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Mixed Bonsai Forests & Other Wonders

 This magnificent mixed forest is by Saburo Kato, who was one of the original old masters of Japanese bonsai. You can find it and other remarkable trees in his timeless classic Forest, Rock Planting & Ezo Spruce Bonsai (see below). You can also find some of the most comprehensive how-to bonsai instructions anywhere. The trees are (more or less left to right) Japanese maple, Japanese beech, Dwarf Stewartia, Japanese red leaf hornbeam, Kyushu azalea and Desojo Japanese maple. The planting was about 30 years old when this photo was taken. Its height is 41 inches (104cm). In other words, it’s a lot bigger than you’d think just looking at this picture.

We’ve got four uncommon forests for you today, the first two are mixed forests and the other two are unique in their own way. Forests with mixed species can be a little tricky; not only does the planting have to make sense aesthetically, particularly when it comes to questions of scale, but the various types of trees should make sense growing together (would you find them growing together in nature?)

Not that you can’t experiment with trees that normally might not grow in the exact same locations, but the more different their natural habitats are, the more unnatural the planting might seem and the more difficult it might be to keep all the trees healthy.

This mixed forest/landscape is from Spain. The Museo del Bonsai Marbella to be exact (from Bonsais del Sur). It's too bad the pot is chopped off and the whole photo is cramped, but that's the way we found it. Still, from what we can see, it looks like a very ambitious project with numerous types of trees, smaller plants and other features to integrate. No mean feat to pull off.

When I first caught site of this planting on Quoc Viet Tran‘s timeline I was immediately struck by how powerful and realistic it is. I wish I could tell you more but no information is provided. I guess we’ll have to settle for simple appreciation of the artist’s mastery.

Bonsai Empire's caption says "Buxifolio Bonsai forest, planted on a rock, by Luisa Alfaro." The Buxifolio part is a bit of a mystery. Buxifolia (with an a) is a species name, but without the genus, it could be any number of things. The leaves look tiny, so we'll try Neea buxifolia.



Michael Hagedorn's Historic Ponderosa Restyling (in a rusty old brake drum!)

Michael Hagedorn's Ponderosa pine in an rusty old brake drum.

Okay, if your interest isn'tpiqued by the photo and caption just above, maybe it's time for a nap. Or a cup of coffee...
However, if you're still here, rather than listen to me scribble on, here's the whole story in the words of Michael Hagedorn, our favorite brilliant bonsai bard and shapeshifting trickster.

In Michael's own words, just as I lifted them from his Crataegus Bonsai blog: "Years ago a friend dropped off an old brake drum, an old rusted thing from a car, and said ‘Put something in that’. I was pretty amused and said I would, and yet it’s taken me a while to find something worthy of it. We finally did, this spring, and it was the first time I’ve ever put a tree in a metal container.

"I’ve featured this Ponderosa here before. Collected way back in the 80’s, it made its way onto the cover of BCI magazine in 1992. The lower branch was getting weak and last fall we had a post about cutting that branch off, and rethinking the inclination and front."

The same Ponderosa pine on the cover of BCI magazine in 1992.

Michael's caption... "Fall of 2019. A lower branch was cut off, with some blocks helping us think about what a restyle might look like. The only problem with this perfectly serviceable front is that it looks like a bonsai should look, when it’s being polite."

"This spring we put the pine in the brake drum. I worried that the metal container would heat up a lot, but, interestingly, it didn’t (more about that in another post).

"Fall has arrived and the tree is plenty strong enough for a restyle. While looking at the pine again an edgier front possibility arose, and we went with that…

"August 2020. In spring the Ponderosa pine was repotted into a rusted brake drum, at this new angle, but we found a new front, too. The decisions here were not easy (are they ever), as we had to give up an interesting burl of wood at the base of this tree for the new tucked in look. What I liked was the more interesting line from this view. Bunjin is all about line, not base, or nebari, so we sacrificed that to get a far more active trunk line. No major bends were done, just a turn of the pot 90 degrees. There is nothing I did here that a future owner couldn’t undo, with a return to the original front, which is a nice one. But, the original front felt a bit…prosaic…to me, and I wanted something edgier. The unusual container choice and the unusual front have a touch of simpatico. It’s a little less bonsai-like and maybe a little more interesting. To me at any rate."

