Four views of a Chinese Box Orange about 10-12 years into training from seed.  From the time the tree germinated,  the apical leader was pinched to create branching and it was grow in a tall aluminum foil collar attached to a wood support stake to create long extended roots. The tree continued to be pinched to create branches fairly close and the long extended roots were trained and wired into multiple coils to provide interest.  The photos were taken with the tree in a standard nursery 4" pot cut down to 2" high.

           This tree is known by Severinia buxifolia or Atlantica buxifolia and is a member of the citrus family with small leaves about 1" long.  It   has small thorns and is very slow growing.  Haruo "Papa" Kaneshiro grew it and my original trees were from seeds off his tree.  Somehow a second form appeared with thinner leaves and lankier growth pattern. 

            Nice attractive trunks and branches are very hard to develop.  Training "top growth" is primarily by "building" or nipping the new growth to force branching. Branches tend to grow straight up off the top of each branch. Left alone,  this will become tall, skinny trees with few mostly upright branches. So start training early by pinching the apical growth and forcing branches as low as possible. To create a wider tier branch, it's necessary to wire secondary branches left and right, and as new branches form and grow up, wire them left and right.  As a complex structure is formed creative pruning will create a more interesting branch and crown. 

            If you focus only on training "top growth"  it's not a very   attractive bonsai, but one which could end up sitting on a really impressive root structure!  So from almost the beginning, I've tried to create short branchy growth and establishe long extended roots to dominate the penjing designs. The four introductory photos show the results of a lot of different bonsai activities:  soft pinching when the seedlings were just a few months old,  staking a thin and tall foil cylinder for several years to lengthen the roots,  barerooting and compressing and wiring the long roots into a twisty spiral,  and staking it up for a few more years to set the root bends. In all this 10-12 years, periodically pruning to get some branching. 

            This tree is V - E - R - Y     S - L - O - W growing!  There really is not much to do except to think about what else can be done to improve it --- and there's a whole lot of time to think about it!  So it's possible to grow a whole bunch of them as they don't require too much care if you have the proper environment.  But this is not a plant for large scale commercial production simply because there are very, very few customers who appreciate such unique plants AND are willing and able to pay the very high costs to produce nice trees.  So I grown them as my personal collection and offered only to oldest qualified customers who express interest in them. 


           While I was thinking of how to best style this tree,  a visitor wanted to learn about bonsai in general but without anything specific in mind.  I told her I was doing a personal  non-traditional exercise and she wanted to sit-in and observe so I began. All wires were removed by cutting away sections very coil or two apart to not damage the roots.  The branches tend to grow up, so I generally allow the main branch to thicken and then turn the upwards growth to horizontal growth. 

           If that is the basic strategy, the foliage part of the tree as positioned in the right photo could be pulled towards the roots with the branches then facing horizontally towards the right.  Portions of the coiled roots would actually be higher than the foliage crown.


          Instead I inserted a medium size wire through the root coils and down through to the potting media in the cut-down 4" nursery pot.  This allowed me to pull the tree towards the right side and actually flip over the foliage crown so the branches were more horizontal with the crown actually upside down. 

           The wire was long enough to allow holding the major branch to its horizontal position.  The growth will be strong if the branch is horizontal or upright.  But growth will be weak if wired to point downwards. 


          The photo shows the plant turned around to see it from the other side. The long wire is used in Fuku-Bonsai's "open bedspring method" that uses heavier wire that is not in constant contact with a branch.  Position the wire to where you want the branch to be.  Bend the branch to the position of the wire, and flip the wire over to hold it in position.  There is only a single contact point and so if done properly,  there will be no wire marks even if the wire is left on for several years.

         A second branch was wired and shortened.  The apical bundle was reduced.  The photo shows the two cuttings and the handmade 5"x5"x 1.25" pot to be used. 


        If you simply potted in the regular manner, the roots will not thicken into a solid mass and the tree will always have loose wobbly roots.  So I bundle some Nutrient Granules into a ball of sphagnum moss and insert it deep into the loose root ball along with granular 1/16" to 1/4" volcanic pumice.  In this case I made 3 such bundles and inserted them and with paper covered bindwire, compacted the root mass very tightly.

       I tried to shape the root ball so that the coiled "root-trunk" appeared to thicken and become dense and wider at soil level.  Without this compression, roots will stay loose and the planting will be floppy.


                  For this type of planting,  I used the newer "all aggregate potting method."  It starts with four x-tie wires coming through the bottom holes.  The central hill starts with larger pieces caught in a 3/8" screen which is covered by a layer of pieces caught in a 1/4" screen.  This is carefully shaped with a trowel, Nutrient Granules added, and covered with pieces caught in a 1/8" screen.  The compacted root ball is positioned, more 1/8" aggregate filled the pot --- all pressed firmly into place, and the compacted root ball firmly secured with the tie wire.

                  The potting material is press-troweled firm with an emphasis on using the edge of the trowel held at an angle to especially compact along the edges of the pot with a firm back and forth motion to lock the aggregate in place but not to bring up larger pieces as when using a chopstick to dibble firm. A layer of finer granules that are caught in a 1/16" screen is added and this pretty much seals the the surface without reducing the drainage.  When all is firm,  the fine materials that went through the 1/8" screen including aggregate, dust, and organic matter becomes the topping that will encourage the growth of hair roots --- but only in this "top layer equivalent to natural topsoil."

