Lesson #7:  FORMING THE CROWN

         From the beginning of the Fuku-Bonsai website in 1999,  I've focused on trying to create original educational editorial material.  There's a lot of detail in bonsai and a portal section titled:  TRAINING TRUE INDOOR BONSAI was created as a summary of what I considered the most important bonsai information. Within that portal section,  I've tried to address significant topics.  Initially Fuku-Bonsai offered only Hawaiian Lava Plantings and to get better growth for training into bonsai, I recommended creating a larger root system and the first article in this series was:  "Lesson #1: Potting."  

                 From time to time I added other significant topics and I consider this article as another significant training milestone to add to that series.  It includes a significant amount of other significant information for those who want to grow and train high-quality bonsai.

                 INTRODUCING OUR "BONSAI BOOK-ENDS CONCEPTS!"  There are an endless number of bonsai shapes and to develop order to learn a complex subject more efficiently,  I try to think of the extremes rather than a "typical" shape with all possible variations. Too often I only learn of problems and most are due to poor interpretation of our cultural information.  While trying to explain better,  we also learn of ways to get improved growth! True Indoor Bonsai structural forms are largely dictated by the horticultural traits of our specialty Dwarf Schefflera which is an extraordinary tree like no other.  It's grows rapidly,  and if grown at optimum health, it reacts very predictably when pruned, sending out multiple new growth points from old wood. So one major training concept is to learn how to produce optimum growth and more are increasingly successful throughout the nation.  We try to study all parts of a subject area!

                BANYANS!  "Banyan" is a term that describes a tree with aerial roots and although the most famous banyan trees overwhelmingly belong to the Fig or ficus family,  the reality is that the best Banyan Bonsai are trained from Dwarf Schefflera due to its ability to throw out a profusion of aerial roots.  A trainer can select only those in ideal position and remove the excess.  A tree can spread out over several acres when aerial roots reach the ground, become pillar roots that send up nutrients, and the tree continues to expand outwards!  These outstanding trees are gigantic low, wide domes whose outer branches may reach the ground where they root and keep expanding outwards.  Within that dense, shady humid leafy dome, the high humidity encourages aerial roots that form fantastic shapes! Banyans have arch branch structures.

              SUMO!  To reflect low and wide banyan styling,  Fuku-Bonsai developed "SUMO" with short, stout tapering trunks or multiple trunks,  low branches, and arch branches.  A sampling of a full range of styling is in our products and Custom Collection Sumo section which feature older plants.  Fuku-Bonsai initially created Hawaiian Lava Plantings that look best with plants that are pre-trained into SUMO concepts.  As more customers requested bonsai training opportunities, we developed a line of Premium Potted Bonsai. Only Fuku-Bonsai Sumo bonsai begin to appear similar and for more variety we developed "ROOTS." 

              ROOTS!  Our design inspiration is from epiphytic trees that develop when a bird eats a seed and it travels through the digestive system as a "fertilizer-encased seed" and is deposited high in a tree.  The seed germinates, send roots down to the ground, and strangles the tree which rots away.  A sumo-type crown develops on top of exposed roots.  Such trees also develop in high humidity situations beneath a dense foliage canopy.  Whereas SUMO is short and stout,  ROOTS bonsai are creative, tall, and elegant! It has become my favorite end of the Banyan Bonsai styling range and this article features one of my favorite trees.  Between SUMO and ROOTS, it is possible to create all possible Banyan Bonsai!

            OVERALL BONSAI TRAINING STRATEGIES.  The most famous original bonsai are old trees collected from harsh environments that were trained by nature over hundreds of years.  By a unique progression of grow and die-back,  these "NATURE'S BONSAI"  are extraordinary and their shapes are frozen histories of the stresses and accidents that formed them.  Collected bonsai are exceptional material and while it takes great skill to bring them to aesthetic perfection,  the transformational criteria is the ability (or luck) to have discovered that natural masterpiece, or the ability (or wealth) to acquire such untrained natural materials.  Collected Nature's Bonsai is the fastest way to create a masterpiece bonsai.  Simply  start by obtaining masterpiece quality stock that is already hundreds of years old!  Many are earning fame acquiring and training such plants and this is the most elite form of bonsai. Refining extraordinary high-potential collected trees or old potted bonsai produce exceptional results by those with exceptional training techniques,  innovative design abilities,  and horticultural skills.  But these are usually not available to beginners. 

