Subscribe to

I first started trying to collect wild trees for bonsai in the spring of 1994. At that time I knew nothing about bonsai other than that I wanted to do it. I had never even owned a potted plant before, and had never considered the possibility that someday I might. But I had spent the last dozen years working in the Black Hills National Forest laying out timber sales, and as a tree planter for paper companies in the SE United States, so I had a good knowledge of the local environment and at least a vague understanding of how to transplant trees.

When I was first bitten by the bonsai bug (and I was really bitten too, it may as well have been malaria) I had no knowledge of how bonsai were pruned and shaped with wire. How they went from a raw plant to the beautiful trees I saw in books was a mystery to me. As a result, the first year or two I tried collecting I only picked trees that already fit my preconception of what a bonsai should look like. I saw many old trees that I thought were interesting and beautiful, but if they didn’t already look like a bonsai, or close, then I left them in place, because I didn’t know what to do with them.

I especially remember two very old pine trees that I found that first year. Both were on the same granite ridge, about a half mile apart. The first one I found was near the bottom of the slope. It was obviously a very ancient tree. I remember thinking at the time that it could have been 1,000 years old, or nearly so. It was only about five feet tall, but the trunk was twisted and 12 to 14 inches in diameter. My main interest in the tree was that I might get a good core sample from it and have a verifiable 1,000-year-old tree located. But, alas, it was hollow as a drum, as most really ancient trees are, so I could not get an age. I never even considered it for bonsai. It was much too large.

About a half-mile away, and several hundred feet higher up the ridge, I found another very ancient old pine. This one was a bit smaller and not quite as old—I thought it might be 500 years. Again, it seemed much too large to use as a bonsai so I didn’t even consider trying to collect it. I left both trees where they were. In fact, I forgot all about them.

It wasn’t until ten years had passed, in the spring of 2004, that I found myself climbing that ridge again. I had hiked in from a different direction, not realizing I was heading for one of the very first places I had ever collected trees from.

I have often gone back and collected trees again from a rock outcrop where I’ve been before. In fact, on a couple different occasions I’ve realized I had already been to a spot after finding a crowbar or set of pruners that I lost there the first time. Once I found a crowbar I’d lost years before on a ridge, and gave it to my boy to carry. He lost it again before we left and I guess there’s a slim chance that I’ll find it yet again.

In this case I recognized where I was when I stumbled across the original ancient pine I had found. It had recently died. What appeared to have happened was that a windstorm had uprooted a six-foot sapling that had taken root in the same soil pocket as the ancient tree. When the sapling went over it also pulled the old pine’s roots away from the rock, exposing them to the air and killing the tree.

But I remembered there had been some other interesting trees further up the ridge, so I continued on. As I hiked I found many great old pines that would make excellent bonsai, and I was amazed that I apparently hadn’t seen the potential in any of them ten years before.

Then, after along, steep climb, I reached a small shelf of rock and found my old pine again. I was immediately taken with it. It was a fantastic old tree, twisted and ancient looking and still growing strongly. It was awe-inspiring! And this time I decided it was the perfect size for bonsai. I scraped the duff away from the base of the tree to inspect the root system. The roots seemed good and I decided the tree was collectable. But something made me hesitate. I put the duff back and left the tree where it was.

I feel a responsibility for every tree I transplant. There is always the risk of killing the plant, and even though many of them might be cut down in forest thinning projects, or torched in controlled burns, I feel I should leave them alone unless there is a pretty good chance I can keep them alive. This old pine was so awesome that I felt a little intimidated by it. If I tried to collect it and it died, I’d feel terrible.

I went back a week later and inspected the roots again. Again I decided the tree was collectible, but again I left it where it was and went home without it. I discussed it with my wife, Judy, and my conscience. Finally, I decided to attempt collecting the tree, but to stop at the first sign things weren’t going as planned.

On April 26, 2004 Judy and our five year old boy, Woodlin, and I set out to collect the old pine. I carried a large pack frame to get the tree down with and my collecting tools. Judy brought a pack with some food and drink. I also brought the necessary permit with me, which I had purchased from the US Forest Service.

Hiking at Woodlin’s pace it probably took us an hour to get up to the old pine. He attacked the mountain as if it were Mt. Everest and did a great job getting to the top. He was very excited by the adventure and it was a lot of fun climbing up there with him. I was glad we brought him along.

When we got to the tree he was already tired and hungry, so we sat and ate. Then, while I examined the pine and set to work, Judy and Woodlin climbed up higher, exploring the nearby outcrops for more trees and caves.

There was one branch on the pine that went out several feet before it had any foliage and this I pruned off. I also shortened one very long dead branch to make the tree more manageable for carrying. The rest I left untouched.

I pried around the root pad and found it dense, radiating from the base of the tree, and well put together. An old root as thick as my forearm ran uphill from the tree and this I had to cut through to free the tree. Once the root was cut the tree easily, if somewhat heavily, came out of it’s pocket of rock. As the picture shows, the root pad is not huge compared to the size of the tree. But it is dense and full of fine feeder roots, which are exactly what is needed to keep the tree alive and healthy.

