Selecting material for bonsai part III (Looking for bargains)

In the articles Collecting material for Bonsai I and II discussions on how and where to find potential material included. Unwanted plants from gardens, waste sites, areas designated for development, roadside ditches and of course the wild all of which require permission to obtain. Other sources are arboretums, which are great places to visit, but due to their vast acreage one needs the minimum of a day to see the vast variety of species. In addition, there are usually plants for sale that can be had for pennies such as this Balkan Chestnut Aesculus hippocastanum acquired for 4€. Obviously it has a long way to go before having any potential as a bonsai, but time and patience is the watchword.

Balkan chestnut. Turku

The garden centre – In spring garden centres start receiving new stock, a vast variety of flora ranging from ‘common-every-day plants’ to the exotic. Where according to some experts one can find a potential bonsai for the price of a shirt approximately 40€ to 60€. However, this new stock imported from other climes including temperate is usually rife with unwanted mini beasts, which if not eradicated can have a devastating effect other bonsai in one’s collection.

Evidence to support this claim goes back to the spring of last year (2016) when a Red Japanese maple Acer amoenum dissectum was obtained and unbeknown was affected by red spider mite Tetranychus urticae. Signs of the infestation was not visible when acquired, but in a few weeks the pests revealed themselves having made colonies not only on the red acer, but on other species in my collection. Removing these arachnids was time consuming, some plants were saved but others including the common lemon Citrus limon (L.) Osbeck and Pomegranate Punica granatum unfortunately had to be destroyed; not a decision taken lightly, hence one has become highly vigilant where pests and disease are concerned.

However, one should not be deterred by such a misfortune because, all plants regardless of their species are hosts to a multitude of mini beasts as is the soil in which they grow. It is part of life’s rich tapestry, it is just knowing the good from the bad. More information on pests and disease can be found in the article of the same name posted earlier.

Returning to the subject of the ‘Garden centre’ and what can be found as potential or pre-bonsai can reveal some pleasant surprises even a bargain. Because tucked away in some corner will be specimens that look past their shelf life so to speak, wilting foliage or decay giving an unsightly appearance, which most of the general public shy away from; hence they are reduced in price as shown in the following image.


The image shows a group of Picea just crammed together on a large display table and as we can see there is an obvious health problem determined by the brown areas or dead foliage. When young, Picea grow very quickly producing dense foliage. This dense foliage reduces the much needed light and air preventing inner bud or shoot development, thus die-back occurs. In natural circumstances Picea can grow to 35–55 m (115–180 ft) tall and the problem of light and air circulation is significantly reduced because, the foliage is less dense due to reduced growth rate and element onslaught; snow, ice, wind and rain. But in bonsai dense foliage is a requirement although much depends on the species concerned therefore, to solve the light and air problem the branches have to be thinned out to allow the weaker shoots and buds to develop.

Nonetheless, within this group of sorry looking plants there was a specimen that had potential, but to find it the plant needed scrutinization. On closer inspection the tree’s natural design was already there, a twin trunk formal upright and as both trunks stem from a single root it can be classed in the Sokan style. To the novice working on such a specimen may seem a daunting task meaning knowing what or which foliage parts to remove. But in actual fact it is a relatively easy process providing you examine the plant to determine its potential; what it has to offer from a design perspective and use this as a guideline.

Picea untouched

But before any work could be undertaken all debris and mini beasts residing within of which there were many including larvae, various caterpillars and arachnids had to be removed. Starting from the base going up, the roots (Nebari) were exposed and only small unwanted roots protruding upwards from the trunk’s base were moved. The main rootball was kept in tacked as was 60% of the original soil and the reason for this approach is because as the tree was about to go through a major change, the less stress applied, the better the chance of survival.

Much of the strong foliage was removed allowing the weaker branches to develop. These were wired into position using aluminium wire as opposed to copper as this is the first stage in its design. To add some character to the tree, both trunks were subjected to the jin technique and the smaller trunk was positioned slightly away from the main. The tree was re-potted and wired down in a temporary container a plastic seed tray with aluminium angle riveted to base to allow air circulation and holes drilled for drainage and. The whole process including cleaning, re-potting, pruning and wiring took approximately 4 hours.

Picea before & after

This Picea has gone through a drastic change and has a rather scant appearance, but given time will eventually reach its full potential as a bonsai. It was originally priced at 60€ but had been reduced to 20€ due to its ugly condition, which is arguably less than the price of a shirt – a bargain and such bargains can be found, all one has to do is look.

As an after thought one may ask ‘why did I not video the work‘ as seeing the practical process from beginning to end may help the novice who wishes to attempt the same. A good question, but in truth, the cleaning process had been completed before the concept of filming had crossed my mind; perhaps next time and until next time take care, BW, N.

A brief respite in the work load

After an eventful 2 months of hectic work and a few thousand kilometres traveling most of which was sat behind the wheel of my old VW, I am taking a few days off to catch up with developments regarding this site. First and foremost I wish to thank Africanbirding, Anju Agarwal and Rustedrootbonsai for their comments in following my posts. Your support is greatly appreciated – many thanks.

As we know August is upon us and here in Finland although still warm our summer is waning and in a few weeks the temperature will start to decrease. The colourful blooms of the parks and gardens will slowly fade and become a distant memory and the long cold dark days will return as will the snow and ice – winter is looming.

So now is the time when the local nurseries or garden centres start reducing their wares. A common practise for those whom lack the facilities to over-winter their stock and must get rid. Hence, prices are reduced to 30%, 50% and even 70% therefore, many bargains will be on offer. For the novice such venues are an ideal source for a variety of specimens on which to learn both indoor and outdoor. Last year I found a White pine Pinus parviflora for the princely sum of 1€ and it is doing well and to date have found a few more specimens, one of which a White spruce Picea abies (syn alba) that will be the topic in the next post in a few days.

I am in the process of forming a bonsai club due to the many requests and thus, have included my email address for those wishing to establish contact, which can be seen at the top of the home page. But in the meantime, it is back to the grind; so until next time take care, BW, N.




