Formal Upright Inspiration

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Living in the great, and I do mean great, Pacific Northwest, it is easy to take for granted the inspiration that is all around us with grand Douglas Firs, muscular Red Cedar, a myriad of true firs and beloved spruces and hemlocks. Those trees are the model for the most difficult and under-utilized style in bonsai, the formal upright. In my thirty some years of bonsai, I have never tried to grow one. Maybe I was too intimidated, or maybe no material really presented itself. I now think that you have to go looking for it. That part aside, I was recently quite surprised by some other awesome examples of formal uprights. My wife Lisa and I have been very blessed to be able to visit several national parks in the past few years and I have been able to report to you what we saw, especially as it relates to our favorite subject, bonsai. If you have made it this far you have probably guessed that we just made it back from another trip, this one to Yosemite, which is almost three quarters of the way to Los Angeles, tucked away in the Sierra Nevada. We tried to avoid the crowds by hitting it after Memorial Day, but before all the school’s let out for the summer. Not sure we were all that successful on that count, but it sure was worth the very, very long drive. We arrived at the park on Monday morning and saw all the famous sites in the valley, like the jaw dropping El Capitan, and iconic Half Dome, as well as Yosemite Falls. They have somewhere between 150-175% of normal snow pack this year. That meant that all of the waterfalls were in full force, thundering away. It also meant that my dream of traversing Tioga Pass over the Sierras would have to wait for another trip, as well as Mount Lassen, and Crater Lake, too. However, on Tuesday we were able to take the road to Glacier Point, which at 7,200 feet overlooks all of the valley, which is a frightening 3,000 feet straight down below you. The road had been closed by snow just the week before. By Wednesday of our trip, the crowds were amassing and after watching two shuttle buses pass us by fully loaded, we headed south out of the valley down to the Mariposa Grove of the Giant Sequoia.

The grove is accessed near the community of Wawona at the southern entrance to the park and we were fortunate to stay at the 140-year-old Big Trees Hotel. It was a great experience, but in 1879 they had no running water in rooms, or air-conditioning, so be forewarned. It was 90 degrees that day, of course. But the real treat was the Mariposa Grove. It has been closed for two and a half years after a fire to rebuild and reorganize the experience. There is now a nice big parking lot with a shuttle bus to take you up the winding road to the hiking trails. Very nice facilities. And we definitely left the crowds behind. As we hiked on our trial (oops, is there such a thing as a Freudian typo?) trail, folks started to drop off rapidly after half a mile and we were left virtually alone. I was in this same grove about thirty years ago, back in my college days. But of course, I was not yet doing bonsai (soon, though) and I didn’t remember a thing. By far the biggest surprise was not the size of the Sequoias, nor their age, etc… It was the fact that they were growing in a very mixed, open forest of many species that were also growing very large. My first real encounter with most of these species, though we do have similar trees in the northwest. I think this is really going to surprise you, so I will work through the list here. But a warning, this is thoroughly conifer country, with just a smattering of black and live oaks.

Incense Cedar – You see this tree in your Christmas garland and wreaths with all of the light-colored pollen tips. It grows very tall and slender in Yosemite, not as bulky as our own Western Red Cedar. Thickly furrowed bark. A wonderful tree.

Sugar Pine – This is frequently mentioned as a construction material for many of the lodges. It has crazy looking branches that look like bent up pipe cleaners.

Ponderosa Pine – not the same variety that you see coming from the Rockies. These are big, tall, and straight as an arrow.

White Fir – Tall and majestic. The branch tips are rather blunted, as if they had just been pruned, giving an odd look. Needles splay out flat, rather like a Grand Fir.

Western White Pine – Fewer of these and I don’t know too much about them.

I also observed in other parts of Yosemite the following species, Douglas Fir, Mountain Hemlock, Jeffrey Pine (close cousin to Ponderosa) Lodgepole Pine, and Red Fir. There were also Black Oaks in the valley, along with Big Leaf Maples. I didn’t see a single juniper the whole trip.

