Updates of the Two Shohin Chinese Elms Air-Layered from a Mallsai

It has been three years since I wrote my first blog on air-layering a Chinese Elm mallsai into two shohin. It turned out to be one of my more popular blogs with over 2,600 views and had been reblogged twice by others. I think it is time to update how these two shohin look after three more years of care.

This is the original S-shaped Chinese Elm mallsai in 2009:


Air-Layered Top Section

August 4, 2009, after sawing off the rooted air-layered top section and potting:


I repotted it into a high-end Chinese olive-green crackle glazed bag-shape oval pot made by Jiang Xiaoling (江小林). This is the fall color in January 21, 2016:


This is how it looked about 10 days ago with spring leaves:


This shohin was trained as a Lingnan penjing using the clip-and-grow method. At first glance, it looks like an informal upright bonsai, but it is not. The main trunk, instead of moving to the left or right as in a typical informal upright, leans backward to the northwest corner of the pot before it bends back slightly to the right and forward with the apex falling within the trunk base. Since photography flattens the tree into a two dimensional image, perhaps one can better envisage the backward movement with the aid of the below side photo.


When I attended Pedro Morales’ Tropical Bonsai School’, he emphasized in the Japanese informal upright moyogi style, the first movement of the trunk is either to the left or to the right; it is a no-no for the first bend to go backward, otherwise the tree would have a Jay-Lo’s butt! Well, in Lingnan penjing, that is OK.

The late Lingnan master Mr. Liu Zhongming (刘仲明) said in his book, “Lingnan Penjing”, since South China has a hot weather, people tend to be easy-going and lackadaisical; and such traits show up as one of the characteristics of Lingnan penjing. So Lingnan penjing has a “reclining” (卧式) style tree, sort of like someone taking a siesta. In this shohin, the trunk movements resemble a person leaning on the far end of a sofa, a couch potato. I jokingly told friends this tree reflects me when I watch TV.

The Bottom Section

This is how the bottom section looks after cutting off the air-layered top:


And this is how it looks seven years later from a stump:


This one is a sumo style informal upright with a fat trunk and sharp taper, and trained with wiring; what a big contrast to the air-layered top section. I potted it into an oval blue glazed Chinese pot by Zhu Shuiming (朱水明 阳明交趾) to soften up the tree.

I have a lot of fun transforming this mallsai into two very different looking trees: a Lingnan penjing with an easy-going trunk movement and somewhat more natural looking branches ramifications, while its younger “brother” grows up as a serious looking squat-like informal upright bonsai.

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.

An exposed twin-root Chinese elm literati. Height: 5″.
An exposed-root literati. The three roots twist and bend naturally. Height: 10″
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″.
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″.
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″.
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.

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.

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.

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.

The Literati Theme Concept

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After the Rain

Spring has just begun and we already have more than our normal share of rainfall. In fact it had been raining for the last five days; I had to stay indoor and could only worked on shohin and mame in the kitchen. This afternoon the rain tapered off into light drizzle, I went out to examine my bonsai and took some photos of deciduous trees which had budded and sprouted young tender leaves in various shades of yellow green and purplish red colors.

Here are some of the photos:

Chinese Elm, Ulmus parvifolia.


Buds on the leader of a mame Chinese elm


This mame Chinese elm was potted two three weeks ago and was heavily pruned. New buds and leaves had just appeared.


A shohin Chinese elm with newly sprouted soft yellow green leaves.


This large Chinese elm is almost full with leaves.

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Displaying Bonsai with a Companion Plant – Is It a 20th Century Revival of an Ancient Practice?

It is now customary to display bonsai with a small companion plant, also called an accent or complimentary plant. In bonsai circle, a companion plant is often called a kusamono, but the correct term is shitakusa, an understory grass or herb, when it is displayed with bonsai. Such a display is based on the indoor tokonoma (alcolve) display of a Japanese home. Sometimes a suiseki viewing stone, a small art object or a scroll is used instead of a companion plant, and in various combinations. The guidelines can be very complicated. Morten Albek has a series of excellent articles on the display principles and guidelines.


I displayed this Chinese Elm with an Oxalis companion plant at the 2013 Lone Star State Convention Show in New Braunfel. The tree was trained by the clip-and-grow method.

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Air Layering a Chinese Elm Mallsai into Two Shohin Bonsai


The Chinese elm shohin in this display was air-layered from a mallsai. This post shows the progression of the transformation.

Mallsai is a term coined in the US; it refers to mass produced bonsai sold in big-box stores, roadsides, gift shops and nurseries. The word often carries a connotation of a poor quality tree planted in a shallow pot to look like a bonsai, and sold to the uninitiated. But many people have credited mallsai, either through personal purchase or receiving it as a gift, for introducing them to and getting them hooked to the hobby.

Typical mallsai has an exaggerated S-shape trunk which lacks taper. I found some of them can be inexpensive starting materials, just like garden center trees, for bonsai development.

This post will show the progression of air layering an inexpensive S-shape Chinese elm mallsai, and it’s transformation into two shohins.

IMG_3062_(2) with arrow

The top half of this Chinese elm mallsai has a good trunk movement and several well-placed branches suitable for air layering into a shohin.  I marked the trunk where I want to air-layer, and cut off a swath of the bark girdling the trunk.  Rooting hormone was applied to the region to encourage root development.   Moist sphagnum moss was wrapped around the stripped section and covered with a piece of plastic cling wrap, tied firmly to retain moisture while the roots are growing.


February 7, 2009 – Top: bark removed, and Bottom: Wrapped with moist sphagnum moss

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