That's our favorite bonsai trickster on the right, trying to confuse a juniper.

A close up from the cover of Michael's now famous Bonsai Heresy. I'd like to say 'the only bonsai book you'll ever need' but that might be silly. So how about this quote from Gary D. Wood that appears at the beginning of the book: "Doing it right will take you a long time; doing it wrong takes forever". 

Firethorn Bonsai: Blazing Red Berries

This exquisite beauty must be one of the best overall berry bearing bonsai I’ve ever seen, with just the right combination of berries leaves and space. You might say it’s understated as compared with some others we’ve seen. It’s a Nepal Firethorn (Pyracantha crenulata), in training since 1966, donated to the U.S. National Bonsai & Penjing Museum by Yee-Sun Wu. It’s hard to tell for sure, but I think that’s a stone on the left. 

I grew up in California’s Great Central Valley where hot weather and Firethorns (Pyracantha) are abundant, with equally abundant berries ranging from various reds, through oranges and yellows. In the ground you’ll often see them as hedges as their sharp thorns make them quite impenetrable.

Firethorns take to bonsai culture, but insects, blight and other diseases also take to them, so they need to be raised with plenty of attention to detail. We won’t go into symptoms or treatments here, but there’s plenty of good information online and in books about general treatment for pests and diseases including What’s Wrong with My Plant?

Other than that Firethorns are hardy to zone 6 with good protection and care that is basic to most bonsai. Be sure to give them plenty of sun if you want abundant berries. The same goes for water - they’ll drink a bit more when growing berries (don’t keep the soil soggy though, that’s an invitation to all kinds of problems).

We recommend our regular professional soil mix for almost everything, including Pyracantha and the same goes for our Green Balance slow release pellet fertilizer, which is great for promoting berries.

Just the right amount of berries for this miniature Firethorn (Pyracantha) beauty. It and the pot were done by Mame master Haruyosi (mame is the Japanese name for tiny bonsai. It literally translates as ‘bean’).

Red berries, red pot. Or maybe more accurately, orange and red berries, red pot (colors vary from screen to screen, so it's hard to tell for sure). The tree is a Firethorn (Pyracantha) that belongs to Bill Valavanis. Bill sent it to us with the line I LIKE RED POTS TOO!, in response to a post we did a couple years ago that was titled, Red Bonsai Pots, a Shift in Taste.

Shohin Pyracantha with yellow berries. A couple things jump out. First are the luminous berries (without these, I'm not sure we'd bother). The other thing that jumps out is the funkiness of the roots-turned-lower-trunk. Exposing roots so they become part of the trunk is common practice. In some cases it works, in other cases less so. You can be the judge. The tree belongs to Edson Cordeiro who lives in Brazil. It's from a series titled "Pyracantha em 3 anos de formação" on facebook.

Tiny Pyracantha with smoke by Yoshiyuki Kawada.

Pyracanthas can be prolific bearers of berries and this one is no exception. It's from a post we did in 2012. I don't know who the artist or owner is, but my guess is the tree is in Japan.

I chose this one as much for the pot as the berries. It’s from Bonsai in Japan.

Flowers come first, so maybe we should have started with this sweet little Bonsai Mike Pyracantha that we originally featured way back in 2010. 

Before & After: A Two Legged Bonsai (& More)

All bonsai have numerous before and after moments in their progression. You might say that every time you pick up your tools and start to work on a tree is a before moment and every time you put down the tools and walk away is an after moment.

We could have started this newsletter with any number of excellent before and after trees. But how many great two legged trees do you see? It’s a Sierra juniper (Juniperus occidentalis) that belongs to Bonsai Mike. You can see the potential peeking out underneath the foliage in the before shot. Still, even with good potential, the after shot reveals an impressive transformation.

