Deciduous Early Development Part IV: Studying Old Styrax

When talking about early development, eventually we need to look at later development, just to see where we’re going.

Many of the old deciduous bonsai in Japan were grown in containers. They weren’t collected, and many weren’t grown in the ground.

In general we tend to have less focus in the West on pot-grown bonsai. By pot-grown, I also mean growing in a flat or other nursery container for a while. And by this method there is much greater control over results—but of course, it is also slower. Reason enough to dismiss it.

Not being a top rank species, old styrax bonsai are scarce even in Japan. And, naturally, there are still fewer in the West.

The following two older styrax are great examples of what we hope to achieve by working on younger plants at a moderate, thoughtful pace—by not nibbling them to death on the one hand, not growing too fast on the other, and at best moving along at a middle pace and by leaving things that we don’t ultimately want (as is covered as nauseam in earlier posts in the Deciduous Early Development series).

A natural, flowing styrax from Japan with gorgeous multiple trunks and branching. This is a pot-grown tree.

Single trunk styrax also from Japan, with many points to learn from.

With both of these trees, how would you get there? Several points to think about are:

  • Take branch development as seriously as trunks; we tend to finish our applause when we get a nice trunk line. There’s much more to do.
  • In the top photo, with a naturally styled tree, notice that there’s little distinction between a trunk and a branch. The flow from a trunk into a branch is invisible.
  • In the second photo, look at the branch halfway up that comes right at the viewer. In that upper trunk area of bonsai throw out the idea of ‘eye poker’ branches, as without them we get a naked frontal view.
  • Both trees were created slowly, not from big sacrifices later removed.
  • Both trees have branches that look as old as the tree is, not spindly twigs on thick trunks.

From these observations we can deduce several lessons in growing toward this quality goal:

  • Start young
  • Leave options open
  • Grow the tree, leave more than you need
  • Not too fast
  • Work on them 2 to 3 times a year—wiring and/or pruning—let them grow in between
  • Know where you’re going
  • Study great trees carefully
  • Don’t over-focus on trunks
  • Branches must look as old as the trunks, so start them early

About half the trees in the Crataegus Bonsai garden are conifers. But we do some serious deciduous study as well. It’s fun, and although much of the work is easy, implementing it correctly and seeing the goal line isn’t easy at all.

The above thoughts are some of the lessons we implement hands-on in our three-day classes; if you’re interested in learning more, please take a look at the Seasonals.

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  1. mark comstock says:

    When are you doing your amtrack tour? I’m in old saybrook(old Lyme) Connecticut 10 miles from Kirby, we could put together a huge group for you just 2 miles from the train station. Let me know, I would be honored to host

  2. Tom Kruegl says:

    Very enlightening! Your comment about eye- poking branches really opened my eyes!

  3. Brian says:

    Many great point here Michael, thank you.

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