Annual Physical

The first and most important thing that I learned from my studies with Boon was that the health and vigor of the tree were preeminent. Without a strong tree, all of the wonderful technique that I was learning was of no use, and maybe harmful to the tree. That was a fact that I soon proved true with a very nice Subalpine Fir. I still miss that tree, as I had collected it with my Grandfather, the person who started me in bonsai. It was so long ago that I can’t accurately recollect the tree’s health before I started. I certainly styled it aggressively, but with no visible cracks or tears. After flushing out with spring growth, it promptly turned brown and collapsed. That was well before Akadama, proper soil, and proper technique, and it was planted into a tall, moisture sucking cascade pot. Since then, I have been working to identify when trees are healthy and strong and able to respond positively to any bonsai technique I apply, whether it’s bending, pruning, decandling, repotting, or even just spraying.

A question that comes up frequently is whether to repot a sick tree to get it healthier. That is pretty much a resounding NO. Think of it this way. You are having some health challenges and the doctors tells you that if you drink more water, get a little more exercise, eat a little better and drop a few pounds you will be just fine. The other option is open-heart surgery, which may or may not be successful. Which would you prefer and what would make you healthier in the end? I personally would not be choosing to go under the knife. So before you repot, ask yourself if instead you can monitor water more closely? Maybe you should be checking morning and evening instead of once a day? Or maybe just paying closer attention each time you water. If it’s lacking moisture, maybe you soak it down twice each watering session to get better saturation. Or maybe it’s backing off until the next round. 

I have been able to really make a difference by paying closer attention to each plant, even the same size species in the same size pot. It really does help. That said, we DO repot in order to build up the strength of an existing tree. That might include moving a tree from a collection container, or a nursery pot into a bonsai container. It may also include moving a tree up or down in pot size to move it along in its development. But the point is to only repot a reasonably healthy tree and giving it what it needs to be successful. 

Another factor in the equation is sunlight. I was in Ashland with the Southern Oregon group awhile back and a gentleman had a very large and wonderful Black Pine. I told him that it could use more sun and he admitted that his yard was mostly shade. Some folks interpreted that to mean that I was saying it was unhealthy. It was not. It was just the right shade of green, and had good buds. But the needles were longish, and more importantly the internodes were very long. 

More sun will actually allow the tree to gather it’s needed resources in a smaller area, which translates to shorter needle and internode length. That also means that the quality of the solar energy the tree is collecting is much higher, enabling it to build the necessary energy to back bud and build a more compact tree. So just getting your tree more sunlight can really boost it’s  energy. The problem can be that you just get way too much sun come July and August, and then it’s time to break out the shade cloth. But the trees will thank you with lush, verdant growth.

The single biggest indicator of tree health coming out of winter dormancy is the size of the new buds. Relative size indicates how much energy the tree has built up. You may have dense foliage, but if the buds are small, the tree is weak. It may have been that the tree put on some great growth the last couple of years, but at the end of last season it ran into troubles. Maybe it got to dry during the summer and weakened the roots, or not enough fertilizer, or it got shaded out. Something happened to stress it out. On the other hand, a tree might have had a rather weak showing in spring, but built up strength in its sparse foliage because the watering, fertilizing, and sun light you gave it were spot on. So, what exactly would that look like? 

The clearest examples are the buds of a Japanese Black Pine. On an untrained or nursery stock tree it’s very easy to compare the branch tips. At the apex they will be a creamy white, with a nice stiff point. There will likely be a very large bud surrounded by many smaller, but equally white buds. Down towards the bottom of the tree, or on the interior, where the buds are likely weaker, they will be a darker color, maybe reddish, with a rounded tip, and much smaller size. There is also likely just a single bud. The difference is very dramatic. 

  Black pine apex buds

  Black pine apex buds

Black pine lower side bud

Black pine lower side bud

That differing bud strength is what we are trying to balance with our pruning and decandling techniques. So pines are really obvious, but many species are not. There are some species that I grow where I cannot see any buds or tell if the branch is alive until they start growing in the spring. That makes things very challenging, but each year my eye gets trained a bit sharper. 

