A Tropical Forest Lava Slab Planting

         "Aikane" in Hawaii means friend(s) with the initial 7-tree Weeping Banyan (Ficus benjamina) group planting assembled in 1976.   These were amongst the first cuttings rooted after Fuku-Bonsai relocated to the Big Island in 1973 and the rooted cuttings were only three years old. This was also the first experimental butt-grafting trial plant.

            There are three major ways to create a two-trunked tree:  1) Allow a new growth point emerging from the root area to develop naturally.  2) Cut back a single trunked tree to almost root level and allow two sprouts emerging to develop.  And 3) Butt-graft two trees together.  Within this arrangement are amongst our first experimental three tree butt-grafting trials done in two different ways.  So the 7-tree group is really a 3-tree group made up of two 3-tree butt-graftings and a single trunked tree. 


            Creating forest arrangements is not difficult once you understand the basic principles.  Think of the relationship between the trees as you would human relationships. 

Forest sketch 2-tree.jpg (8043 bytes)         Start with a two-tree group.  Select two trees that are of different sizes.  The taller one should be proportionally thicker than the shorter one. Note that most trees have better branches on one side, so place the weak side of one tree against the weak side of the other tree. Cut off any branches and roots between the two trunks and with a string, tie the bases of the two trees together with the larger tree slightly higher.  Two trees have the fullness of a good higher quality single tree.
Forest sketch 3-tree.jpg (6818 bytes)         For a three- tree group,  imagine first that you have a two tree group. Then imagine that you take away one tree and replace it with a two-tree group to give you a three-tree group.  Don't allow all three trees to line up in a row. 

        Or examine a two-tree group and simply add another tree that compliments and improves the weak area. The strong branches face the outside of the group.

Forest sketch 5-tree.jpg (10375 bytes)         A 5-tree group is simply a 3-tree group and a comlimenting 2-tree group.  Normally in a nursery, the highest quality single trees are trained for single tree bonsai.  The next lower quality are trained for two tree groupings.  Still lower quality make up three tree groupings.  So usually a 5-tree grouping is made up of the lowest grade that are not of sufficient quality to be stand alone 2-trees or 3-trees groupings.


            At a bonsai nursery, seedlings and rooted cuttings are considered low-cost items and we cull out and discard all inferior plants while they are young.  If you work with hundreds of thousands of plants each year, you must be able to quickly recognize and discard poor quality plants.  Staffers that cannot discriminate, those who cannot make rapid decisions, or those who don't have the heart to ruthlessly cull and discard can not be a part of a bonsai nursery producing highest quality bonsai material.

            Three-tree groups are generally made up of trees that are not good enough for two-tree groupings.  When tying these, we place a small piece of volcanic cinder between two of the trees in the group. This automatically results in two trees close together with a bit of a space between the third tree. Five-tree groups can be a 2-tree group and a three-tree group, preferably of different ages and sizes. This automatically creates interesting size variation. Like anything else forest arrangements become easier with practice. 


           Start with the largest most dominant tree as the character of this tree will establish the theme and concept. There are two general ways.  For public demonstrations or when trees are in individual containers, a large amount of study and pre-planning is necessary.   It is necessary to understand the character of each tree and to have a clear idea as to whether a tree has the characteristics to be a part of a tight group or in an open position and this is generally determined by a tree's height to trunk girth ratios and the quality and number of branches.  Most trainers position individual trees beginning with the oldest or largest ones, progressing with smaller trees, and making continual adjustments. 

            Perhaps because I work without the pressure of completing an arrangement within a demonstration time period, I tend to work over a prolonged period.  First a large number of two or tree tree groups are made. The next year 5 or 7 tree groups are created.  If you work with a lot of trees,   you'll be able to recognize trees with a special character and each of these dominant trees will be the focus and dictate specific themes for an arrangement. Numerous smaller groups are made. Finally, all groups are sorted. 

