July 28, 2017

The Cost of Sex

Source material: 2017, April-July

          In the course of my biology education, the cost of sex and reproduction to an organism has repeatedly come up across specialtiesand plant sex is certainly no different. For mammals, females usually carry most of the energetic burden due to long gestation and lactation periods relative to other animals. However, sometimes males in the animal kingdom also pay a cost to pass on their genes. For example, a male walrus in "rut" undergoes a reproductively active period of a few months, where the walrus directs massive amounts of energy to its sole focus of reproducing and vocalizing for potential mates. During this period, male walruses can lose their coat of brown fur, have increased disease susceptibility, and their eyes start to turn red and bulge out as an odd indicator of systemic bodily neglect. There is also the famous example of a praying mantis male literally sacrificing itself to offer nutrients to the mom and in turn, increases the fitness of his offspring. The aptly named black widow spider undergoes a similar ritual.
          With such examples in mind, it should come at no surprise that all those flowers in last month's blog post, Spring at Elandan Gardens, have a cost to those trees too. The trees' hard-earned sugars and nutrients were spent in exchange for beauty, pollen generation, pollinator attraction, wind pollination (for less showy trees with cones, most maples, etc.), and seed maturation. For a healthy tree, these expenses are not a problem, but we may still have reason to intervene and choose whether to allow our bonsai to reproduce or not. I will demonstrate some examples of how one might acknowledge the energetic cost of plant reproduction and control it as a tool to speed development, increase health, or maintain the balance of vigor of your bonsai.


1. For Trunk Development
2. For Recovery
3. For Disease Resistance
4. Final Thoughts and Tips

One of Dan's Azaleas covered with flowers and reproductive energy.

June 30, 2017

Spring at Elandan Gardens

Source material: 2017, April-May

          As you may guess by looking at my recent posts (or lack thereof), May and June were busy months for me. Unfortunately, due to weekends packed with multiple field trips for classes, the Puget Sound Spring Show (which I was on the committee for), a little collecting exploration in the Cascades, and a camping trip to Nevada to collect plants for my university's Herbarium, I was not able to make it out to the bonsai garden on the weekends as often as I would have liked and I did not take the time to put to paper the blog post ideas I have been accumulating. Fortunately, I have finished my exams for the school year and it's time to catch up on all things bonsai.
          I wanted to begin by sharing my photos of Elandan Gardens in spring so that anyone attracted by these floral views still has time to catch some of the late-bloomers around the garden (Bougainvilleas will flower periodically throughout the year, for example). Dan loves ancient and gnarly trees above all else - this is apparent even how he styled his Azaleas which in full bloom are almost offensively replete with flowers. Dan's passion made the garden into a unique setting to enjoy the changing seasons. Even trees that have gone through the cycle of the seasons a hundred or a thousand times still are willing to expend massive amounts of energy to reproduce - luckily for the sake of our enjoyment.

Dan brought in this giant cedar stump with a crane meant to handle multi-ton rocks. The stump is at least 10 feet in diameter.

May 8, 2017

Purshia tridentata (Antelope Bitterbrush) for Bonsai?

Source material: 2017, May 06 

          I recently took a field trip with my plant identification course around Washington's cascades on both the west and east sides. Naturally, I had my eyes out for natural bonsai material the whole trip. One unexpected discovery (to me anyway) was Antelope bitterbrush - Purshia tridentata - a non-thorny member of the rose family with small leaves, small white or yellow flowers, and juniper-esque bark and deadwood (it seems to be one of the unusual broadleaf but hardwood exceptions, like olive or buttonwood). The location I found them was an eastern cascade rocky hillside that was ravaged by wildfire 20 years ago, however, the species exists widely in relatively dry, mountainous areas across the western United States.

A nice mountain view of the dry, eastern Washington side of the Cascades.

