Article 54 – ‘Summer pruning’

Introduction – The pruning of a bonsai tree is probably the most important single factor in the forming of its shape, perhaps more so with deciduous than with conifers due to their rather intensive growth. Pruning as such can be divided into four main headings, Root, Heavy branch, General and Leaf. When pruning roots and foliage it is often stipulated that what percentage removed from the roots should be reflected in the foliage and visa versa, because this reduces stress maintaining a balance between the tree’s two sections.

Nonetheless, there are those who disagree they contend that some deciduous species can have their foliage completely removed in the growing season to encourage new growth. This Ginkgo biloba spends the colder months (October to May) inside under LED grow lights with a constant temperature of 24 degrees C. Complete leaf drop occurs when it goes from inside to outside (late May) but, within 4-5 weeks it is back in leaf. This situation repeats itself when it is returned indoors, (mid September) thus the tree loses its foliage twice in a relatively short space of time; an 8 to 10 week period of no foliage, which does not effect the tree’s health. The reason why leaf drop occurs twice is due to environmental change – not the plant entering dormancy.

Ginkgo biloba

To further this discussion a Himalayan juniper Juniperus squamata was obtained in early spring 2021, according to the fact sheet this plant should be located where it receives full sun; a minimum of 5 to 6 hours per day. We decided to experiment by adopting a different approach, a round Japanese bonsai pot was selected, but as the tree had a large root ball, 60% of it was cut away in order for it to fit the pot – none of the foliage was pruned resulting in an imbalance between root and foliage. The plant was then placed in a location that has full shade and as the image shows, the plant is thriving with no ill effects; this juniper will be left for a few years before styling begins.

Himalayan juniper J. squamata

The argument of maintaining an equal balance between root and foliage has theoretical logic and in many cases may prove to be correct with certain species of plant but, as we have demonstrated here there are instances where such logic does not apply nevertheless, debates on this subject will no doubt continue.

Root pruning – is carried out periodically because bonsai grow in small containers. Such confinement forces the root system to encircle the entire pot area saturating it in a dense mass, the result is the plant becomes ‘pot bound’. In this situation it begins to suffer because the much needed nutrients have been exhausted, circulation of air in the root mass is restricted and watering retention is increased. Deciduous species can be rigorous in their growth, hence it is prudent every 2 to 3 years to lift the plant out of the pot to check the roots ball’s condition whereas, coniferous species can be checked every 5 to 6 years, but much depends on the species and variety.

Foliage pruning – In 2017 we acquired a common juniper Juniperus communis which was trained as a cascade, (Kengai) it was left to grow and conform to its new design until July 2021 when pruning was much needed as the cascade appearance was masked by excessive growth. Branches had intertwined and were invisible, foliage was dense creating a hiding place for unwanted minibeasts moreover, it restricted air flow. Below are two images of this plant – before and after.

Juniperus commnunis cascade (Kengai)

As one can note there is a marked difference in this tree’s appearance and arguably there is improvement, but there is a lot more work to be done pruning wise. In addition, those with a keen eye will notice that this tree lacks a ‘top knot’ or crown, the original 3 branches at the top succumbed to the 2017 winter period and were later given a Jin or shari look. However, there is a small shoot protruding out from underneath the upper most bend that hopefully will replace those that were lost.

The next plant to be given hard pruning is this Sea Buckthorn Hippophae rhamnoides being trained in a Literati or Bunjin style. In the left image the foliage is masking the branches of which there are 3 as shown in the right image with the top one the main branch. This branch when dormancy arrives will be wired into shape and allowed to extend further down towards the container, the other two branches will probably be reduced and wired into new positions; and the ‘top knot’ will be allowed to develop. This Sea Buckthorn is only a young tree, (6 years old) but has the potential to become a Bunjin.

Sea Buckthorn Hippophae rhamnoides

Pruning in generalHeavy Branch Pruning – with trees obtained from nursery sources or from the wild, pruning can be carried out immediately however, with established trees waiting till the autumn to prune is more convenient as the form or shape of the tree, especially with deciduous varieties, can be visualized more easily.

The rules for initial heavy branch pruning are not written in stone, they are more of a guideline. Having decided what the material or plant’s potential may be, one can start work. But before brandishing the shears, a good tip that some bonsai enthusiasts undertake, is to either (a) take a photograph, which can be downloaded to a computer where the style can be enhanced via a suitable program, or (b) draw a sketch of the plant; doing this allows you to finalise the design.

The ‘hand drawn’ image below shows a plant selected to be grown as an informal upright. (Moyogi) Working from the bottom of the tree, a low branch protruding at the front has been removed, as has the opposing branch above it. Further up, the tree has developed a cartwheel effect meaning that more than two branches appear at the same height on the tree; in this case two branches were removed. At the top, the branch on the right had possibly been damaged at some time and rather continuing to grow to the right, had grown across the front of the tree and this was removed. The illustration shows the effect of this initial pruning.

Heavy branch pruning

Different styles of bonsai require different forms of heavy pruning, as a general rule dead, damaged, or diseased branches are removed. But with conifers such branches are formed into Jins or Shari, which gives the tree a more aged-look. Jins and Shari are branches that have been stripped of their bark and cambium layer then coated in lime sulphur, which bleaches the branch. With heavy pruning, there will be wounds and these are susceptible to disease, some bonsai enthusiasts advocate the use of expensive cut pastes to seal the wounds, some use petroleum jelly (Vaseline) a fraction of the cost; whilst others do nothing allowing the tree’s natural defences to heal itself.

