Basic Identification of Conifers

Conifers make up a large percentage of most Bonsai collections across the world. To me, one of the difficult things with conifers, is to identify the tree to the correct species level. The reason for this could be that my early Bonsai education was on broadleaves and not so much on conifers. Conifers as a large group are identified by the fact that they do not flower, but in the place of this, they produce cones that contain the seeds. This makes them part of the Gymnosperm taxa, along with ginkgo and cycads. These are some of the oldest known plants in nature.

It is not that difficult to identify conifers to genus level, as this can be done mainly on leaf type and shape. Here follows my take on what this looks like (An arrow points to the next table for that category).

Conifers

Cupressaceae

Have scale-like or awl-like shaped leaves.

Pinaceae

Have needle-like leaves

 

Taxus

Have leaves that are flat and feather-like in arrangement and shape.

Junipers and Thuja Pines, Spruce, Fir and Douglas fir

Yews

 

Cupressaceae family

Leaves are scale-like or awl-like.

Fruit is a berry-like cone with scales fused together

Leaves are scale-like or awl-shaped. The foliage is arranged around the branch, rather than flattened and cones are berry-like with scales pressed together.

Juniper (Juniperus)

The leaves are small, scale-like and pressed to the stem. The foliage is flattened and plate-like in appearance. The cones are berry-like with thick scales.

Thuja (Arborvitae)

 

Pinaceae family

Leaves are needle-like

Single needles.

 

Needles sheathed at the base in bundles of two to five. Cones have thick scales and are woody with swollen tips.

Pine (Pinus)

Short needles in tufts of ten or more and could be deciduous.

 

Larch (Larix)

Needles are flat in cross-section and quite flexible.

The needles are square in cross-section and quite stiff.

Spruce (Picea)

Norway_Spruce_foliage,_Fågelmara,_Sweden

Spruce

The needles leave an oval leaf scar and the bud tips are pointed. The cones have a three-pronged lobed tongue-like bract that extend out beyond the scales.

Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii)

The needles leave a round leave-scar and the bud tips are roundish. The cones grow upright on the branch and usually breaks apart before falling off completely.

Fir (Abies)

 

 

From here the classification can be further refined to identify the specific conifer to species level. This will come in a future blog.

 

 

 

 

Sacrifice Branches

I currently have a few trees that do not look very refined. As a matter of fact, they look like shrubs and in some cases like Bonsai trees with one or two branches that were missed at the previous pruning. This is all done deliberately for very specific reasons. The sacrifice branch is a necessity in Bonsai growing.Sacrifice branches 008

Why do we need to do this? The main reason is to enhance growth in a specific area. The theory is that the branch that is allowed to just grow and increase in length will have more sap flowing through it, therefore more nutrients and in turn you get a much faster growth rate compared to regularly pruned branches. One specific case would be to thicken the main trunk. This could be either during the early years after a seed has germinated or a cutting has struck. The more side branches you have that can grow, the thicker the trunk will become. The leader is of importance here. Let this grow until you get to the desired thickness and then cut.

Another reason is to improve taper. If a branch or two are left on the trunk to grow out, the area below the branches will thicken more than the area above it. This leads to a thicker bottom half if the branches were left halfway up the trunk, compared to the top half of the tree.

Another reason for letting a sacrifice branch grow is to get a side branch to thicken in proportion to other branches. An example of this could be that a branch is needed lower down on a trunk and the branches above are all thicker than the lower one. The lower one is then left to grow until the desired thickness is attained and then it is cut back.

There are a few things to keep in mind when sacrifice branches are used. The first one is to remember that the sacrifice branch will create more shade than other branches and this could impact negatively on the growth patterns underneath this branch. A second point to remember is that sacrifice branches that are cut back, can leave quite large scars that will have to heal over time. For trunk thickening it could be best to use a branch at the back or in a place where the design of the tree will hide the scar. A third point to mention is that side branches will start to grow upwards. This growth needs to be controlled if the branch is suppose to be horizontal or even growing slightly downwards.

In the examples below, sacrifice branches were mainly used to thicken side branches to either fill a gap, create a new branch or to correct parallel branches.

Top left: There are two vertical branches parallel to each other growing from the main trunk as well as two bar-branches at the bottom.

Right: the one parallel vertical branch was removed and a new branch allowed to grow out at an angle, removing the parallel effect.