A closer look at the after shot. Here’s what Mike wrote about this old yamadori juniper… “One of my best trees. I collected this Sierra in 2011. It has gone through 3 stylings since then and keeps improving. The foliage is getting a little heavy now. In order to show greater age, some branches must be removed in order to create more open space.”
One way of talking about this is, there are small before and after moments and then there are large before and after moments, moments that illustrate marked changes. Or more accurately, marked improvement. Improvements that require considerable skill on the part of the artist and that are obvious even to the most casual observer

You might divide before and afters into two other general groups. One is radical restyling and others is what I call maintenance styling, which is mostly just bringing an overgrown tree back to, and perhaps beyond, its earlier beauty.

Staying on topic, here’s a strikingly beautiful maintenance before and after by Naoki Maeoka.
Wired, trimmed, repotted and cleaned up (cleaning the deadwood and applying lime sulfur, and also cleaning and brushing the the live veins to bring out their natural beauty). Though no major restyling is done, the result of Naoki Maeoka’s maintenance work on this Juniper procumbens is magnificent.
And lest you think that the second type, maintenance styling requires less skill, I might take issue. It’s easy to mess up a good tree if you don’t know what you’re doing.

Another maintenance before and after. This time the artist is Jan Culek. Most of what was done on the tree just above was also done here, though it doesn’t look like there was much wiring and no repotting this time. No variety is listed, but it looks like it might be a Shimpaku juniper.

This has to be one of the most compelling bonsai I've seen in a while. It has that wild, unrefined look and though the deadwood is prominent, it's not dominated by deadwood like so many trees. But perhaps the best of all are the brilliant living veins and the way they stand out against the deadwood. This before and after is more about maintenance styling than styling rough stock. Less daunting perhaps, but only someone skilled in the art of bonsai can do what you see here. In this case, that someone is Gabriel Romero Aguade of Bonsai Sant-boi.
Another maintenance before and after. This one is by Mariusz Komsta, a long time favorite on Bonsai Bark. Mariusz doesn't identify the tree and I won’t embarrass myself with a guess.

Here’s one that involves much more than maintenance. It’s an Itoigawa juniper before and after by Gabriel Romero Aguade. When I first saw this one, my guess was that the transformation took years. But rather than settle on a guess, I decided to ask Gabriel Romero Aguade how many years it took. Here’s what he wrote... “From the first to the second photograph, 6 hours have passed. more or less.“ Go figure.

Before and after by our friend Robert Steven. The before photo was submitted to Robert by David Royinsyah. The after is one of a large number of digital simulations that Robert employs as a teaching tool. The tree is a Tamarindus indica, a type of tropical legume. The photos are from the Black Scissors Community.

Note: the following are my comments, not Robert’s.
First thing was to get rid of the ugly pot and replace it with something more natural whose lines and color complement the tree – what an improvement!

The rest of the changes are fairly subtle. What I see is a tree with a gentle prevailing breeze from left to right. With this breeze you get shorter branches on the left and extended branches on the right, with the foliage on the right extending beyond the tips of the branches. You might also notice some inner branches curving to the right.

Another change is the apex, with its nod to the right which further emphasizes the prevailing breeze. Beyond that, I’m sure there are other changes, but you’ll have to check with Robert about those.

And on that note I think it's about time to be after before & after. We could go on an on I'm sure. If you made it all the way to the end well thank you. Give yourself a little pat on the back.

Bonsai Dragon & Deadwood Tips

Do you like deadwood on bonsai? If so, are you in the let’s not overdo it camp, or are you a proponent of the no-holds-barred, go for broke approach that’s expressed loud and clear on Masahiko Kimura's Dragon?

The no-holds-barred deadwood approach by the grand deadwood innovator and master, Masahiko Kimura. He named the tree Dragon. The photo is from Bonsai Today issue 2 (long out of print). It also appeared in The Bonsai Art of Kimura (also long out of print).

Or maybe you don’t like deadwood at all. If so, you might want to stick with deciduous or tropical trees, where deadwood is a lot less common. So you won’t be tempted.