General Pruning – is carried out throughout the growing season and with most varieties it begins almost immediately they begin putting on the new season’s growth. New growth of all trees can be pinched or removed with the fingers, but if a tree is left until this growth has begun to lignify or harden off, then sharp shears will be required. Pruning is done to maintain and improve the shape and symmetry of the tree and ramification, it is also necessary for the tree’s health.

Leaf pruning

Leaf pruning – is a method of increasing leaf coverage and fine twig-lets it also assists in reducing leaf size, but it should only be carried out on trees that are healthy and are growing strongly; in some cases more mature trees are less vigorous in their growth for this treatment. June (Depending on the climate zone) is the time when all the leaves except for the petiole (leaf stalk) are removed and after a period of time, approximately 2 to 3 weeks, new leaves and branches will form. However, it should be noted that leaf removal is restricted to deciduous trees, never with conifers, flowering or trees bearing fruit. The above illustration shows how leaf pruning is carried out on pines, junipers, maples and zelkova. (N.B. if you wish to contact us email information is in the ‘about’ section.) Until next time, BW, Nik.

Article 53 – ‘Superglue, tape or beeswax?’

Introduction – Plants prone to the elements can suffer great damage with arguably storms, high winds and excessive snow build up being the worst offenders. Trees can be uprooted and/or have the branches break off and in the case of the Birch, (Betula pubescens) large amounts of snow accumulated at the crown can bend the trunk down into a permanent position, from where it cannot recover; the forests of Scandinavia have many trees that have been devastated in this way.

Bent birch (Betula pubescens) courtesy of dreamstime.com

However, such damage is not solely confined to the wild, domestic plants including fruit trees and bonsai are also prone to the onslaught, a severe wind can lift a bonsai out of it’s container if not wired in or send crashing to the floor. But much depends on the individual situation the weather patterns of the zone in which one resides and the amount of protection available. If damage is caused, how then do we repair it and with what?

Various methods – In the article ‘Wiring practices part II A’ February 12th 2019 one of the topics on severe bending and shaping included Heat – using a heat gun or gas burner to soften the cellular structure on the intended area. Splitting – cutting the branch in two halves and reducing the heart wood, these are then joined together and the bend is made. Channelling or grooving – cutting a groove or channel into the branch to remove the heart wood, thus resistance is reduced allowing the branch to be shaped.

Another simpler method when bending branches is the ‘V’ notching technique as shown below: Small angle cuts A, B & C an inverted ‘V’ are made in the branch into the heart wood but not beyond, these ‘V’ cuts are then closed as the branch is bent down using guy wires attached to the container preferably wooden. These surgical practices severely wound the plant hence, much after care is required in maintaining the tree’s health and eradicate potential disease caused by pathogens that are small, an ultramicroscopic with one dimension less than 200 µm. (the symbol µm is a metric unit of measure for length equal to 0.001 mm, or about 0.000039 inch)

‘V’ notching technique

Super glue – As we are aware surgical super glue (cyanoacrylate adhesive) is often used on people with cuts or lacerations as opposed to stitching depending on the severity of the wound, but could it be used to repair a tree? The tree and branches are predominantly round in shape with the xylem shown below consisting of two important cellular channels the sapwood (grey with pale blue dots) and the phloem (green with white dots) that transport nutrients to the leaves and sugars to the roots respectively.

If a branch is broken away from the trunk chances are it will be a clean break, hence it might be possible to super glue the branch and broken limb back in place, but take care not to let any glue touch the phloem as this can create a barrier restricting sugars from reaching the roots. In addition, although the bark will be dry, the cortex is moist so whether the repair will be successful remains to be seen. Moreover, to ensure that the repair holds an application of super glue around the damaged area needs to be applied as this will seal the joint and protect it from fugal attack.

Tape – Many horticulturists advocate the use of different types of tape including old bicycle inner tubes as it adds strength and stability to the damaged area and can be left in situ for long periods of time or until the wound has healed. Those who use Splitting, Channelling, Grooving and ‘V’ notching techniques also use tape, but the question is, has the wound been completely reassembled and sealed, It only takes the smallest of unprotected areas to allow an attack from pathogens.

Beeswax – (Cera alba) a natural wax produced by honey bees of the genus Apis and has many uses for example, In foods and beverages, as stiffening agents in cosmetics, a fragrance in soaps, perfumes and the protection of antique furniture. Beeswax can also be melted and used as a protective layer in preventing infections. Some fruit growers whose tree branches have been damaged by the elements, carefully attach the limb back in place and use melted beeswax to seal and secure the join.

Pros and Cons – The question here is which method is the best? – super glue (cyanoacrylate adhesive) does work, two years ago the first finger of my left hand was severely lacerated and was treated with this method and healed relatively quickly. Tape is strong and stable but can be fastidious and fussy especially where branches are broken next to a protruding limb moreover, any buds that are taped will not be able to break. Melted beeswax applied to the wounded area when solidified becomes a protective sealant allowing the repaired branch to function normally, it is also used to protect areas where grafting has taken place.

