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"And the LORD God made ... trees that were pleasing to the eye ..." Gen. 2:9, New International Version.

"Bonsai isn't just something I do; it's part of what I am." Remark to my wife and daughter.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

"The Queen of Trees"

     That is the title of a fascinating documentary on the sycamore fig, Ficus sycomorus. One thing that astounded me was the sheer number of different animal species that a sycamore fig will support, literally from ants and (sometimes sozzled) butterflies to elephants!

Ficus sycomorus is native to a large swath of tropical and subtropical Africa, as well as some other adjacent areas. It may be the oldest species of Ficus in cultivation: there is archeological evidence that it was cultivated in Egypt as early as 3000 B.C. It's mentioned a number of times in the Bible; it was a sycamore fig (or just sycomore - note the different spelling) that Zacchaeus climbed in order to see Jesus over the heads of the crowd in Jericho. (Luke 19:1-9.)

Here's a photo of a sycamore fig growing in Ethiopia. The three human figures in the foreground give a sense of scale. Photo credit to Bernard Gagnon.

Ficus sycomorus has long been valued for fruit and shade. The figs are used for animal fodder, as well as being eaten
by wildlife. They are edible for humans, but not as palatable as the figs of Ficus carica.
And here is a link to the documentary: "The Queen of Trees."

Enjoy!

:-)  :-)  :-)

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Larch Fall Color

     If you didn't know that there are conifers that shed their foliage every year and grow a full new set in the spring, just like a maple or an elm, don't feel too bad. You're not alone. Perhaps the best known deciduous conifer is the bald cypress (Taxodium distichum.) The larches are also deciduous conifers, known for their clear yellow fall color. That color is one of the features which make them popular for bonsai in areas where conditions are suitable for their growth.

Larch, species unknown, two blocks from my house. Some of the foliage is still turning.
The cones are smaller than a table grape, too small to show in the picture.

There are 10-12 recognized species of larch, depending on the source you consult, as well as a few hybrids; they make up the genus Larix in the family Pinaceae. Besides pines and larches, the Pinaceae family includes spruces, firs, hemlocks, true cedars (Cedrus), and a few other genera.

Three species of larch are commonly used for bonsai: Larix decidua, European larch; Larix kaempferi, a.k.a. Larix leptolepis, Japanese larch; and Larix laricina, American larch or tamarack. American larch is native to Canada and parts of the eastern USA. My location in Indiana is just within its native range. It's very adaptable, fairly fast-growing when young, and shrugs off cold like a musk ox.

I picked up a pre-bonsai Larix laricina at MABA 2017; my lovely wife bought it for me as an early Christmas present. And it's turning color too.

My larch bonsai-in-the-making. The trunk just above the nebari is a little more than 1 inch in diameter.
This is my first real try with a larch, so I've been reading up on its care and am thankful that I live within its native range. Once the needles fall I will finish styling the uppermost branches. I have a Sara Rayner pot that I think will suit it, come next spring. If all goes well, it should be on display within a couple of years. Wish me the best!

:-)  :-)  :-)

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Staving Off Winter (As Much As I Can)

     This has been a busy summer and fall, and between one thing and another I (still!) did not have winter quarters ready for my tropicals when our first frost was predicted a week ago. The "tropical bonsai two-step" - taking the trees into the house for the nite and then back outside when things warm up enough the next day - is better than losing trees, but still a cumbersome process when you have more than two dozen tropicals of all sizes. And it does inconvenience my wife.

I've recently subscribed to Ryan Neill's weekly live-stream broadcast from Bonsai Mirai. The evening before the frost warning, in what I consider a little gift from God, Ryan mentioned something that for me was serendipitous. Plant tissues, he said, become endangered by cold at 28° F, not at 32° F (the freezing point of water), as one would expect. That's because water inside a tree's tissues doesn't freeze (creating ice crystals, which do the damage) until the air temperature outside the tree gets down to about 28° F. (For readers accustomed to Celsius, 28° F is equivalent to -2.22° C.)

That's partly because the outermost layers of bark and cuticle slow heat loss, partly because water itself has a high heat retention capacity, and partly because of the sugars, starches and other substances dissolved in the intra-tissue water, which lower its freezing point. (Any substance dissolved in water lowers its freezing point and raises its boiling point, to one degree or another. Anything.)