Different Perspectives

Arguably the largest faction containing the most experts and critics – politics and cuisine aside are the arts, which include music, dance, fashion, literature, film, painting and of course bonsai horticulture. The experts or critics have a field-day reviewing the work produced passing comments such as, there is no composition, no balance, depth, movement and is unnatural for example. This perspective was applied to the works of American painter Paul Jackson Pollock, (01/28/1912 – 11/08/1956) professionally known as Jackson Pollock, known for his unique style of drip painting.

The pundits, experts or critics did not know what to make of his work and usually their first question was ‘What does it say or mean‘? Pollack replied “The painting has a life of its own and I try to let it come through. The experts whom were not artists themselves so used to reviewing portraits, landscapes and marine scenes, unable to see the work for what it represented simply dismissed it giving poor reviews. Pollack retorted that “Painting is self-discovery, every good artist paints what he is.” His style and approach to painting made him into the leading force behind the abstract expressionist movement in the art world.


Breaking the rules

Arguably, this same perspective is applied to bonsai and there are those referred to as purists, who argue that we should adhere to the rules; but what are these rules? In short the definition of bonsai literally means ‘Bon’ a pot or shallow container and ‘Sai’ the tree or shrub, which are the only two components in bonsai. It does not include any other items such as rocks or miniature figurines. In addition, the purists perception of the rules also dictate the following. A bonsai composition should have balance, depth, movement and rhythm, emphasis, contrast, proportion, space and unity, that which is depicted in the original catalogue of styles. And if one wishes to remain a purist, he or she should adhere to this principle.

It is often stated in bonsai circles that what we are trying to achieve is to mimic what we see in nature, creating miniature adaptations of full sized trees. But like Pollack’s approach to painting, bonsai has also changed and this is where the rules get broken, because some bonsai styles have little in common with their wild counterparts. They are depicted as bizarre, twisted shapes, some with just a sliver of bark to keep them alive with the cambium bleached, burnt or painted. Such specimens although ‘living’ have a plastic aura about them, which arguably defies reality, yet they are considered attractive often depicting rare natural beauty as shown below.


Bizarre bonsai


Nonetheless, the purists or experts engage themselves in heated discussions concerning other designs that are not bonsai in the true sense of the word, that is if we adhere to the rules. For example, the styles ‘root over rock’ Sekijoju and Ishitsuki ‘root clinging to a rock’, a design that has caused much contention. Experts examine the composition and criticise the artists work. The rock is either too big, too small, the wrong shape, texture and colour, it lacks emphasis, is out of balance and has no proportion. Furthermore the composition does not match the pot. But Sekijoju and Ishitsuki are classed as Deshojo and do not appear in the original catalogue of styles. Neither do Ikadabuki, Netsunagari and the much frowned on Tanuki, these are designs that have gradually appeared through time.


Screen shot 2017-03-07 at 7.03.54 PM


A modern perspective

It is fair to say that bonsai design an art form, has changed over the decades and is now a concept in the mind of the individual designer and his/her perception of how it should appear, should be respected regardless of someone else’s viewpoint. In reality, a painter having completed his or her work will make any final adjustments, put it in a frame and consider it finished. But bonsai is completely different, because it is a ‘living’ sculpture requiring care and attention, constantly shaping by pruning or wiring and thus it is never finished. Even bonsai centuries old are not perfect (see the 1000 year old Ficus ginseng that resides at Crespi, Italy) posted in the article ‘New material for bonsai part II’.

Of course one can debate the issue of bonsai design indefinitely for example. Some have argued that the traditional 2D styles of the Japanese are unnatural, because the main emphasis or focal point should be the trunk. Branches that cross the trunk should either be removed or positioned away. Moreover, some practitioners contend that there should not be any scarring or imperfections as this is considered ugly, the tree must be perfect in every way. But this is a contradiction because, the techniques of sharimiki and jin (Scarring) are often incorporated into the tree to add character and are common in Japanese bonsai design.




When we look at trees in their natural state they all have branches radiating in all directions with many going across the trunk. Many trees will have natural scarring and other imperfections including broken branches, which indicate that the tree has been subjected to trauma at some point. The beauty of nature is that it is not only wild and untouched, it is real and if we are to maintain reality, then the following statement from bonsai master John Y. Naka is very appropriate. “Don’t make your tree look like a bonsai, make your bonsai look like a tree”. The following image depicts a group of Silver birch Betula pendula in their natural state.


Birch wood winter


Starting at the beginning

A question often asked especially from novice bonsai enthusiasts is ‘I have a young sapling, which I grew from seed and I am not sure of how to shape it.’ In actual fact this problem is not uncommon even for the more experienced, arguably the most important factor in design is to get the best potential out of the tree. With an untouched or virgin sapling you basically have a blank canvas on which to work, but in hindsight it would be prudent to do some research.

This can be achieved in two ways (a) if your plant is native to your region, then a trip to where full sized counterparts are growing is a good way to start. There you can study the trees formed by nature and a photograph or two, is a base on which to work. (b) If the tree is not in your region, then look on the world-wide-web for your species both as a full sized wild tree and as bonsai. In both (a) and (b) the images collected can be saved on computer. Using ‘Photoshop’ or a similar programme you can draw, cut, copy, paste and make alterations until you have a suitable design. Alternatively, bonsai styles showing various designs can be found here in ‘Bonsai Styles Parts I and II’. But the question is, will your bonsai look like a tree or some bizarre representation.
When considering a design there are a few factors to remember, that is if we adhere to the rules and these are:

  1. Taper – a fat trunk that gets thinner towards the apex.
  2. Movement – the trunk will either bend to the right or left or will incorporate a combination of both.
  3. Nebari – partially visible roots that radiate around the base of the trunk.
  4. Branch placement should alternate on both sides of the tree.
  5. Ramification – or the fine ‘twiggy’ bits at the end of the branches.