As to which method is best depends on where the break and it’s severity has occurred as both the phloem and sap wood need to be able to function pass the damaged area. However, as stated above branches regardless of their thickness or size are predominantly round and the phloem and sap wood are continuous in their circular positions within the xylem and are able to function even if damaged. Trees have the remarkable ability to heal themselves even if limbs are lost and some species are able to produce new growth from their roots. Arguably an experiment should be performed to substantiate this theory, which will happen in due course when a suitable candidate/s is found; until next time, BW, Nik.

Article 52 – ‘Shattered and cracked’

When preparing for teaching assignments a few trees needed for display are readied, foliage and trunk/s are cleaned as are the ceramic pots and any unwanted residue (alkaline scale) is removed. It is the same practice one would undertake if exhibiting bonsai at a show, because presentation is everything students can see the real tree/s in person, which has more impact as opposed to on-screen pictures.

Inspecting the pots containing trees, one a blue rectangular pot made in Japan when picked up simply fell apart, the damage is severe and yes it could be repaired using a two part slow curing epoxy resin, which according to the manufacturers (Loctite) has “special formulated materials that are great to bond and repair plastic, metal and concrete or surfaces exposed to water.” But how does epoxy resin fare when exposed to extreme temperature differences that is the question. If this pot were to be repaired it could only be used for plants from temperate zones often referred to as ‘indoor bonsai’, that can survive quite happily out side in the summer months, but not during the winter as the chances are the pot may not survive.

Japanese pot
Japanese pot repaired

Another pot subjected to winter conditions had three hair-line cracks, hence the tree was removed and replanted in another container and the cracked pot was cleaned, on further inspection the three cracks ran from the rim down into the middle of the pot’s base both on the outside and inside of the pot. This blue green glazed ceramic pot is/was not expensive by any means, it is a cheap Chinese pot mass produced as one can tell from the pot’s rough underside. But what is attractive about it is the shape – a feminine shallow oval befitting an informal upright (Moyogi) or literati (Bungin) style and for this reason alone it was decided to ascertain if it could be saved.

Using a Dremel with a fine cutting wheel the cracks were gouged out halfway into the pot’s surface on the inside and the base only, the ceramic outside was not touched because it would have ruined the overall appearance. The glue used for the repair was the same as used for the Japanese pot (slow curing two-part epoxy resin Loctite 60 min) and for the moment it seems to have solved the problem. The pot and can still be used, but it is doubtful that it can withstand another winter moreover, neither of them can be used for public display.

Repaired pot

To answer the question of why the cracks appeared some detective work is required, being a mass produced pot from a mould where the clay is forced in, dried then fired is a relatively cheap and cost effective way of mass production. But if the clay has not been properly formed, bonding defects within the structure go undetected. The clay has to be worked and kneaded many times to make it malleable and durable before it as ready to be formed into its intended shape. Many years ago before the advent of technological automation, clay preparation or kneading was done by highly skilled people who knew instinctively when the clay was ready, which was then given to the potter.

Mass produced pots or containers sadly lack the required amount of kneading whereas, with hand-made pots this crucial stage of preparation is completed. The firing process is also a critical factor, in China the average temperature is approximately 1260 degrees C and the fired ware is referred to as ‘biscuit’, in Japan firing temperatures are higher 1305 to 1800℃, but much depends on what type of ceramics are being made hence, temperatures are adjusted.

In the case of the repaired Chinese pot, the overall structure has gradually weakened through time due to the elements and because it houses a tree, the soil medium is always moist. When the weather turns cold the moisture particles begin to freeze and expand causing hair-line cracks to form. Did this problem (a) originate when the clay was being formed – Kneaded (b) is it due to the onslaught of winter conditions or (c); the degradation of the clay’s properties over time, arguably it is all of these factors.

Generally speaking Chinese mass produced pots are relatively inexpensive but their hand made are not, Japanese mass produced pots are slightly dearer and of better quality and their hand made pots have a higher retail value. Hand made pots designed by individual artists can command very high prices as their work is of high quality and usually made to order for example, a Tokoname made bowl size: approx. 48 x 48 x 10 cm by the Japanese artist Reiko will lighten your bank balance by 625€.

Vintage Reiko bowl 48x48x10 cm
age estimated 50 to 80 years

However, this is not to say that the more expensive pots are not infallible, because they are; quite a few pots which have been in our possession since the 1970s and are of good quality have succumbed to the ravages of winter. Perhaps the question is; do quality bonsai pots have a life-time guarantee? – probably not. Until next time BW, Nik.

N.B. If you are interested is seeing how a hand-made rectangular pot is constructed, here is a suggested link:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zwRCdTCHjNQ web site http://www.greg-ceramics.com

Article 51 – ‘Peat! the hue and cry’

Introduction Evidence indicates that the use of peat also known as turf dates back to Roman times where it was used for domestic purposes – heating and cooking and in the 7th century continued to play a significant economic role in countries where trees were scarce; for example, Ireland, Scotland, the Netherlands and Estonia.

