The bonsai before any work was done.   Lots of large leaves.  I added extra aluminum foil around the tree for support which is peeled back in the first photo.  Extra roots grew behind the foil.  The first photo shows the leaves facing away toward the wall while the second photo shows the leaves facing the camera.  I did not rotate enough while the tree grew inside and so the leaves are mostly facing one direction.


           EDITOR'S INTRODUCTION: In July of 2012,   newlyweds Jeremy and Meredith Erb visited Fuku-Bonsai on their honeymoon as part of their graduation celebration with both earning PhD's.  They are not your typical couple!  Upon hearing of their plans to visit, I recommended that Jeremy put together an Introductory Workshop Package so he would have some understanding of the basic principles.  When they arrived, Jeremy was ready to take on the "top-of-the-line challenge" that at that time was Dragon training --- to extend and create twisty-turny movement that went well beyond the straight long Root designs that were being mastered. 

            At that time, we had just begun trials of a wire armature to effectively twist the extended roots. The largest dragons then were 8LS8 so Jeremy opted for a #17 Conversion Kit with the most aggressive large root extension!  We knew root extensions develop slowly outside of Hawaii but Jeremy was ready and willing and now almost two years later,  he's almost halfway there!   See his start at



By Jeremy Erb (Ohio)


    Today was an exciting bonsai day for me because after almost two years since I visited David in Hawaii, I finally get to look under the aluminum foil collar of my Hawaiian Dragon and check it’s progress!  We started out with some great stock that David let me handpick and we built a wire armature to guide root growth.  I know the  roots  have  grown  considerably since  that  time because I can see the roots in the bottom of the pot and some are even starting to grow through the drainage holes. Through some of the openings in the aluminum collar I can some strong and large

roots that were not there before or were larger than when I started.


The crown of the plant had considerable growth and has not been cut back for a whole year.  The leaves are much larger than they would be if I had not let the tree grow for an extensive period. During the past two years the tree was outside on my back porch for about four months during the summer and inside by a window (with no artificial light source) for the remainder of the year.  



Roots behind the extra foil support. Roots in the pot appear to be circling the pot.

                  David suggested I remove all the leaves to more easily expose the branches and to remove the foil to observe the root development underneath.

         Defoiled root mass showing thick roots on the left and some dangling roots on the right. More of the sphagnum moss needs to be removed to show the roots more clearly. The recently unwrapped tree.


There are two main roots that grew underneath the foil.   There are smaller roots that surround those main roots.   Also, some roots hang down below the main column of roots.  I noticed that a significant portion of the soil in the foil column did not have any roots growing inside.  I moved the dangling roots over into the area that was lacking root density.  This section was on the top part of the column and toward the bottom. I remember David mentioning to me that the roots have  a harder time growing horizontally vs. vertically, and this is the most horizontal area in the foil column.



I am planning on pruning all the branches on the tree where the first two leaves were.  I thought about letting one of the branches stay longer if it flows with the trunk, but ultimately decided that since the trunk is very twisty and there is a lot of movement in the root system, a straight branch would not suite the style of the tree.


The photos below show the addition of Fuku-Bonsai fertilizer when I purchased my tree during my workshop in Hawaii.  I added a ˝ tablespoon every 2’’ and then filled in the bottom portion with a little more soil up to the wiring of the armature. Upon closure I gave it a good watering.



              The finished tree is shown above, with holes in the aluminum foil and the tree is propped up by wooden sticks to hopefully get better root growth in the bottom section of the tree.  Doing all the work took about 2.5 hours.  I plan to decrease its height once more roots grow, although I may decide I like the upright styling when it’s time to take the foil off again!  I am excited to hear David’s comments.               ____________________________________________________________________

            NOTE BY DAVID.   Although Jeremy has kept in touch with updates, it was exciting to receive the report above when he first fully inspected how his roots had developed.  We have been providing assistance and instruction for several years and have long known that creating a large vigorously growing root system was more successful at Fuku-Bonsai in Kurtistown due to our moist climate that is especially ideal for growing Dwarf Schefflera.  Jeremy had taken on a more extreme challenge than anyone else so I was very concerned.

            Two years ago, we were far less confident and was still in research trial stages.  We knew that here if we used too much sphagnum moss in the foiled root column, that roots would rot.  We were still experimenting with different media ratios and although we were getting some impressive results,  we still had not yet got it down to the point that we were confident and got predictable results.  So it was a relief to receive Jeremy's first report.  I forwarded recommendations to Jeremy and less than two weeks later, he addressed all issues and added discussion. The second half of his report follows. 




