I’ve toured Japan three times in the last ten years to visit the Kokufu bonsai exhibition and see nurseries that grow bonsai. The experience is great both as inspiration for bonsai and as a change of pace and vacation. Japan is delightful in many more ways than just the bonsai, I particularly enjoy the food, the fast trains and the amazing appreciation that people there have for the natural world. Late last year Jonas Dupuich (of Bonsaitonight.com) and I were discussing a potential trip to Japan for this year when we struck upon the idea of instead visiting Portland, Oregon.
With three Japanese-trained bonsai professionals now in Portland it’s no surprise that the bonsai scene has exploded into life and that the Bonsai Society of Portland is more than 200 members strong. Climate plays a big part in how easy it is to grow trees as bonsai. Harsh winters and hot dry summers don’t make the grower’s life any easier. Portland seems to be an almost ideal climate, the hills are covered in a wonderful mix of conifer and deciduous trees surrounding the Willamette and Columbia rivers. It is interesting to note that the vast majority of conifers grown by the nursery industry in the US are grown in this small area.
While visiting, we managed to see eleven private bonsai collections, and conversed at length with the owners of the trees about their experiences with many different species and the local conditions. With some winter protection and mostly mild conditions through the rest of the year it is possible to grow a wide variety of native and exotic species with great success.
Among my favorite species of trees native to the United States that is suitable for bonsai is the Ponderosa Pine. If you’ve been hiking at mid elevations in the Sierra Nevada or in the Rocky’s then you’ve seen many of them in your travels. While they typically become huge upright trees in the sierra they also grow as stunted and naturally twisting small trees when confined to harsher sites with little resources to draw from. What better place is there to start to make a bonsai than a tree that is already dwarfed and old?
Michael Hagendorn fielded a question about Ponderosa care in his recent AMA session at Ask.Bonsaitonight.com:
Q:…can you give a Pondo refinement sysnopsis with your usual lucid eloquence.
A: Ponderosa is a great subject. The main thing to recognize is that the big main bud at the end sets up everything that the tree does. It doesn’t naturally WANT to backbud. But unlike a black pine, we can’t force it to do that, we can only suggest. So, grow your tree strongly, then if you have some really long massive buds, you can pinch them in half or cut them when it’s partly hardened. I don’t fully cut off any candle on Ponderosa. Then in the late summer, cut some of the old needles off around the strongest shoots, and don’t cut any around the smaller shoots. Over about five years, this simple technique will create some backbudding, not a lot, but it will even up all the buds. Also, all of these techniques work best if you’ve actually brought your branches down with wire, styled your tree. Lower that big bud, and it loses a lot of its power over limiting backbudding. It will take some years, but they do even up and ramify. And GREAT sun, very necessary!
I’ve had some experience with Ponderosa over the last few years and couldn’t agree more. They are a tree that gains strength very slowly, and branch extensions are normally very small while in a bonsai container. The process of controlling the overall size is a long-term one and requires more persistence of good care than other pines. It was more than three years after originally showing my small ponderosa that I finally removed some of the stronger buds on the top last winter. The tree is responding with some new buds among the remaining needles.