         A top view photo shows that while the major portion of the root mass is in the center of the pot, the roots are pulled towards one corner, bent across the pot, and the foliage mass spreads out towards the right but with enough spacing to the crown can develop with secondary branches that can face in all directions for a directional flattened "Kasa-like" foliage crown.

        This report starts with a tree that has completed "pre-training" and summarizes the last major training session to end the "growing-on" stage.  The tree is now about 6" above the rim of the pot and about 10" across as it enters the "refinement" stage" in which the root-trunk will thicken and the crown fills out.


                    Papa Kaneshiro gave me seeds in 1965. In 2015 this slow-growing tree will be 50 years old!  Mike Ueno and I were the "Young Turks" that defied tradition and were criticized because we were teaching even though we didnít know much. We also were not "serious" enough. We believed bonsai should be fun and had a private "UGLY BONSAI CONTEST." Mike somehow got a an old Japanese Garden Juniper (Juniperous procumbens) that had a trunk twisted into two full turns with a beautiful round-headed crown! It got a lot of attention at every bonsai show and the public liked it. 


                     In those days I was competitive. A Chinese Box Orange seedling came out with a really ugly root system that was perfect for our contest and I trained to expose the ugly root. I exposed more roots at each repotting and it kept becoming uglier. I was catching up with Mike whose tree hadn't changed! The night before a show I exposed more roots and had a support wire to hold it upright.


                     Just before the show I removed the wire and the tree started to change! On the second day of the show, the tree was growing almost sideways and it was the funniest looking tree. But by the end of the show, the tree had completely collapsed and the crown was lying down on the table upside down! IT CLEARLY WAS THE UGLIEST BONSAI AND MIKE CONCEDED! It continued to change after we moved to the Big Island in 1973.


                     In 1979 Japan grand master Saburo Kato came to select trees for his 1980 International Bonsai Congress Hawaii presentation where he created "Peace Forest" and gave his now famous "Bonsai no Kokoro" address. He spotted my "ugly bonsai" and really liked it. Kato is a unique traditionalist who personally favors trees called "bunjngi" or "literati." The sparse, skimpy trees are the most elegant Chinese penjing and my ugly bonsai had that elegant quality.


                     The next time he came to the Big Island we were well into building the Kona Fuku-Bonsai Center. Through his editor-translator he asked about my "ugly bonsai" and explained that he was very impressed and remembers it. He sees the most beautiful and most expensive bonsai in the world but believes the most important thing is the relationship between the bonsai and its owner-trainer. He remembered that I had a strong affection for this unique and ugly tree and said that's the way it should be. Each time I work on this tree, I think of Kato and his philosophy.

                       I have been privileged and honored to have worked with great international bonsai leaders from the Greatest Generation .  In 1992 when the Kona Fuku-Bonsai Center opening, we were honored to receive from the Kataoka family a gift of a case of pots to commemorate the opening of the Kona Fuku-Bonsai Center.  The sides of the round pot has been stamped with the five seals used by the Kataoka family including the original "China era" sealas, the various Yamaaki Kiln pottery seal, as  well as his personal seal that he uses for his handmade or special pots.  He had a die made of Fuku-Bonsai's logo which also appears between hand written "EAST-WEST FRIENDSHIP POT" between.  "UGLY BONSAI" and other special trees utilize these treasured gifts from the Kataokas. 

                       At the International Bonsai Congress in 1990 in Hawaii I announced the formation of the Fuku-Bonsai International Bonsai Honor Roll to recognize the outstanding members of their generation who worked together to create the international bonsai we all enjoy today. I presented plaques to Saburo Kato (Japan), John Naka (California),  Haruo "Papa" Kaneshiro (Hawaii), Yee-sun Wu (Hong Kong), Ted Tsukiyama (Hawaii) and Akiji Kataoka (Japan).


                       I was introduced to bonsai through the lush vibrant growth that bonsai increasingly developed as Japan recovered from World War II.  So it took awhile to become familiar and adopt the great detail and complexity of Chinese penjing where there is less emphasis on very heavy trunks and massive foliage.  Instead there's a greater emphasis on detailed pruning that creates lively branch patterns that portray many aesthetically beautiful trees. 

                       Training by pruning requires great skill and the results are influenced by how the tree branches when pruned.  The photo below show one of my favorite penjing in which I tried to create the lively branch patterns of ancient Chinese literati paintings that reflect tall, slender sparsely branched trees.  In this situation, the two trees on the right are the more sparse lanky form of Chinese Box Orange while the one on the left is the more compact variety. 

                       Developing the shape is difficult as trunks have very little taper.  To add some mass to the lower section, widening roots were exposed.  Trunks were kept close together and branches allowed to cross.  Each variety produced a different branching pattern that adds some interest.  The penjing has a quiet attraction that compliments the other Chinese Box Oranges in the collection. 

                       The trees are 21" tall and 13" wide in a mottled blue glazed narrow oval pot that is 13 1/2" long by 7 1/2" wide and 2 1/2" high. 

            Chinese Box Orange have been amongst my personal favorite bonsai-penjing.  Unlike other trees, this and Bird's Tongue Podocarpus are very slow growing. These two trees will be used for special educational exhibits at the Fuku-Bonsai Cultural Center that are being planned. 

***  Return to the August 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