Peat is the formation of plant material that has not fully decayed in acidic or anaerobic conditions, it is comprised of wetland vegetation, bog plants, mosses, sedges, and shrubs. Peat as it forms holds water, which slowly creates wetter conditions allowing the area of wetland to become more extensive. Peat harvested usually in blocks (briquettes) is left to dry prior to being used and in some countries it is used today on an industrial scale to generate electricity; elsewhere peat is mainly used in horticultural applications.

Peat harvesting

The hue and cry – Peat is unique to natural areas called mires, bogs, moors or muskegs, which cover approximately 3% of the global land surface that are highly significant to global efforts in combating climate change. According to environment correspondent Matt McGrath “Peat Is the most efficient carbon sink on the planet, because peatland plants capture carbon dioxide (CO2) naturally released from the peat, maintaining an equilibrium.” Meaning that the carbon stays in the bog, locked away from the atmosphere, but it takes thousands of years for peatlands to develop.

In the UK there has been a huge drive by the government’s Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) to phase out the use of peat by both amateur and professional gardeners their argument is as follows:

“When we mine peat for gardening we unlock those reserves of stored carbon and three things then happen:

1. A peat bog is drained prior to mining. It immediately starts emitting greenhouse gases. After mining, the remaining peat continues to release carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere

2. The carbon in peat, when spread on a field or garden, quickly turns into carbon dioxide, adding to greenhouse gas levels

3. The unique biodiversity of peat bogs is lost. Rare birds, butterflies, dragonflies and plants disappear. It is much harder to restore a peat bog than to replant a forest.”

In 2011, the UK government set voluntary targets to end sales of peat-based compost for domestic use by 2020, Natural Environment Minister Richard Benyon stated that “The horticultural industry has made real progress in reducing peat use, but I want to see peat eliminated from the amateur gardener market by 2020”. In a letter to Environment secretary George Eustace, signed by TV gardeners Alan Titchmarsh, Kate Bradbury and James Wong, “this has been an abject failure.”

Others joining the ‘Hue and cry’ are a few garden centres including B&Q and the Blue Diamond group of garden centres who sated they were committed to phasing out peat but gave no date as to when. Asda, Lidl and others said they had targets to reduce peat sales but not yet to end them, Wyvale Garden Centres, Morrisons and Sainsbury’s have yet to respond to the survey.

Nonetheless, gardeners love peat because it delivers superb results in gardening, but some argue that peat is not the only way to get organic matter into soil, and it’s not even the best way; so why is it making a comeback? Because it’s cheap peat bogs are cheap to buy – cheaper than farmland. You drain them, dig out the peat, put it in a bag and it’s ready to sell. Nothing sustainable can compete with peat on price, so it enjoys fat profit margins. Profit margins that the above mentioned garden centres will not relinquish; does the word hypocrisy spring to mind here.

But is there an alternative to peat? – Carbon Gold was created by Craig Sams, founder of Green & Blacks Chocolate, in 2007 as an organic, peat-free planting aid for the retail sector. The company has created composts that mimic the properties of peat. Peat is a blend of black carbon and lignin the fibrous woody matter, whereas black carbon is made by using charcoal making techniques that convert woody materials into pure horticultural carbon or ‘biochar’.

According to a Sams spokesperson, “We blend it with lignin-rich woody material such as coir from coconut husks, to reproduce the profile of peat.” “It works as well as peat in the garden and it stays there much longer, the carbon in biochar remains for centuries and is porous, so it represents a long-term investment in improved soil fertility.” The Sams spokesperson added that “Commercial organic growers, who are looking for a high-performing peat-free alternative, are adopting it on an increasing scale.”

But carbon gold is expensive over 23€ for 20kg and this does not include the cost of delivery, much more than the price of peat – the above cost may seem trivial but much depends on the amount required. Finland is the world’s leading manufacturer of peat supplies and according to recent reports, said Finnish government is now looking at ways to reduce its peat consumption – but at what cost and to whom? Moreover, since the present pandemic (C19) took hold unemployment has risen prices have sky-rocketed as products have diminished, hence 30 million new gardeners have joined the horticulture brigade and the numbers are increasing.

Perhaps peat harvesting or mining will eventually be phased out, but there still remains many arguments and debates on this issue both for and against. Taiga Bonzai’s policy is not to get involved in controversy, but to bring to our readers attention issues that concern all aspects of horticulture including the husbandry of miniature trees. Until next time, BW, Nik.

Article 50 – ‘Used, Abused and Unloved’

The Birch family (Betulaceae) is comprised of 6 genera worldwide all of which, contain trees or shrubs. Of these 3 genera are represented in the wild in Scandinavia, the Silver birch (Betula pendula) the Downy birch (Betula pubescens) and the Dwarf birch. (Betula nana) The dwarf birch is mainly confined to the Tundra and mountainous regions of Europe, the downy birch can dominate the landscape up to the tree-line, whereas the silver birch is found at lower altitudes.

B.pendula B.pubescens B.nana

B. pendula is able to reach 15 to 25 m in height with a slender trunk usually under 40 cm diameter. The trunk’s bark at first is brown, but changes to white as the tree develops. Branches are long and hang down, hence it’s common name ‘The weeping Birch’, leaves are short with slender stalks 3 to 7 cm long, they are triangular with broad wedge-shaped bases and slender pointed tips, the foliage pale to medium green has a paper feel to the touch.

