Deciduous Early Development Part V: Styrax

This Styrax is still a pre-bonsai. A tree ‘on the way to find out’. Nibbling away at it as one might on a mature bonsai will keep pre-bonsai development to a standstill.

For pre-bonsai, particularly a larger tree, our goal is to create the tree’s structure—the primary gestures and proportions—in a big flat or nursery pot in a handful of years that might take decades in a bonsai container.

The next few years with this Styrax will be focussed on proportional structure, Part 1. Refinement in a bonsai container is Part II. We’re after a really chunky tree here, so it’s still going to take a while, and I would expect another 7-8 years of Part I in the nursery pot. 

Part I structural goals would include:

  • Trunk girth almost the size we ultimately want
  • Trunk taper mostly completed
  • Branching that is age-convincing (see Studying Old Styrax), in taper and girth
  • Root base (nebari) without major holes in it
  • Front roughly identified

This specimen debuted in the Deciduous Early Development series in 2019, almost exactly a year ago.

This photo from 2020 shows an alternate front, and the development of one year. Not a huge change, but some. We’re going for a big, fat-trunked tree here. Grown naturally in the ground, the Styrax is a small- to medium-sized tree that tends to the slender side. In a pot, it’s surprising how chunky it easily gets, resembling the meaty proportions of Chinese Quince. That is the goal we hope to achieve with this one, but it will likely take another 7-8 years.

A few thoughts played around with here: Tip the tree slightly forward (it was leaning back from this view); investigate how the nebari is developing (may need a root graft here and there, or, for the time being, sphagnum in the holes which may initiate roots); leave stubs where the red pipe cleaner is, and let the green pipe cleaner shoot grow to be the new leader.

The top branches were pruned back, the bottom ones left on. We’ll get chunkier secondary trunks and lower branches this way, which will speed along the girth of the lower trunk and nebari areas, and create better taper all along the trunk. Pruning back the low branches hard next June or even in the fall will create branch taper, which will give the illusion of age. 

For faster development, try ground growing. Many nice bonsai are created this way. The only caveat there is that while development is faster, so are the development of problems. Keep on top of them. For my own situation, and for a tad more control, I prefer growing on in flats and nursery pots. You can also rotate trees from the ground to flats and vice versa.

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  1. Mark says:

    The lowest branches are ideal sacrifice branches. They should be pruned off when they’ll have done their job.

    • crataegus says:

      Yes, although I would distinguish a sacrifice branch as one that I’d prune off completely, and what I intend to do here, which is to prune them back the lowest branches and smaller trunks rising from the base to smaller shoots, and retain the multiple trunk style that is developing.

  2. Jay says:

    What is “in flats and nursery pot” means? Thanks.

    • crataegus says:

      Sure— by that I mean thin plastic containers, such as the one in the photos. These are often seen as growing containers at nurseries. They are often deep, or they can be low and flat, and we call those second types ‘flats’. They hold a lot of soil media and you can push a tree rapidly in them.

  3. Michael Corbin says:

    When you grow out in nursery pots are they cut down to be shallow or full depth? I believe you said on the podcast you use an organic media for growing out.


    • crataegus says:

      Hi Mike, I mean full depth. I like to put a ‘false bottom’ underneath the base of the tree, only an inch or so down, which is usually a Geodisk or a square of weed barrier, but you could use a piece of plywood or a tile. This greatly improves the nebari flare while still giving the benefits of a deep pot for strong growth. Yes, I do use an organic media for any pre-bonsai. This can be many things, but in my area it’s cheap to use 20% bark/steer and 80% pumice. This holds a lot of water and fertilizer and pushes the trees well.

      • Sam says:

        Hi Michael,

        Thanks for the informative post! Have you compared akadama versus bark as the fertilizer-holding component of the soil mix for young deciduous trees in development? Also, do you find the 80-20 organic-pumice ratio more effective than a 50-50?

      • crataegus says:

        I believe there are studies out there comparing the nutrient holding capacities of various media, akadama and bark and others. The chemical attraction of various particles differs in terms of attracting and holding onto fertilizer. Also water holding. We haven’t done any studies in my backyard, but here I think we can trust the nurseries that use organic media to push growth hard, and the comparisons of various particles do seem to support what nurseries use for young plant growth. We use 80% pumice / 20% organic media for everything young. For some media data try the booklet written by Brian Keith Heltsley, of Cornell University, The Why What How of Bonsai Soil.

      • Michael Corbin says:

        Thanks I have some Chinese Quince, Japanese Maples, and crab apples. I am developing and between this post and the podcast I feel I have a good plan for the spring.

      • crataegus says:

        I am glad to hear this!

      • Samuel Tan says:

        Thanks Michael, very helpful!

      • literatib says:

        I cut deep nursery pot in about 60% – 40% proportion to reduce its depth and therefore weight of the soil. I also insert one part into another to double the wall and therefore provide extra insulation for the summer heat. The whole assembly feels strong and sturdy. Perhaps you can comment on my method.

      • literati says:

        sorry about double post…

      • Matt says:

        Michael: You’ve got 80% organic / 20% inorganic here and the opposite ratio a few posts down (on Dec 19 2020 1:49 pm)?

      • crataegus says:

        Many thanks Matt! typo–I corrected it. We use 80% pumice / 20% bark/steer for young plants in development.

  4. Stephen Liesen says:

    Remarkable are the changes in such a short time. At times I felt I had over-fussed and cut-back my Prebonsai too much. Training with Michael is teaching me to fuss and cut-back advantageously so as not to deter growth of trunk girth but rather increase it as much as possible yet still maintain a “rough” control.
    From my experience of growing bonsai in the ground, they still require selective pruning during the growing season one time. I find untouched, wild growth gains the quickest girth but lack of taper. In a short time these trees become very difficult to bring back to bonsai form.

    • crataegus says:

      Hello Steve—I should note for everyone that Steve created the early structure of this tree, wiring the young sapling and then making several leader changes and the early branch creation. It only came into my yard about 4 years ago.
      Definitely wise to limit the amount of time in the ground, or the disadvantage that Steve notes will ruin any progress.

  5. Ignacio De La Torre says:


    Hello. A great deciduous series. Forgive a question that takes us back to the first in the series. I’ve seen three general approaches to growing and removing branches on deciduous material — the first is to not remove any branches in late fall and allow them to grow through the spring so that energy is spread across the entire tree, leading to short internodes; the second is tour approach to remove some and leave some; the third is to remove and prune all branches, forcing back-budding and a profusion of new growth. I have to assume you believe the second approach is the most effective. What are your thoughts on the two other approaches if you don’t mind sharing? Thank you.

    • crataegus says:

      Hi Ignacio, yes there are several ways to go. I think they all have utility at different times in the bonsai-creation process. But my preference, yes, is to be selective, as that builds branches differentially. If we do the same thing to our tree in a homogenous, democratic way, then the imbalances in branch thickness will be there the next year. We are better off, I think, by thinking about where to apply these techniques, especially in the early development phase but later on, too. Just as a general idea. An old developed tree, for example, is likely to have imbalances that may be managed with selective technique—whereas if ignored, a weak area will just get weaker. But there is truth I think to all of these methods. They are not wrong independent of application.

      • Ignacio De La Torre says:


        Thank you for your reply. I appreciate that any one of the techniques might be used at different times of development. I look forward to additional posts. Keep up the great work.

  6. I’ve seen many images of Styrax…mainly from old issues of Bonsai Today , your tree is already showing it’s massive longterm potential! Even now, the tree exudes strength and life!

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