I wrapped the roots securely in burlap and strapped it onto the pack frame. It was quite a heavy load, but I felt I could manage it. I went in search of Judy and Woodlin and found them together up the ridge a bit. Woodlin had gotten into the spirit of things and had found a small pine he wanted to collect for himself. In the picture it’s just downhill from where he and Judy are standing. We collected that tree and put it in a small ceramic pot. It’s doing well today and he checks on it from time to time and occasionally reminds me that I can’t sell his tree. We haven’t styled it yet, though I want to get him started on that this year.

It was slow getting down the hill and back to the truck. Although the pine was heavy, it was not as bad as might be expected. Trees growing on stressed, very dry sites like that do not have nearly as much water in them as trees growing in wetter conditions, and so are much lighter. For instance, loggers (who are usually paid by the ton) make better money cutting timber on cool, north-facing slopes than they do on dry south-facing slopes.

The next day Judy helped me clean the roots and plant the tree in a large wooden box. It was definitely a two-person job! We frequently have freezing weather into June, so I put the tree into my shaded greenhouse where it stayed for most of the summer.

Trees vary in their response to transplanting and some can take a few years to start showing signs of strength again. That was not the case with this pine though. It seemed to like it’s new home and grew strongly right from the start.

The following spring it came out of dormancy right on schedule and again grew strongly all summer. I moved it outside right away that year so it got plenty of sun.

In early March of 2006 I decided the tree was strong enough to work on, so I styled it. Ponderosa pine are very flexible, and usually even severe bending is not much of a strain on the tree. In this case though all the foliage was off a single extension of the trunk, which was quite thick and very rigid. The diameter was around 3 inches and there was hard deadwood all through it. If I broke it I wouldn’t just lose a branch, I’d lose the whole tree.

I’d been studying the tree off and on for two years, trying to come up with a design. In spite of the excellent character of the old pine there were a few problems. First of all, as I just mentioned, all the foliage came out very high up on the tree. The branch it came out of was very stiff and looked prone to snap to me. The foliage was not balanced over the trunk of the tree. Several people who visited my nursery looked at it and were at a loss what to do. So was I.

Eventually I decided I liked the front of the tree that showed the orange reticulated bark at the base. That wasn’t my original front, but orange bark is a quintessential characteristic of old ponderosa pine, and one that is very rarely brought out on bonsai. I next decided that I liked the tree too much to take many risks in styling it. It was unique, and the day we collected it was unique and I decided to just let the tree be the tree and work strictly within that framework rather than trying to make it “better” by forcing it to become a bonsai.

Still, I had to do something, even if it was just making the foliage a little more orderly. I decided I would pull the top over and down, and shape it as much as I could without putting the tree at risk. I used aluminum wire backing, that is, running three or four strands of aluminum wire lengthwise along the outside of the stress areas in the bends and then covering it with raffia. I then wired in the conventional way, using two strands of #6 copper wire on most of the branches. Many of the branches were too thick to be held in place without guy wires, so I left many gaps in the wire where I could slide a guy wire in.

This tree took me longer than most to wire. I listened very carefully for cracking and splitting while I pulled the branches into place. I pulled until they quit giving and then stopped. On a different tree I would have pushed it a bit more but on this one I did not allow myself. I spent four or five hours one day and then, since I tend to get careless when I’m tired, I stopped. I took a rest and finished up the next morning.

I was very happy with the way the tree responded. I saw some minor branch cracking, but nothing that gave me too much concern. Usually a crack in a branch on a ponderosa pine is no cause to worry. They crack in the wind all the time with no ill effects. I was also happy with the way the design came out. Considering my conservative approach, I thought the result was very good.

By May the tree was looking great and showing no ill effects from wiring. I thought it was strong enough to repot, so I did so. I put the tree into a 27” oval ceramic pot that I got from Osiga Company. The pot is high quality and was reasonably priced. Best of all it looks good with the tree.

Judy helped me repot, and I couldn’t have done it without her. Trying to handle the pot and soil and wire and a large tree all at one time is really too much for one person. I used to think I could do it all myself, but I have to admit things are much easier with two people. In this case, we could have even used another set of hands.

Having someone there to hold the tree allowed me to back up and examine it to make sure we were planting it at the right angle. Despite this, we did not quite get it the way I planned, although it’s close. And it will have to be good enough. I don’t plan to repot it again for a couple years now.

There are still some improvements to make. I want to pull the top down further so the upper trunk does not look so long and bare. I will do this slowly and bit by bit, over a year or so. Perhaps the foliage on the left side could be pulled in, to tighten the profile somewhat. Mike Hagadorn, fresh from his bonsai apprenticeship in Japan, was able to come by and he immediately suggested the tree be tipped forward just a bit, so the extension of the trunk is not so nearly parallel with the rim of the pot. I thought that was very perceptive.

After repotting the tree grew strongly all summer. With a tree like this, I can’t help but thinking of it’s future. If it grew for 500 years on the mountain before I encountered it (which is a reasonable guess), I can’t very well let it end up in a yard sale when I am unable to care for it any longer. So I need to plan.

There is a boy though, now eight years old, who was there when the tree was collected and already has a bonsai of his own. I wouldn’t say he’s interested in bonsai right now, but you never know what the future will hold. Who knows? It could be the start of a long relationship.


…please be patient while I collect my thoughts….