            NURSERY GROWN OUTDOOR BONSAI.  There are two major "Nursery Bonsai" training strategies that most beginning bonsai hobbyists will have access to.  Most bonsai growers are not willing to start training young seedlings, rooted cuttings, or air-layers.  They want to start with older plants that are larger.  So they seek trees that have developed character without any special training such as nursery-grown junipers that were grown for landscaping material.  Unfortunately when starting with such material, it is not always possible to find trees that have character within one inch of the final soil line.  Most untrained trees are already too thick to influence. Most such nursery trees are for outdoors and it is necessary to grow juniper bonsai outdoors.  The amount of difficulty of growing outdoor bonsai depends upon what plant you obtain and where you live.  It is impossible for those in homes and offices to grow outdoor bonsai. 

            PURCHASING FROM SPECIALTY BONSAI NURSERIES.  In bonsai,  you generally get what you pay for and inexpensive plants may be recently rooted cuttings in a bonsai pots (although some are not cheap)!  Bonsai is relatively young in the United States and high-quality bonsai stock is still not widely available.  But there are an increasing number of smaller family nurseries that are producing ever improving quality.  These nurseries are not widely known but if you subscribe to the national bonsai magazines and contact members of the bonsai community, with some effort,  you'll be able to locate these reputable nurseries that produce high potential bonsai stock.  Get to know the individuals by email and phone and expect to pay more as quality increases.  

          FUKU-BONSAI'S TRUE INDOOR BONSAI ARE UNIQUE!  We only grow trees that are ideal for anyone, anywhere who can grow houseplants.  We supply the most durable ideal houseplant bonsai that also have a lot of character and high success potential!   THERE REALLY ARE NO SECRETS!  The most efficient way to create a large quantities of high-quality bonsai stock is to start training huge quantities while the plants are young.  Develop techniques to create character within one inch of the soil line.  Establish professional culling standards to discard weak or low-grade plants. Continue this year after year to develop large quantities of increasingly older plants to be able to supply the most discriminating bonsai hobbyists who appreciate high-quality plants.  Fuku-Bonsai began by producing a line of popular Hawaiian Lava Plantings that took three to five years to produce and expanded the product line to include Premium Potted Bonsai and older larger products.  The certified export nursery was started in 1973 and our oldest trees are approaching forty years in training!

           WE'VE ALWAYS  FOCUSED ON EDUCATIONAL INFORMATION AND COMPLETE WORKSHOP PACKAGES!  While it takes many years and a lot of skill,  high-quality plants are only appreciated by those with enough knowledge to separate high-quality from poor-quality! While most prefer to purchase bonsai that are already trained,  the knowledge of how the trees are trained guide them into maintaining and refining the trees.  For those who want to learn how to train True Indoor Bonsai,  Fuku-Bonsai's Introductory Workshop Package provides an economical high-success introduction.  Intermediate and individually customized advanced workshops are available.  Join our study groups to learn (and teach) and obtain personalized assistance.  The Journal of Tropical & True Indoor Bonsai is a monthly email vehicle to build a community and you're invited to become a member of the Mid-Pacific Bonsai Foundation and to participate! 

          THE PROVEN HIGH-QUALITY CUSTOM COLLECTION BONSAI STRATEGY!  The most logical way to consistently produce high-quality larger older bonsai is to first produce small, young, high-quality bonsai.  Graduate the best of these to become high-quality medium size older bonsai.  Younger bonsai are sold when they achieve "model standards".  Generally plants that are in training for 10 to 12 years start to develop individual character and at this stage, the most promising trees are trained in our CUSTOM COLLECTION.  This is also where our experimental plants begin to mature.

          TWO BONSAI DEVELOPMENT STRATEGIES.  Professional strategies are vastly different from traditional hobbyist practices.  Most hobbyists with a few bonsai train by a conservative "BUILDING" techniques in which new growth is periodically nipped and the plants are always as attractive as possible.  For "maintenance training" of True Indoor Bonsai, we recommend allowing a branch to grow out seven to eight leaves, then prune off a five to six leaf section.  This allows the branch to build up strength so when pruned, new more compact growth develops. If the plant is developing a larger root system and is growing vigorously, it may produce several new growth points.  The selection of a desirable growth will determine the future shape and other growth are removed. 

