Article 58 – ‘Wiring a Ficus’

Hi, welcome to Taiga Bonzai, in this post we look at an alternative way to wiring a Ficus retusa.

Introduction – This small Ficus ginseng (Ficus retusa) in the Komono class (15cm to 26cm) native to Asia has been pruned many times over the years and the cuttings were preserved by placing them in a glass jar filled with tap water. After a few weeks, the cuttings developed root systems and were planted out in plastic pots and when stable (good evidence of growth) were given to students to practise their bonsai styling skills.

Ficus ginseng

Question – We get questions on styling to which we respond, but we are of a conviction that ‘one learns by doing’ nevertheless, here is a question we received from one of our followers on this very subject. “I wired my Ficus into its intended shape, but when I went to check it weeks later the wires had caused deep grooves in the bark, my question is will these grooves pop back out?

Answer – In short the answer is no, because attention to wiring detail has not been paid, hence the plant is disfigured with bark damage and disruption to the phloem and cambium rendering the plant useless as a potential bonsai; Ficus like many other species of the genus have soft bark and phloem and cambium are easily damaged.

Course of action – Much depends on where these indentations are located be they on the trunk or branch and how long they extend, the unaffected areas can be used for new cuttings, hence your Ficus becomes a donor plant. We realise that this is a set back and not what you want to hear, but in reality there is no option you cannot undo the damage that has been done. However, do not discard the rest of the tree, remove the damaged section/s and let the plant recover; there is a possibility that it may produce new shoots as this species is quite resilient.

A different approach to wiring a ficus – Although native to Asia the genus Ficus is found all over the globe usually as house plants or decorative attractions in shopping malls for example Ficus benjamina and many are used in bonsai. However, they do not take kindly to wiring, because (a) of the soft bark easily damaged (b) they have no dormancy period unlike deciduous species from Europe and North America and (c) they are not hardy. Therefore, one needs to adopt a different approach and that is by using guy wires apposed to actually attaching the wire to the tree. The image below depicts a Pine Pinus sylvestris that has been wired using the guy wire method.

By looking at the image you can see that wire 1. is the anchor holding the tree in it’s container it also counter balances the force as wire 2. is pulling the upper mid section of the trunk down, the same process is repeated for wires 3. and 4. This balance of action and reaction stabilises the tree when a branch or trunk is severely bent, because the inside of the bend is now in compression and the outer radius is now in tension; because for every action there is a reaction. You will also notice there are black rings where wires 1. 2. 3. and 4 are attached, this material is thick felt which, prevents the wires from damaging the bark, phloem and cambium.

Of course this operation was conducted on a sturdy pine that can take this kind of treatment, whereas a ficus cannot nonetheless, it can be done although the amount of tension has to be less severe and the shaping or bending process has to be done gradually. One can shape a ficus quite easily using the guy wire method as it will conform to its given shape in a short space of time depending on the thickness of the trunk or branch; unlike a conifer which takes years.

After a short time period (2 to 3 weeks) loosen the wire to ascertain if the branch is holding it’s new shape, if the operation is a success you can proceed with your next plan of action, if not re-attach the wire and wait a little longer. In addition, ensure you use felt, leather, rubber or some other cushioning material to prevent the wire from damaging the plant. However, if you wish to wire the trunk or branch in the conventional way you can, but use a thicker wire and loosely wire the proposed section into shape, but check it on a weekly basis otherwise you will recreate the same problem.

Another point to consider is the type of style one is aiming for, the following are classic styles: Formal upright (Chokkan), Informal upright (Moyogi), Twin trunk (Sokan) and Slanted (Shakan) are possibilities for this species, but Literati (Bunjin-gi), Semi cascade (Han-kengai), Cascade (Kengai) and Broom (Hokidachi) should be avoided as ficus is not in reality adaptable to these styles; alternatively you can make your own design there is nothing in the rule book which states you cannot as we have done with our specimen depicted above. Until next time, BW, Nik.

Article 57 – ‘The wait is over’

This article is an update on a twin trunk Sorbus aucuparia rescued from an area of wasteland being prepared for development in early spring of 2015. The folklore and scientific information on the species can be found on this site Sorbus aucuparia (Rowan or Mountain ash) October 11, 2017′ but for those whom require a brief update please continue reading.

When the plant was collected its height was in excess of 2 metres and thus had to be reduced, as the fronded-like leaves are quite large it was decided that, the plant would be suitable for the ‘Omono Dai‘ class (the first category for large bonsai trees 100 centimetres or 40 inches. 70% of the root ball was removed and the foliage was reduced to maintain a balance between the nutrients to the leaves and roots respectively. The plant was placed in a wooden box in a standard soil mix with slow release fertiliser pellets and moved a semi shade area to recover.

