If you were to sit in a workshop full of knowledgable bonsai hobbyists in the United States and have a conversation about what species of tree will win the judging at The Artisans Cup in Portland in September you would likely get a consensus that it will be a collected juniper. What exact species, whether Ash Juniper, Utah Juniper, California Juniper, Sierra Juniper, Western juniper or Rocky Mountain Juniper might lead to a bit more debate.
Collected junipers are seemingly among the easiest trees to dig and maintain and turn into world-class bonsai of the native species in the United States. The deadwood is the most desirable characteristic and can be fantastic, the foliage is a bit more variable but it can be grafted to nearly any variety that you desire. The twists and turns in the live vein of the tree combined with the contrast between the live and dead portions of the trunk make for a trunk with few parallels.
I’ve been collecting a half-dozen times in the mountains of Caliornia in search of great juniper material. For the person looking to save some money, collecting can be an alluring activity. The collector is the person that most stands to monetize the product that is just sitting there waiting to be turned into a sometimes very expensive bonsai. But, you have to not only find the right juniper; you also have to collect it successfully; transport it; keep it alive until it recovers; and then style it before you can realize the full potential of the material. In short, collecting sounds simple, but it is as complicated in itself as bonsai is. Out of all my collecting trips I’ve rarely found any material that was what I would call a “10” if evaluating the trunk, and I’ve never managed to collect one.
So, where do all the 10’s come from? There are few, but the ones that I’ve seen seem to come out of the stock of Rocky Mountain Junipers more than any other of the juniper species. Thus I would argue that it will be a Rocky Mountain juniper that will win The Artisans Cup. The stock of RMJ’s that I saw while touring Portland certainly supports the idea – there were many, and many fantastic shapes and sizes.
Some people might argue that even bonsai jurists get juniper fatigue. But when you think about bonsai in its highest incarnation you can’t discount what Rocky Mountain Junipers bring to the table. Each species offers a different experience both visually and horticulturally, but RMJ’s are certainly among the top contenders when it comes to world class material.