So why did I list all of these species out? For one, all of these giants were living together. Something we can all learn from, I suppose. But more importantly, they were all in bonsai terms, formal uprights. Yet their forms were vastly different, especially as they aged, and most notably in the crown. I thought a photo essay and brief study of what was happening would be useful. The first photo i(below, left) s a very large Sequoia. I was able to get this shot because the path was wide and straight (an old road). Unlike our own Pacific Northwest forests, these areas in the Sierras are very open with almost no undergrowth and very few young trees. Combine that with the fact that many trees had been recently hit by fire or disease, but with their ramification still intact, giving us a great view into the structure of ancient trees. The trail network also ran up a hill, with most of the Sequoia in a long draw, enabling me to get some elevation relative to the tops of trees. Notice that little Y shape down at the bottom left? That’s Lisa, arms outstretched and giving you a little size perspective. Yes, the largest trees on planet earth.

Photo two (directly above) gives you a nice comparison between young and old. Pyramidal saplings at the bottom are surrounded by generations of elders, contrasting the angular uniformity and fullness of youth with the rounded asymmetry of age. The foliage of Sequoias is not unlike that of a juniper or cypress. It is scaled in long strands that come together in billowy tufts.

Photo three (below, left) offers us an interesting comparison. I was taking a picture of the three species in the central part, but later noticed that I got the bonus fourth species on the left. Note that they are almost all the same size, height, and scale. They are from left to right, Ponderosa Pine, White Fir, Sugar Pine, with the crazy branching, and finally, Incense Cedar. Most of these are old, but not yet ancient trees and retain their pointy apices for now. That will change in years to come as they grow older, and more asymmetrical.


Photo four (directly right) demonstrates the difference between what I am calling old, or mature, and ancient. Here we have two Sequoias and notice that they are approximately the same height. That is where the similarities end. They are separated in age perhaps several hundred years. The tree on the right is still very symmetrical and slender. The foliage is evenly distributed and crown rather pointed. The Sequoia on the left, in contrast, is much bulkier, both in the trunk and branch thickness. There are gaping holes in the foliage and the crown is very much rounding out.

Photo five is the Grizz,(below, left) and better known as the Grizzly Giant. This is where we start to get interesting and are forced to take another look at what we call old, ancient, or formal upright. The trunk is straight as an arrow, but that is the only thing uniform about the tree. Thick, contorted branches everywhere. It is even growing a new top from a branch. That branch, on the right, is over seven feet in diameter. Craziness indeed, but it’s what the tree has had to do to survive. There is almost no discernable apex or even a branching pattern. It’s all just random, and above all ancient. Not old. Just plain ancient, but it looks perfectly healthy. And yes, that’s Lisa again at the bottom of the photo. Behind her you can see the hollow left from a fire. These trees survive upwards of 800 years because of their ability to resist fire, and recover. An ancient cross section of a fallen giant at the parking lot revealed damage from a fire that the tree then took 117 years to heal over, but it did, and lived another couple of hundred years before falling. An incredible story. The other species in the area do not have nearly as thick or insulating of bark. Throughout the region I noticed that where there had been a fire, just the lower five to ten feet of trunk had burned, but this was enough to kill the tree, but leaving the upper structure intact. There have been some very large and numerous fires in the Yosemite region the last several years and the results have been devastating. The fire that swept through this grove several years ago was just a few yards from where we were standing. In fact, it made the hike a bit warmer, since their shade was gone. But that is the way Sequoias like it, open with no competition.

Lest you think I am going to slight the rest of the species, photo six (above, right) features a nice, mature Ponderosa Pine that I would call old, but not at all ancient. However, you can start to see asymmetry taking hold of the tree as it gets older.


Finally, one of the many dead trees revealing its structure. I believe that this was a White Fir by the bark, (directly right) but I won’t argue that it could be something else. The point here is that I saw many of these examples and this one was fairly interesting as it repeatedly divided itself, creating new apices as it was unable to push water any higher, thus limiting its total height. This is how the tree starts to round out its crown and give us a hint into how to construct the same on a bonsai scale.

I hope you have found this interesting and I invite you to search the details in the photos for yourself, as there are more than I can write in this space. This also informs our other styles of bonsai, so there are many insights to be gained. Above all, consider an inspirational trip for yourself.