Of course all of this takes time to achieve and depends on the species and their particular growth rate. But before shaping begins, inspect the tree for any side shoots that may be developing as this will determine branch placement to the sides and rear. And where a trunk bend can be placed, because as we are always told a branch never appears on the inside of a bend only on the outside as shown below.


Trunk taper


This hand-drawn image a common design in bonsai referred to as Moyogi arguably contains most of the characteristics that may placate the purists and or critics. But does it look natural a true representation as would be found in nature, some would say yes, whilst others would probably disagree. The problem with any art form regardless of its genre is that it is prone to change and evidence of this can literally be found everywhere. It is the individual artists interpretation, we do not have to like it or partake in its culture just accept the fact that it exists. Nonetheless, the experts and or critics will crawl out of the woodwork and start pointing the finger. To conclude this discussion the following anecdote has been included.


The Bonsai exhibition – is it all worth it?

Nothing in this world is perfect no matter what the entity, perfection is something that we strive for, but rarely attained. Nonetheless, designing miniatures trees for shows or public display is another entity, that for my part simply has no appeal. Because the exhibits although attractive in their own right do not look natural, they have the appearance of a carefully shorn groomed poodle. However, my presence at such venues be they aquatic, bovine, equine, domestic and horticulture was one of the requirements of my profession.

Many years ago a commission to produce an article on a bonsai exhibition came into being, which required much consideration as to how it would be presented; revealing, quirky or serious. Arriving early before public admittance gave the opportunity to view the exhibits and the actions of their owners. Some had their specimens draped in black cloth to protect the flowers from the light, so they would be in their prime when viewed. Others were snipping here or there, trimming the moss on the pot to a fine carpet-like appearance akin to that of an 18th hole putting green.

Some were busy polishing the bonsai display stands, others spraying the trunks and leaves to give a fresh morning dew perspective. The whole activity in the display tent seemed rather intense reminiscent of worker bees in a hive, which gave a rather stressful, but comical atmosphere. Because the experts would soon be there to cast judgement and some would be elated, whilst others dejected. Having spent some considerable time documenting the theatrics and obtaining all that was needed, a trip to the beer tent to write the article was the next course of action. With the thoughts “is it really worth all the aggravation” going through my mind.


Swimming in the deep end or paddling in the shallows

Bonsai is not only an art form it is also a science meaning, that the enthusiast does require some horticultural ‘know-how’ in order to care for the health and welfare of a plant. Arguably such research can be considered a voyage of discovery; a learning curve as one gains the knowledge. But like any hobby one can become engrossed to the point where it tends to take precedence superseding other interests and can be expensive. This can be likened to constantly ‘swimming in the deep end’, whereas stepping back and taking control ‘paddling in the shallows’ is less stressful not only on the mind, but also on the wallet. Nonetheless, the degree of intensity to which a bonsai enthusiast will submerge his or herself is an individual choice.

Future articles are now put on hold for a short period, due to an influx of work nevertheless, those whom follow this web site will be kept informed of my return. Until next time BW, N.



The pH Factor (Part II)

Types of soil and their pH content

In the article ‘Bonsai soils’ there is a more descriptive analysis on the different types, but in short there are 6 basic soils:

Peat soils – are comprised of waterlogged partially-decomposed plant material including sphagnum moss, which is very high in organic matter and moisture with a pH starting approximately at 3.0

Sandy soils – contain the largest particles among the different soil types, that is dry, gritty and because there large are particles creating voids, water retention is not possible. However, sandy soil warms more quickly in the spring. Sandy soils have a pH starting at approximately 4.7

Clay soils – are the remnants of certain types of rocks eroded and weathered to form fine particles, that are high in nutrients, but they can be heavy, cold and wet in winter and very dry in summer. Clay soils have pH from 5.5 to 7.1

Chalky soils – are alkaline or lime-rich predominantly made up of calcium carbonate, they are indicative to particular landscapes including. The UK’s south downs and Wiltshire, Portugal, southern France and Spain. Chalk based soils can be either light or heavy and have a pH value from 7.1 to 8.0

Silt soils – are fertile, light and contain larger particles and are more moisture-retentive than sandy soils and drain more effectively than clay. But have a tendency to crack and crumble losing shape and structure; their pH range is approximately 6.5 to 7.

Loams – are mixtures that may include any of the above soil types depending on the needs of a particular species, albeit acidic, neutral or alkaline. For example, ericaceous plants including Azaleas genus Rhododendron family Ericaceae have a preference for higher acidity. Alternatively, Maples – genus Acer prefer a neutral soil composition, whereas the Burning Bush Euonymus alatus family Celastraceae require soil high in alkaline.

But, the acidic, neutral or alkaline content has great bearing on micro organism survival for example. Those found in acid and alkaline soils Acidophiles and Alkaliphiles respectively, are not as varied as the Neutrophiles found in neutral soil compositions. The pH range of 6.6 to 7.5 is more amenable to their needs in order to function. Generally speaking, there are four types of soil compositions including an all-purpose mixture for seeds, acidic, neutral and alkaline. Although they may vary according to the specific pH needs of a particular plant species.

Seed all-purpose mix – with this soil composition there are a lot of discussions as to which type is correct. Some will argue that the following mixture produces the best results:

3 parts organic matter, such as peat, humus or sawdust, 1 part sand, perlite, vermiculite or a combination of all three and 1 part sphagnum moss.
Others contend that seed soil mediums such as John Innes No1., Miracle-Gro, Levington or Thompson and Morgan, available ready mixed are perfectly capable of doing the job. But regardless of which type is preferred, all seeds require a form of stratification. (Described in the article The Stratification of seeds) Because this is the key to induce the embryo to germinate regardless of which soil composition is used albeit acid, neutral or alkaline. Moreover, it can be argued that seeds once stratified can germinate on a piece of damp kitchen paper, in a saucer of water or simply where they fall as shown below.

