WHERE THERE IS LIFE THERE IS  . . . . .
By Jerry Meislik (Whitefish, Montana) Journal contributing editor

              One thing that has become all too obvious to me is that not all bonsai improve over time. That reality is hard to swallow. Bonsai as living things have a life course as well as a finite lifespan. They often begin as youngsters with lots of potential, move into awkward adolescence, then hopefully with good guidance mature into refined adults and ultimately decline or die. That is the fate of all living things, bonsai included. The following is the story of a bonsai tree that followed a long and tortuous path to its completed journey.

               I purchased the tree from a friend in about 1990. His business was to rent trees for parties and had perhaps 30 large Ficus benjamina about 10-14 feet tall in 75 gallon containers. He would truck these to churches and halls for weddings and other occasions to decorate and enliven the rooms. Once the affair was done the trees would be taken back to his greenhouse to await the next event. These trees were basically large standards, tall trees with no low branches and a canopy at the top, with no sort of training other than occasionally trimming them back to keep them from outgrowing their containers.

                I selected one tree from all the trees because I liked the base (nebari) of the tree. After some study of the tree, I air-layered the top of the tree to use as a houseplant to decorate our home. I anticipated that the finished height of the bonsai would be about 30 inches so I cut the remaining trunk down to about 20 leaving space for 10-12 of future new growth to complete the apex.

                 Over the ensuing months new foliage popped out on the trunk but no new breaks of foliage in the top 1/3 of the tree. I have learned over the years that these type of reduction cuts on Ficus benjamina are risky. Benjamina may not break back reliably where one would like. I suggest now that students who wish to do reduction cuts on benjamina allow a much longer stem to remain and to shorten the residual trunk once bud back occurs; in this way allowing more of the trunk to sprout a new terminal. Shortening further can then be accomplished if needed.

PROBLEM ONE

                Knowing well that the terminal trunk, now with no new leaves or branches would die back to areas where there are living branches left me an option to design a very short and stubby tree, which I did not envision, or to approach graft branches to the apex and so keep the cambium alive and feeding the new apex.

                I decided to bring up two very fine branch sprouts from below and approach graft them into the sides of the terminal trunk. I did not use any cut-paste or other hormonal or protective measures but just made a groove deep enough to accommodate the approach grafted branches. Simple staples from my desk stapler were used to hold the grafts in place.  Since I was not sure which way the apex should flow I did one graft on each side of the trunk. Fortunately, both grafts took and over time I decided to use both of the grafts; the left one as a dominant apex and the other as a secondary apex.

               Once the grafts had taken strongly their connection to the lower trunk was severed and the grafts were allowed rampant growth to develop enough caliper to make the transition from sawed off trunk top to new apices believable. This transition would take something like 5 or more years to become visually believable.  Over time I felt that using both apices would be better than transitioning to a single apex to help in creating a deciduous tree design. The two apices were allowed strong growth and periodically shortened back to increase taper, ramification, and directional change.

   

         (Left) This image is about 3 years after the top of the tree was removed and grafts placed, about  1992.  (Center) Apex of the tree showing the severed top, red line and the two approach grafts in blue lines - notice that staples secure the grafts!  (Right) The tree shown in 1995 with the top graft allowed to grow several feet tall to bulk it up.

               Over time it became apparent that the tree was getting too tall and I preferred to have this tropical tree develop a wide crown typical of growth in warm climates. This involved cutting back the top of the tree while allowing the branches to grow horizontally to widen out the canopy.

PROBLEMS ALONG THE WAY

                The branches began to become appropriately sized for the bonsai but the branches were growing upward and needed to be brought down. Heavy wire would not do the job so saw cuts were placed along the main branches to allow moving the branches to a lower position as well as introducing more directional change.  Branches were also allowed periodic wild growth followed by chopping back to induce taper and movement into the branches.

 

       (Left) The tree growing happily with two grafted apices and showing good health. (Right) In 2000, the right lowest branch has died and is being replaced with a new very small sprout

MORE PROBLEMS 

                 For no obvious reason the right lower branch died in 1999-2000! I was about to place a graft to replace the dead branch when spontaneously a tiny sprout developed on the trunk just behind the dead branch. Over time this was allowed to grow wildly in order to thicken it up. I used several techniques to get this new sprout to bulk up and to become a believably heavy first branch.

