Basics of Design
by Lew Buller
There is only one formal upright in my collection, and that’s my bald cypress. A formal upright requires a perfectly straight trunk and they are hard to come by. Consequently, most of my upright trees are of the informal style.
That’s OK; bonsai can be attractive, regardless of their style. Here’s my favorite. It’s a Virginiana juniper (Eastern Red Cedar).
The apex is directly over the root ball. There is a second variation considered acceptable by some, and that is to have a bend away from the trunk at the apex. Let the tree tell you what to do. Notice the branches are all on the outside of a bend. This maximizes the length of the branch and is easy for the eye to follow without losing track of the main design, which is to take your eye to the top of the tree.
When I first inserted the photo, I put it on the left side of the page. Then I moved it to the right to keep the bottom branch from directing your eye to the outside of the page. Now it directs you to the text. Get used to thinking where you want to direct the eyes of people viewing your plants.
It was an experiment done by a friend of mine. He wanted to see if junipers would grow over a rock. The short answer: not very well. Junipers have fine roots, nothing like the ficus that cling well to rocks. When I transferred it from the growing box he had it in to the bonsai pot shown, the roots were very thin and one-sided. Creating shari on the trunk had destroyed many of the life lines between roots and branches and the roots died when they were no longer supported by branches. Lesson: You can learn from other’s mistakes, but it’s probably better not to buy them.
A Cork Elm was started as a cutting and given to me as a gift in 1995. When I got it, I checked the Western Garden Book to see what I could find out and found nothing. Later I discovered that it does not grow naturally in the West, but is native to the Midwestern United States, with Kansas as its westernmost state. It is also called the Rock Elm; its scientific name is Ulmus thomasii.
This photo is dated February 1, 1998 and by then I knew it grows very slowly. It took me three yeas to grow the last three inches of the apex. The slow rate of growth aggravated me so I took it out of the bonsai pot and planted it in the middle of my wife’s flower bed, leaving it there for several years. It left traces of itself, either by seed or by roots, as nearly every year a new elm sprouts up there.
I was reminded again that bonsai are like children, you can’t keep them small no matter how nice that would be. When a front branch (an eye poker) was removed, an entire strip of cambium died down the front. Like Bald Cypresses, the Cork Elm grows new cambium to cover the old dead wood. Here’s what it looks like today. Rather than call it an informal upright style, I may have to identify it as a broom style.
Here’s a better look at the dead cambium. The live cambium appears about ready to join together again at the base. If it does, I will use lime sulfur on the shari to keep it from being covered over.
Admittedly the stand is a bit much for this delicate little Youpon Dwarf (nana) Holly. The tree deserves something not so burly and masculine, but rather more rounded and softer. This in spite of the very large rootage (nebari) prized by many bonsai enthusiasts. At 10” tall, it is among the smallest of my informal uprights.
I like its common name better than its scientific name, Ilex vomitoria. It tolerates San Diego’s alkaline soils better than other members of the Holly family. The usual non-alkaline mix was used in potting this tree, but the alkaline water in San Diego more than makes up for it.
Grafted kishu make very attractive small plants, and I have them in both slant style and informal upright style. Procumbens nana can also be made in this style.
The informal upright may be the most commonly found bonsai style. The requirements are simple: an apex over the root ball and interesting line leading to the apex.
Juniperus procumbens nana
Kishu scions are grafted onto several types of under stock, the two most used being the California juniper and the San Jose Juniper. My colleague in crime and I went to a wholesale nursery which must remain unnamed and explained that we needed quite a number of San Jose junipers for landscaping. We were allowed access to the growing grounds to pick out what we needed, and we did. We found 30-35 year old junipers with a spread of 5 feet or more. We ran our hands down the trunks and pulled out anything with a trunk too large to reach around with one hand. We stuffed as many as we could get into the truck, came home, unloaded them and went back a couple of days later.
Did the same thing, except that this time when we went to check out we were told not to come back again. We weren’t making the minimum purchase and we were cherry-picking the best of the trees. Back in San Diego, the trees were made smaller by cutting the long branches back, always making sure to leave enough foliage to keep both branch and roots alive.
The following spring they were grafted with Kishu scions, but I took only one photo. It appears in “Raffia,” Bonsai Journal of the American Bonsai Society, 2012, Volume 46, Number 1, page 17.
The formal photo is of my wife’s birthday present. We call it the Solitaire; she got that instead of a ring.
One year I decorated the Virginiana with miniature holiday decorations and sent a photo of just the tree to BCI, where it was published under the heading, “Yes, Virginiana, There is a Santa Claus.” This was a letter to a little girl that appeared on the New York Sun editorial page in 1897. (Bonsai Magazine, November/December 2001, Volume 40, Number 6, page 36.)
No matter what time of year you are reading this, Happy Holidays to you.