No need for deadwood on this famous tropical masterpiece. It's a Ficus microcarpa by Huang, Ching-Chi of Taiwan.

If you stray into conifers (especially junipers) where most trees these days have experienced at least some carving, sooner or later you'll most likely find yourself succumbing to the urge.

Maybe it will be just a small jin on a little branch stump. Or a modest shari to cover an accidental wound on a trunk (that happened to me just the other day).

This is where it starts, but if you’re not careful some day you’ll end up carving trees that look something like this. Well. maybe not really like this, but you get my point.

This photo is one of many that were taken by Andres Bicocca at the 2017 European Bonsai San Show in Saulieu France. None of the trees or artists are identified (no blame, they were no doubt taken on the fly and I’m just happy to have them). The tree might be called sculptural. It's a look that seems to offend some people. The primary complaint is that it looks plastic (I think Walter Pall used that term). Another is that it doesn't look like tree. As John Naka said "Make your bonsai look like a tree".

John Naka, the Dean of American bonsai with his famous Goshin. As you can see, Mr Naka used ample deadwood - even whole trees in his forest are dead - but the planting still looks natural. Photo by Cheryl Manning.

François Jeker, deadwood artist and author of Bonsai Deadwood does some of the most detailed and natural looking carving anywhere.

One mistake beginners (and others) make, is to carve too much too soon. If you jump right in without much experience (or without a plan) and start peeling and gouging away, you can do a lot of damage in just a few minutes (take it from someone who knows first hand).

These illustrations by François give you a glimpse into the depth of his understanding of deadwood (and of his talent as an illustrator). They originally appeared in Bonsai Today issue 103.

Before you start carving, it's critical to know where the living veins are. If you damage a vein that supports a branch or even a whole side of the tree (or even the whole tree) you can easily end up with dead branches or worse, a dead tree.

Living veins are roughly analogous to blood vessels (or highways) that move water and nutrients from the roots to the tops and vice versa. Some elements go up from the roots to feed the tops and others go down from the foliage to feed the roots - an ongoing and critical exchange (this exchange is interrupted during dormancy).

Close up of live veins on a Rocky mountain juniper that belongs to Michael Hagedorn. I borrowed the photo from a post on Michael's Crataegus Bonsai blog titled Juniper Live Veins and How They Move.

Live veins aren’t always obvious, though they often bulge a bit. So if you find a bulge running the length of the trunk with crevices or indents on either side, then you’ve located a live vein (live veins also run out branches).

Another way to locate living veins is to gently scrape away loose dead bark. If the cambium layer underneath is alive (green) then stop scraping. If it’s not alive, continue to scrape the bark away and expose the deadwood underneath. Just be sure to stop when you come to a live area. Now you’re on your way to successfully locating and distinguishing living veins from from dead tissue. It's these area with dead tissue that are okay for carving.

This almost otherworldly carving job belongs to Harry Harrington. The tree is a Yew (Taxus baccata). We’ve shown it a couple times on Bonsai Bark, but I think it’s worth another look. The built to fit pot is by Victor Harris of Erin Pottery.

Once you’ve located dead tissue, feel free to carve it. But as you’re peeling away the bark that's covering the dead tissue, be careful not to peel bark that’s covering live tissue. This may sound simple, but it takes some practice and judicious care.

There’s much more on the art of carving, though if you proceed with caution and remember to locate the living veins and take care not to damage them, you might be successful.

Olive deadwood by Harry Harrington. You can create deadwood that looks old with skillful carving and finishing, but only nature and time can create aged bark .

Almost forgot... Not all carving is done on tissue that is already dead. You can also intentionally kill living wood by carving it. This is okay if you know what you're doing and you make sure to save the essential live veins you need to support the parts of the tree you want to stay alive and healthy.

