Finding Bonsai Material at the Nursery

By Jerry Carpenter (from our June 2011 newsletter)

A nursery is one of avenues to collect material for bonsai. For many of us, this is where our collections begin as urban collecting or collecting in the wild is far from reality. Sometimes we can purchase a bonsai that has already been trained for years by going to shows, auctions, and special sales but as we are patient people who like to learn the art of bonsai and have patience to watch them grow, the nursery is our heaven. So what do we look for in that plant material?

Our first premise is species. What species are best suited for our collection and bring us joy. I, for example, like deciduous trees like Trident Maples, Beech, and Elm. I have a special fondness for Olives but I dabble with Junipers as well. This means that when I approach a nursery or growing ground that I RUN to the maples! I am prepared to get dirty then because it will take much lifting of pots, turning of trees, removing of old leaves and sometimes getting down on hands and knees to view the material.

Next we look at the nebari, which is the crown and surface roots, of the plant. It is the hardest thing to find; roots that spread, have substance and radiate around the trunk of the tree. We do not want roots that wrap around each other or grow strong in a circular pattern.

For me, the trunk of the tree is the next goal. Looking at thickness of the trunk, movement, health, bark, height, and taper are key. Once you have the trunk, you move to examining the branch structure. Find the ultimate apex and then find the number one and two branches. Look for a front and if the tree provides for good back branches. The number one branch is usually one-third the height of the tree and not as heavy as the trunk. The branches should be thicker at the bottom and thinner at the top. Thick top branches will most likely have to be sacrificed. The number two branch should not be directly opposite the number one or directly behind the trunk. You may have to choose a branch that will take many years to grow out.

Look for trees with small leaves and considerable branching. Some trees can be trained to develop smaller leaves but some species cannot and you must choose the species carefully.

After choosing your material, bring them home and sit with them for a while. You can trim branches, remove leaves, do some basic wiring but wait until the winter months to repot and cut roots. This will require patience. I like to begin removing branches to reveal the trunk, plan the movement and design that will be when the time is right.