Another Swamp Monster in the Making

I have written a series of articles about developing southeast America native plants and trees into bonsai and many of you may be wondering if I’ve forgotten something. There is a great swampland native tree that I think we should finally discuss that is especially suitable for bonsai.  Some revere this species one of the best trees in North American for bonsai. You all know what species I am referring to: the buttonbush tree, Cephalanthus occidentalis, of course.

Just kidding. It’s the American bald cypress, Taxodium distichum, and we have plenty of them here at the nursery to work on.  Honestly, I could spend every day working on these trees and never really get through our stock.  The bald cypress is very abundant in southeast Louisiana. We have lots of field grown stock that will make great bonsai. And we have literally thousands of bald cypress in our grow field that will be coming to market in the coming years.  But, these trees are so abundant that we only collect specimens in the wild with features you would not be able to develop easily with field growing techniques.  This means that these “yamadori” bald cypress at the nursery are special in almost every way.  

In this post, I will be going through how I approach styling on a large, collected bald cypress. But first, here are a few notes about what make bald cypress so great as bonsai:

  • Naturally, small pinnate leaflets that have the appearance of being several small sets of leaves.
  • Attractive brownish gray to reddish trunks on mature trees with long stranded peeling bark.
  • Robust bases with “fluting” root flares (normally only seen on larger trees)
  • Interesting ball like fruiting bodies (cones) that appear in late Summer and stay on the trees even through Winter.
  • An impressive display of fall color ranging from a russet-red to coppery tones and the dry brown dry leaves can cling to branches throughout much of the winter as well.
  • The occasional opportunity to have “knees” on mature specimens.
  • Capable of healing large wounds after collection.

That last bullet about wound healing is no joke. I have completely healed large chopped and carved wounds on bald cypress up to 6″ across. This is rare for deciduous trees.  That’s a lot of cambium roll but it does the job. Of course, careful planning and execution of the carving of the wood in the cut is critical for a successful healed cut.  But, even after the wound is completely healed over you can still graft branches into the scar tissue to further hide the wound if necessary.

So, with these thoughts in mind, let’s get to it.  This is the tree for this article, and it is awesome.   It has been allowed to grow wild and fill out before I did any hard cutbacks on it this year. I have done the initial carving on the chop to make the transition into the new leader and it has healed more the 50%. The chop started right at 5″ across. I have found that letting the top “blow out” for a few growing seasons gets you a majority of the way to fully healed on most trees. Once it gets to this point, I begin to develop the structure of the apex. The growing out and cutting back of these top branches will further heal the wound. Bald cypress is an apex species in its natural environment and is therefore top dominant in growth habit.  This tendency will help the wound heal over just from all the sap flow over the coming years. As long as the exposed heart wood is properly sealed with good quality cut paste the wound will not collapse.

This is a close up of a new pest we have been dealing with at the nursery this year, tent caterpillars. The volume of these insects has been especially plentiful this year.  It’s hard to see, but there is a web nest in the crumpled-up leaves in the middle of the photo. These pests have been since sprayed with insecticide, but the damage is obvious. It’s not the worst pest we can have on bald cypress by any means, but they are still a nuisance. They pop up and make large nests very quickly. The web nest resists pesticide spray and protects the larvae and the caterpillars.  So, you have to break through the nest before you spray insecticide. After they are taken care of you can simply defoliate the sections they were hanging out in, and the tree will flush new growth again.  The damage is limited to the leaves most of the time. Even a good pest maintenance program can be broken though by these bugs, so don’t feel bad if you get them.

After addressing the infected area with this minor pest, I move onto the clean-up techniques I always use on bald cypress. I do a general clean out on every bald cypress before I begin to wire out branches. The first thing removed are the “suckering” shoots on the base of younger branches I want to use in my future design.

Here’s my theory about these shoots: When we cut back and/or wire a branch on a bald cypress they will displace the flow of energy. The tree “sees” that it shouldn’t grow exactly in the direction it was putting a lot of effort into when the tree recognizes the branch as damaged. Trees are not regenerators but instead they are generators when it comes to growing and maturing. So, the tree makes several new attempts to replace the damaged branch with basal back budding. In simpler words, bald cypress back bud all around the base of damaged branches.