           PROFESSIONALS FOCUS ON STRUCTURAL IMPROVEMENTS AND TEND TO LEAVE THE MORE CONSERVATIVE REFINEMENT AND "FINISHING" TO HOBBYISTS.  At Fuku-Bonsai, trees go through many stages of training that begins with developing a shallow, compact root system and lower trunk character.  Between training sessions,  the trees are allowed to grow vigorously to add structural mass and more complex designs. The emphasis is on growth and only trees that will be offered for sale go into a "finishing or refinement" regiment. All other trees are kept growing vigorously for maximum development. 

          THIS LESSON IS ABOUT A SPECIFIC BONSAI TO EXPLAIN THE COMPLEXITY OF ONE SUCH TRAINING SESSION OF A TREE THAT IS BEING GROWN BY PROFESSIONAL "REDUCTION-BUILDING" CONCEPTS.

 

"THIN & ELEGANT ROOTS!" 

         Our original ROOTS designs increased exposed roots each time we repotted higher and our oldest Dwarf Schefflera bonsai are almost forty years old.  To test the "book-ends concept,"  we grew a few that were extra thin and extra tall in just a few training sessions. 

         This is the story of one such tree that began as a seedling about 1988 and is now about 25 years in training.  The tree is in a 17" x 12" x 2" oval plastic pot and as shown in the first photo,  the top of the foliage is about 35" high. This tree is one of our earliest efforts to train "Thin and Elegant Roots!"  

        Note that the root column has a nice interesting taper and a gentle transition into the pot.  The entire root column was developed in a single effort and the roots took several years just to reach the media in the training pot. 

       Then every year or two an inch or two of the top portion of the aluminum foil was removed, the media between the roots dug out, and only the largest roots allowed to grow.  It took several years for the roots to develop and thicken strong enough to support the tree and to clean out the root column of all media.  Fine roots were continually removed to create fewer heavy roots.

 

 

 

 FORMING THE CROWN

        The size and shape of the crown of a bonsai is largely determined by the primary apical top point and lines drawn directly to the ends of the lowest branches.  Initially low branches are short so the connecting lines are very steep.  But as the low branches add length each year, the line from the end of the branch to the apical top becomes flatter.

         This photo shows the apical point increasing by about 2" based upon 2x the diameter of the 1" diameter branch below. This is a vertical cut to hopefully produce new leaders facing up and side branches facing outwards.  

         On the lowest longest branch, a section growing up is pruned and the end of the branch is shortened.  Notice that the long, low branch has good taper and interesting mini-bends that were created by allowing the branch to lengthen slowly.  In some cases,  allow it to grow out ten inches,  and if the section to be cut is just 3/8" in diameter,  allow only a 3/4" to 1" new section to be added (2-3x the branch diameter).  If a long section is added, you'll get a nice overall profile faster but it will not have good character.
         Once the end of the low branch is set, place a ruler or straight edge connecting the apical top and the end of the branch and "flat cut" the branches in between along that line.  Flat cuts produce new growth that grow outwards rather than upwards. 

        This will assure that neither the apical top nor the lower branch is shaded by mid-level branches overgrowing and producing shade which will weaken the low branch.  Wide low branches are the most important branches that produce a mature bonsai appearance.  They grow slowly so prune the top frequently to encourage the low branches to develop.

          Turn the tree and place the ruler or straight edge to connect the apical top to the end of other low branches to determine where to flat-cut the mid-level branches. 

          This tree has been allowed to grow for several months without any attention.  To prune the apical top, ends of low branches, and mid-level branches,  a bonsai professional is expected to complete the training session in just a few minutes.  So although each tree requires a lot of skill, actual training time is limited and a professional can train thousands of bonsai to keep costs per bonsai per year to a modest additional cost per year.

          In this case, one branch was growing up and was turned and wired down using a "loose coil" method.  Anchor extra heavy wire, place wire in position, bend the branch to the wire, and flip the wire to hold the branch in position.  Repeat for next section. 