April 28, 2017

A Rocky Obsession

Source material: 2017, March-April

          To hardcore bonsai enthusiasts, our hobby really does become an obsession. I find myself constantly analyzing trees in my neighborhood considering their potential as a bonsai or looking at what patterns are in a full-sized tree to inspire my styling. However, that is not the obsession I am referring to in this post. My teacher - known to my friends as Bonsai Man Dan, known to the bonsai world as Dan Robinson - has a recent obsession with rock plantings. Over his 50+ years in bonsai, he has been a collector of great trees and rocks. Normally Dan values a powerful trunk above all else in bonsai design, and many of his bonsai are therefore liable to visually overpower a rock that on its own does have merit. Lately, though, Dan has expanded his usual "focal point bonsai" philosophy beyond visually impressive trunks and towards smaller, gnarly trees that might be okay on their own in a small pot, but which can become as powerful as his large-trunked trees when combined with a stunning rock. Below is one example we placed onto a rock this past spring that excited Dan the most. It should be striking to beginners in particular that the slender-trunked trees in this post (the sort of bonsai beginners have) are dramatically more captivating once transplanted into a worthy rock to create a scene as dramatic as a unique deadwood feature can be on a larger wild bonsai tree.


1. The Juniper Forest
2. Tiny Chinese Elms
3. The Others

Dan's new favorite rock planting. The rock is a rhyolite specimen from Utah.

April 24, 2017

"Natives" Exhibit Opening

Source material: 2017, April 1

           The Pacific Bonsai Museum's new "Natives" exhibit is now open! In recent posts, I have been discussing the preparation of five Dan Robinson trees that are now on loan for the show. This exhibit excited me not only because it gave me the opportunity to help prepare prominent bonsai for a major show, but also because of the show's unique focus.
I had seen this mountain hemlock (Tsuga mertensiana) grove by Michael Hagedorn online and it has always been one of my favorite trees - in part due to the pot-less container. It was far larger in person than I had imagined! The mountain in the background is Mt. Rainier.

April 18, 2017

Pacific Bonsai Museum "Natives" Preparation - Yellow Cedar

Source material: 2017, March 18

          The final tree of the five Dan Robinson trees he and I prepared for the Pacific Bonsai Museum "Natives" Exhibit was an Alaska Yellow Cedar (Xanthocyparis nootkatensis - although there is some phylogenetic controversy around this name). This tree was estimated to be 700+ years old and it looks even older with the help of Dan's training. The appearance of naturalism, gnarliness, and a story that depicts a difficult and storied life history are the highest artistic aspirations for Dan Robinson's trees. The detail on the carving of this trunk is particularly stunning. and hard to believe it was man-made. Which deadwood features were man-made and which were already there when the tree was collected the tree is a mystery only Dan can tell you - I certainly could not make a guess.
The tree back in April of 2016. It caught my eye on my very first visit to the garden.

April 7, 2017

Pacific Bonsai Museum "Natives" Preparation: Monterey Cypress

Source material: 2017, March & 2016, August

          We are now near the end of the series of five Dan Robinson trees that will be in the Pacific Bonsai Museum's "Natives" exhibit (which starts this Saturday, April 8). Today in the realm of unusual and underappreciated species in American bonsai - the Monterey Cypress (Cupressus macrocarpa). However, unlike the pitch pine (Pinus rigida), the Monterey cypress is not known for its ability to backbud, and some have even suggested it is incapable of backbudding onto old wood. A variety of species have reports of similar constraints, which make them a little more challenging or limited as subjects of bonsai. However, here I will offer for discussion the approach Dan and I have experimented with for the past two seasons to attempt to induce backbuds. It may well be that not enough experimentation has been attempted due to the species being an uncommon subject.
Dan's Monterey Cypress tree after light pruning in March 2017.

April 5, 2017

Pacific Bonsai Museum "Natives" Preparation: Bald Cypress

Source material: 2017, April 1

          The third of Dan's five trees being entered into the Pacific Bonsai Museum's "Natives" exhibit is an old bald cypress (Taxodium distichum). As my previous posts have mentioned, the exhibit includes an opening celebration on April 8th with a panel of the artists displaying trees Scott Elser, Michael Hagedorn, Randy Knight, Ryan Neil, and Dan Robinson.
As indicated by the gnarly, crooked branching, flat top, and trunk deadwood, this bonsai imitates the truly ancient bald cypresses of the Southern swamps.