                One technique was to allow the branch to grow wildly without any trimming.

                A second technique was the defoliation of the whole tree leaving the new branch to grow with its foliage untouched. This allowed the branch to grow faster and to catch up to the other branches that were being slowed down with periodic defoliation.

               The third technique was keeping the terminal of the branch strongly heading upward.

 

          (Left)  Right branch being allowed wild growth and the tip directed strongly upward to thicken it up.  (Right)  Tree shown defoliated except for the right branch to again help it thicken relative to the defoliated branches

  

          (Left) Yet another thickening trick allowing the right branch to elongate and then cutting it back when properly thickened.  (Right) The tree looking good but needing the top shortened and restrained

                About two years ago more bad news came gradually with the death of the left lowest branch. This was followed 6 months later by with the loss of the right lowest branch. Early in this process the whole tree was repotted and the soil and roots closely examined to determine if there was a problem with the soil or root system but nothing seemed amiss. Yet, steadily the remainder of the tree dried and died from the bottom up.

  

        (Left)  Severely trimmed back to get more ramification into the existing branches and to widen out the canopy.  (Right)  This 2012 photo shows the tree in its final glory. Soon it would be in decline and dead.

CONCLUSION 

                 I have no firm idea of why this tree died after more than 25 years of bonsai training. Normally with the death of a bonsai I have a good idea of the cause of a loss. In this case nothing seemed to be a problem and despite some vague ideas the exact cause remains a mystery.  I learned a lot from this tree while grafting, styling, shaping and caring for it for so many years. The loss is unfortunate but ultimately all trees do die.  As artists working with a perishable material we have to accept that fact and use the voyage as a learning process.

               - - - Jerry  (jerry@bonsaihunk.us)    URL: www.bonsaihunk.us

COMMENTS BY DAVID

                 Jerry, mahalo for sharing this great article!  Although not a "lived happily ever after" ending, it's the most impressive documentation of the creation of a significant bonsai over a 25 year period.  THERE ARE A LOT OF TROPICAL BONSAI LESSONS HERE!  First,  25 years may seem to be a long time.  But it really isn't when you consider that the aged traditional temperate climate trees of Japan are mere young and undeveloped if they were grown as seedlings for 25 years. TRADITIONAL OUTDOOR BONSAI GROW VERY SLOWLY COMPARED TO TROPICAL BONSAI! 

                 TROPICAL BONSAI LESSON #2:  Ficus bonsai are amongst the fastest growing,  especially if you can give it optimum growing conditions!  Jerry's plant room in northern Montana is impressive and makes it possible for him to match or surpass the kind of tropical plant growth that I can get in Hawaii. FOR OPTIMUM GROWTH, CREATE OPTIMUM GROWING CONDITIONS! 

                 TROPICAL BONSAI LESSON #3:   In the 1950's and 1960's in Hawaii,  bonsai was trained primarily from seeds and cuttings and they seemed to take forever to grow using the very conservative continual pinching of the tips and growing in small bonsai pots.  Papa Kaneshiro never wanted to prune anything larger than a pencil for fear of creating unnatural scars.  In the 1970's we took Hong Kong's penjing master Yee-su Wu's "Clip-and-Grow" techniques to the next level. At Fuku-Bonsai we renamed it "REDUCTION-BUILDING."  It's really quite logical:  "If you want a tree with a 4" thick trunk,  start with a tree with a 4" trunk,  reduce it, build it out, reduce and do it with a plan."  That's really what Jerry has shared with us, along with a lot of details and techniques that make it work. FIRST LEARN THE BASICS WELL,  THEN GET INTO THE FAST-TRACK AND USE ACCELERATED GROWTH TECHNIQUES AND START WITH OLDER ADVANCED PLANT MATERIALS! 

