New Articles

New Galleries

Wiring Roots

Photographs and Text by Will Heath, USA
Discuss this article >>

When we design bonsai, we wire the trunk, branches, and sometimes even the young shoots of a tree in order to bend and set them into positions that conform to our artistic vision. Throughout a bonsai's styling we use wires, guy wires, clip and grow methods, weights, and/or other techniques separately or together to shape the trunk, branches and the foliage into a visually pleasing arrangements.

Roots are often overlooked in shaping other than by a crude "clip and wait to grow" method or the hollow tube method used for aerial roots, even though the importance of visually appealing Nebari is well known by almost all practitioners of the art. I have found though trial and error that roots can be wired and shaped as easily and as effectively as branches can be. Of course, I am referring only to the visible surface roots, aerial roots, and Nebari, as the roots below the surface are not seen and should consist of fine feeder roots, not the thicker roots we desire on the surface.

I have wired and shaped roots on Ficus, Maple, Seressia, Mugo Pine, Privet, and Junipers successfully. Like wiring branches on most species, the wiring of roots is best done when the plant is slightly on the dry side. Since effective root wiring can only be performed during a re-pot, caution must be taken to assure that the roots do not dry out or become to damp as to make them brittle, keeping a spray bottle nearby to occasionally mist the feeder roots keeps the roots pliable and safe.

To avoid wire scars on the roots, wire the roots loosely and leave a slight space between the root surface and the wire.. Once a month or two have passed (before the wire bites into the root surface) the wire can be removed by cutting it into small pieces and using tweezers to carefully pull it out of the soil without disturbing the roots. It is sometimes necessary to just cut the wire into pieces and leave it in place rather than to disturb the roots by removing it, it can be completely removed at the next re-potting. Once the wire is removed the new root growth and the soil prevents the roots reverting to their original shape and only one wiring is usually needed.

Below are pictures of a Ficus Retusa originally bought for cuttings which had, what many would call, problem roots at or above the surface of the soil. Hesitant to just discard a tree, I visualized a future form reminiscent of the trees I have observed that were blown partially or completely over by the wind, the force of which uprooted half of the roots on the windward side. Those that survive often return as much as possible to a natural shape except for a slanted trunk and a hardened mass of roots left above ground. I am not sure if this idea will be successful, but it does lend itself well as an example of root wiring.

Nursery stock orginally bought for cuttings.

Ficus Retusa nursery stock purchased from a local "Bonsai Shop" for cuttings needed for an upcoming Mame workshop. The price and name of the shop has been purposely smeared in order not to show the high price the shop charged for such. In this picture the wild erratic root that will be wired is shown clearly.

What a mess

Another angle of the surface roots. This stock was purchased just a few hours before the pictures were taken, hence the litter on the soil surface.

In this picture the few roots on the left side look promising because of the excellent texture of the bark. I will position the bonsai so that these roots are well above the surface of the soil.

One out of place root

Upon removing the tree from its plastic nursery container, I found very long coiled roots that, when untangled, stretched almost three feet from the tree. Since the tree had many fine feeder roots close to the trunk, I cut the long roots back. I also cut back the long root that will be wired, being careful to leave a few shoots with feeder roots on it.

Wired up

Once the pot the tree will reside in temporarily was fitted with tie down wires and a layer of soil place in the bottom, I wired the problem root as I would a branch.

The approximate new planting angle of the tree.

Before bending

Another look at the position of the root before bending it into its new location.

After bending
The root is now bent and positioned next to the other roots.

After more bending

A few adjusting tweaks and the root now appears to be a natural extension of the others and no longer looks out of place.

Before styling

Although this tree has a long ways to go before it can be called a bonsai, the basic idea is now in place.

Soil packed around roots, will be lowed later

The roots are mounded high with soil to help in recovery, the soil level will be brought down in the future to better show the ripped up roots.

A close up of the back of the root mass.

And here we can see the general idea in play. If the final design after the foliage is worked and brought into play does not work, the option of removing or rewiring the above surface roots is always open.

Will Heath is an editor and co-founder of the Art of Bonsai project, the Knowledge of Bonsai forums, and the show chairman of the Four Seasons Bonsai Club of Michigan. His energy, devotion to promoting bonsai as an art form, prolific writing ability, and stubborn refusal to compromise his beliefs is well known to all. His educational articles and humorous stories have been published in Bonsai Today, the ABS Journal, on the web, and in newsletters around the world.

Discuss this article >>