It had been a little less than two weeks since I began moving forward with the design of the tree with David.  I did the initial work outlined above and waited for feedback as to how I should move forward.  I had some questions and observations that we discussed before I started work on the tree again.  The tree has been growing healthily but one challenge that I wanted to overcome in the future was filling up the entire foil column with roots, not just two big ones! 

David suggested that I am getting good growth in Ohio (better than he predicted) but that the likely cause of fewer roots was due to climate differences between Ohio and Hawaii.  In Hawaii, volcanic rock is used with very little organic, water-retentive components because the moisture level is sufficiently high that any media that holds more moisture might rot the roots.  Ohio is drier! 

David suggested adding 1/2 cup of chopped sphagnum moss to the root column.  Additionally, air holes in the new foil collar were to be smaller ice-pick holes every inch or so.  David also believes that besides a too fast draining soil hindering root development, the media may have been too loose, which gave the roots the opportunity to resist branching and run down the bottom of the column (probably chasing the water). 

Either of these things is possible, although since I did the original wrapping while David supervised, I am thinking water retention was the major culprit.  Until recently, I did not realize exactly what was next in store for my plant: Do the roots just push out the rock as the column gets filled with roots?  Do I have to clear away the rock little by little and leave gaps for the roots to grow in?  As I stated before, the roots may just grow thick and straight down if not impeded, so the column needed to be packed with soil and wrapped tight.


         It was also suggested to make the top of my tree into a kasa (flat umbrella-like) crown.  This can be easily visualized as a short, wide pyramid shape.  There will be two short branches that make up 2/3 of the base of the pyramid, one longer dominant branch that makes up the other 1/3 of the base, and a short apex top.  A basic drawing is shown to the right.


David requested that I write a lengthier commentary for the conclusion of this update about how a Hawaiian Dragon tree is all about visual movement and how would the crown contribute to the dragon theme.  We are moving toward interpretive bonsai and away from classical forms. He is totally right!  Up to this point, I have not had a lengthy discussion with David or even other bonsai friends about what my favorite bonsai look like and why.  

David prompted my curiosity and I am thinking harder about this tree’s design than any other I have styled before or viewed.  I knew from the Fuku-Bonsai website (and especially after visiting Fuku-Bonsai in person!) that I wanted to learn how to create a tree like some of the masterpieces that David showed me.  What did I like about those trees so much, and what is the biggest pull for me to grow trees in pots? 

I dug through some resources online that could help put my feelings into words.  After all, I'm a chemistry major, not an English major!  Needless to say, I wound up several times clicking on links that lead straight to pages.  It has been such a great resource for me, full of information! But I digress  .  .  .

  I think a lot of my interests and opinions, if a focal point can be found, is with the penjing style of bonsai and Chinese bonsai philosophy.  I like bonsai not just because it’s a neat little novelty to make a tree at an amazingly small size.  That's part of it.  But the trees that really capture me are much more than that.  Like art, they cause an emotional response from the viewer.  Often, this is expressed by the appearance of old age in the tree, and this can leave the viewer with a sense of wonder, majesty, or sorrow for the hardships suffered by the tree.  I’ve been told each tree in the famous bonsai “Goshin” at the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum was selected to represent one of the grandchildren of the artist.  Even without knowing that, I think that emotion that the artist had when he made the group planting was transferred to the viewers. 


             One of my favorite trees shown here is actually supposed to be in the shape of a dragon!  Like the old Chinese penjing practitioners who were intellectuals, they wanted their art form to be more than just making a small tree.  They wanted an emotional reaction for conversation with friends and for their own enjoyment!  That’s the best kind of art, in my opinion.

           Photo: Trident Maple “dragon” at the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum.  Photo taken from


Now back to my tree.  How do I make a piece of artwork that brings about viewer emotions?  One good place to start is to give viewers something they may have never seen before!  That will bring forth a feeling of wonder, at least at first.  This is in my opinion, one of the central ideas for good bonsai.  People like new things!  That’s why we listen to new music, try new food, and travel to new places.  Fuku-Bonsai has developed a lot of new experimental techniques, and it looks fun!  