B. pubescens commonly known as ‘The downy Birch’ attains a height of 10 to 20 m with a slender crown and a trunk up to 70 cm with smooth, but dull grey-white bark finely marked with dark horizontal lenticels. The branches unlike B. pendula do not hang down they radiate outwards and slightly upwards. The leaves are ovate-acute, 2 to 5 cm long and 1.5 to 4.5 cm broad, with a finely serrated margin and have a velvet or hairy feeling to the touch.

B. nana is a monoecious shrub growing up to 1 to 1.2 metres tall, the bark is non-peeling and shiny red-copper in colour. The leaves are rounded, 6–20 millimetres in diameter, with a blunt toothed margin and are a darker green on their upper surface. Leaf growth occurs after the snow has melted turning red in autumn. The wind-pollinated fruiting catkins are erect, 5–15 millimetres long and 4–10 millimetres broad.

Used – Research has shown that sap from birch, which contains Xylitol, fructose and glucose, amino acids, vitamin C, potassium, calcium, phosphorous, magnesium, manganese, zinc and high in polyphenol antioxidants that are known to protect body cells against damage from molecules and free radicals. According to research and other such findings, polyphenols safeguard an individual person from several conditions that include type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s, heart disease, certain types of cancer and Parkinson’s. The properties of birch sap are considered health-beneficial and has been widely consumed by people of Scandinavia, Russia and North America.

Birch trees provide the predominant hard wood source in northern Europe, and some varieties of the silver birch produce highly priced veneers and decorative wood furniture. The downy birch is used for construction, plywood, wood flooring, furniture, shelves, coffins, pulp and fire wood. The dwarf birch secretes a yellow fungus from the wood and when processed is called Moxa, according to some sources it is regarded as an effective remedy in painful diseases. The yellow dye collected from the leaves is used as a hair conditioner and treatment for dandruff.

Abused – Apart from the many benefits mentioned above, the birch species arguably gets more than its fair share of abuse for example, it is constantly under attack from animals, insects and fungal infection. Scandinavia is riddled with herbivores that constantly feed on birch, for moose it is a smörgåsbord (Swedish for buffet) who can devour large swathes of bark leaving bare wood open to attack from fungi and wood boring insects, whilst smaller creatures deer, will strip the foliage bare especially on young trees.

Consider the bronze birch borer (Agrilus anxius) an insect native to North America found in the southern portions of all Canadian provinces and in the northern United States from Maine to Idaho, Colorado, and Utah; is now found in Russia and Europe. Although it prefers to attack weakened trees it will attack healthy specimens as well with devastating impacts on forest ecosystems.

Bronze birch borer (Agrilus anxius)

Adult beetles are small with a flat head and elongated bodies. They range in colour from olive green to black with bronze reflections and are approximately 6.4 to 12.7 mm long with the females being larger than males. The eggs are initially white but turn yellow as they mature, their shape is oval and are 1.5 mm long by 1 mm wide. The larvae are white, legless and have flattened elongated bodies about 12.7 to 15.2 mm long with a small enlargement in the second thoracic segment and two brown spines extending from the last segment of the body. This insect is considered a serious pest to birch species. The adults cause minor damage by feeding on the leaves, but the main damage is caused by the tunnelling larvae interrupting the flow of sap reducing tree growth causing mortality.

Although the bronze birch borer is a major pest there are other insects that cause havoc for example, the Birch leaf miner (Fenusa pusilla) attacks all birch species, Aphids (Aphis gossypii) a very common insect pest that will swarm over and devour the leaves of all species of birch. The Forest Tent Caterpillar (Malacosoma disstria) a major player in foliage destruction. Of course there are other insects considered as pests; white grubs, weevil larvae, and wire worms.

All Birch species are susceptible to fungal attack for example, Birch dieback a disease that causes branches in the crown to die off causing stress that may result the tree’s demise. The pathogenic fungi (Melanconium betulinum), (Anisogramma virgultorum) and (Marssonina betulae) were found in association with affected trees. Birch dieback usually attacks trees that are under stress for example, exposure to phenoxy herbicides used to control broad-leafed weeds, drought and winter kill.

Indications that all is not well are; firstly the foliage becomes scant and turns yellow a sign that chlorosis is present, another indication is leaf tips and new shoots start to curl wither and drop. Secondly small branches or twigs become barren as new leaves fail to develop. As the disease spreads whole branches may die as well as parts of the crown, the lower parts of the tree may develop densely bunched foliage; the tree usually dies within three to five years of the development of symptoms.

Unloved – why is this? – in bonsai the birch tree is not a popular species although it is found in some collections. Is it because of its susceptibility to the many pests and disease that it is prone to, which might affect other tree species in a collection. In short the answer is no, because all plants can be attacked by some form of fungal disease, insect infestation, poor incompatible soil mediums, drought or excessive watering.

There are a number of reasons why it is unloved (a) because of its nature for example, birch are prolific in their release of pollen, which for many sufferers of hay fever and asthma are susceptible, hence people with these afflictions avoid the species altogether. (b) Another possible reason is that unlike many deciduous and coniferous species that can be shaped into various forms like their wild counterparts, birch in their natural setting are mainly formal uprights. Nonetheless, there are exceptions to the rule where in the wild some trees have had their natural shape altered drastically, due to some catastrophe.

