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.

          Searching online, I was only able to find a handful of other Monterey cypress specimen trained as bonsai - both of which appear dramatically younger than Dan's tree. Possible reasons for their rarity may be any combination of a lack of established knowledge on the species, the difficulty with tending to them (the previously mentioned backbudding issue) from those who have tried them, and/or a lack of mature stock to start with. Monterey cypress trees do not seem to be found naturally stunted - the bonsai specimen I have found were either grown from seed or tamed from nursery materials.
This Monterey cypress has been grown from seed for bonsai
since 2007 and captures the iconic, coastal, wind-battered look well. Source

Another Monterey cypress bonsai example. Source
          It may be well that there are not established bonsai examples of the species. This leaves us room to explore. Instead what we will model off of - and what I think one should always keep in mind for bonsai - is how the species looks in nature. Here are several stunning, full-size examples.
An example of a natural, mature Monterey cypress with a flat-top. The coastal winds batter these trees and are probably the cause of the dead lower branches. Source

An excellent shot of the flat-top form and coastal exposure these trees endure. Source

          As I am not familiar with the Northern California area this species is from, I looked up coastal examples for reference. The flat-top style (famously introduced to the bonsai community to represent ancient Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum) dominated my search results, however, Dan's choice of deadwood features reflected a different story and I wondered if his design reflected an uncharacteristic style for this species. I later found two examples of Monterey cypress that were plentifully adorned with deadwood and reflected a storied, struggle for life - just the type of unusual trees Dan Robinson enjoys most. The wild, full-size example below I think captures the type of stunning, struggling tree Dan seeks to style best. Dan is rarely satisfied with making a bonsai look like a juvenile tree, but he rather values trees that look truly ancient and which tell a compelling story about their life.

A gnarly, Victorian-era Monterey in England. Source
This breath-taking Monterey cypress growing among boulders and exposed to the coastal elements is exactly the type of tree Dan likely imagined when he carved the deadwood on his bonsai. I think in this instance it is no stretch to acknowledge how beautiful natural deadwood has the potential to be. Source
Dan's carved deadwood snag represents an old growth
tree, in contrast with the younger-looking examples.
A side view of the tree.
          Now satisfied by my online search that Dan's gnarly Monterey design is feasible, I move on to the technical aspect of styling this species that I touched on initially - backbudding. The dilemma Dan has observed while caring for this tree over the past decade+ is that the tree's foliage progressively has pushed the outline further from the trunk. The concern with that progression is without some backbudding, the foliage outline could reach a point where it looks disproportionate and undesirable for the overall design. To attempt to combat this, late last summer Dan had me pinch the tips off of every single shoot on the tree to see what would result. It's too early to tell how successful this approach will be, but it has had some positive effects already observable. If any of you have attempted this species or would like to suggest solutions to attempt in future years, please let me know in the comments!
The tree as of early August 2016.
Pinched tips can be seen here - August 2016. 
Intact tips - August 2016.
The goal is to get buds along any of the
 zones that have become woody.
          The results we observed this spring from the last operation appeared along zones that already had foliage - there were more dense buds, some of which were barely visible. In that sense, we have succeeded at least in holding the foliage structure in place. We repeated the tip-pinching method over the whole tree much earlier in the year this time (March), in hopes that the tree might have more time to respond the way we want - assuming it is possible for this species to do so at all.

      Below is what the foliage looked like in March 2017. You may notice some small differences, but mostly the treatment will not manifest until the buds actuate later in the growing season. Lateral branches of the Monterey foliage do not appear to grow significantly this early, only the central branch of each "frond" (forgive my ignorance of the technical term for this species). Hopefully, with appropriate fertilizer, the tree may respond over the course of the exhibit and we can look at the results upon its return to the garden in October.
Shoots are elongating - March 2017.
Another shoot shot - March 2017.
          Unrelated to the new shoot subject, here's a branch Dan and I killed off last summer on this tree for a jin (a dead branch that remains on the tree). If you refer back to one of the full view pictures of the tree (both pictures are post-jin), before the jin, Dan viewed the back of the tree as "too happy" or too dense to fit his story of a struggling tree. I try to keep in mind the story the tree tells with every tree I prune and style so the art will look credible as a composition of all its features consistently point towards the same story.
We did not apply lime sulfur (a bleaching agent) to the branch.
In July, it was already starting to appear a more natural gray as opposed to the original cream-tan color.

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