The Three Foliage Sizes of Collected Trees

That title needs explaining.

When we collect a tree from the wild, the needles or leaves that come out that first year might be tiny. We begin to tap a beer keg in celebration of having unwittingly collected the only half-sized foliage plant on the mountain, clearly a dwarf of some sort, maybe making us millions in a future patent. The next spring we’re crushed with foliage that is larger than the species normally is, and we’re back at the beer keg for some external support. The third spring the thing settles down into normal sized foliage and we finish our keg thinking that our ship will never come in.

Fortunately, you’re not alone. Everyone else is getting drunk on the same experience. Why is it that foliage size varies so dramatically in the years after collecting, and how did we get so foxed by a plant?

The reason involves the ‘root to shoot ratio’. This is a fun term to impress your bonsai friends with, and it refers to the balance between roots and shoots. If you have many more shoots than roots—often the case when you dig up an old tree—your root to shoot ratio is out of whack. 

In that first year, the tree is nursing its wounds, cautiously putting out tentative, small foliage. It’s regrowing its root system, and being smart about not overreaching with shoots and leaves.

The second year it feels great from nonstop root growth, and expresses this overcompensation with huge leaves or needles. Now there’s more roots than shoots.

In the third year the root to shoot balance has finally been restored and we get a normal sized leaf or needle. On a pine you can often see this progression on one branchlet, different sized needles through several years.


An example of ‘root to shoot ratio’ influence on leaf size: Left to right, a Vine Maple leaf in the first season of growth after tree collection (few roots), one from the second year (overabundance of roots, and few shoots), and the last has been a bonsai for years (balanced roots and shoots), settling into small size leaf. Incidentally this last leaf on the right is from the Vine Maple ‘Tower’, which is a delicate, cascading tree planted on an internal nylon frame. We’ll do an update on that tree in a post later this fall.

September 2021 Bulletin Board:

  • To learn more about the root to shoot ratio and how bonsai tradition has been right all along, take a look at Chapter 6 of Bonsai Heresy: 56 Myths Exposed Using Science and Tradition. Stone Lantern is running a sale on my offbeat, educational book ending Sunday, September 26, 2021.
  • Still space in the popular Seasonal-lite online course, Fall edition, Oct. 2-3. The Fall Seasonal-lite covers design and fall techniques among many other topics, over two weekend mornings, including a 30 minute private with me. Earlier this year there were participants from Belgium, Spain, and Australia. Learn more about the course here.

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  1. maciek416 says:

    I was looking at one of my nursery-sourced lodgepole yamadori earlier this week and noticed a similar trend in internode characteristics alone. You can kinda see which growth can be attributed to the tree’s final year before collection (pretty vigorous), first year of recovery in nursery (oof! big slowdown!), first year in my garden (a little bit better), second year in my garden (vigor returned, osmocote ingested).

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