Material Selection

Posted by on Jul 11, 2015 | 3 Comments
Material Selection

Road to The Cup- Part 1

I mentioned in my last post that the tree that I’ll be bringing to The Artisans Cup was a castoff sales table tree that turned into a keeper. The selection of material to work on in bonsai is the first task for a bonsai artist; it is equal in importance to any other task, or perhaps even more important. It will be the initial material selection that determines much of the ultimate potential for quality in the final product. Without a good place to start you’ll either be spending many years in the development stages or you’ll never be reaching a high level with your bonsai.

Producing a juniper bonsai from untrained material is a good example of the bonsai process. While the process is different for different types of material, junipers are one of the classical and best-understood species, they are particularly well-suited to beginners and can help students understand an arc of development from start to finish.

The things that you’re looking for in juniper material are simple enough to enumerate and overlap at least partially with many other species:

1. Trunk proportions – You need a trunk that has enough girth compared to the height to make a nice composition.

2. Trunk movement – For most junipers the more movement the better. If you look through old Kokufu albums you’ll see that Chinese junipers (shimpaku) are typically very sinuous and move a lot. Needle junipers typically have much more upright trunks with stiff movement.

3. Trunk Twists – particularly for Chinese juniper and junipers native to the United States, a twist in the trunk makes the difference between a mundane composition and an interesting one. While you don’t want a barber pole effect you do want at least some gentle twists and turns that will keep your eye interested.

4. Deadwood and lifelines on the trunk – the contrast between the deadwood and the lifeline on a juniper can be quite dramatic. Look for a trunk that has some age, and is irregular in cross section.

Notice that all those things are about the trunk? There is nothing else to worry about in your initial selection of juniper material because everything else can be fixed. Nebari are considered an accessory rather than a necessity. Any branch issues can be fixed with grafting, bending or both.

Is this a good piece of material?   It's got some movement, some deadwood, some taper.    But ultimately it's somewhat lackluster.   There is little in the way of age showing in the composition and the proportions are off.    Note the grafts that will be used to make this a much smaller tree.

Is this a good piece of material? It’s got some movement, some deadwood, some taper. But ultimately it’s somewhat lackluster. There is little in the way of age showing in the composition and the proportions are off. Note the grafts that will be used to make this a much smaller tree.

Is this a good juniper to work on?   It's got some movement, some deadwood, but there isn't much of a twist, and the taper isn't so great.    It could still be a good tree with the right work.

Is this a good juniper to work on? It’s got some movement, some deadwood, but there isn’t much of a twist, and the taper isn’t so great. It could still be a good tree with the right work.

Twisty and crazy, this is a great little juniper trunk.   Notice that it's already been grafted?

Twisty and crazy, this is a great little juniper trunk. Notice that it’s already been grafted?

A nice small Rocky Mountain Juniper trunk with a nice ribbon shape and some good deadwood.

A nice small Rocky Mountain Juniper trunk with a nice ribbon shape and some good deadwood. This is a great tree to work on.

So, what if you want to grow your own trunk? There are some really good junipers out there that were grown from scratch or field grown. But, on average it will take you much longer to develop a tree from scratch than from an established trunk. And, it takes much more skill to create a composition entirely from nothing than it does to adapt a good trunk to your vision.

Because collected junipers tend to be older and large they will typically be better for use as medium or large trees. Nursery grown material will often be better for small trees but difficult for medium or large trees.

Whether a quality piece of nursery stock, or a collected wild juniper trunk – keep this all in mind when selecting material. Be picky, look for unusual features and try a few different things.

What promising features did I see in the tree that I’m taking to Oregon? Just a nice gentle curve, some gentle taper and the hint of a twist to the trunk. There was no good foliage, no great nebari, no polished lifeline contrasting with bleached deadwood. What comes next is what takes your material and begins to make it a bonsai.

A raw but obviously fantastic piece of collected material.     You'd be crazy not to want to work on a tree like this.

A raw but obviously fantastic piece of collected material. You’d be crazy not to want to work on a tree like this.

3 Comments

  1. Dan Wiederrecht
    July 13, 2015

    Great post Eric!

  2. Harold Rosenfeld
    July 15, 2015

    I’m having trouble subscribing to the blog, please include me in future postings.

    • Eric Schrader
      July 15, 2015

      Hi Harold,

      Thanks for the note. I’ve been having some email trouble that I’m working to resolve. I’ll add you to the email list so you should get future posts.

      Anyone else having trouble getting a subscription feel free to email me and I can add you manually.