If we allow these “suckering” shoots to take over, they will over-compete with the branch are we are trying to develop and could severely weaken the branch. And, if allowed to remain too long, they will produce an unsightly swelling at the base of the branch.  To sum it all up, simply trim these shoots away and make sure to not allow them to take over in the future. Healthy bald cypress will always give you an ample amount of back budding on the trunk and this is both a pro and a con of the species.

This is the tree after all the “suckering” shoots and other unnecessary shoots have been removed. Unnecessary refers to shoots in locations that are far too low on the trunk or in other unwanted locations. I’ll have to give a run down of basic formal/informal design in a future post but the unwanted areas are as follows: bar branches, pocket branches, crotch branches, twisted branches, shaded out branches, and branches that are too large for their location going up the trunk line.

I left a lot of the upper shoots and branches in tack for now. I prefer to make all the decisions at once when removing overly heavy pieces in the apex. I do this so I can get closer to the ideal proportions for my design. Also, I don’t really know what the finished height of our tree is just yet.

Something I found during the clean up of this tree was a little bit of field soil left over from collection. The tree was collected about 3 years ago and it is not uncommon to find old field soil every once and a while. The best course of action is to remove the old field soil and try to do as little damage as possible to the fine feeder roots. Once the soil is removed, I go back with our quality bonsai soil mix.

I found the old field soil in the location had actually collapsed a little inside the buttress of the trunk. So, I went in with a chopstick and pulled it out as far down as I could. I back filled good bonsai soil all the way to level with the soil surface.

Here’s the tree after running a wire brush over the entire trunk to get the moss and mildew off. You can see the reddish glow right underneath the first layer of bark. I think this is one of the best features of bald cypress. It really sets them apart from other trees giving them an interesting contrast with the dark green foliage.

There were a few spots on the buttresses that had been cut bluntly at the time of collection. I usually fix these flat cuts with my Bonsai Nibbler carving bit. This is great high grade steel bit that I fit to my Makita die grinder. You can see me using these tools in my YouTube videos. It’s my go to and I do a lot of carving here at the nursery.

NOTE: This can be a dangerous tool, so be very careful using it and take proper safety precautions including a good face shield. 

These wounds will heal to the shape of the heart wood just like the top chop will. I make sure not to leave any flat or blunt sections and give them a rounded natural shape to heal over. Because these are the surface roots connecting to main source of the tree’s vigor they will heal quickly.

Here is a full picture of what we have thus far. It’s now time to select branch lengths for each section of the tree. I will also be removing an overly large branch in the upper section. You’ll see what I’ve taken off soon enough. It is carrying the bulk of the foliage in the current apex.

After cutting the large branch off on the upper left you can now see the true line of the tree going up into the future crown. It’s time to short up the branches and wire out the tree.

Now that the entire tree is cropped back and wired, it is now time to give the tree movement and character. I will have to allow the first branch to extend out next growing season to thicken it slightly.

Now the “bones” of the bonsai have been laid out officially. From here I will make sure that I further the mature branch development of what you see here. There are a few places where I need branches to “appear” and I can get that to happen easily by simply allowing the tree to back bud in those locations. The section on the right side of the upper portion of the trunk that seems bare of branches is the chop. As stated earlier, I can go in later and approach graft shoots in that location to make it less obvious. For now, the line of the chop flows pretty well from the larger trunk into the smaller apex.  It may very well make a few buds close enough to that area to make do.

I took a photo next to the tree for scale. It has a very impressive base and the flutes are one of the key features on mature bald cypresses in nature. The flare of the base really pulls your eye up to the upper sections of the tree so the taper needs to stay spot on for this design.

Now that I look at the tree after this work, there are two branches that “bar” a little. I will grow these are out to see which one is more suited and probably remove the other.

This will be at least a 20-year project to get it to the form I’m envisioning. But, you need a solid foundation to build on to develop great bonsai over a long period of time.  Sometimes you can start from collection as we have here, and other times you may want to buy a tree that someone else, or maybe several others, have put time into.  If you do buy a tree, you need to know what you are looking for and only pay for a solid foundation.  For now, here’s to the coming decades with this awesome specimen. 


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