end of the spectrum along with large kusamono and bunjin. This might be shown with an animal or bird that—like the relatively short blueberry (compared to a tree at any rate, at about 5′ max)—is also found close to the ground. Consider a miniature bronze of a toad, or an image of a Northern Towhee (employ your local artist), a bird which shares the same range as the blueberry and scratches around in the leaf litter. Or something else along those lines.
BLUEBERRY !!! Excellant – I have a nice one myself… in a seriously cracked Dale Cochoy (RiP) vessel… and tasty fruit to boot !!! I have it on IG and will tag you to you show it 😉 Kevin
Thanks for this great blog post and reminder about the pot selection process. I’m sorry I haven’t been in touch since I returned from my seasonal, so please accept my sincere “thank you” for a second wonderful bonsai experience. Great company, unsurpassed information and education, and lots of good laughs (as your website promises).
Sending good wishes to you,
Like the plant, like the pot. Don’t like the big clump of moss.
I totally get it. And before I studied display with Suzuki I would likely have written the same comment. A So tree has few of the typical bonsai assumptions—none of the nebari needs for instance—closer in fact to a large kusamono that one displays by itself. Here moss is often a big element, making up a large part of the composition. These displays actually assume relaxing the guidelines we are familiar with, and which we see and expect from Shin (strong, dynamic, conifer) and Gyo (grounded, stable, deciduous). So, on the other hand, is playful and childlike. They are where we can let nature run rampant a bit and just influence maybe 20% of what is going on. Honestly it took me a long time to appreciate and be able to create these alternative bonsai.
Hi There, firstly for me I don’t think any of the pots suits.I would have loved to see it as a penjing setting on a forest pot on a slight hill with or without rocks.
Curious, I have always felt that the lower trunk and especially a good nebari where a large part of the bonsai presentation, expressing strength and stability. When I see this area covered (massively in this case) , it makes me feel the composition is lacking.
Thanks for the comment-And you are correct…for a Shin or Gyo bonsai, which most of our bonsai guidelines are based on. This is a So tree, though, where many of these guidelines are relaxed. My teacher Mr. Shinji Suzuki would have displayed this tree as is, in a So tokonoma display.
See also my response to Mac—
I am a #3 fan. If I was in the study group I’d of held out for the win. I like its asymmetry of its and would have chosen the final same front as the final and perhaps tilted to the left a little more than the final choice.
Beautifully explained and shown Michael. Please send pics of the plant as it stands today….if possible with fruits. It looks lovely.
Is there some rule regarding the ratio between height of the tree to a small pot like this?
Hi your post was late, I saw a nice blueberry plant two weeks ago, and didn’t get it and now they are all gone! but your bonsai is really nice. I’ll keep my eye open for another. Thank you for your post and information. Frank.
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That pot and #3 were my favorites. I like the tree. Reminds me of a scrub oak clump (on a dead stump) I have
I am a part owner of a small blueberry farm. I have to prune at least 1000 of V corymbosa every year to stay caught up with a 3 to 5 year pruning cycle. Blueberries are quirky in the way they grow. The root system is very long lived, 100 year old root systems are still commercially productive. A shoot will come from the roots, each year adding height, and some branching. The first flowering tends to be the 3rd or 4th year for the branch. (visually as bonsai, it serves as a trunk) After about 10 years of age, a branch will begin to reduce the numbers of flowers and fruit it produces. At about 25 years of age there is very little flowering and fruit production. Pruning for fruit tends to maximize wood between 4 years and 10 years of age. Pruning for bonsai one would want to encourage older branches, and retain levels of ramification.
The individual branches tend to fade away after about 20 years. The blueberry will abandon highly ramified branches in favor of young, unbranched shoots. The shoots can come from the roots or higher up off an older branch. To keep a nicely ramified branch, do not permit a young shoot to develop between the roots and the ramified portion of a branch. Remove these young shoots yearly, in late summer or autumn. The risk of leaving these young shoots over the winter is the older branches may not leaf out in spring, in favor of the young, unbranched shoot. If you remove young unbranched shoots you can keep old branches well beyond 25 years of age. I have never seen a branch older than 40 years, even though one of our fields was planted 60 to 80 years ago.
I’ve noticed blueberries tend to resist more than 5 levels of ramification in a branch. Buds will revert to young, unbranching, sucker type growth at some point closer to the roots than the more highly ramified branches. For this reason you will never have the fine twigging that can be achieved in Ulmus, Celtis or Carpinus. But, for So displays, or as Sanyasou type Kusamono your greatest density of flowers and fruit is on a branch with maybe 3 to 5 levels of ramification. Plan to periodically replace old branches with a younger branch. If you do so, the planting can last for generations, as it is the root system that has the long life span.
Vaccinium, and blueberries in particular are calcifuges, they are adapted to calcium poor soils, think moss and decomposing wood, sandy soils, and peat bogs. In areas with low calcium water, they are easy to grow. Where irrigation water contains significant levels of calcium (over 200 mg/liter as calcium carbonate) one has to use a potting media with high CEC. Kanuma will work. In areas of hard water, (over 450 mg/liter calcium) one will have to use a peat & bark based blend, possibly amended with yearly doses of elemental sulfur. Kanuma alone will not be able to compensate for hard water. Consult your local Ag Extension Service for your local water and soil types.
I am delighted to see this article on blueberries as bonsai or kusamono. Thank you for posting, and I apologise for not noticing this post sooner. I hope this horticulture tip helps.
Yours, Leo Schordje
This is incredible to read. A few months ago I came across two 15+ year old blueberries that had been removed from a blueberry farm here in BC. I grabbed em as I’ve always driven through acres and acres of blueberry fields looking and thinking to myself these would make incredible bonsai. However, I was immediately discouraged as the farmer gave me info that went against my usual knowledge of how to grow/produce bonsai. I spent hours searching the web for articles or discussions on using blueberry for bonsai but the info was always vague or copy and pasted from a farming or horticultural website. Good info, but not what I needed pertaining to cultivating bonsai. I eventually accepted the fact that I’m going to have to wing it. Now, stumbling onto this comment, a month or so after giving up on finding the information I needed, I feel like the stars aligned and the universe sent me a freebie. I can’t thank you enough for taking the time to write that and share you’re knowledge with us. Amazing info and at the most serendipitous time for me specifically!
Happy to hear this. The blueberries are fun for sure.