TROPICAL BONSAI SHAPING TECHNIQUES
By Jerry Meislik (Montana) and David Fukumoto (Hawaii)

          CO-AUTHOR NOTE:   Learning bonsai utilizing traditional Japanese temperate climate outdoor bonsai terminology is extremely difficult.  The Japanese have a tendency to categorize and codify all practices with infinite detail to a point it that many become experts and can explain at great length "how to shape bonsai!"  Since there are thousands of shapes,  it is a length explanation of the thousands of ways!" 

           At the Fuku-Bonsai Cultural Center, visitors don't have the time to review details.  They want to know general techniques and we boiled it down into just five categories of techniques.  An exhibit is currently being developed with Podocarpus as the example plant.  In Hawaii, it's a slow-growing tree and although we will have several varieties, the primary plant will be Bird's Tongue Podocarpus made famous by the late Hong Kong penjing master Yee-sun Wu.  In addition to explaining "shaping techniques,"  the exhibit will provide information on the culture of podocarpus, and Chinese penjing concepts.  

         This is a special collaboration article as we try to condense a lot of information and create a simplified American bonsai terminology for tropical bonsai using photos of Dwarf Schefflera as examples.  Jerry is most familiar with "building," "reduction," and "rearranging" and provides the lead explanation of these with David adding random thoughts.  David has worked extensively in "assembly," and "creative potting" and provides the lead information with Jerry adding his thoughts. So we hope this condensation of tropical bonsai shaping technique terminology helps to give everyone a more general understanding as we believe that any bonsai can be created using various combinations of these techniques.

"BUILDING"

          PINCHING is the removal of the terminal soft, new growth with fingers and/or fingernails. New growth will have green stems and leaves that have not totally opened and hardened off. Once stems mature, become brown and woody and the leaves harden off, pinching is not feasible as fingers will not be strong enough to even dent the woody stems. Pinching may be selective and directed to overgrown stems or may be general and directed to all new growth on the tree. Since most bonsai grow most strongly at the apex and top 1/3 of the tree this pinching back is done more often in this region of the bonsai. The lower parts and inner parts of the bonsai grow most slowly and are not pinched as often or as completely.

           Pinching must be varied by the region and vigor of the tree to re-balance the growth of the tree. So, all but two new leaves per stem may be left on the top 1/3 of the tree, while on the middle of the tree I may leave 5-6 new leaves while leaving 10-12 new leaves on the bottom and innermost branches. This encourages the weak branches while discouraging the strong growing parts of the tree and produces an overall uniform density of branching over the whole tree. This uniform density of growth is a hallmark of a well managed bonsai.  Pinching can also achieve some back budding. Pinching one growing point or two may not produce back budding but pinching the whole tree often does. Branches can develop sufficient density and complexity to create a good bonsai with proper pinching. "Stick figure" trees are the result of poor cultural, pinching and pruning practices.

            Pinching will also allow shaping for directional change. Pinch just beyond the leaf or sub-branch that moves in the direction that you desire for the branch. Pinching is best done when the plant is in active growth. Pinching during resting periods often results in little or no back budding and no increased branch density but it can still help in rebalancing foliage density.        - - - Jerry

 

 

           TRIMMING is the removal of part or all of the branches of a tree that are not needed or parts to be restrained or redirected in their growth; it requires scissors or bonsai tools to remove these parts. Fingers and pinching are not strong enough to remove woody parts of the tree.

           The Lingnan Clip and Grow technique is the classic technique of trimming back branches to a smaller existing growing point or sub-branch and allowing that new tip to grow further. This process produces directional change as well as some taper. It also produces angular structures in the bonsai that can be very dramatic when applied consistently on a bonsai.  Cut paste, bonsai sealing paste and multiple other materials are used by some growers to help speed callus growth over the fresh cut. This is a complex and controversial topic that I won't deal with at this time.   - - - Jerry

           NOTE FROM DAVID:  We use "BUILDING" as the overall term equal to "training primarily by pruning."  When I first began, Papa Kaneshiro told me that the key to creating bonsai was to pinch the growing tip as it would cause the plant to develop branchlets rather than to continue to keep growing longer.  If the plant was very healthy,  you would have multiple branches and you select the ones you want and omit the extra ones.  The branchlets grew out a bit and if you pinch out the growing tips again and the plants were growing well, more branchlets would form and you select and add to the structure of the tree.  So Building includes pinching but also includes trimming with pruners to restrain or redirect growth. Papa never allowed trees to grow wildly so he never cut off anything larger than 1/4" thick as it would leaves scars that were unacceptable.  It is possible to train a bonsai only by pruning, but trunks are very slow to thicken.

 

"REDUCTION!"