However, much depends on you the artist/designer – the old rules are not set in stone, they are but mere guidelines. If you are a traditionalist then hear the words of master bonsai horticulturist John Yoshio Naka who stated “Don’t turn your tree into a bonsai – turn your bonsai into a tree.” Alternatively if you are a free spirit akin to Paul Jackson Pollack the American abstract painter, then you can do what you like. The full article on this topic ‘Different Perspectives’ can be found on this site the date is May 14th 2017.

In the green container shown below are a number of birch saplings, the result of seeds blown in to my bonsai area from the adjacent forest that are now in their 3rd year of growth; a mixture of B. pendula and B. pubescens. Initially the idea was to grow a birch forest, but idea was shelved, because it is highly unlikely to find these two species in close proximity, hence the overall composition would be incorrect. The two larger saplings in the centre were originally intended as a twin trunk design (Sokan) and were shaped but, all the others are in their natural state. These saplings when in leaf will be separated into their individual species and like the Sea buckthorn in the previous article they too will be given away. Until next time, BW, Nik

Mixture of B. pendula and B. pubescens

N.B. As you will have noticed this article is numbered as 50, hence forth all articles will be numbered in numerical order to assist in keeping an uncomplicated filing system diminishing the time searching the archives.

‘Resilient’

The Sea Buckthorn (L. Hippophae rhamnoides) a compact deciduous shrub (2 to 4m high) is native to the colder climes of Northern Europe and Asia, it grows in poor soil mediums and can tolerate temperatures well below freezing. The bark is rough in texture grey brown to black with a greyish green canopy, leaves are alternate, narrow and lanceolate with silver undersides and pale green upper surfaces.

The Sea buckthorn has oval to roundish fruits ranging from pale yellow to dark orange, these contain high amounts of vitamin C, vitamin E, carotenoids, flavonoids, health-beneficial fatty acids and high amounts of vitamin B12. In Scandinavia the benefits of consuming Sea buckthorn fruit has long been known as it probably has in other parts of the world however, cultivating this shrub although uncomplicated requires a little thought.

Sea buckthorn fruit

The shrub is ‘dioecious’ meaning that male and female flowers grow on individual trees and the sex of seedlings can only be determined at the first flowering, which normally occurs after three years of growth. The difference between the sexes is as follows; the male flowers have from four to six apetalous flowers, whilst the female has only one apetalous flower containing one ovary and one ovule. Fertilisation is created via wind pollination, hence both male and female plants should be in close proximity.

Sea buckthorn plants can be easily obtained as garden centres and nurseries have them in abundance, but they are saplings approximately 2 years old and ascertaining whether they are male or female is extremely difficult as they have yet to flower. Of course the containers in which the plants are housed have labels describing what they are, but it is highly unlikely to include the sex. One could ask the attendant as to the plant’s origin to determine whether it is male or female, they should have this information available if they are reputable traders, but more often than not they are unable to provide an answer. Hence purchasing Sea buckthorn plants is a bit of a lottery.

Sea buckthorn develops an extensive root system, the roots live in symbiosis with nitrogen-fixing Frankia bacteria, the roots also transform insoluble organic and mineral matters from the soil into more soluble states and vegetative reproduction of the plants occurs rapidly via root suckers for example. The bonsai version of the Sea buckthorn in the ‘literati’ (Bunjin gi) style shown below is 5 years old and has yet to produce apetalous flowers in order to determine its sex.

Photographs were taken 1st April 2021

The main reason for this phenomenon is partly due to heavy pruning it has received. However, in late spring of 2020 vegetative reproduction rapidly appeared with several new plants protruding up through the soil medium and in July of that year the plant was taken out of its pot and all the new shoots were carefully removed and replanted in the yellow container and left to fend for themselves.

Winter of 2020 was quite hard with plenty of snow constantly thawing and freezing with more snow build up. In previous winters all bonsai were covered with hessian for added protection, but last year they were left uncovered, hence they were subjected to a hard time. In March 2021 the soil medium in the yellow pot was a block of ice and the chance of survival for these yearling plants seemed minimal. It is now April, the soil medium has thawed out and the young plants have survived; to say the Sea buckthorn is ‘resilient’ is very apt considering the hardships it must endure.

The next question is, what will happen to these young sea buckthorn plants as they are surplus to requirements? One will be kept as a backup should some catastrophe befall the ‘literati’ bonsai, the remainder will be given away. You might ask the question of why not take them into the wild and replant them, sadly the answer is no, because (a) there is no permission to do so, (b) soil pH would be incompatible to the plant’s needs and (c) they would be subjected to the onslaught of human and animal activity; until next time BW, Nik.

‘Patience is a virtue’

It’s that time of the year for some to commence their bonsai horticulture labours, but for others snow still remains, the north of Scandinavia is still going through the remnants of winter and just when the ground was beginning to thaw, along comes more snow Monday 05/04/2021. Nonetheless, buds are beginning to break on some of the trees in the collection; Birch (Betula) and Sea buckthorn (Hippophae) and progress in re-potting some trees that need it is underway, but that is the sum total thus far.