Scots Pine seedlings Pinus sylvestris

A good seed soil normally consists of heat-treated loam, sphagnum moss, peat, horticultural sand and fertilizers, which will last for approximately 30 days. After which the seedlings will need to be pricked out and transferred to a low nutrient soil mixture and left to develop. This soil composition slows down the growth rate allowing the plant to ‘put-on-weight’ meaning trunk and foliage development. It is also suitable for cuttings, which have taken root.

There are many types of seed soils available world-wide, in Finland a common mixture often used is ‘Musta Multa’, which roughly translated is ‘Black Mould’ a rich composition for most plant types. This product can be likened to the old but familiar ‘grow-bags’ where people who had no gardens or lived in apartments could grow vegetables in confined spaces. On its own this soil compost can be rather soggy if too much water is used, dissipating nutrients via water run off. To prevent this, a little sand, vermiculite, crushed clay or granite chips in the mix, which contain additional micro organisms usually solves this problem. It also allows air to flow through the medium permitting bacteria to function and although retains moisture does not become compact or waterlogged.

Acidic soil – The basic elements which cause acidity in soil are, the organic matter itself and the acidic mineral content within, which break down the matter through time making the soil acidic. Soil can also become acidic due to the loss of key minerals, potassium, magnesium, and calcium that have been leached out of the soil by excessive contact with water, thus the soil becomes acidic. This is a common phenomenon in peat bogs and pine forests and such soil is probably the best to use especially for conifers.

But before venturing out to obtain a sack full, which is going to upset the environmentalists and is also possibly illegal, there is a an easier method. Acid soil or Ericaceous soil to give the correct terminology is an entirely organic and peat-reduced compost, available at most horticultural establishments world-wide. Brands include, Thompson and Morgan, John Innes No 2., Bowers, Growise and Verve. Nonetheless, an ericaceous compost mix can lose its acidity over a period of time, depending on the amount used. For example, a large bonsai in a shallow pot will deplete the minerals more quickly than one in a deep pot.

Many horticulturists resort to using acidifying materials to counter this. For example such materials may include, pine needles or sphagnum moss placed on top of the soil allowing their acidic properties to penetrate to the roots. The use of Sulphur, Aluminium sulphate and Ferrous sulphate (sulphate of iron) are also used, but these may take some time to become effective, as they need to be broken down by the bacteria. Other methods are to use only rain water with white vinegar added (1 to 2 tablespoons in 4.5 litres or one gallon of water) as opposed to household tap water that has been treated with alkaline agents.


To make an ericaceous medium the following ingredients can be used;
Organic compost, sand, crushed clay or granite chips. The amount each of these components used depends on the acidic pH value one wants to achieve. Alternatively one can resort to using just Akadama, which many bonsai enthusiasts use for coniferous varieties, for example the Mugo pine Pinus mugo.


Neutral soil – is ready available from garden centres, department and hardware stores and can even be taken from your own garden. Of course the latter will need to be tested to ascertain the pH level, which may be in the region of 6.7 to 7.3 – slightly acid to slightly alkaline – a range that many species of plants can tolerate. But much depends on your particular region and temperate zone.


Arguably, there is no specific chart that states what type of ingredients should be used for this soil composition, as horticulturists world-wide have their own preference; what works for them. However, any neutral soil composition needs to be prepared to facilitate moisture retention, aeration and to allow the micro organisms to function, hence the use of grit, crushed baked clay pellets, sand, perlite or vermiculite and even bark chips can be used.

Alkaline soil – has a high saturation of soluble salts that are known as either sodic or saline with the former being dominated by sodium and the latter dominated by calcium and magnesium. Alkaline predominantly limestone is mixed with topsoil to produce a medium specifically for plants requiring a high pH level that can vary according to one’s particular needs. Manufacturers whom produce this product are for example, John Innes No3., Thompson and Morgan, Bowers and Rolawn. To make an alkaline soil composition, one can use the following ingredients.
Neutral top soil or prepared loam with a pH at approximately 7.0, clay or silt, washed grit and a lime additive. The amount of lime used will depend on the pH level one wishes to achieve. Tap water should be used as it is normally treated with alkaline agents.

The manufacturers instructions are wrong!“We did our research and followed the guidelines, all was fine in the beginning, but now the plant’s leaves are turning yellow and dropping.” Whether you purchased a ready-made soil composition or have mixed your own, it is doubtful that this is the cause for an unhealthy plant. Because reputable manufacturers even those mentioned above have been producing various soil mediums for generations that are tried and scientifically tested. Alternatively, if you have mixed your own soil composition, then you will probably know what ingredients to use and the proportional amount.

The possible causes for this down turn in the tree’s health is stress, which can be attributed to various factors. For example, inadequate drainage, no air circulation in the soil, damaged or compacted roots the latter known as ‘pot-bound’, the lack of nutrients, low light and an incorrect pH. These are the common causes why leaf tissue turns yellow referred to as chlorosis because, the essential green pigment chlorophyll is absent. Arguably the first course of action is to check the soil composition’s pH level, that can be found in the chart in part I of this discussion, which brings us on to the subject of soil pH testing methods.

Soil testing applications – for a true and accurate pH test of your particular soil medium one should opt for a laboratory test, but this can be expensive. Therefore, one resorts to purchasing various readily available test kits from the basic ‘2-test’ test kit (approximately 8€ to 13€ plus postage and packing) to the more expensive multi-test kits. (95€ to 350€+) Other devices for testing soil pH are in the form of meters both analogue and digital, some are purely for pH testing whilst other are multi-functional as shown below.

Soil pH test kits 5

But before venturing out to purchase a pH test kit, the question is – what type would be suitable and the factors to assist in this decision can be based on two simple questions:

1. The pH range for a particular plant species
2. Was the soil purchased from a horticulture outlet or a self-made composition

1. Most bonsai with the exception of some coniferous and deciduous species are able to tolerate a pH range from 6.7 to 7.3 and have the ability to prosper. For a more descriptive pH requirement for a particular species, refer to the chart in part I of this discussion.
But, any soil composition used in bonsai is an important concern, because this is where the plant receives the nutrients and moisture it needs to thrive.
2. If the soil used was purchased from a store or horticulture outlet, then information as to its composition and pH range will be written on the bag. Alternatively, if you mix your own soil composition/s using ingredients from various sources, then you will ultimately be changing the pH level, which needs to be checked. Therefore, the opening statement of ‘what soil pH test kit would be suitable’, boils down to two factors.