The Softer Side of Bonsai

It's good to have friends. Especially ones who think of you when they see something related to bonsai in a national newspaper. In this case the friend is Greg McNally, a fellow tree lover and the owner of the Northern Vermont land where I dig most of my larches

The link Greg sent me is from The Washington Post and though it has little do with larches or other trees it does have something to do with bonsai. Or at least an art that is intimately related to bonsai

But rather than me going on about it, we'll let Adrian Higgins, the author of the article tell the story (well, just the first few paragraphs)...

Here's Adrian's caption... "Although bonsai trees can appear immutable, kusamono compositions mark the seasons, here the arrival of the early spring blooms of the epimedium hybrid Niveum." Like this caption the ones below are also by Adrian Higgins. (photo by Young Choe)

One reason for this is that although bonsai is a popular and commercialized hobby, there are just a handful of kusamono virtuosos in the United States, none more accomplished than Young Choe, a Korean American horticulturist from Ellicott City.

"Horticulturist Young Choe brings an American flair to the Japanese artform of kusamono. This composition includes the wildflower Indian pink, sedge and the perennial Culver’s root." (Photo by Young Choe)

"Most of the subjects are grasses and perennials, but Choe sometimes uses shrubby material. This wild rose was raised from seed and took six years to bloom." (Photo by Young Choe)

"Her creations — unexpected, essential and surprisingly haunting — take common plants and elevate them as living subjects of delight and desire. A pennisetum grass you might barely notice in the office park becomes kinetic sculpture; common cranesbill is transformed into a grove of flowers; and the trillium of the woodland floor is placed on Choe’s pedestal. 'I love to show people how beautiful they are,' she said."

For the rest of the article visit The Washington Post.

"To Create Outstanding Bonsai, You Need to Have an Understanding of Psychology..."

How did he do this? Because you can't see any soil, you might wonder if this one is a flowering air plant. Though no explanation (nor plant variety) is given, my guess is that there is a pocket of soil nestled out of sight in this piece of driftwood 

One of many things that Robert Steven is know for are his breaks with bonsai convention. Just when you think he has achieved some mastery of a style he's off trying something else

The photos shown here are from Robert's ArtFest on his Missions and Legends 2020 (Facebook)
Continued below...


Here's Robert's caption with this one... "Nature holds the perfect key to aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual balance; breaking its balance will bring disaster!"

Continued from above...
Robert's ArtFest Quote of Today (April 4th, 2020)
"To create outstanding bonsai, you need to have an understanding of psychology, human behavior, and the little shortcuts, the little quirks, in the way people operate; then you can use them to make it easier for people to engage with your creation."


 Robert's caption "Critics and curators are failed artists." A little harsh but being outspoken comes with the territory


This one seems a bit more conventional,
though the pot might have something to say about that 


A metaphor for bonsai? You'll have to click over to read Robert's comment


Robert with one of his unique creations


Small Bonsai - Muscular Trunks & Colorful Pots

 Bright yellow is a strong color, but I think this tree can handle it. The dense foliage and sturdy trunk are the keys. The artist is Tomohiro Masumi. No variety is given

All the photos in this post, which we originally featured almost two years ago, are from Tomohiro’s timeline. The only text is “Takao Koyo pots at Shuga-ten.” 

 Another bright yellow pot and an even stronger trunk. Again no variety is given, but the leaves are easy to identify as Japanese maple...


 Another strong pot and another maple, though this time it's a Trident. You can recognize Trident maples by their three pointed leaves (thus the name). The impressive nebari has a distinctively Trident look as well


Is it just me, or do the color of the tree and pot together seem a little dissonant. Or perhaps a little dissonance isTomohiro’s intention


A white snake invasion, or  just a bench full of Tomohiro Masumi's little trees (mostly junipers) with fresh lime sulfur?


Tomohiro Masumi loving bonsai



Saikei Bonsai - Creating a Planting with a Deep Ravine

This planting from Toshio Kawamoto’s Saikei classic is quite similar to the planting on the cover (below): same trees (cryptomeria), same (or nearly the same) pot and somewhat similar rocky ravine separating two tree and moss covered areas. The main difference is that this one shows a deep ravine. The rocks that define it represent tall vertical cliffs

Today we're dialing way back to 2010 (our second year for Bonsai Bark) and revisiting one of our favorite and most popular series of posts. I've left my original text almost completely intact, with only minor editing. Stay posted for more...