April 4, 2017

Pacific Bonsai Museum "Natives" Preparation: Eastern Larch

Source material: 2017, January 8

          This is the second installment covering the five trees Bonsai Man Dan and I have prepared for an exhibit at the Pacific Bonsai Museum centered around bonsai of species which are endemic to North America (hence the exhibit name, "Natives"). I encourage anyone who is in the area to attend the opening celebration this upcoming Saturday, April 8th. I hope and expect the artist panel to provide plenty of enlightening bonsai discussion. Scott Elser, Michael Hagedorn, Randy Knight, Ryan Neil, and Dan Robinson were all invited to bring trees for the show and will be in attendance.
         Today's installment covers one of my new favorite trees in the garden (a title which admittedly does not hold much weight there, as I shamelessly have many favorites). This Eastern Larch (Larix larcina) was in the garden on one of the main paths - hiding in plain sight. Yet for the first 8 months of my regular visits to the garden, somehow I did not notice or appreciate this tree until Dan pulled it out for work. Things often go this way at Elandan Gardens as I am now somewhat numbed to great material. I regret I do not have as many pictures of our transformation on this tree as I would like due some lost data including before pictures (always very useful), a video of Dan's die grinder carving, close-ups of the foliage and carving, and other manipulations we did. Because of that, I would especially encourage you to see this impressive tree in person if you can instead of relying on my limited photos!
The mostly finished version captured on April 1, 2017.

April 3, 2017

Pacific Bonsai Museum "Natives" Preparation: Pitch Pine

Source material: 2017, April 01

          Over the past few months, Dan and I have been preparing five of his trees for an exhibit at the Pacific Bonsai Museum centered around bonsai of species which are endemic to North America (hence the exhibit name, "Natives"). I am excited to attend the exhibit's opening celebration this upcoming Saturday, April 8th, because it includes an artist panel with some big names who were invited to enter trees - Scott Elser, Michael Hagedorn, Randy Knight, Ryan Neil, and Dan Robinson. I once saw Michael Hagedorn during an unplanned visit to my local bonsai store and I may or may not have been mentally fangirling too much to say hello. Or maybe I just didn't want to interrupt his workshop. I will lie to myself and say it was the latter.
          The most recent tree Dan and I prepared was a special pitch pine (Pinus rigida) which needed moss on the soil surface and some needle thinning to bring it into order. The tentatively finished product can be seen below, though slight modifications may still happen before going to the museum. Compared to some of the other trees Dan is loaning for the "Natives" show, this tree only needed slight maintenance; the needle thinning was done in only a day. In upcoming posts about other "Natives" show trees, you will see some of the other tree preparations were more involved projects. I felt a little bit of extra responsibility on this particular day as Dan recently has had some health challenges and was not able to make it to the garden last weekend. Fortunately, one of his more senior students came and was able to give me guidance.

March 18, 2017

The Acer palmatum baobab bonsai

Source material: 2017, March 18

          Today at Elandan Gardens, Dan pointed out this unique maple tree he has been styling to mimic the African baobab. Dan wanted me to share this particular tree to get people's thoughts on the unconventional maple design.

February 27, 2017

One Sweet Bougainvillea

Source material: 2016, August 06

          Dan Robinson has collected and developed many rare, unusual, and gnarly trees over his 50+ year bonsai career, hundreds of which can be seen at Elandan Gardens. As will be explained in the near future by a new post, Dan's artistic style values the existence of some "focal point" on his trees. In most cases, that takes the form of a great trunk or some stunning deadwood feature. However, certain components of that focal point style can incite controversy among bonsai hobbyists. Some people are critical of excessive deadwood use - particularly on softwood species. Others appreciate Dan’s use of deadwood as an imitation of natural features on old and ancient trees. A unique bougainvillea featured in today's blog serves as a demonstration of his controversial - but naturally inspired - deadwood use on softwoods as well as an example of a unique focal point trunk.
Before pruning.