Bottom left: The sacrifice branch and the vertical branch in close up to compare the thickness. This is one season’s growth for this maple.

 

 

Creativity, Bonsai, Learning and Art: My Thoughts

 

I truly believe that creativity and to create is not just a mental need that all people need in their lives, but it is also a physical need. To create takes one out of your comfort zone and puts you in places where you have not been before. My choice of Art that I use to feed my creative spirit is Bonsai creation. I will be the first to admit that I probably spend a lot more time on the husbandry, maintenance and redesign of Bonsai than what I do creating Bonsai, but that is part and parcel of what we do as Bonsai artists. One of the main reasons why I am involved in this Art form is that it is never complete. You are constantly searching, asking questions and probing for your creation to become a master piece. Does that ever happen? I have not seen it in my own work yet, but have so in others and I am driven to get my own artwork to that level.

To explore Creativity as a study area, means that I read a lot and get trapped into conversations about what creativity is, how we can develop our own creativity and the creativity in others (that is the educationist in me). I spend a lot of time with creative people and I also do believe that it rubs off on other people mainly due to the passion that is shared when creative get in contact with each other. It can be a very solitary pursuit and aloneness and mindfulness is important in the pursuit of higher levels of creativity, but I also do believe that it is a social activity. It needs to be shared and shown.

A good definition that I have encountered on this path of creativity that I have walked, IMG_0269crawled and sprinted on, comes from Doreen Marcial Paraba in her book “Unlocking your Creativity” (2015) where she states that “Creativity is initiating, activating, and complementing ideas that are original, unusual, useful, or innovative. The ideas may advance an existing concept or seemingly spring forth from nowhere”.

IMG_0274

From this one can deduct that the end product should be useful and be put into action (a concept that the above mentioned author agrees with). Can that be applied to Bonsai? Most definitely it can! We start a tree from either a seedling, a cutting or raw material. We therefore activate the idea that we have and apply it to the tree. Real creativity is when we are original. In Bonsai there are “rules”, first started off by Chinese Bonsai practitioners and then taken further by Japanese artists. Out of these eras came many rules and conventions that should be applied to Bonsai for it to be Bonsai in its art form.  Do these rules restrict us in our thinking? No, it does not. It serves merely as a guideline, a foundation to work from. These “rules” did come from a deeply ingrained sense of Art applied to plants and therefore is legitimate (based on history) in the world of Art and Creativity. Most art forms do have a history and a foundation level of skills and knowledge. We see the same in Bonsai, making it a legitimate art form.

Can we be innovative? The above mentioned definition emphasises originality and uses the words, unusual and innovative. This is not restricted to the Literati style of Bonsai. Every tree has different growing conditions, trunk shapes, branch structures and foliage patterns. Even trees within the same species show different characteristics. Just as one artist can paint many different paintings, Bonsai artists can design and create many different forms of trees either within one species or across many different species.

A lot of people that I encounter, do not think that they are particularly talented when it

comes to creativity. When asked whether they have explored it, the answer is usually negative, followed by a whole lot of different reasons of why it is not happening for them. It is interesting that out of these conversations a large proportion of people identify that they cannot remember them ever being creative and except for early drawings and fooling around with paint, this aspect of their lives were just never explored or developed. Many literature sources that I have encountered ask the question “Is Creativity Learnable or Teachable?”. The answers range from “it is in our nature to be creative” to “we use our imaginations all the time” to “”creativity skills are learnable with training”.

This training can take many different forms. I learnt first through exposure to watching my father work with his Bonsai, to helping him with some tasks, to starting my own Bonsai and later reading profusely and learning from other more advanced artists. We know that Bonsai professionals usually undergo a long apprenticeship period, but these days learning can take place wherever, whenever and at the pace of the learner. Advances in technology have made this possible and it is possible that one can advance to a very high level of understanding and expertise without having to go through a lengthy apprenticeship. I still do believe that some form of exposure to good technique, skill and understanding is important for one to advance your own level of artistry and creativity.