For my tree, I wanted to have a lot of movement.  I don’t want it to look natural, I want it to look like no tree in existence.  One way to wow people is to show them something really big (like the Eiffel Tower) or something really small (like a mame bonsai).  I wanted the roots of my plant to start very large at the base and grow smaller toward the top, creating the illusion that my plant is a lot larger than it seems. 

I agree with David that a “kasa” crown would look great on my tree, and would help convey the image of a tall canopy towering above everything else.  I tried to bring the dominant branch downwards, but the wire was not strong enough to pull it down.  Instead, I ended up forming a sling of wire that was thrown over the branch and attached to the base of one of the wooden sticks.  Then the wire was twisted with pliers until the branch was sufficiently bent downward.  I stopped tightening at a certain point when I noticed a very small droplet of tree juice coming out of the branch halfway through the sling and the trunk. 

The branch was pretty stiff and I don’t think I could have bent it at all if I would have waited longer than now!  Perhaps it would be better to buy some stronger wire and wire in a more traditional way.  I have seen the “sling” technique used on other bonsai, so I thought I’d try it.  I did get the branch pulled down without breaking it and I don’t think I came too close to breaking it.  Also, I did make sure to put a pad of rolled up masking tape between the branch and the wire sling to try to prevent scarring.


             I decided to set the overall height of my tree a little higher than I had originally envisioned after thinking about what I want my tree to look like.  When shaping the crown, I am hoping to select new growth that adds the most movement to the branches to complete the image of the winding serpent dragon.  Perhaps if there is not enough movement in the new growth I could use wire as an additional tool to shape the tree.  I cut back the branches hard as a plan to increase the curvature.

             Additionally, on the crown I would like to add in a “pad” of foliage on a side branch, coming off of the dominate branch and positioned a little lower.  I have the branch pictured as a very twisted branch with lots of movement.  I love foliage pads for some reason, and if I take a cue from the Chinese penjing artists, I know that this tree is for myself so I should make it in a way that will make me the happiest, not just in order to follow rules!  I don’t know if it will be possible, but I hope that David can advise me on the best way to do this.  This would be a smaller pad of leaves, and conceptually would represent the arms of the dragon, while the roots are the body, tail, legs, and the apex is the head.


        The trickiest thing about this approach may be the tree is a vigorous grower and grows upright.  Regardless, the top crown should involve much movement to be in harmony with the shape of the rest of the tree.  I look forward to the future of my Fuku-Bonsai Dragon tree!  

       Photo of the tree before wiring.  The back right branch is fairly upright still!


Jeremy with the completed tree after wiring down the branch.


         SOME FINAL COMMENTS BY DAVID.   One of the great things about American and Hawaiian Bonsai is that its a work in progress.  Like Chinese penjing,  there's a lot of creativity possible.  It's difficult for Americans to do the most classical forms of Japanese Bonsai that have more rigid conformity requirements with thousands of rules or guidelines for the members of each of the various schools of Japanese Bonsai.  The Japanese tend to really feel comfortable and in a comfort zone when they are within the sphere of accepted practices. 

         There are many forms of Chinese penjing and most Americans only know of the cheap penjing created by uneducated peasants in huge quirky quantities to be exported to gullible Japanese, Europeans, and Americans.  They are produced in massive quantities and have odd almost grotesque characteristics.  Large numbers of Chinese elms are cranked out with the trunks in a series of "S-curves" with branches following the Japanese single apex-tier branched models --- except that the branches are sheared instead of being formed into flattened tiers.  Chinese Banyans are made to have heavy bulbous roots.  Serrissas,  Fukien Tea, Sagerteria and other Chinese plants range in quality, but are cranked out in huge quantities for foreign export. 

          In contrast,  Fuku-Bonsai follows the most sophisticated aristocratic form of Chinese penjing that was practiced by the highly educated elite who were successful and fiercely independent minded. No aristocratic penjing was created to be sold and each was an original.  Some were quirky and odd and featured a theme that was repeated until it became interesting, then beautiful, but often becoming uncomfortably ugly.  That's okay --- keep going and beyond grotesque,  a unique penjing masterpiece emerges that is a true one-of-a-kind conversation piece!  It's okay to be ugly.  It shouldn't be boring!