In the spring of 2016 it was needed to reduce both trunk’s height due to the large amount of buds that had formed, (red broken circles) hence the cuts were made from the back of the tree at an angle to hide them, these were covered with petroleum jelly (vaseline) a) to allow for moisture run off and b) to prevent possible infection from pathogens. (The visible rubber coated block of wood was placed there to keep both trunks separated, this was later replaced with a specially designed expansion clamp the article for this subject is also found here; Expansion clamp design and construction – May 15, 2019)

S. aucuparia mid summer 2016

In spring 2017 the tree was replanted in a large modified plastic container and pruned to encourage foliage growth with the hope that leaf size reduction would occur as shown below.

S. aucuparia mid summer 2017

As the yellow arrows show there has been a slight reduction in leaf size however, the plant did not produce any flowers nor did it in 2018, 2019 and 2020, probably due to the constant hard pruning it has received, which has set it back somewhat.

S. aucuparia mid summer 2021

In May of this year there were cold spells with bouts of snow, hence growth has been retarded, this is the same plant in June of 2021 – leaf size has been significantly reduced and it has finally flowered top left.

S. aucuparia in bloom June 2021

As stated the growth rate has been retarded nevertheless, it is possible that flowers on this plant will be produced on the right of the two trunks, but we will have to wait until 2022 as it is too late for this season. It is now 2nd week of August and the fruit have turned orange, but we still have to be patient because they may turn red which is a useful factor in deciding on what colour of ceramic pot will do the tree justice.

S. aucuparia August 2021

Choosing the pot – In studying this twin trunk (Sokan) we see that the design is arguably reminiscent of a dancing couple (male on the left – female on the right) in graceful movement. The bark is grey, foliage is light green flowers are white and berries at this juncture are orange, this suggests that the whole combination has a light tone to the overall composition; therefore, in keeping with this theme the intended pot should reflect these factors.

According to the bonsai guide lines the tree is the picture and the pot is the frame, strong dark colours would be overpowering disrupting the overall composition of tree and pot as would an unglazed pot. Hence the decision was to go for glazed neutral white. As to the pot shape we looked at round bowls and ovals but, these taking into consideration the height of the tree would not look correct therefore, the last option was a rectangular pot.

In addition, pot depth was/is another important factor to consider, bonsai pots are classed as masculine, feminine and neutral; this twin trunk is considered to be neutral. A large deep pot although ideal for ‘root-run’ would be overbearing for this S. aucuparia, the decision was/is to opt for a shallow depth rectangular pot that would be in harmony with the tree creating a balanced composition.

Dimensions 40x28x7,5 cm

Obviously the tree has to undergo more training, pruning and wiring which, takes time. A living organism such as this plant has many changes in its yearly cycle of growth, changes that cannot be disrupted we can only go with the flow as said before patience is a virtue. Nonetheless, we believe it has bonsai potential, but time will tell. Until next time BW, Nik.

Article 56 – ‘Bug apocalypse!’

Introduction – ‘Bug apocalypse’ is a prelude to a 4 part series ‘Unseen enemies’, which looks at the increasing problem of invading pests and disease devastating agriculture, horticulture, natural woodlands and forests across the globe. These will be posted at a later date because, this article concerning the decline of our insect population looks at a problem that is now making headlines around the world.

The decline – Over the last few decades there has been an increasing decline in the insect population. Disappearing are many helpful predators including, Ladybugs Coccinellidae, Green Lacewings Chrysopidae, Honey Bees genus Apis, Praying Mantis family Mantidae, Spiders family Arachnida, Ground Beetles family Carabidae, Soldier Beetles family Cantharidae, Assassin Bugs family Reduviidae and Robber Flies. Asilidae

These insects are part of the food chain they eradicate unwanted pests including aphids, scale, mealy bugs and saw fly and in turn are the main resources for many birds, small mammals, fish, reptiles and other creatures. Moreover, they are an important key for human food production because, many crops depend on insects for pollination leading to fruit and seed production. Insects play a very important role in decomposing organic matter allowing nutrients to return to the soil and support the on coming crop season. Therefore, in terms of insect ecological importance, a sharp decline in their abundance is of great concern.

The arguments – Here are the points view from others whom are mindful of this issue. Will de Freitas asks if we are facing insect Armageddon he states that, “A recent study found that German nature reserves have seen a 75% reduction in flying insects over the last 27 years. The researchers involved made stark warnings that this indicated a wider collapse of the general insect population that would bring about an ecological catastrophe if left unchecked.”(article – October 25, 2017 – The Conversation)

Damian Carrington Environment editor for The Guardian in his article (10th February 2019) argues that “The world’s insects are hurtling down the path to extinction, threatening a catastrophic collapse of nature’s ecosystems.” “More than 40% of insect species are declining and a third are endangered, the analysis found. The rate of extinction is eight times faster than that of mammals, birds and reptiles; the total mass of insects is falling by a precipitous 2.5% a year, according to the best data available.”