IMG_0275You will probably not develop a very high skill level by just reading or just watching other people engaged in the practice of Bonsai. Learning is an active process. You need practice, you need to do and you need to get feedback to enable you to learn. Another great way of learning is when you start to share your knowledge and skill with others. In other words, teaching. Learning is a very interesting area of science. It is all about establishing neural pathways within your nervous system. The more you do something or interact with it, the easier data flows along these pathways and it can become an automatic response. Can you imagine how hard it will be if you have practiced the wrong technique over and over again and then have to unlearn it to enable you to learn the correct one. This is another reason why we do need exposure to others to establish these neural networks. Learning is also a social practice.

In summary then. We are all creative, we all need an outlet for our creative spirit, Bonsai can provide that outlet and we can all learn to become more creative and to express this in Bonsai as an art form.

Applications:

  • Read profusely.IMG_0268
  • Watch many videos.
  • Get to know the foundations and rules of Bonsai (only to bend them later).
  • Join a club.
  • Visit and talk to other Bonsai artists.
  • Create and maintain your own Bonsai.

References

Poreba, D.M. (2015) Unlocking your Creativity. New York: Penquin Random House (Alpha Books). 318p.

Fisher, D. & Frey, N. (2013) Better learning through structured teaching. Vancouver (USA): ASCD Press. 158p.

Deadwood inspiration from Driftwood

In a recent Blog post by Harry Harrington (Bonsai4me), I was amazed by this artist’s technique in creating deadwood. His carvings are superb. On the same day, I happened to be at a beach on the west coast of the North Island of New Zealand (Paraparaumu). The beach was filled with driftwood and I could not resist studying them to find inspiration to style dead wood when I get back home. Fortunately I had my iPhone with me and took the following photos. There is nothing like nature (and Harry Harrington) to create the ultimate natural deadwood designs. In studying these photos I did get a few ideas and now have to get the practice in to recreate this on trees.

Pohutukawa as Bonsai

pohut

Root over rock as Bonsai

Metrosidorus excelsa, also known as the New Zealand Christmas tree and in Maori, Pohutukawa, is an interesting tree to style as Bonsai.

Pohut1

This looks like two smaller trees, simulating a clump style Bonsai.


   
I have recently had the opportunity to photograph a few very old Pohutukawa trees in Mt Maunganui in New Zealand. I have no idea how old they are, but their form is quite distinctive when you study the trees in nature. From this I came to the conclusion that they are best suited for informal upright, clump style or root over rock style. They naturally grow aerial roots and form good bark on exposed roots. The red coloured flowers add to the spectacle. The three Bonsai photos are mainly from the http://www.nzbonsai.co.nz website and the http://www.bonsaiforbeginners.com site.

pohutukawaclump1

Masses of aerial roots makes it perfect for a root over rock style.

The photos following from there are the photos of the trees growing in Mt Maunganui, New Zealand. The first group is typical of the clump style growth that a lot of these trees show.

The next group of trees shows why I think the Pohutukawa is excellent material for root over rock style.

Some of these trees are also seen in nature as examples of an informal upright style.

I have also noticed some branches hanging very low, almost to the point of being a cascade or a semi-cascade.

I have been growing cuttings of another form of Meterosidorus, namely the Metrosideros kermadecensis. This tree has smaller leaves than the excelsa which is great for Bonsai. All these varieties are frost sensitive and needs protection in cold climates.

 

 

 

Newby

I have been following quite a lot of Blogs from well known and not so well known people within the Bonsai world. I am at that stage where I think I also have something to contribute. The best way for me is to do it through a Blog. My hope is to add some value to other Bonsai enthusiasts who are on this journey that never ends. I also contribute regularly to Bonsai Times, the New Zealand Bonsai Association’s official publication. My intention is to post those articles here as well.

My quest for knowledge has led me to Blogging. New Zealand has very strict laws in place to prevent the spreading of plant based pathogens. This means that we cannot import Bonsai and everything we have in our collections must come from within. The Bonsai community here is also relatively small and we are reliant on International exposure. This is mainly done through reading whatever we can get our hands on and by attending conventions and displays. The NZBA and host clubs do bring high caliber artists and demonstrators in and the knowledge that they spread is soaked up. The internet is also a huge help with Facebook putting many Bonsai enthusiasts in contact with each other.

My interests are focussed on the Philosophy, Art as well as the practical horticulture that provides the foundation for Bonsai. In exploring all of this, I have also recently started Vlogging. These videos are posted on You Tube and this Blog now gives me the opportunity to post those videos here as well.

So here goes …….