On deciduous trees, you will likely see large, fat buds on the tips and upper portion of the bonsai, but as you work in towards the interior, they start to weaken. You may see internode sites where a microscopic dormant bud exists, but there is no sign of them, and nothing to activate them. Take a look at the fatness of the branches. Shoots which have grown thick and coarse will have many more and larger buds than the thinner and weaker branches. This means that most of the trees strength will be concentrated in those thicker shoots. That may help us if we are trying to thicken the trunk or a certain branch. If not, it really serves to weaken the other branches if not addressed. 

The good news is that those strong shoots indicate that the overall health of the tree is strong. By pruning these strong branches back to one node for opposite branching species, like maples (two buds, one on each side), or two buds for alternating species (most of the other deciduous trees) we can control and even out the branch strength. Leave the weaker branches longer and with more buds. I rarely, if ever, regret cutting out those coarser sections of branches. 

For conifers, foliage is another great indication of health. Remember that you want to look at the total needle mass. That means that roughly ten needles that are 2” long have the same strength and solar capacity as twenty, 1” needles. Make sense? For trees in development, you may have areas that you decandled or otherwise pruned and end up with needles of varying length for the short term. Feel the needles. Are they crisp and cool? That’s a great indication of health, as well as their color. A deeper color relative to the species is stronger. Anything straying towards a yellow or pale color is weaker. 

Strong trees are also occupying the entire pot with roots. This is a great indicator of strength. The denser the root system, the more gas in the tank the tree has for styling work. During this time of repotting, it’s a great time to examine the strength of the root system and make any corrections needed. One of the best indicators of root strength is the amount of water taken up by the tree. During the growing season, if the tree is utilizing all the water you give it at any one time, the tree is in balance and chugging right along.

Here’s to a great growing year ahead! Scott Elser 

Bonsai Home Waters

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This fall I have been working on the second styling of a very large tree. In fact, it’s the tallest and widest tree I own. It is definitely the hardest to move and is too tall to fit in the back of Lee Cheatle’s van. So, it’s been quite a daunting project to undertake. Way back in 2004, I had the privilege of spending a day in the wild with a few BSOP members, including the world’s foremost yamadori collector, our own Randy Knight. I now know the year, after miraculously finding a photo of the tree. Matt Reel (before he left for Japan) was with us, along with Lee. 

 After a while of scrambling, we spotted this tree and Randy helped me pry it from its rocky perch. It had probably been there a couple of hundred years, growing ever so slowly. Somehow, we got enough roots for the tree to survive and I planted it in a box for several years and then into a bonsai pot. An impossibly large bonsai pot. It’s all I can do to move it from a bench to a cart, let alone carry it. 

In 2014, ten long years after it’s collection, I finally styled the tree with help from Ryan Neil in his Elongating Species course. The tree was fifty inches tall, and had branches and trunks going everywhere. A few branches in the extremities had died over the years, but everything was pretty much intact with lots of branches to work with. 

I obviously had been looking at the tree’s possibilities for a long time and knew that Ryan had something in mind for it. I kept trying to figure out where I could shorten it to make a new top, plus dealing with the branches popping out from the sides that were starting to make their own trunks. How was I going to lower those branches and orient them correctly? 

Then Ryan started in on me, encouraging me to look at it a different way. I started cleaning the tree but wasn’t totally convinced. I heard a voice inside me say, that’s not really how we do it in bonsai. I try to be open to new things, but this is kind of crazy. But as our conversation turned from minutes to hours, I finally had a moment where the light turned on I blurted out to Ryan, Got it! I have been to that place. I grew up there. My job now is to use this bonsai to take you there. I had let my well-developed ideas of bonsai norms occlude my own personal experiences.  