The main reason for the slow progress is the dreaded affects of (MgC12) magnesium chloride that was discussed in the last post ‘It’s an ill Wind’. Until the snow has completely dissipated the machines cannot sweep the roads, hence any attempt to prepare and prune is futile; work that will become a set back therefore, one has to be patient till at least the end of April, but much depends on the weather because as stated it is unpredictable.

Once the highways, roads and pavements have been swept and the dust particles have settled, the area where the trees are housed can be cleaned to remove all residue, then attention can be focussed on the plants. The container or pot in which the tree is housed is placed in a plastic bag (cling film or plastic wrap is an alternative) and sealed around the trunk with electrical tape, this is to avoid any water containing (MgC12) particles from entering the bag and contaminating the soil when the trunk/s and branches are washed. It is important to do this because if the soil is contaminated, the possibility of necrosis appearing is greatly improved.

Having just read the above paragraph you are now thinking “hold on a minute, if (MgC12) is on the branches and trunk will it not be also in the soil?” – a good question and you are correct in assuming this and the answer is yes it will. Magnesium and chloride are essential chemicals needed for healthy growth and the soil medium will already contain these but, a balance has to be maintained, it is the amount induced or exposed to or lack thereof which is the problem.

The previous post ‘It’s an ill Wind’ explains the symptoms and results of excessive exposure to (MgC12) resulting in necrosis, which is the degeneration of cellular tissue, that weakens the plant making it susceptible to attack from Biotic diseases; insects and fungi. Necrosis is an Abiotic infection caused by human activity and the excessive use of chemicals, the dried out particles become airborne, transmitted via the wind and can effect plants at any time anywhere.

As a result foliage is covered in dust reducing the plant or tree’s ability to photosynthesise properly affecting the transportation of sugars from the leaves to the roots retarding the plants health, hence it is prudent to check on a plant’s condition. A useful tool in cleaning foliage, branches and trunks is a pressure sprayer (shown below) use distilled water with the sprayer’s nozzle set to medium fine and medium pressure, until next time, BW, Nik.

Pressure sprayer

‘It’s an ill Wind’…

Winter is waining, the long dark days and nights are drawing to a close, the once crisp white snow now wears a dirty grey/black mantel of dust as it slowly melts away, but let us not be too hasty to shed those warm layers needed to combat the cold for the weather can change its mind as it is apt to do.

It is reassuring to know that winter’s demise is imminent here in Scandinavia (although its return is inevitable) but, with the coming of spring the problems begin again for example, Biotic and Abiotic disease. The following is an extract from the new book…. Taiga Bonsai (Simplifying The Art)

Biotic diseases are caused by living organisms, fungi, bacteria and pathogens left by viral infected insects for example, the ‘Red band needle blight’ (Dothistroma) that affects conifers mostly pines, causing needle loss eventually killing the tree. Ash dieback affects Ash trees and is caused by the fungus (Hymenoscyphus fraxineus) which blocks the tree’s water transport system causing leaf loss and ultimately dieback of the tree’s apex or crown.

Horse chestnut canker a bacterium species known as (Pseudomonas syringae pv.) causes extensive bleeding areas on tree stems. (Phytophthora austrocedri) affects Junipers causing dieback of foliage, stem and collar lesions and eventually death.

Biotic diseases usually appear on random plants but, can effect different plants with various levels of severity often with visible signs of disease for example, fluffy masses of mould, orange pustules and round leaf spots, wet or water-soaked lesions and irregular shaped leaf spots. Viruses often cause cankers and irregular colour changes such as mosaic patterns on leaves or unusual foliage colours for example, reddening of the leaves. Nematodes, a microscopic worm are also classified as a biotic disease causing root rots and irregular root growth. Arguably biotic diseases are part and parcel of nature’s rich tapestry something we have to accept.

Abiotic diseases are the result of non – living causes, the result of human activity – herbicides, pollution, an excess or lack of nutrients that plants require for growth. For example, Chloride (C1-) and Magnesium (Mg+2) are both essential nutrients important for normal growth. However, excessive concentrations of these nutrients may harm a plant with chloride being responsible for foliage damage as opposed to magnesium.

High concentrations of MgC12 ions in the soil may be toxic insomuch that they are able to effect and alter water relationships meaning the plant can not accumulate water and nutrients naturally. The effect of chloride in the conducting system causes an accumulation of necrosis in leaves or needles and where dieback first occurs, leaves are weakened or killed, which can lead to the death of of a tree.

A common cause of necrosis is brown, dead or wilted leaf tips and yellowing of older leaves. If this is the case, then the plant should be removed and cleaned immediately by washing the whole tree including the root ball with distilled water and the decaying foliage removed; the container or pot should also be cleaned and the plant re-potted in a fresh soil medium.

Necrosis on Conifers and Deciduous

When dried out particles of (MgC12) become airborne they travel great distances, contaminating all they come in contact with especially trees and shrubs be they of natural proportions or bonsai and also back into the soil where they react causing chloride toxicity. Remember the line in the opening paragraph “the once crisp white snow now wears a dirty grey/black mantel of dust” this is the residue of (MgC12).

Symptoms associated with exposure to de-icing, salt sprays, aerosols or road dust differ from root absorption, the side of the tree facing the road may exhibit more damage and foliage will have surface deposits of salt crystals or dust. These usually appear in a distinct pattern affecting other plants that are in close proximity.