           REDUCTION OR CHOPPING is the removal of major sections of the tree’s trunk. This type of cut will need heavier tools or even saws to shorten back the trunk. This is a technique especially useful to introduce greater taper and often directional change to an otherwise boringly static and straight trunk.  Some trees tolerate chopping without any problems while other species will not tolerate chopping back. It is also imperative that your tree be exquisitely healthy otherwise the tree may die after a severe reduction. Know your material before you chop it back. True Indoor Bonsai, Schefflera, will accept chopping when healthy and rebound with lots of new growth.   - - - Jerry

          NOTE FROM DAVID:  At Fuku-Bonsai,  repeated reduction-building is our major technique.  Allow trees to grow tall, then make the first cut within 1" of the roots!  Many plants die and we consider this as culling out weak plants.  Plants grow strongly then are reduced dramatically.  The more reductions and the more dramatic the reductions, the higher the quality. All of Fuku-Bonsai plants have character within 1" of the soil line and that's only possible if you are willing to use this high-risk technique and accept that many plants will die. Drastic reduction is only applicable for plants that will develop new growth from "old wood."  If used on pines or junipers and other plants,  ALL plants may die!

 

"REARRANGING"

           WIRING is one technique in the grouping of REARRANGING and is the classic bonsai technique used to produce directional movement in a branch or trunk. Various diameter wires are used to shape branches and trunk. Aluminum and annealed copper are the preferred types of wire as they are soft and can be easily placed onto branches. Wiring will introduce shape into a branch or flexible trunk but will not create taper or angular bends. Disadvantages of poor wiring including breaking off small or latent buds as well as possible wire scarring produced by leaving wire on for too long a time. Wire scars are never desirable features on a bonsai and can be impossible to correct so prevention is the best cure!

           One way to avoid wire scars is doing bed-spring/loose coil wiring as shown above. This shapes the branch by loosely wiring the branch and gently holding it to the desired position but not applying the wire tightly to the branch as in classical bonsai wiring. Angular directional changes in branches are best produced by clip and grow and not by wiring.  Weights, wedge/separators, tie downs are all techniques to move, re-shape and adjust the position of branches and trunks. The advantage of these techniques is the lower likelihood of producing scars. These techniques are simple and easy for most growers to utilize.           - - - Jerry

          NOTE FROM DAVID:  At Fuku-Bonsai we use wiring primarily to create our twisty-truny "dragon" trees and we start when the plants are very young and more bendable.  Tropical trees grow quickly and it's really a shame to see beautiful old bonsai with ugly wire marks.  So wiring is used only on trees that we can check often or if there are no other effective shaping technique.  

         

"ASSEMBLING"

          A single "stand-alone" bonsai takes a long time to develop and the tree must be of good quality. Assembly techniques allow you to create better bonsai faster using lower quality trees.  If you have two bonsai with each missing strong branches, consider creating a 2-tree bonsai for possibly a greatly improved result.  If you have lower quality plant material, consider 3, 4, or more trees planted together with multiple-tree forest arrangements made with lowest quality trees. 

          Or grow a tree on a rock to create a more interesting scene. We try to introduce this concept in our Introductory Workshop Package with accent rocks.  Or grow multiple trees with multiple rocks to create a tray landscape. Add accent plants for more interest.  In tropical bonsai, epiphytic banyans grow and kill host trees and epiphytic bonsai are created by planting trees on driftwood!   ~~~David

         NOTE FROM JERRY:   Yet another assembly technique is fusion. I consider this to be a variant grafting technique. It involves bringing together multiple smaller trees to create one larger bonsai. It is not a quick technique as true fusion of the trees can take many years. It can make use of lower quality materials to form quite elegant and larger bonsai. This will be addressed in a future article.

 

"CREATIVE POTTING" 

            This technique is especially suited to tropical bonsai due to some plants having extraordinary root systems that can create unique and distinctive bonsai forms. "Sumo" has been our basic styling from the beginning a it was ideal for our initial Hawaiian Lava Plantings.  But as more showed interest in training bonsai,  we developed "Roots" and this has become the favorite of those who purchase potted bonsai.  Between "Sumo" and "Roots,"  it is possible to create almost any upright banyan form.

             But once we developed the concept of twisty-turny fun "Hawaiian Dragon" styling, we learned that Dwarf Schefflera can be trained into more shapes than any other plant grown as bonsai!  We are just starting to explore the blending of "Roots" and "Hawaiian Dragons!"  Creative potting can be straight or curvy, thin or thick, upright, slanting, or even cascading.   ~~~David  

            NOTE FROM JERRY AND CONCLUSION

           There are many bonsai techniques that you can use to propel your bonsai along the path to becoming a great, mature tree. Study and learn the various techniques and apply them wisely. Almost any technique can be miss-applied and result in disfiguring and even killing your bonsai. Proper technique is the shortest path to superb bonsai.

           As always I appreciate comments from members about their bonsai techniques that they would like to share.   - - - Jerry "Bonsaihunk" (www.bonsaihunk.us )

 

*** Return to April 2013 Journal of Tropical and True Indoor Bonsai
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           © Mid-Pacific Bonsai Foundation, Fuku-Bonsai, and Jerry Meislik, 2013