The American larch, Larix laricina, is a beanpole tree from inception to maturity. It does not consider taper a necessity for survival. Yet taper is an important visual element of bonsai. Bad roots can be manipulated and enhanced, poor branching can be refined, but a trunk without taper will always look wimpy.
The most cherished of the Japanese pine bonsai have marvelous taper. It derives from their culture over time, a culture aimed at producing it. Growing strong branches at the base is fundamental to achieving pine taper. These may or may not be later removed. In some cases, the redesigning of a bonsai will reveal a more shapely and desirable bonsai within the tree. By removing some or much of the trunk, taper is also created.
The best collected larch trees usually resemble these two. Each has slight taper that is enhanced by placing the trunks together so that their bases push away from each other as they approach the ground, giving the composition a more solid look at the bottom. The pair is 69 cm high and has since died in the care of a careless buyer.
In viewing these unseemly and unnatural sexy bonsai I wondered if I could achieve something similar with larch, a species that refuses to taper. It became a time experiment. Some twenty plus years later, there are some results that are satisfactory and some that are silly. The many schemes tried are of interest to the bonsai hobbyist under forty years of age because they apply to many species, coniferous and deciduous. They require the two basic manipulations described above: the sacrifice branch and the hack-back. A larch tree with a long spindly trunk before branching is poor material for this approach; you must begin with trees, no matter how tiny, that have at least one branch close to the root system. A larch forms a bulge where it is hacked back or where a large sacrifice branch is removed. If the tree has its first branch ten centimeters up the trunk, your first hack-back will leave the first bulge way up in the air, creating an inverse taper. Over time, management of the bulges becomes the name of the game. Pre-selecting the next branch for trunk continuation (wired up in advance) in relation to the distribution of selected sacrifice branches can yield a series of continuous bulges rising up the trunk, forming a harmony without valleys and dips. It is like trying to achieve continual orgasm as compared to occasional spurts.
Dramatic cuts are possible with larch because they respond well to a good greasing. Normally, a cut oozes some sap to protect the rapidly emerging callous. This soon dries up and the callusing slows. As time goes by, the surface of the cut becomes soft and then punky. The callous stops growing. If you con the larch into thinking it is growing callous wood into freshly exuded larch pitch, the wound will continue to heal quickly. If you cover the fresh cut with a glob of petroleum jelly, the rate of healing will double and not slow down, as long as you reapply the grease. If you cover the greased wound with a patch of aluminum foil, it will be somewhat protected from the sun and kept more moist. This doubles again the healing rate and makes for a flatter callous. Goo-based compounds like cut paste should not be used to cover greased larch wounds, as it will be enveloped by the callous and look unsightly.
It is rare that you come across a larch with taper as profound and spreading at the base as this one. The funny crook half way up the trunk, a featured irregularity, hints at a rugged and unpleasant life for this seventy-year-old tree before it was collected. The tree is 48 cm tall.
To obtain results, it is necessary to grow larch material in the ground, unless you are very young or growing mame-sized bonsai. In-ground culture is a compromise because heavy fertilization and an expanding root system will spur you larch onto profuse growth, up to two meters per year. Thus you lose control. This can be a delight by discovering a design option you hadn't anticipated, or a dismal failure by creating something too ugly to work with. Larch wood is slow to grow. Allowing trees to escape during the summer when they are foliated is a good trade-off for trunks of substance.
A compulsive hobbyist can usually achieve good taper for a 60 cm trunk in ten to twelve years. However, the game is not over. It takes another 5-8 years to refine the branching or grow it all over again. Often, branches toward the top become too thick because that is where the energy goes, even if you prune them regularly. The new game becomes growing out wimpy branches towards the base while replacing those higher up with new shoots that are more in scale with those below and the trunk itself. Care in this refining period can lead to very well designed and tapered branches that are an asset to the composition. Short cuts can be taken, as in the European technique of wrapping one rank branch round and round the trunk to spin off a full canopy of concealing foliage, but the larch look rather silly in winter when they are bare.
If branches are lacking where you think you want them, you can always graft them on. Thread grafting works well in the ground when the grafted shoot is vigorous. You can only do this when the branch is bare, such as spring or fall or even winter if you are masochistic enough. Actively defoliating a branch for thread graft in summer will make it unhappy. It is unlikely to grow with any vigor and take. Single point grafting also works well, but is less likely to take. However, you will discover this quickly, in two weeks, as the shoot will brown up. You can apply single point grafts again and again during the growing season until one takes. I have found that hot-weather-June days are best for this, when the plants are wilting a bit. Spring, when the wood is full of water, is the worst time.
The cause of the taper of the previous tree is revealed in this end shot. Many new shoots emerged from the base and were killed back. The base is bulbous and almost obscene from this angle. A similar pattern was repeated rising up the trunk, giving it some taper too. Is this not a clue as to how to proceed with taper building?
