Hemlock On Rock : Revisit

This hemlock composition is from 2016. The design challenge was to imitate a tree not dangling off a cliff, as we tend to do with semi-cascade, but rather rising from a ravine slope, low on a cliff. We used a lace rock cavity which stabilized well in an upright position, suggesting the cliff wall. 

Starting with a rock and the rough-styled tree. The Hemlock was collected with Anton Nijhuis, I think in 2014. When I peeled it off the T. Rex-sized boulder and lofted it in Anton’s direction, he squinted at it and said ‘You know, I think that’s a Mountain / Western Hemlock hybrid.’ 

The rock had a hole through the center, greatly easing the attachment question.

Prepping the tree for the rock.

Pondering placement.

This was where we ended up on assembly day, March 2016. Notice the narrow crown.

In February, 2021. After five years of ramification, a sneaky borer attack, a slight change of front, and even some convincing moss and lichen, it looks a shade more like a bonsai.  The crown is now broader—we didn’t do a thing to enable that, crowns become rounder just naturally over time. It’s about right, now. In the next five years this crown will get too broad, though, and the top shoots will need shortening.

Students here at Crataegus Bonsai remember this tree as a trial-by-fire wiring exercise. Lots of shoots, little space for wires, many mild and strong expletives. It has history. Soon the roots will need need revisiting, and I wonder if some students wouldn’t want to come back as a sort of payback to a tree that inflicted hours of trauma. Let’s hope not. That’s an awful thought. In any event, hope you enjoyed this trip down memory lane and are not one of those who wired it long ago.

Here’s the original post with more photos: ‘Cliff Bonsai’ : Western Hemlock Styling

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  1. Mark says:

    Nicely packed. But…
    What’s the purpose here? To show off balance? Or the tree? Because there’s no substance to it. The trunk is slender from the roots to the top – no fat bottom, no tapering.

    • crataegus says:

      Yes, it’s an unusual purpose for sure. In my rambles I’ve been very taken with trees that we don’t tend to use as models for bonsai, that are growing from the bottom of a cliff or ravine, not the top. Most of these trees have much less taper than we’re familiar with for bonsai, and as such are ‘long view’ designs, ie., very little taper, or shallow taper. Much like bunjin, in fact. I write at length about the Japanese appreciation for skinny trunked trees with little taper in Bonsai Heresy, if you wish to know more.

  2. Jonas says:

    Jaw dropping, and so, so inspiring!

  3. KILLER example of good old North American Bonsai, ingenuity and gumption !!!

  4. Don Barker says:


    I do remember a few curses while wiring this tree but I was pretty sure I said them with my inside voice…

    It was a great honor to work on this tree last November. This is one of the bonsai from your collection that I have in my rotating backdrop photos on my laptop and I enjoy the memory of the wiring lesson every time it pops up.

  5. Ray says:

    Love this configuration , really imparts the nature of trees clinging to the rock faces above the ocean

  6. Michael, are there special considerations to the watering approach for such a unique configuration?

    • crataegus says:

      Yes, when we put it together we used muck to hold in the sides but no muck on top of the soil mass (which is sort of tucked under the eaves of the rock). The reason is the muck is fairly dense, and while water does penetrate, the soil mass is so small that you want at least somewhere where it goes in easily. So, we shoot the water in from the right, on top of the soil mass where it can go deep in. We don’t count on rain to soak this one.

  7. john says:

    For a composition showing a tree clinging to life on the side of a windy mountain the foliage looks too youthful….apex is too pointy. I don’t see any windswept jin/dead branches that have succumbed to the elements.

    • crataegus says:

      Sure, good question—so my intention was not to create an image from the top of a windy mountain, where conditions are as you describe, but from the bottom of a ravine, where conditions are more stable. From trees I see growing in those locations, they tend not to be the oldest trees, but medium age trees, which don’t have broad canopies. Many don’t have shari or jin. I wrote more about this in the first post, the link is at the bottom of this one.

  8. chubby says:


  9. literati says:

    Michael, thank you for allowing us to regularly watch your work on new bonsai. Very inspirational indeed. It motivates me to use some of the rocks in my collection for doing, or rather trying to do something similar.

  10. Doug B. says:

    I love this. What I enjoy about bonsai aesthetics is the tension you get from a balanced but asymmetrical design, and the movement and interplay between the pot, trunk and canopy. Although this trunk may be lacking in taper, an aspect that often creates a great sense of movement and stability, I think the overall design here really makes up for that. The tension comes from the way the tree is precariously clinging to the side of the rock. Love it.

    • crataegus says:

      It’s an interesting point. I love bonsai with taper like everyone, but it’s fun to throw up the thought bubble, what can bonsai that don’t have taper do well, nonetheless?

  11. Antonio Rodriguez says:

    Thanks for sharing progression pics. I believe they are most helpful. In my opinion making trees with material that have marked imperfections,like this one,is entirely more challenging and thus more rewarding. I am stimulated by your creativity.

    • crataegus says:

      Thanks Antonio for the comment, I’m glad you like progressions (I do too of other artist’s works) and will try to keep them coming-

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