Overnite lows, while forecast to be at or near freezing, were not forecast to get down to 28° F. So the next day I decided to apply what I'd just learned, along with protection measures I already knew. The earth itself is a good heat reservoir, especially this early in  the season. So I set up a small cold frame that I've had for about 30 years directly on the ground, with just a thin old sheet under it to keep the pots clean. Most of my tropical trees fit into it.

The base of the cold frame is 40 inches square (1.02 m). The frame is aluminum and the glazing is a polycarbonate sandwich which traps a layer of dead air. Austrian manufacture, and it has stood up well!
A few twigs got bent down when I put on the cover and a few leaves stuck thru the cracks, but those were minor considerations.

With the cover in place, heat loss thru radiation to the atmosphere is reduced a great deal.
The white at the top of the picture is not snow, but a vinyl product that I'm using as a ground cover.
For another layer of protection, I threw an equally old blanket over the cold frame and wrapped it against the sides.

The blanket traps another layer of dead air, and covers the gaps in the coldframe's construction, keeping out wind.
It's been a week. When daytime temperatures have allowed, I've taken off the blanket and the frame's cover so the trees could get as much light as possible. That's especially important because, being tropicals, they are not genetically programmed for a dormancy period, and keep metabolizing even when they can't replenish their resources by photosynthesis.

A few of my smaller tropicals didn't fit under the frame. I've been doing the "tropical two-step" with them, but with just a few small trees it's not  a major chore.

After tonite, temperatures are expected to warm up for the next 8-9 days, and the trees won't need this protection. Meanwhile, I've ordered a tent-like greenhouse that I will set up on our side porch, and fit with benches, lights, and other necessities to keep my tropicals happy thru the rest of the winter. Stay tuned.

:-)  :-)  :-)

Friday, August 25, 2017

MABA 2017: Some Other Awards I Would Have Given

     Here are a few more awards I'd have given at MABA 2017, had such categories existed (and had I been the judge.)

Best Three-Point Display by a Nine-Year Old: I don't put minors' last names on the Internet for security reasons, and this young man's first name is distinctive enough that I'm not going to mention it either. He started helping with his dad's trees when he was four, and has been learning right along. His dad told me that he grew the primary bonsai, the Ficus burtt-davyi, from a cutting; trained it on the rock; picked a pot for it and potted it up; picked out the secondary bonsai, the accent plant, and the stands for all three; and set up the 3-point display. All of that by himself. His dad's only contribution was to let him use one of his spare pots. Not bad at all!
3-point display by a 9-year-old artist
Sometimes a child enjoys a certain activity primarily because it is something to do with Mom or Dad. Nothing wrong with that. But this boy's father thinks his son's interest in bonsai may be something that will continue well into the future. If so  - who knows how good he'll be by the time he reaches the age some of the rest of us are now?

Best Hobbit Tree: I made sure to get a picture of this one for my wife. Some years ago I had a mame-sized Chinese privet (Ligustrum sinense) with a hollow trunk. It was her favorite among my bonsai; she called it my "hobbit tree!"
"Arborhobbitus hollowtrunkanibus." (Actually, an elm.)


Best Deciduous Runner-up (in my judgment): Actually, had it been up to me, I might well have given this hornbeam the "Best Deciduous" award, not just "runner-up." A powerful trunk with a bit of movement; a healthy canopy that's full but still lets the eye in; a stable nebari (tho it could stand to be more balanced, maybe with some grafts); that uro on the left (that you can't quite see all of, so your eye wants to probe deeper); and a very well-matched pot. I like it!
I'd love to have a tree this good!


Best Double Tanuki (and the only double tanuki I've seen yet): For any who don't know, a tanuki (a.k.a. phoenix graft) is a slender, younger tree attached to the back or side of a larger but dead tree in such a way that the two look like one plant that has a great deal of deadwood. That's the idea, anyway. This shimpaku bonsai, I understand, is composed of two living plants attached to the deadwood. (The award belongs with the Best Accent, out of the picture to the left.)
And here I thought it was simply a full, healthy bonsai with lots of deadwood!
Maybe that's what a tanuki is supposed to look like.

Best Monkeyin' Around Bonsai: I leave you with this composition by Jim Doyle. Little comment is needed - you're probably laughing too hard anyway! Jim had a little sign beside it asking, "Who climbed the tree first - men or apes?"  Nothing wrong with mixing a little whimsy in with your art (and your philosophy)!
California redwood, Sequoia sempervirens, in custom-made container. Plasticopithecus in the branches.
:-)  :-)  :-)