How to create a deep ravine saikei...
The purpose of this section from the Toshio Kawamoto's original is to show how to create a deep ravine saikei, just like the one in the photo above. In fact, if you look at the drawings, it’s almost as if the author is inviting you to duplicate his work


Front schemata. The pot is 27″ x 19″ (69cm x 48cm) unglazed oval by Tokoname. There are 29 cryptomeria that range from 4″ to 14″ (10cm to 36cm) tall and 9 river rocks. The soil is regular bonsai soil (he doesn’t say which regular bonsai soil, but the Japanese almost always use akadama or an akadama mix for conifers). The other materials are moss, river sand and white sand


Bird’s eye view. Notice how the opening in front is off center and slants and curves as it goes back. If it were directly centered and straight it would appear contrived. Notice also how the ravine narrows and curves around and disappears from sight and then opens up into a pool. Viewed from the front, this creates a sense of mystery and the appearance that it just goes on and on into a vast landscape, rather than being restricted to a very finite pot


I found this old out-of-print classic* at Green Apple Books in San Franscisco for ten dollars (minus my family discount – see disclaimer below). It was in near perfect condition after more than forty years (now more than 50 years... copyright 196, Kodansha International). The original price was $6.95 (hardcover no less).
BTW: Green Apple is one of the best surviving used/new independent bookstores anywhere (disclaimer: my son-in-law is part owner, but this takes away nothing from the fact that it’s a great place and an institution in San Fransisco)
John Palmer, founder of Bonsai Today and Stone Lantern Publishing mentioned this book to me years ago. I think he was hoping that it would show up back in print, or perhaps he was entertaining ideas of reprinting it himself (memory doesn’t always serve). Years later I got lucky and stumbled upon it

*To answer your question in advance, no we do not have any for sale. There are however, several for sale online at a range of prices (be careful). All you have to do it google it.

The Practice of Naming Bonsai... Whirlpool Is Obvious Enough, but It's Not Always That Simple

Koryo is the given name of this Japanese maple. No translation is given, but one possibility in 'consideration' as in 'worthy of consideration,' but that's just a guess on my part. Its estimated age is 120. The photo is from The Omiya Bonsai Art Museum in Saitama, Japan 

In North America most people don't name their bonsai. Or if they do, I don't know about it. However, in Japan naming seems to be a fairly common practice. Especially with very old trees. Or so it seems...

This morning I went through a couple dozen photos from The Omiya Bonsai Art Museum and found five that had names listed. All five are over 100 years old and my guess is that this is no coincidence. As top quality bonsai age and develop more and more character and fame they become worthy of names (you might imagine this has to do with repeatedly showing up in top shows and receiving high accolades)  


Koryo, a closer look


This Japanese black pine is called Seiran, which in this case it might be 'star.' Though if you really care, you might look up the Kanji (Omiya shows it) and do your own research. The estimated age is 120 years


 Seiran, a closer look


Seijaku is the name given to this Japanese white pine. Nothing came up in my cursory search under Seijaku, but looking at the Kanji given with Omiya's name, 'silence' might work (please don't take this to the bank, I don't read Kanji and can only guess)


Seijaku's estimated age is 200 years  


This Japanese black pine with its trunk fused to a rock is called Zuiko. You might want to do your own research (it's complicated). The tree's estimated age is 120 years


 Zuiko, close up


Saving the granddaddy for last. It's Japanese white pine called Uzushio with an estimated age of 500 years. There doesn't seem to be any ambiguity about the name... Uzushio means 'whirlpool' 


Whirlpool, close up 


Here's a photo from a post we did in 2015 on this same tree. In that post I called it 'Whirlpool Dancer' (I'm not sure where I got the Dancer part). It is also featured in our Masters Series Pine book (see just below) in a chapter titled, 'Jewel to Whirlpool'


Masters Series Pine Book
Available at Stone Lantern