In the February 2020 journal Biological Conservation no, 242 (a leading international body of scientists in the discipline of conservation science) Editor in chief Vincent Devictor of the Institut des Sciences de L’Evolution de Montpellier, France stated that. “We are causing insect extinctions by driving habitat loss, degradation, and fragmentation, use of polluting and harmful substances, the spread of invasive species, global climate change, direct over exploitation and co-extinction of species dependent on other species.”

Devictor goes on to say that “With insect extinctions, we lose much more than species. We lose abundance and biomass of insects, diversity across space and time with consequent homogenization, large parts of the tree of life, unique ecological functions and traits and fundamental parts of extensive networks of biotic interactions. Such losses lead to the decline of key ecosystem services on which humanity depends.”

According to http://www.magnificentmeadows.org.uk “The UK’s remaining rich grasslands now cover a minute fraction of the area they once covered, even relatively recently in the early 20th Century. There were once natural wildflower meadows in every parish – today only 2% of the meadows that existed in the 1930’s remain. Nearly 7.5 million acres of wildflower meadow have been lost so far and they are still being destroyed.”

The blame game – These are but a few of the arguments from scientists and conservationists from the many we have researched and from these points of view it appears we have a major situation on our hands. There are many theories as to the decline in insect populations they include, habitat destruction by intensive farming and urbanisation, pesticide use, introduced species, climate change, eutrophication from fertilisers, pollution and artificial lighting; the latter used in huge polyethylene tunnels for intensive crop production.

Yet, despite the scientific evidence provided, globally our performance in instigating effective insect conservation is below par, we need to realise this fact and act accordingly. This would involve more inclusive education, better decisions with land managers and government officials in maintaining unique habitats, across the globe. To have more expansive sustainable agriculture and forestry, improved regulation and prevention of environmental risks and greater recognition of protected landscapes.

But the frailty and idiosyncrasy of human nature is what it is, the world’s heads of state congregate at summits and conferences to find ways to solve problems, each pointing the finger blaming the other for their misgivings when they themselves are equally responsible for the same actions. It is fickleness, bureaucratic hypocrisy by the asinine in an attempt to maintain ‘stability’, (economic, environmental and social or profits, planet, and people) a mind set proposed for the wealthy not the masses.

As the world’s population increases more land for housing, food production, highway construction and industrial complexes are required to support the increasing demand resulting in irreversible changes to the environment. Insects are a major component of the tapestry of life and failure to protect them will have dire consequences. It is now time for heads of state and their minions to refrain from ‘putting their heads in the sand’ and listen to the scientists to prevent a ‘Bug apocalypse.’ Until next time, BW, Nik.

Article 55 – ‘The new book’

This is not a publicity or marketing ploy to promote our ‘new book’ (Taiga Bonzai Simplifying The Art – Revised Edition) it is to inform the many whom have asked where is the book and on what platform is it available? Our sincere apologies for the time taken to respond, but publication was delayed due to complications we had to address due to the following.

The original book (Taiga Bonzai Simplifying The Art) was sent for publication in 2018, but it’s progress to date remains unclear although we have tried on numerous occasions to contact the publishers without success. In addition, a contract between the publishers and ourselves was entered into which is legal and binding, hence we were prohibited from publishing elsewhere.

To solve the problem the book was re-written during 2020 with more chapters, content and images being added, making it into a ‘Revised Edition’ which is different from the original work. In addition, the original art work for the book’s front and back cover could not be used as this would breach the terms of the contract, it had to re-done which took time to complete.

As this new book will be published as an ‘E-Book’ choosing the right platform was not an easy task as there are many available with all having rules and regulations of one kind or another, hence a lot of research was needed. We decided to go with Google Play and the new book will be available beginning of this month ‘August 2021′. We do not envisage any technical problems, but if there are – our contact details can be found in the ‘About’ section at the top of the article.

According to Google indexing a book usually occurs within 48 hours on Google Play and for Google Books it can take up to 2 weeks. After indexing is complete, people are able to search for the book by either it’s title, author or the book’s ISBN or simply search for the book on Google Play Books. Alternatively, here is the ‘Google Play Books’ link for the book: https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=GGKEY:FEGZU8E1P6Q

The original book took 4 years to research and write with an additional 18 months for the re-write, art work and platform research, taking into consideration these factors we believe that (€15,00) is a fair price for a comprehensive 200 page book on bonsai horticulture. Moreover, as we are ‘non-profit making‘ all proceeds go to education and research.

The next post article 56‘Bug apocalypse’ will be available August 8th, because at this juncture it is a ‘hot topic’ among the scientific fraternity – until next time, BW, Nik.

(New book front and back covers below)

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.