         Fuku-Bonsai utilizes aristocratic penjing concepts in creating and training Hawaiian Dragon trees that exploit Dwarf Schefflera's outstanding plastic qualities.  Jeremy enjoyed our experimental prototype trees and took on the challenge --- setting his goal higher than any other beginner!  So his 2-year report is wonderful and well within the spirit of Fuku-Bonsai's Hawaiian Dragon concepts. 

        One of my mentors is Megumi Kon of Hilo,  a professional engineer,  past managing director of Hawaii County, past Fuku-Bonsai officer and director and now retired.  Meg had an impressive career including being the named czar to redevelop the bayfront of the city of Hilo following the devastation of the 1960 tsunami.  In that role and since, Meg faced many situations without precedent and developed logical solutions.  New situations never fazed him and he joyfully led teams to "invent" a solution with an emphasis on explaining the basis of decisions made at key junctions. 

        Fuku-Bonsai has followed his lead in developing new concepts and techniques.  The work of "inventing" Hawaiian Dragon bonsai is not complete and everyone is invited to create their version as Jeremy is doing.  The most important part of the concept is that the owner-trainer has the final say in what to do and how to do it.  There's no right or wrong --- the owner-trainer decides!  

        Like any highly educated Chinese elite will tell you,  there's a joy and a method to the concepts and the rules are simple:  "IF YOU LIKE IT --- LEAVE IT ALONE!"  "IF YOU DON'T LIKE IT,  FIGURE OUT WHAT'S WRONG --- AND FIX IT!"

       Jeremy thinks he has a problem of a branch sticking up that he thinks should really be facing downwards.  As his Fuku-Bonsai penjing mentor,  my role is to give him options so he can select his solution --- or create something different that will eliminate the problem.  Here's some options:

    1.  DON'T LOCK YOURSELF IN!  You think you have a problem because you locked in the lower part of the tree and ended up with a branch facing up instead of down.  One solution:  UNLOCK THE TREE, TWIST AND ROTATE IT SO THE UPWARD BRANCH FACES DOWN! 

    2.  BEND WHAT IS EASILY BENDABLE INSTEAD OF TRYING TO BEND A STIFF BRANCH!  Generally trunks and branches become stiff and hard to bend as they get older and thicker.  SO DON'T BEND BRANCHES!  Consider attaching a stout stick just below the base ot the trunk.  Use it as a lever AND BEND THE ROOTS BELOW UNTIL THE UPWARD BRANCH FACING UP IS TURNING DOWN.


        You only have a problem because you really didn't have a plan.  Outstanding unique Hawaiian Dragons all start with a plan.  So if you know you're going to create a "kasa" crown,  when that branch was a lot younger,  you should have lowered it then.  Every Fuku-Bonsai Hawaiian Dragon is unique because we've created a rule:  "TOTALLY RESTYLE EVERY TIME YOU REPOT THE TREE!" 

        The first styling plan is when the 4LL8 is first potted and it goes into a growing-on stage to create a minimum of one apical growth and the goal of three good branches facing 120 degrees apart from each other.  When the tree was up-potted into a 8LS8,  it was restyled to be much more upright.  When Jeremy did the workshop at Fuku-Bonsai two year ago,  we discussed the tree,  he had a great idea and plan and so we started the tree into its third styling evolution. 

        Unfortunately,  we have a young man with huge career potential making major professional triumphs, starting a family,  his signature lab,  with huge opportunities distracting him while that branch grew and thickened instead of being positioned while it was limber.  NO MATTER!  IT'S JUST ANOTHER OPPORTUNITY TO CHANGE THE PLANS! 

        I don't think that using the sling to pull that branch down is the best alternative.  I've given you three others and with some attention, other alternatives will come forward.  THERE'S REALLY NO HURRY AND I LOOK FORWARD TO JEREMY SHARING MORE OF HIS THOUGHTS IN A FUTURE REPORT!

        Jeremy, I thank you for giving me a platform to try to explain FUKU-BONSAI'S HAWAIIAN DRAGON CONCEPTS that largely is an adaptation of an obscure form of aristocratic Chinese penjing.  You've made a great start and have the smarts and the spirit to create a wonderful dragon!  It's starting to develop a personality and I look forward to your progress!  Thank you for sharing it.  Hope more dragons and other bonsai help distract you and clear your mind to allow you to excel in your chosen field.  But with the proper adjustment,  bonsai can be a compatible mental game to compliment the other parts of your life!  CONGRATULATIONS!  ~~~David       

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