(a) Soil purchased from a reputable outlet will normally state its composition and pH level and even if we add grit, vermiculite, perlite, crushed baked clay etc, the pH level will not change that much. Therefore, investing in pH test kit is not really necessary nevertheless, it is an advantage to have a small one simply for peace of mind and to know what the pH level of a particular soil medium is.
(b) If mixing a particular soil composition using ingredients from various sources, then it is important to know the pH content of each component to ensure that the final medium is acceptable for the species; albeit acidic, neutral or alkaline. Therefore, investment in a testing kit is an advantage.

Soil test kits – Finding a suitable soil test kit does need some research as there are literally countless manufacturers all claiming their particular product/s produce/s the best results. They range from expensive laboratory equipment to analogue and digital probe meters, to relatively small cheap kits you can put in your pocket. The majority of these have been tried and tested with positive and negative results, that can be viewed via the world-wide-web. To give an indication as to the reviews, they have been condensed and listed as follows.

Litmus test – requires a small sample of soil mixed with distilled water in which, the paper is inserted for a few seconds. The paper’s colour change is then compared to those of a colour chart and an estimation of the soil’s pH is then determined. However, this method of testing is not very accurate, because it can only read a pH level in whole numbers for example 5.0, 6.0 and 7.0, which is an approximation. Therefore, as soil pH levels are measured in increments of both whole and half numbers for example 6.0, 6.5, 7.0 and 7.5 this litmus test approach is one to be avoided.


Chemical test – soil tests conducted by commercial laboratories are accurate in that they are able to determine mineral content and compound structures within a soil sample. For example, major nutrients nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Secondary nutrients sulphur, calcium, magnesium and minor nutrients; iron, manganese, copper, zinc, boron, molybdenum and chlorine. Such tests can be expensive, but for horticulturists wishing to use this method of testing there are products available. However, low cost ‘2 test’ test kits (top left image shown above) are only able to give an approximation of the pH level and that is the limit of their capability. Moving up the scale (top middle image shown above) are test kits able to determine the presence of major nutrients and are more accurate in reading the pH level. Alternatively, the test kit (top right image shown above) is able to search for both major and secondary nutrients, but has difficulty in ascertaining minor nutrients.


Analogue and digital meters – (shown in the above image) come in various forms from simple pH meters to multi functional probes able to test for moisture content, temperature, light quality and pH. Some manufacturers claim their meters are able to determine the presence of all nutrient categories, major, secondary and minor although this is debatable. Another argument concerning these multi functional meters is why test for moisture, humidity and light. Surely the horticulturist knows whether his or her bonsai has the right water content, knows the temperature/humidity at any given time and is aware of the plants position in relation to the light source.


For bonsai enthusiasts who use readily available soil mediums purchased from reputable outlets, a pH testing kit is not that essential. But for horticulturists making their own soil compositions, investing in a testing kit is advantageous as opposed to not. Because it allows for an accurate pH level to be determined correct for a particular species. If a pH testing kit is desirable then arguably preference should be given to those only dealing with soil pH levels as this is our primary concern. Not multi functional meters with reference to moisture, humidity and light content as these are unnecessary. But whatever test device you opt for, make sure it is suitable to your needs.

And finally, a message to O.T. known as ‘Tiger’ – I have some Maple (Acer) seedlings to give away if you are interested. Until next time BW, N.

The pH factor (Part I)

The first signs of demise

Bonsai either given as a gift, individually purchased or one cultivated by other means, grafting, a cutting or from seed is usually lavished with care and attention to ensure its health and vitality. As the seasons progress new buds flowers and or fruit appear, enhancing the tree’s ruggedness and or beauty, a wonderful miniature specimen of its full size counterpart. But things begin to change, autumn is still a long way off, the tree’s leaves start to turn yellow and this is the first sign that something is not as it should be and questions start running through ones mind.

  • Was it watered enough or too much  
  • Was it given the correct type and quantity of feed
  • Should it have had full sun or partial shade
  • Has it been attacked by pests or disease
  • Did it need re-potting
  • Was it pruned at the wrong time of year

One then resorts to searching the world wide web looking for answers in trying to solve the problem/s, but how can we resolve the problem if we don’t know what it is. The above mentioned questions may have something to do with the tree’s poor state of health or potential demise, but not in every case. Arguably the main contributing factor causing a tree to wither and die is the medium or soil composition in which the tree is planted.

Acidic to alkaline

Soil contains a multitude of living organisms that consume, digest, and cycle nutrients. These living organisms include archaea, bacteria, actinomycetes, fungi, algae, protozoa, and a wide range of insects for example. Mites, nematodes, earthworms and ants all of which are important to the vitality of a soil composition, which in turn is vitally important to any and all growing mediums. But if these much needed organisms have expired, then the soil is effectively spent and of little use. However, the lack of organisms although of great importance is not the only issue, what is just as important is the type of soil composition and its pH content.

For example, some species such as Rhododendrons and Azaleas family Ericaceae will only survive in acidic soils. Whilst others the common Beech Fagus sylvatica and Hawthorn Crataegus laevigata prefer alkaline and some can be borderline, Cotoneaster family Rosaceae and Hazel family Corylaceae. But how do we know what kind of soil is correct for our particular bonsai? pH is measured from 1 to 14 and if we consider that a pH of 7.0 is neutral, all above will be alkaline and all below will be acidic, as shown in the following chart for the most common species found in bonsai.


pH chart.1

pH chart.2

pH chart.3

As the chart indicates most trees will survive in soil which has some degree of acidity up to a more neutral range, whereas others can tolerate a more alkaline based composition. To give a clearer definition consider the image below, which gives an indication of the acidic and alkaline values and the pH tolerance zone for most plants.

