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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.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

"Budget" Doesn't Have to Mean "Uninteresting"

     Many of us are practicing bonsai on a budget. There are different reasons. Maybe our budget will only stretch so far. Maybe other pursuits are higher in our personal priorities than bonsai. (I'll forgive you.) Maybe we don't want to spend a lot on bonsai material until our skills improve.

Many in the bonsai world are familiar with the name of Jerry Meislik, retired ophthalmologist, long-time bonsai artist and teacher, and author of the book Ficus: The Exotic Bonsai. Jerry now has many splendid trees, trees to make any bonsai enthusiast drool, but that wasn't always the case. In a Facebook comment a few weeks ago, he said, "I still remember well lamenting the fact that I could not find material to create fantastic huge-trunk bonsai, and the material I could find and afford was pathetic." [Emphasis added.]

He went on to say, "Now I know that some really nice stuff can be made if one is willing to go with certain styles of bonsai."

Earlier that day Jerry had posted a composite picture of some of his recent creations, saying, "Many bonsai lovers have difficulty since their only material is young and long, and not showing huge bases and [an aged] appearance. For some years I have been working with young, long and uninteresting  material. I think you can do the same thing and create some fun bonsai."

Here are some of the pictures from the composite, full-sized and used with permission. For a sense of scale, it looks to me as if all but the third are resting on an upright piece of standard 4" x 4" lumber (approximately 10 cm x 10 cm).

All photos by Jerry Meislik. No commercial use without permission.
Some of the trees were recently defoliated, which allows more of their structure to be seen. While the trees show different styles (semi-cascade, slanting, etc.), most also show the bunjin (literati) variation.

All the bonsai in the pictures are Ficus, grown from cuttings from Jerry's larger trees, but there are other species and genera that can be used for the same purpose. Among tropical species, parrot's-beak (Gmelina), bougainvillea and schefflera are quite flexible when young. The same is true, if not to quite the same degree, for some temperate species, particularly in the pine family (Pinaceae): pine, spruce, hemlock and others. In addition, young and thin stock of almost any species can  be used for multi-trunk and forest plantings.

So, as Jerry's pictures demonstrate: if you are willing to work within certain limits of size, style and species, there is nothing to stop you from creating eye-pleasing, personally satisfying bonsai!

(With thanks to Jerry Meislik for putting this idea in my head. To visit Jerry's website, click here.)

:-)  :-)  :-)

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."


:-)  :-)  :-)

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.

:-)  :-)  :-)