I grew up a rather privileged life. That is to say that I grew up here in the Northwest, on the east side of Portland, the gateway to Mount Hood. I was a Boy Scout with plenty of backpacking in the cascades on the weekends. I climbed Hood twice, and Mount Adams once, spending the night on the mountain itself. My cousin and I bushwhacked the wilds of the Wallowas one summer. My dad and I bowhunted for deer in the high hills opposite of Mount Hood. There is virtually no area that I have not been to at some time or another from Hood River to the Santiam Pass. The mountains were my playground, and usually somewhere near timberline. 

As Ryan continued describing this form of alpine tree, I recognized it as what we call Krummholz. It’s a German term meaning “twisted wood”, which describes the trees surviving at the timberline level – where just a few eke out an existence and are constrained to bow, literally, to the forces of natures. The wind and snow drive them to a spreading structure with multiple trunks and ground hugging forms. In leeward pockets, the trunks can extend a bit higher until sheared by hostile winds. This is the place that I want to take you. That is what the best bonsai do. They take you to a place, a memory, a feeling. And finally, I had that vision in my mind, the tree that I wanted to create. 

Fast forward to 2017. The wire had been on the tree too long, at least in some places. I had already removed some portions as they cut in, but this last year, the tree really took off and almost doubled it’s foliage. Time to rework. I removed the wire in September so that it could recover and start to heal any damage during the fall. It started to bleed some sap from the deeper scars, but not too bad. 

I began to re-evaluate the design, making some tweaks here and there as I wired. This beast has seven apices. Yes. Seven. Just like the like the seven-headed beast in the book of Revelation. The main branch starts to cascade and then turns towards the sky to create one of those apices, so it’s pretty crazy stuff. And now, it’s even budding back on the hundred-plus year old trunk to create new branches. 

It was about then that I had the really big “Aha” moment. After more than 25 years of working with bonsai, I realized that this single tree represented my home waters. That’s the term fishermen use to refer to their local, favorite fishing hole, whether it be a river, stream or lake. The place they go to again and again for a good time and great adventure. It was then that I realized that this tree had been with me during nearly all of the great outdoor adventures of my youth. The Subalpine Fir, Abies lasiocarpa. It’s definitely one of the least used native trees for bonsai, but it was everywhere that I went as a youth. 

The memories started to flood into my mind, taking me to places that had long since grown cobwebs. This tree was there at the timberline when I climbed mountains. It was there while hunting as we crawled through the thickets of the trees that were almost impenetrable. They were there beside the dusty paths as I tramped along the Pacific Crest Trail. Unlike the lofty and much more common Douglas Fir, this was the tree that I could reach out, touch, and brush my pack against. 

In high school, I learned to paint watercolor landscapes. Mountains were my favorite subjects, along with a few extra brush strokes, the trees at timberline. I have been drawing those trees ever since, and now make a living drawing at times, you guessed it, Subalpine Firs. So here is this bonsai, which I have had on my bench for so long and didn’t recognize the significance that it held for my life. It is the one bonsai that can truly meld my love of the outdoors with my passion for creating. It now has the highest of honor in the garden and may be my best contribution to the bonsai world. It certainly has a ways to develop, and I have to find/make/ design a new container for it. The jury is still out on that one, because it also has to be a part of that place that I am sculpting. 

I have included a few photos. I somehow managed to take a photo of the tree before it was removed from the mountains. The large tree, just behind it, makes it more difficult to see. There is a photo after this year’s styling. I really need to go back and reset the branches, especially with info from the photos. After next years Spring growth, I will be able to reduce the length and compact some branches. I didn’t want to push it too much this year. And finally a photo of myself, about 15 or 16, in the Jefferson Wilderness with Subalpines in the background.  

I wanted to share this tree’s story and the connection that I have with it to encourage you to find the same. That’s why I do bonsai – to connect with my environment, my past, and my future through art. You may not have the kind of life experiences that I have to draw upon, but of course, you have your own, and I can’t wait to hear them.

Scott Elser

Pacific Crest Trail, Myself, and Subalpine Firs

Pacific Crest Trail, Myself, and Subalpine Firs

Subalpine Fir being collected in 2004

Subalpine Fir being collected in 2004

Tree after styling in 2017

Tree after styling in 2017