Soil pH graph

In the next article of ‘The pH factor’ (Part II) we look at soil differences, the possibilities of changing their pH content and a brief look at soil pH testing devices. Until next time BW, N.

The solo enthusiast versus the club member

Filming a silver birch wood recently a passer by enquired why, as the trees were devoid of foliage and looked rather ugly. The reply given was that some of the footage would be used to support a discussion on a pending bonsai article. As the conversation developed, he remarked that he had always been interested in bonsai and would like to know more about the art, now he had retired. “Are there any bonsai clubs or associations where one can join?” Unfortunately there are no bonsai clubs in this area that I am aware of was the reply. “That is a pity, bonsai are sold locally in garden centres and stores so there must be some interest.” Yes you are probably correct in your assumption, but it really is up to the individual whether he or she wants to be part of a club or stay as a solo enthusiast.

The solo enthusiast

For my part being a member of a club was not an option when my interest in bonsai began in the mid 1970s because, (a) my work meant much travelling with long periods away from home. (b) There were no clubs or associations in my then vicinity where one could gain the much needed knowledge. (c) Not having permanent roots and leading a nomadic existence is another factor. These are the reasons for remaining a solo bonsai enthusiast. Moreover, it can be argued that there is not much you can achieve as a club member that you cannot do as a solo enthusiast; you just have to work a lot harder.

Meaning that to gain bonsai knowledge, one has to immerse ones self in plenty of research for example. The attributes of a particular species of tree/s you may have and how to care for it or them, when to feed and what kind to use, when to prune and when to wire, preventing or eradicating pests and disease and the type of soil composition to use. At that time there were a few horticultural books and magazines to shed some light on these subjects, but there was no world wide web as we have today, so much of the work done was mainly trial and error.

However, now there are countless bonsai clubs and associations world-wide many accessible via the world wide web. All offering tips, tricks and advice from both the novice and the experienced through written text and production of video presentation, many of which can be found on Youtube – some good, some bad and some indifferent. The problem is that it takes time to trawl through it all to find what is relevant to ones needs without getting side tracked, which can be a real pain in the rear or a learning curve depending on how you approach the task.

Arguably the world wide web is very useful in that with one click of the mouse button, here is a site that has everything you need. From pre-bonsai specimens, soil compositions and fertilizers, ceramics, training pots, tools, various gauges of wire both copper and aluminium, cut pastes and wound sealants etc. But just going on line and purchasing what you think you need for example, a ready-made tool kit can be expensive, (100€ to 300€) only to find that improvisation using some standard DIY tools can reduce the cost considerably.

Another bone of contention is finding a reputable supplier who may not be in your area and the down side is the cost of postage, because bonsai equipment especially ceramics are relatively heavy. One can bargain for discount but, you usually have to purchase more than you need to get this. With ceramics, you see a pot listed that is presumably ideal for your tree, but when it arrives via the post it does not resemble its advertised picture. It looks awful when associated with your tree – now you are stuck with a pot you don’t want having paid good money for, which is now redundant – a hard and expensive lesson.

The club member

Being a member of a club or association, can reduce much of the hard work a solo enthusiast has to endure due to the pooled knowledge. For example one is able to receive information on the following subjects.

  • Care and general maintenance of bonsai

  • Advice on soil compositions and fertilisation

  • Styling, wiring and pruning, applying jin or sharimiki and uro

  • Prevention against pests and disease, how to make horticultural soaps

  • How to make basic tools and turntables via improvisation

  • Ceramics, how to choose the correct shape, size and colour

Moreover, a club is able to purchase different gauges of wire in bulk that can be sold at cost saving money. Initiate agreements with a supplier/s for example, the sale or return of ceramics and tools for either hand or power use. In addition, field trips can be organised, lectures and demonstrations from the experienced can be arranged. These are just some of the many advantages a club or association member has over the solo enthusiast.

What does it take to start a club?

It all depends on the level you want to start at, jumping in at the deep end will cost money you cannot recuperate. Stating off small is much easier, a few friends and or colleagues meeting once a month at a members house or apartment is a good way to start, failing this a coffee house or tea room will suffice. Advertising is always a headache and can be expensive especially if using the local press. One way to solve this is by word of mouth, putting adds on shop notice boards and if possible garden centres.

Another way is to make a web site, one does not need a degree in computer technology to achieve this as there are ready-made uncomplicated sites, able to accommodate your immediate needs. Such sites can be had for under 20€ for a years subscription and it is a way of putting the word out; getting known. Another consideration is to make a public presentation as an incentive to motivate new members to join. Such a presentation should be made by a member, preferably one with bonsai knowledge. The presentation should be short (10 mins) with time for questions and answers in addition, there should also be bonsai trees on display to aid the incentive.

Immediate needs

The club will need a chairman/woman to start and chair the meetings, which should be kept to a minimum leaving the majority of the allotted time for members to integrate. A secretary/treasurer who deals with the status quo and any new developments. All relative information can be channeled back to the members via email, rather than a printed format, which can be expensive and time consuming. A bank account for subscriptions and payments, the former to be agreed upon by the members.

As the club grows a venue will need to be found, preferably one free of charge, or one at low cost, because this is relative to the amount of each member’s subscription. Meaning, 12 x the monthly hire cost divided by the amount of members. A venue is important because it facilitates the need to accommodate such activities as discussions and demonstrations on bonsai horticulture, it also allows for members to meet and greet and share their knowledge. The exchanging of plants, cuttings and seeds, ceramics and other appropriate items, thus the club or association becomes a family.

A personal perspective

As stated, the bonsai club does have advantages over the solo enthusiast, but there is a more appropriate reason for its existence and it is for the following reason.