           For larger complex forest arrangements, we combine several group plantings that had been pre-trained as smaller groups.  In this manner,  a very large complex forest is not much more difficult than creating a three tree group.  If we were to create an arrangement like Peace Forest today, it would simply be a matter of assembling several individual and small pregroupings from different age batches.  However,  few bonsai nurseries hold stock for forest arrangements. 

            Forest arrangements generally utilize low quality stock and these are usually discarded early.  There is a very limited economic feasibility in producing quantities of low-quality trees in a bonsai nursery.  There are relatively few customers qualified to purchase high-quality forest arrangements as those with high skill levels prefer to create their own rather than purchase completed forest arrangements.  All of these factors make forest arrangements less common.


            The highest standard of Tropical Bonsai requires each bonsai to be attractive with different themes when viewed from opposite sides.  Exception larger Tropical Bonsai have very complex design with several interesting "fronts."  For this arrangement, the seven trees were first pre-trained as a 3-tree low butt-graft,  a 3-tree high butt-graft, and a single tree. 

            Butt-grafting is a very effective tropical bonsai technique.  When the two trees are positioned, a portion of the lower trunk and all roots below are sliced off with a sharp knife. A similar removal on the second tree is made and the cuts of the two trees are matched and held together with masking tape and any air space between the two trunks smeared with Vaseline petroleum jelly.  The grafts take only a few months to heal and begin fusing.  If only a small part of the trunk root buttressing is sliced off, the low butt-graft appears to be a two trunked tree.  One of the trees in Aikane was done in this manner but taken another step to become a low three-tree butt-graft.

            The other tree was made up of three trees.  The main tree was sliced about 3" above the roots and joined to a second tree.  On the other side, the main tree was sliced about 1 1/2" above the roots and the third tree grafted.  Because of the longer joined areas,   the second 3-tree butt graft appears to be a very heavy trunked tree with very stout branches.  The trunk is over 5 1/2" across.

            The overall arrangement was made so one side featured the thick-trunked high butt-grafted triple tree while the other side featured the low butt-grafted triple tree.  The single tree was positioned to compliment both trees. The seven-tree (or 3-tree) arrangement (depending on how you count), was grown in the galvanized cover of a 20 gallon trash can for several years.   About 1985 it was planted on a natural lava slab.

Aikane 1.jpg (20808 bytes)         Aikane is being trained for two attractive views. This view features the large heavy trunk that is over 5 1/2" across and was created by high butt grafting of three trees and aggressive tropical reduction-building techniques.
Aikane 2.jpg (30305 bytes)         A closer view of the trunk base and aerial roots. Repeated massive reductions result in attractive tapering trunks that have a lot of furrowing and character. In contrast, trees that have been fattened have poor taper and round trunk cross-sections.
Aikane 3.jpg (21087 bytes)         This other Aikane view best shows off the natural lava slab. Roots penetrate porous Hawaiian lava and can eventually split the rock.  So prior to slab planting, the area was sealed with waterproofing hydraulic cement and die-down wire loops embedded into the cement. 
Aikane 4.jpg (24997 bytes)         Training has been mostly by pruning and utilizing pull-down wires while the branches are young.   Small pieces of discarded water hose are cut and used to cushion the pull-down wires.  A long common nail is anchored horizontally into the root ball and the two pull-down wires at the left blend in and appear to be aerial roots. Rounded river pebbles are a good substitute for formal display stands for rock slab plantings.

            Aikane is one of my earlier efforts and although better ones have since been created, this one has a lot of sentimental and personal value.  The graceful and attractive foliage first caught Saburo Kato's eye back in 1979 when he visited looking for plant materials for his IBC 80 Hawaii demonstration. It was then 5-years old and had been in training for only a year or two but was already showing promise.  Out of the first batch of about 150 cuttings, this is the only arrangement that I kept.  All other arrangements were disassembled and the best and straightest 45 trees were sent to Honolulu for his demonstration with the others destroyed.

            As such Aikane is a "sister" forest to Kato's "Peace Forest."  Our display area is being modified to allow these two forests to be seen side by side.  Trained from the same batch of rooted cuttings, they illustrate the very different results possible when utilizing different training techniques and concepts.

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