Growing a Good Nebari and Fat Trunk Base Ficus Bonsai

A  good nebari (exposed roots just above the soil surface) and a large trunk base are perhaps the two most desirable features we all wanted for our bonsai. However, they take a long time to develop. Many of us buy pre-bonsai. At the nursery, we may dig below the soil level, hold the tree up, turn it around and tilt it at various angles to choose the best possible material but it is rare to find one with both a good nebari and a large trunk.

In this post, I want to share my experience building a good nebari, at least to my eyes, and a large tapered trunk for a Ficus microcarpa pre-bonsai. I bought this ficus about 9 years ago from a gift shop of a local Chinese restaurant. As in all mass-produced pre-bonsai, they usually have messy or unattractive roots and a typical S-shape trunk. What attracted me to this tree was the large trunk base, however, it has a nagging thick root, about 2″ diameter, growing on the convex side of the trunk’s first curve, and plunging down into the soil like a large inverted J-hook. Nevertheless it was a good starting material.

When we begin to train our tree with a faulty root such as this one, uneven trunk movement or branch placement, it is imperative that we correct them as early as possible. If not, they will stay with the tree and may beome more troublesome to correct at a later date. We have to decide how we want our bonsai to look like in 5, 10 or more years down the line. There is no short cut unless you want to spend big bucks buying a “specimen” tree from bonsai professionals.

This is how this ficus looked in July this year after defoliation and wiring. The root spread is about 10″ at the soil level and the trunk diameter is about 4½” above the root base. DSCN6289

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Shohin Ficus Bonsai

Ficus thrives in our hot Texas Zone 9 weather. I have several large Ficus microcarpa, whenever I removed a thick branch, I tried to root it. Over the years, I have obtained a number of second generation ficus, some grew into large trees, some were trained as shohin in different styles: banyan, informal, sumo-style shohin and Lingnan penjing.

I recently defoliated some shohin and wired their main structures, they looked naked but some had put out new buds and leaflets.

A banyan style shohin:

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Sumo-style shohin:

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I am developing a new leader for this shohin.

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A 19-Year Journey of a Ficus Microcarpa – From Pre-bonsai to Winning Awards

I purchased this Tiger Bark Ficus microcarpa as a pre-bonsai in 1997, and had worked on it for about 19 years. Over these years, it transformed from an ordinary looking pre-bonsai to one which won a place among the 25 Exceptional Tress Award in the 2013 World Bonsai Friendship Federation (WBFF) Photo Contest. It also won the Best Tropical Bonsai and Best of Show awards in the 2014 Lone Star State Bonsai Convention. I thought I would document its journey; and shared what I had learned working on this tree, both the good and the bad, and what would I do in the future to improve it.

Tiger Bark Ficus

Selected as one of the 25 Exceptional Trees Award in the 2013 World Bonsai Friendship Federation Photo Contest.

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Mini Chinese Elm Bonsai Grown from Root Cuttings

Whenever I repot my large Chinese elms, I save the roots and grow them into shohin and mame bonsai. Typically these roots have very interesting, twisting and meandering movements. By using these characteristics, one can grow mini literati, exposed roots and cascade bonsai with unusual twists and turns that are difficult to duplicate by wiring.

The followings are some examples of my mame size Chinese elms grown from root cuttings.

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An exposed twin-root Chinese elm literati. Height: 5″.

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An exposed-root literati. The three roots twist and bend naturally. Height: 10″

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A cascade Chinese elm. Note the cut-root has a sharp bend at the base which made it suitable for a cascade design. Width: 12″.

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A semi-cascade Chinese elm. I left the main trunk bared to expose its natural twisting movements, only a few leaves were left at the tip. This is a Lingnan penjing “Suren” literati style which emphasizes heavily on negative space and minimum branches and leaves. A minimalist style. Width: 8″.

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I used this literati in our last October bonsai show, viewed reverse in this photo. Please see the previous post of the display. Height: 4 1/2″.

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Another Chinese elm literati I considered using for the last October show, but chose the previous one instead. Height: 5″.

When growing bonsai from root cuttings, one has to pay attention to possible reverse taper because a cut-root is usually thicker at the top than at the bottom where the fine roots are. When new buds emerge at the cut-end, one has to select one bud to become a new leader and remove the rest; otherwise the excess buds would thicken the cut-end quickly and cause a reverse taper.

Many species can be grown from root cuttings such as ficus, hackberry, flowering quince etc. I like growing shohin and mame elms because their leaves are easily reduced to match the overall size of the tree.

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A leaning informal Chinese elm styled by using clip-and-grow method. Height: 5 1/2″.

Next time when you re-pot, before throwing away the roots, examine whether some of them have interesting movements that can be grown into literati or cascade bonsai. You can also wire long cut-roots with exaggerate bends since they are very flexible. However, I prefer to retain their natural shapes and style them into literati.

Chinese Scholar’s Rocks from the University of Florida Harn Museum of Art

The University of Florida‘s Harn Museum of Art at Gainesville is a small museum with wings dedicated to African, American and Asian arts and traveling exhibits. I visited this museum in 2009 and in 2013 when my younger son was doing his graduate study at UF. I was surprised to see several high quality antique Chinese scholar’s rocks (Gongshi, 供石) displayed in their Cofrin Asian Art Wing.

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A group of Chinese scholar’s rocks in the new Cofrin Asian Art Wing. The background is a Japanese garden.

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A 19th-20th century Lingbi Stone.

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One-Year Progression of A Shohin Chinzan Satsuki Azalea Bonsai

The purpose of this post is to show how to care for and maintain an imported satsuki azalea during the first year by selective pruning, encourage back budding and developing ramification of the branches.

I purchased this shohin “chinzan” satsuki azalea pre-bonsai from David Kreutz of the Satsuki Bonsai-En in April, 2014, at our state bonsai convention. This satsuki was imported, bare-rooted, from Japan about 3-4 months ago. It has a beautiful nebari and trunk taper. Since it was a newly imported tree, I removed the flower buds and let it gained strength for the rest of the year.

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Front of the tree, 02/25/2015.

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Preparing A Small Bonsai Display For Show

Last weekend, we had our Lone Star (Texas) State Bonsai Federation education seminar, and the topic was literati bonsai. All participating trees must be a bunjin. My wife and I exhibited a small, 24″ x 18″, Japanese toko-kazari display.

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Display consisted of a mame bujin Chinese Elm grown from root cutting, a dwarf Fiber Optic grass, a distant mountain viewing stone and a two-line poem.

Many attendees liked the display and commented how simple it looks, refreshing, quiet, peaceful, cute, and the lightly finished wood allows viewers to see all the elements clearly.

I will explain how we came up with the idea, why we selected the items and why we arranged them this way. The thoughts put into the process was a great exercise.

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