As we know nothing in this world lasts forever, even us mere mortals are part of the cycle of life. Our bonsai if cared for properly will undoubtedly out last us, but what then becomes of them once we shed our mortal coil. Will all the hard work, time and effort go to waste if homes cannot be found for them. Arguably one can sell them at auction where they are cared for by ‘green-fingered’ enthusiasts, which is the norm, but what actually happens to them is any ones guess. Going down this path fills me with trepidation, because those professing to be knowledgeable when they are not leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. What is more appropriate is to donate a bonsai collection to a club where they can be distributed among the members, whom will care for their health and continued development, which is a more appealing course of action.

The long dark cold days of winter are fading from memory as spring approaches, which for the bonsai enthusiast is when life begins anew, a time where our enthusiasm in bonsai is rekindled, not that it was ever diminished. It matters not whether one has only an indoor bonsai so called because of their temperate characteristics, a hardy outdoor species or a collection of both, the learning curve begins again. As stated the solo enthusiast has much work to attend, whereas the club member can reduce this considerably. Nonetheless, whatever your chosen path, success in your endeavours as bonsai enthusiasts is always tantamount. Until next time BW, N.

Toxic Bonsai Part IV

Toxic Bonsai Part IV

Umbrella tree (Queensland)Schefflera actinophylla. Family Araliaceae. Is an evergreen tree that grows to 15m (49ft) tall, native to the tropical rain forests of New Guinea, Java and Australia’s eastern Queensland. This decorative tree when mature, produces racemes up to 2m (6.5ft) long with an abundance of small dull red flowers beginning in late spring. Schefflera actinophylla is considered to be an aggressive plant prolific in growth, hence the reason why it is an uncommon specimen in bonsai collections. Schefflera actinophylla does contain toxins, but these are not considered to be dangerous to humans. Ingesting the leaves can cause mouth tingling and numbness, vomiting and abdominal pain and sap when in contact with skin can cause irritation and rash.

Umbrella treeSchefflera arboricola. (syn. Heptapleurum arboricolum) also a member of the Araliaceae family is native to Taiwan, but can be found world-wide as a house plant and also in bonsai. S. arboricola should not be mistaken for S. actinophylla, because of the height difference. Moreover, S. arboricola has different leaf colour and patterns some variegated with cream to white flowers with yellow edges or centres although much depends on the individual cultivar. S. arboricola is poisonous and carries the same toxins as S. actinophylla and leaf consumption can cause mouth tingling and numbness, vomiting and abdominal pain and sap when in contact with skin can cause irritation and rash.

ViburnumLantana. Family Adoxaceae. Also known as the ‘wayfaring tree’ is a deciduous shrub native to Europe, but can be found in Asia and northern Africa and is a relatively common specimen in bonsai. Its oval dark green leaves have a downy or hair like covering on the underside and flowers that are creamy white in colour and green fruit, which ripen to a bright red eventually turning black when mature. The berries if consumed although mildly toxic can cause vomiting, diarrhoea and abdominal pain if ingested in large quantities.

ViburnumOpulus. Family Adoxaceae. Is often referred to by its common name the ‘Guelder rose’ and is native to Europe, northern Africa and central Asia. This deciduous shrub has three lobed leaves that are opposite to each other having an appearance similar to maples. The flowers in clusters are white in colour with their centre being fertile surrounded by an infertile ring that are produced in early summer and fruit that is bright red. The berries if consumed although mildly toxic can cause vomiting, diarrhoea and abdominal pain if ingested in large quantities.

Virginia creeperParthenocissus quinquefolia. Family Vitaceae. Is native to north America, Canada, Mexico, Guatemala and Europe. It is a prolific deciduous climbing vine reaching heights of over 30m (100ft) and attaches itself to smooth surfaces by small adhesive pads. This plant normally seen growing on the sides of buildings has striking colours throughout the seasons, the leaves change from various greens to yellow to orange to red and purple and this colour change makes the species attractive to bonsai. The flowers are small and greenish white in colour, which change into purple/black berries in the autumn. The sap, leaves and berries are poisonous because they contain the toxin oxalic acid, prolonged skin contact can be dangerous and ingesting any part even small amounts can cause kidney damage and death to humans.

White cedarSpp. Family Cupressaceae. Include Chamaecyparis thyoides – Atlantic white cypress, Cupressus lusitanica – Mexican white cedar, Thuja occidentalis – Northern white cedar, Thuja plicata – western red cedar and Cryptomeria japonica – Japanese cedar. Cedars are conifers and are found in many parts of the world, from northern climes to temperate zones. They have many uses for example, grown as barriers, wind breaks, dense hedging in parks and gardens and are a common species in bonsai. However, all cedars carry toxins the primary irritant being plicatic acid and some are more potent than others for example, the western red cedar and Japanese cedar have the highest content. Exposure to plicatic acid can cause severe asthma, rhinitis or conjunctivitis, that can be progressive. In addition, plicatic acid in contact with skin can cause a hypersensitivity reaction, a type of response seen in tuberculin skin tests.

WillowSalix alba. Family Salicaceae. Is a species native to Europe but is also found in western and central Asia and within this genus are: Salix alba Vitellina – a willow with yellow shoots and Salix alba var. Britzensis, Cardinal and Chermesina having orange to red shoots. The willow a medium sized deciduous tree can be in a weeping form or with a dome shaped crown with long thin leaves pointed at the end. (5–10cm long x 0.5–1.5cm wide) It is often found in bonsai in designs that include slanting (Shakan) and (Fukinagashi) wind swept. Male and female trees each produce their own flowers in the form of catkins that appear in the spring and when mature are wind pollinated. However, the willow contain salicylate toxins in the bark that if ingested can cause the following. Ulcers, nausea, vomiting, stomach bleeding, kidney inflammation, tinnitus and skin rash.

WisteriaSpp. Family Fabaceae. Includes various species of climbing bines (Plants that climb by their shoots) Wisteria brachybotrys, Wisteria brevidentata, Wisteria floribunda, Wisteria frutescens, Wisteria macrostachya, Wisteria sinesis, Wisteria venusta and Wisteria villosa. That are predominantly native to the eastern north America, China, Japan and Korea. Although these species are found in bonsai, arguably the most common is the Wisteria sinesis that when in bloom has a striking floral display for example. The great wisteria at the Ashikaga flower park in Tochigi, Japan, which covers more than 1,990 square meters over half an acre. Wisteria flowers are between 10 to 80cm in length and produced in pendulous racemes and are either purple, violet, pink or white. All parts of the wisteria are poisonous they contain the toxin saponin and if ingested the symptoms are: nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhoea, severe gastroenteritis, dizziness, confusion, speech problems and collapse.