Taper in this 53 cm larch was not exceptional, despite several hack-backs. The base, however, bulges nicely because flimsy roots were composed over small rocks and grown out. The combination of trunk, root, and stone gives the illusion of taper.
A more extreme example of taper by spreading roots over a rock is apparent in this 70 cm tall larch. Although the living trunk is somewhat tapered rising from the rock, a result of both sacrifice branches and hack-backs, the real flare occurs where the roots contact the rock. This was facilitated by growing a second trunk at this point and training it for seven years before stripping it to become jin. Powerful roots growing down the rock give a solid appearance to the base.
Taper that isn't so is apparent in this 63 cm high larch. The lower portion of the trunk was without taper when collected, although naturally mutilated. Growing a new top from a single shoot allowed the few roots at the base to develop and create some taper. Several hack backs along the new top established some taper, giving the overall appearance of a tree with taper.
This 41 cm high stump represents a classic in-ground trunk, but with a double whammy. What is seen here was the top half of another larch being built in the ground. Unfortunately, the tree had no lower branches close to the ground. Great swelling occurred halfway up the trunk from repeated shoot formation, as in picture C. Consequently, the larch was layered at this point. A great bulk of severely tapered wood is thus available for design into a bonsai.
This 54 cm larch is all juiced up with vigorous branches after 5 years in the ground. The trunk came with some basal taper because repeated borer invasion turned this area into larch scab. None of the large branches were selected for the future design, but removed. This left a few shoots with which to grow a design, drawing the composition together and emphasizing the taper. The bonsai was finished in about 5 years and died the next when it moved to New Jersey.
This rather tall larch (92 cm) is an example of extreme hack back. It was collected just because it was LARGE. The lowest branch was grown for a couple of years to be a new top and the chainsaw was brought out to make a long, tapered cut down to the ground. This was years before the author discovered the petroleum jelly effect. The callous thus grew less and less as each year passed. By the time the grease was in use, the callous had become senile and the cut surface soft. It was carved out as a lost cause and shipped to Weyerhaeuser where it continues to haunt people.
Can this be the ugliest larch the author has ever grown? About ten years ago, he cut most of it down and dug it out of the ground to throw on the compost pile. But then it became a challenge. The lumping around the crotch was so severe that most of the branches were removed and the trunk hollowed to justify such a drastic transition. Since the two remaining branches were upright, the gross specimen was trained as an elm tree rather than a classical pine tree conifer. While the results are questionable, careful carving did establish a line of taper over what was formerly an inverse taper.
There is no attempt to conceal that a larger tree was cut down and a new top grown upon it. This, like previous images, shows a single cut to establish taper. In this case, a portion of the old trunk was retained and hollowed for jin, giving justification to such an abrupt transition. A bright orange slime mold took up residence in the jin hollow and brightened this bonsai for many years until the hollow was drilled down to the ground. The tree is 45 cm tall.
A center slice best describes this larch. It belonged to a larger tree with inverse taper that was layered at the widest point on the trunk. The top was also cut off, leaving only the middle of the original tree a middle that was already 10 cm in diameter. A new top was grown over the course of 12 years with many sacrifice branches to create taper. It is shown here at a height of 36 cm just after the layer roots became established and 12 years later in O, with an extension of the new top. The branches are currently being drawn in toward the trunk to create the classical "geriatric" style. This is the closest the author has brought this experimentation toward the "Sumo" style and the bonsai looks rather contrived. The equally SUMOESQUE stump in picture G will be grown into a larger tree, giving strong taper at the base.
There is nothing contrived looking about this 90 cm bonsai. Its taper is regular and not extreme in proportion to that of an ancient forest tree found in the mountains. Several large pruning scars from sacrifice branches remained incompletely healed at the time of this photograph and were still covered with the protective foil. Unfortunately, the current owner over-fertilizes larch. The result is a coarse plant that looks more like a bonsai than a tree in nature. Is it possible to design delicate bonsai and keep them that way?
No fewer than 32 sacrifice branches were removed and 18 hack-backs made to achieve the heavy base of this sinuous larch. Greater taper on this 65 cm tree could have been achieved by cutting off the top third of the tree, but the curious enigma of the design would have been lost. It is titled THE FIRST NORN DEPARTS BRIGHTON BEACH and is coveted by many retail bonsai peddlers.
Careful placement of the roots of this 56 cm larch has yielded enhanced taper at the base. Because of their steep decent, they are visually considered to be trunk to the eye of the beholder; they are almost fused. This composition is depicted a couple of years shy of maturity to demonstrate the careful and slow development of branches necessary to produce fine bonsai. Its current owner is skilled at keeping larch bonsai alive and healthy.
This 53 cm larch is more the result of huge sacrifice branches rather than hack-backs. To obtain a sinuous trunk line, wiring and tying are essential. Larch always pull upward when growing and curves are regularly obliterated in the act. Keeping branches at the base of this tree was thus important in the formation of the trunk, which is still weakly tapered in the lower third.
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