                 When I began in Hawaii in 1962, bonsai was a very secretive past-time and most people just did not fully understand it.  Then,  bonsai was one big bag of secrets and tricks and no one shared.  Most did not know the entire set of principles.  Few were willing to teach and we honor Papa Kaneshiro who taught us what he knew,  encouraged us to keep experimenting, and to share what we learned. In 1974 I met California's master John Naka and was impressed with the humility and resourcefulness of this gentle bonsai giant!  In 1977 the Hawaii bonsai community visited with Japan's grand master Saburo Kato and formed another life-long friendship. 

                I've been privileged to live a bonsai lifestyle for over 50 years and to be in contact with Hong Kong's Yee-sun Wu and great international bonsai leaders in Europe, Asia, and throughout America. I believe that 50 years will one day be recognized as the most progressive 50 years in bonsai's long history!

               Japan is the leader of Japanese Bonsai of trees that grow outdoors in Japan.  But even there, traditional outdoor bonsai is starting to fade as the younger generation are far less willing to develop the discipline and commitment necessary to be successful with traditional Japanese outdoor bonsai.  The youth of Japan want to be just like Americans!

               So what do Americans want?  There's less commitment and discipline and if they are anything like me,  they want faster results and greater assurances of success. They want to start at the fun part and they want to grow the bonsai indoors.  But it has to be easy-care and they need help. 

               Fuku-Bonsai, a Hawaiian corporation with over 200 mostly Hawaii stockholders and the 501(3)(c) Mid-Pacific Bonsai Foundation have partnered to lead the creation of a TROPICAL & TRUE INDOOR BONSAI COMMUNITY,  to co-sponsor the FUKU-BONSAI CULTURAL CENTER & HAWAII STATE BONSAI REPOSITORY in Kurtistown, Hawaii,  to co-host the WWW.FUKUBONSAI.COM WEBSITE, and to publish the JOURNAL OF TROPICAL & TRUE INDOOR BONSAI.

               When we began the Journal in January 2013,  Jerry Meislik was on board as a contributing editor and he continues to share and improve the quality of his articles.  In that first issue Ryan Chang began his bonsai journey and has progressed to be a contributing editor.  John "Jay" Borcyzko in this issue has his "One Year Report" and is also making impressive progress!  Jay had done some bonsai in the past but has now gotten into high gear as he is contributing his "ONE YEAR REPORT." 

              I am delighted with the progress that we are making in developing the TROPICAL & TRUE INDOOR BONSAI COMMUNITY!  In many ways,  it reminds me of the 1970's when many who were associated with the American Bonsai Society were corresponding by snail mail to compare and assist each other as we began to pioneer tropical bonsai for indoors.  The group included Ernesta Ballard, then president of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society and author of the first book of wintering over tropical bonsai indoors.  Constance Derderian, the curator of the Arnold Arboretum Bonsai Collection edited the initial Brooklyn Botanic Gardens Handbook:  Bonsai For Indoors.  Marion Gyllenswan and Dorothy Young were also active and they taught me the basics.  We were in contact with the Light Gardening Society of America and learned the basics of using fluorescent lamps.  

              In the mid-1980's as Fuku-Bonsai incorporated,  Rosemary Pope invited me to headline the ABS Symposium in East Lansing, Michigan co-sponsored by the American Bonsai Society and Ann Arbor Bonsai Society.  That's when I first got to meet Jerry Meislik, visited his home, learned of his great interest in ficus and tropical bonsai. I also met and visited the home of Jack Wikle and was impressed and inspired by his mini-bonsai growing under fluorescent lamps.  Jerry has since retired, moved to Montana, and created an awesome plant room with metal halide lamps.

             As you can see from the report above,  Jerry is probably the most meticulous in documenting the progress of his trees.  I appreciate that he is sharing the photos and information as we build a Tropical & True Indoor Bonsai community!   MAHALO JERRY!

***  Return to the September 2014 issue of the Journal of Tropical & True Indoor Bonsai
*** Go to Mid-Pacific Bonsai Foundation website
*** Go to Fuku-Bonsai website
Mid-Pacific Bonsai Foundation and Fuku-Bonsai, 2014