Xanthorhizasimplicissima. Family Ranunculaceae. The only member of the genus Xanthorhiza, is native to the eastern states of north America. In the wild this shrub grows in sandy soil to a height of approximately 90cm. Its leaves are in a spiral configuration up to 18cm in length with flowers (6 to 20cm) that are produced in star shaped forms of reddish brown to purple. This attractive plant although used for ground cover in gardens, is uncommon in bonsai as its main stem does not produce a large girth. Xanthorhiza is poisonous, its contain the toxin berberine, which can cause nausea, dyspnoea, diarrhoea, nephritis, urinary tract disorders, skin and eye irritation.

Xanthocerassorbifolium. Family Sapindaceae. Native to northern China is a flowering and fruiting species of small tree growing to approximately 8m and can be seen in bonsai collections although uncommon. Its mid-green leaves 12–30cm in length are pinnate with flowers 10–20cm long containing 5 white petals arranged in panicle form, that appear in spring. The fruit a leathery pod splits open in three sections when ripe to reveal the black seeds, which resemble a small horse chestnut seed. Originally the flowers, leaves and fruits were eaten raw with little or no side effects evident. Nonetheless, it would be prudent for those with sensitive digestive systems to cook them before consumption.

YewTaxus Spp. Family Taxaceae. Yews are widely used in landscaping, ornamental horticulture and bonsai in which over 400 cultivars have been created including. The Japanese yew Taxus cuspidata, Pacific yew Taxus brevifolia and Canadian yew Taxus canadensis. All derived from the European yew Taxus baccata considered as Europe’s oldest living tree of which, a specimen can be found in St Cynog’s church yard in Wales dated to approximately 5000 years. The yew majestic and sombre in its appearance has a reputation as a harbinger of bad tidings for example. The yew tree often found in church graveyards as a symbol of sadness was also made into longbows, a weapon used in the battle of Agincourt 1415 by the English in their defeat of the French cavalry.

Yews are relatively slow-growing and can reach heights of 20m (66ft), with a trunk girth averaging 5m. (16ft) The bark is reddish brown with lanceolate, flat dark-green leaves positioned in a frond-like form on the stem. The fruit consists of a bright red cone called an Aril in which a single seed is contained, these are subsequently consumed by birds who disperse them via their digestive system.

All parts of the yew with the exception of the Aril are highly poisonous to humans as they contain the toxin taxane, that can cause the following if ingested. Low blood counts, arthralgias and myalgias, pain in the joints and muscles, peripheral neuropathy – numbness and tingling of the hands and feet. Hair loss, mouth sores, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea and in some cases the results can be fatal. Moreover, male and monoecious yews in this genus release extremely small cytotoxic pollen, causing headaches, lethargy, aching joints, itching, and skin rashes and asthma.

Zanthoxylum – Kauaense. Family Rutaceae. Is a genus containing approximately 250 species of coniferous and deciduous trees and shrubs, indigenous to temperate and sub-tropical regions. It is known as the ‘prickly ash’ and is a common species in bonsai. The bark has limpet shaped protrusions containing sharp thorns at the centre, its bright green leaves are oval to oblong in shape with 6 to 8 in pairs on a single stem. The fruit are dull red berries tightly arranged in a cluster, that when ripe are used to make the spice Sichuan pepper. According to Asian herbal remedies, the bark was extensively used as a remedy for rheumatism, toothache and colic. Zanthoxylum is not considered poisonous to humans, but it does have the toxin Sesamin, which can cause digestive issues including, nausea, diarrhoea and abdominal pain. Other symptoms may include Anaphylaxis, an extreme case of allergy caused by Sesamin. All edible parts of the tree must be properly prepared prior to ingestion.

ZelkovaSerrata Spp. Family Ulmaceae. Often know as the Japanese or Chinese elm has two varieties, Japan and mainland eastern Asia Zelkova serrata var. serrata, and in Taiwan Zelkova serrata var. Tarokoensis. Z. serrata is a deciduous tree that in the wild can reach a height in excess of 30m (100ft +) and is favoured for its ornamental characteristics. A short fat trunk from which many branches radiate in a typical broom style. (Hokidachi) Its leaves are round to oblong in different shades of green, (Depending on the species) that change through the seasons to yellows, oranges and reds. The flowers in clusters are yellowish-green, which turn brown as they mature. Z. serrata a popular species is regularly found in bonsai collections. Z. serrata has in the past been used for herbal remedies including stabilising the womb during child birth nonetheless, it would be prudent to seek advice before ingesting parts of this species.

The trees and shrubs mentioned in this list are all toxic to some degree for example. In the beginning of the article part I information was given on the Acacia, a native of the African savanna, that have an abundance of thorns for protection. They also use poison in their leaves as a second line of defence against predation, predominantly from browsing wildlife.

Flora once indigenous to specific climate zones are now common place throughout the world in parks, gardens and bonsai, due to their discovery and availability. These species cultivated for their fruit and flowers and other various uses, all have some form of defence. Their toxicity ranges from mild, meaning having little effect on humans and domestic pets, to being potentially fatal.

As to a particular species’ poisonous capabilities we are basically unconcerned, probably due to its benign appearance or attractiveness and addition to a bonsai collection. Nonetheless, this article was written in order to shed some light on floral toxicity and the potential hazards that exist. But it does not mean we should take to wearing protective apparel. Even the most toxic of bonsai specimens, the Yew – Taxus can be handled, providing we refrain from ingesting any part of it and ensuring that any body part in contact, predominantly the hands and the tools we use are thoroughly cleaned.
Until next time BW, N.