One of the major causes of excessive concentrations of (MgC12) is due to the de-icing of highways, streets, roads and pavements via the use of granulated magnesium chloride (MgC12) applied during the winter months that is different to halite road salt. (sodium chloride NaC1) Liquid (MgC12) solutions are also applied to non-paved roads during spring and summer months for dust suppression.

Pest and disease problems in bonsai are often the result of more than one cause, these are referred to as complexes for example, aphids and leafhoppers often spread various plant diseases in the process of feeding. Weak plants in abiotic conditions (nutrient deficient soils) are more susceptible to attack by various diseases and insects. In such cases it is not enough to simply treat a tree with pesticide or fungicide, all cases of the complex should be addressed to ensure good health and vitality in the tree’s development.

Magnesium chloride according to the powers that be, this chemical be it in granulated or liquid form is mandatory for de-icing and suppression of dust. But, when the snow has gone and the roads and pathways have dried, (MgC12) still remains on the surfaces and when the machines start sweeping these areas, the dust as stated becomes airborne – an ill wind. The area where my bonsai trees are housed is open to the elements and prone to (MgC12) residue; to say that it is a pain in the neck to have to be constantly cleaning, is an understatement. Arguably there should be a consultation regarding (MgC12) usage; until next time BW, Nik.

 



“The road is long with many a winding turn”

Having been absent for some considerable time and my sincere apologies for this, but my attention was focussed on more pressing matters taking me down roads, that were complicated, tedious and often boring. But these are the journeys we are compelled to take during life’s long learning curve regardless of what entity we are engaged in.

Arguably the problem is that knowledge in many fields often fails to be updated and starting my journey into bonsai horticulture in the mid 1970s there was very little knowledge available. Today there is a wealth of information to be found via the world wide web and of authors whom dedicate their experiences to this horticultural art form.

However, a message has an expressive language depending on the properties and ideas it contains. Many written works either delve too deeply into the subject which can cause confusion often leading to a loss of interest, whilst some barely scratch the surface. Therefore, it was felt that a new book was needed, one that slotted between giving the reader a clear and concise message easy to comprehend and one that would include other relative topics rarely discussed. Here at Taiga Bonzai the aim is to unravel the complexities by simplification, because bonsai horticulture has changed much since its commencement in 6th century China.

My first book on bonsai was sent for publication in the autumn of 2018 but to date knowledge of its progress has not been forthcoming, possibly due to unknown factors although constant efforts were made as to the status quo and possibly due to the current pandemic situation. Therefore, a decision was made to write a second edition adding more up-to-date content. The book “Taiga Bonzai – simplifying the art – revised edition” (page count 200) was completed in December 2020. Feedback from the many followers of Taiga Bonzai suggest that this new written work should be available as an E book to avoid a repeat of the recent publishing experience; as to cost, this has yet to be determined.

In the next article to be posted we look at the end of winter and the problems it creates in its wake.

Until next time BW, Nik.

Pinus strobus radiata (Monterey pine step 1. May 2019)

Introduction
Now is the time of year for a brief excursion to see what potential material if any, is available and low and behold a 64cm 4 needle eastern white pine was on offer for under 15€ a bargain considering that most members of the white pine family usually have needles in bundles of 5, rarely in 3 or 4; hence these command a higher price.

Originally from eastern North America white pines can now be found world-wide mainly as a timber source due to their rapid growth. The white pine family subgenus Strobus has several varieties including the Nana, Aurea and Macopin groups. It prefers well-drained or sandy soils and humid climates, but can also grow in boggy areas and rocky highlands. It is said to be a hardy tree (zone 3) withstanding temperature around -30c, but this for mature trees young trees need to be protected against frost damage.

On young trees the bark is relatively smooth and grey in colour with branches spaced approximately every 10 to 15cm on the trunk with 5-6 branches appearing like spokes on a wagon wheel. And because of this branch configuration, the Monterey pine according to some purists is not a suitable candidate for bonsai.

But nothing ventured nothing gained, this ‘ugly duckling’ has been transferred to a wooden box to allow for root expansion, fertilised and the heavier branches were removed to encourage development of the thinner branches.

Monteray pine

For some styling, pruning and wiring in one session can be done on some species, but applying the same directive to a 4 needle white pine can be deemed an act of ebullience as opposed to patience, because of the amount of stress the tree has to endure, requiring a longer period to recover. This white pine will have no further work done until the candles have developed however, in the meantime a potential design is suggested.

 

Monteray pine 2

If we look at the tree we denote movement in the main trunk from soil level upwards, which can be enhanced by bending it down from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’. Then from point ‘B’ to point ‘C’ a second and third bend can be applied sending the trunk slightly to the back then forward and right bringing the apex back over the centre to avoid the ubiquitous ‘S’ shape. To achieve this directive the main trunk has to be wrapped in raffia with supporting wires added to the proposed bend’s outside radius, (red lines) then taped and the bending wires attached.

The last part of the exercise will be to prune in necessary and wire into position the side branches, as for the right hand secondary trunk’s position and styling this will be determined once the left side has been styled into position.
Further updates on this tree’s progress will be posted, until next time BW, N.