          This method is better for fast-growing tropical bonsai as the wire is in actual contact only where needed and it is impossible to create ugly wire marks if done properly. 

         The tree pruning session completed.  The tree is growing very vigorously so the tree will throw out two or more new growth points near each of the areas that were pruned.  New growth at that top apical point may have two or three facing upwards and two facing outwards. 

         Select a new upwards growing leader and remove the rest.  Select one of the outward growing tip to form a new branch and remove the others.  Trees that are growing strongly will allow you to have choices.  Weak trees may produce just enough to replace those cut.  But if trees are growing poorly,  there may be die-back and the tree actually is worst off!   

CONCLUSION

                 Although the title of this lesson is "FORMING THE CROWN,"  it covers a lot of other ground because the crown of the bonsai is one of the last areas trained.  This is the start of the finishing or "refinement" stage of bonsai training. So this lesson touches upon  the entire process of the training strategy used at Fuku-Bonsai.

                I tried to explain that there are different forms of bonsai and different training strategies.  The oldest bonsai masterpieces are "Nature's Bonsai" that were formed in harsh environments after many years and a series of massive diebacks followed by years of growth and recovery. The cycle is repeated many times and with each such cycle, the tree develops more unique character. This is the traditional "bonsai elitist short-cut" for creating masterpiece bonsai. Success is based upon the ability to obtain masterpiece quality stock by either collecting it or purchasing it from a professional collector.  It's said that the mountains of Japan have been picked clean from generations of collectors. But as new methods are developed,  magnificent specimens that were once "uncollectable" are being successfully collected!

                Throughout the emerging world of bonsai,  "Nature's Bonsai"  are like the pots of gold at the end of the rainbows.  In my early years,  I enjoyed the thrill of discovery, collection, and training.  Some of the best trees in our collection began as collected trees. While this may be a legal and valid way to earn a living, I do not believe that it is ethical for a professional bonsai nurseryman to sell Nature's Bonsai; so I don't.  I strongly believe that professional bonsai nurserymen have an ethical and moral responsibility to help bonsai to grow, to teach, and to support and make available the best possible stock to be trained into bonsai and this is important to allow more to enjoy the serenity of nature and the beauty of bonsai! 

REDUCTION-BUILDING!

                 It's very logical that in our nursery, Fuku-Bonsai's primary training strategy parallels how Nature's Bonsai are developed in harsh environments.  In nature,  weak trees simply die. Trees are allowed to grow vigorously, then at infrequent times are massively reduced and each time, the trunks and branches develop character that is not possible to develop any other way.  We continually cull out low-quality plants and only move the most promising trees to become larger and older. Our professional skills are quick and effective and while young trees get attention more often,  once a tree is six to eight years old,  we may work on it just once per year or less as we allow it to grow and build bulk and character!  

                Dwarf Schefflera is the ideal tree for us as we can ethically sell it to anyone who can grow houseplants and this is the largest possible bonsai market as our True Indoor Bonsai can grow in all parts of the United States.  The trees grow faster than traditional temperate climate outdoor bonsai. As shown in the featured tree in this article,  it still may take about thirty years to create a nice mature bonsai.

ROOTS & HAWAII!

                Roots are the distinctive characteristic of True Indoor Bonsai which reflects the tropical climate of Hawaii.  When I began bonsai in 1962,  I really wanted to create Banyan Bonsai as these trees are the memorable playgrounds of my youth.  So even now as I train the trees, I imagine playing "Chase Master" and running through aerial roots or hiding in hollows in the trunk.  We swung from roots like Tarzan and slid down roots playing firemen sliding down a pole!  Banyans are the exotic trees of the tropics and I hope that all of our customers enjoy a sense of Hawaii.  Visitors enjoy taking home a piece of Hawaii and a surprising number were born in Hawaii who now live in all parts of the United States!  For some, our trees represent a tie to home.  For all of these reasons,  we want our trees to be the highest quality and successful to bring joy! 

                Thank you for the privilege of living a bonsai lifestyle.  Visit us if you'll be in our area and the staff and I will be happy to talk story and do a workshop. Please write ahead and email if I can be of assistance!   Regards and aloha!  ~~~David (david.f@fukubonsai.com)                     

 

  ***  Return to July issue of 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, 2013