The Patient Magic of Michael Roberts: Part I

Michael Roberts is one of my bonsai heroes. He’s worked quietly in Southern California for decades, creating bonsai that you can’t make any other way other than to throw years at them.

This post and the next one share several of his long-term adventures with Cork Bark Elm and Cork Oak. I’m thrilled that he agreed to share the photo histories of these magnificent bonsai.


The young Cork Bark Elm that Michael Roberts started with.

Michael writes: “Originally purchased in 1996 from Kimura Bonsai Nursery [California], this tree was box grown from 2000–2006.”

big cork bark elm 2009

The same Cork Bark Elm in 2009.

big cork bark elm 2012 fix

2012. A sweet bonsai already, but Michael isn’t done yet…

big cork elm 2016

2016, displaying a fair bit of dignity.

6. Big Cork Elm - Winter Silouettes 2022

And in 2022. Now 35” tall. 20 years from that young tree. A tree at this level could hold its head up in any show around the world.

Big Cork Oak 2003 box

Here’s another Michael Roberts tree progression, this time a Cork Oak. This is where your cork floors and wine corks come from. Not this tree specifically, but maybe a distant acorn cousin in Italy. This photo is from 2003.

Michael writes: “This tree was found in the spring of 1998, growing off the freeway on a frontage road. The tree looked as though it had been run over by some pumping equipment. It had a main leader 10 feet high and I estimated it at 8 or 10 years old. It was planted in a box from the start.”

Big cork oak 2006 slab

2006, on a slab. About 25” tall.

Big Oak 2011 mid sum

2011, now 36” tall. Here Michael made a major decision—a front reversal. Much better base and rootage from this view. And the bark is coming along well. Not sure if Michael needed a new floor, but he’s got options now.

Big Oak 2013 mid sum

2013, canopy filling in.

Big Oak 2015 Artisans Cup

2015, at the Artisan’s Cup.

Big Oak 2020 CBS

This bonsai got around—here in the California Bonsai Society’s 2020 show.

Big Oak 2022 sm

And 2022. 41” tall, with a 12” trunk diameter. All this in less than 20 years, from a young collected plant.

Next week, two more of Michael’s trees ~

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  1. stephen fluett says:

    No Fear lowering the stems and making a nice composition with balance. I see the cork bark maturing and the large curve in the Elm looking to have subtle curve. Suppose if you know a tree species and are seeing the subtle bend , you know its history

  2. Ray says:

    Wow , he has done incredible work. The ramification took patience . Beautiful

  3. flaughlin says:

    Michael, great photos–I hope you will share his secret way of pruning to achieve that density!

    All the best. Felix

    Sent from my iPhone


  4. wayneschoech951910737 says:

    Thanks Michael, it’s wonderful how a series of photos enhanced with a few well chosen words can tell stories of skill, patience and genuine caring. So many things can go wrong in the evolution of a tree but in the right hands so much can go right!

  5. Jeffrey A Robson says:

    Hats off to Michael Roberts. Beautiful bonsai. Excellent examples of what can be achieved with time and patience and religiously applying the proper techniques at the proper time, season after season.

  6. mcole says:

    Would you risk the slab planting in the Sacramento Foothills?

    [Big cork oak 2006 slab]

    Michael Cole
    P 916. 635-0565 x11
    F 916. 635-1136
    CELL 916. 261-7254
    Paper & Digital Document Solutions

    • crataegus says:

      The rock slab would be a challenge in the Central Valley. You might manage it with a lot of attention to ambient heat, such as shade cloth.

  7. hansvanmeer says:

    That cork bark elm is absolutely breathtaking! Simply because it is such a stunning example of a Bonsai that shows the patience, knowledge and visionary Bonsai talent of its creator! Both are amazing…BRAVO!❤ Cheers,
    Hans van Meer.

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