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.
The temperate rainforests of western Washington are too covered with greenery to see any rocks usually. The rainforest areas are not a probable place to find bonsai material.
          Many hard, bleached white corpses of older Purshia specimens that were claimed by the wildfire are still there on that hillside, hence my conclusion that their wood may have unusually dense or rot-resistant wood. All the living specimens there were spawned in the aftermath of the fire and are younger and less spectacular than the corpses, but I am hoping they will be promising subjects to practice collecting the species. I could find only one online discussion on using this native species for bonsai. I'll confess that makes me not the first one to notice their potential, but I'll gladly utilize the knowledge of others instead of undergoing entirely my own trial and error - the discussion warned me the species relies mostly on long-running taproots (with few fine roots close to the trunk, where the root ball we collect would remain), making it difficult to get a collected specimen to survive without some preparation in the field for a year. I hope to analyze the root systems of smaller specimens in this original area before searching for an area with older specimens that were not killed by the wildfire.
          Below you will see my documentation of the unusual species. I hope in the future I can provide more updates on using the species, but that might be years away. If you have any knowledge to share on it, please let me know!

          I was having difficulty with image layouts in blogger being both compatible for mobile and desktop viewing, so temporarily I will use imgur slideshows until I find a better solution. I'm certainly open to suggestions on the matter.
The ponderosa pine on the top of the rocky cliff may be a good bonsai subject. I'll come back to inspect it with better hiking tools.
Meanwhile, the highest elevations of the cascades are still drowning in snow - I keep waiting for the melt to bring mountain spring so I can inspect new areas for collection.


  1. I can attest to this, the bitterbrush has great bonsai potential. Seems like, for a true bonsai, like in a pot on your patio, you might have to start from seed or very very young because of the roots. But there are a ton of these trees in my neighborhood in the eastern Sierra foothills, and a guy down the street from me has pruned a few of them to perfection in his yard. They look like bonsai juniper trees from a distance and add a real touch of class to a tree/shrub that looks gnarly and undesireable in everyone else's yard and in the wildlands.

    1. Thanks for sharing! Since writing this article, I have talked with Sam from Intermountain Bonsai ( He has reported success with collecting these and sage as well that have similar taproot issues. It could be worth getting in touch with him if you have so many available to experiment on. For me it is a several hour drive to the area they are found.