Branching Out – April 2017

It’s late March, and we’re deep into the re-potting season. A few weeks ago, I spent 2 ½ hours removing the old leaves from one of our beeches. We acquired the tree 2 years ago and are just beginning the refinement stage of the design for the tree. To many, this task may seem tedious or boring. To me, it was the perfect opportunity to get to know the tree intimately. Beeches are unique in that they hold their old leaves through the winter to act as protection for the new buds emerging in the spring. As I carefully removed each leaf, I took great care not to disturb the buds that were just beginning to swell. I noted each branch that was too long, too short, too thick, too thin; making note of others that would need wiring in order to place them in the optimal position. The leafless silhouette of a beech is the perfect time to assess and plan future development of the tree’s design.

Beech – removing leaves in preparation for Spring styling

Before working on the design refinement of a tree, we use two methods for viewing and evaluating the current design of the tree. The first is to view the tree against a black felt backdrop at different heights and different angles. It’s also helpful to view the tree from directly above, so you can take note of the branch structure and root distribution. The next view is through digital photos. It never fails to surprise me how different a tree looks in a photo compared to the naked eye.

Beech after Spring styling

After removing the leaves, I had a pretty good idea of the changes I wanted to make. Rotating the tree as I worked I evaluated each branch to see how it fit into the overall design profile. I knew that beeches are known for their strong apical growth, so I worked on the top branches first, shortening them as needed and further shortening each secondary and tertiary branch to two buds. Other branches, I left to grow out so they could thicken. I continued to work my way down and around the tree until I had each branch trimmed, as needed. Next, I wired branches selecting one size larger aluminum wire than was needed. These trees do not take well to wiring, so I wired gently and sparingly, only when absolutely needed. After setting the wired branches in place, I reviewed the design again, making small adjustments in placement or length.

The tree was re-potted last year, so I will give it another year of growth before re-potting again. At that point we will evaluate and prune the roots using the same method used for the branches. The strongest roots will be cut back in order to encourage the finer roots to grow. The bud formation of a beech is not unlike the growth of single-flush pines and need to be treated differently than most deciduous trees. Their primary buds are generated once a season. Beeches should never be defoliated to achieve ramification like you would, say a maple. This will only weaken the tree and eventually the tree will die. There are two wonderful articles in “Bonsai Focus” November/December 2015 and March/April 2016 that address the development of ramification through leaf and root techniques.

In its purest form, for me, the practice of bonsai is about careful, deep and considered observation. Only through taking the time to understand the species, the stage of development and design, and being able to understand what is needed for the well-being of your tree will you achieve optimal beauty and health of your bonsai.

Sue Krueger, MBS President