Austin Bonsai Society


Vito Megna

The Empress Regent Suiko greatly admired the miniature landscape stones first brought to Japan as gifts from the Chinese imperial court during her reign (A.D. 592-628).

It is not surprising that, today people all over the world share the same enthusiasm and love of beautiful stone landscapes. Suiseki clubs are springing up in all parts of the globe, in fact Butch Wilkin just recently suggested that Texas needs such a program to bolster our common interest in bonsai. When children visit my nursery with their parents, they often are found digging in the stones that I use to cover the area. I furnish them with a plastic bag to take some stones home; I know my granddaughter must have about 50 lbs. stored around her house much to the dismay of my daughter, so, I have to keep reminding her about her love for stone collecting, some of which I still have in the garage.

My program will be to highlight the fabrication of a dai, there may be some wood chips flying around and it might be a little noisy, but I promise it will be interesting and fun, so please join us. If you have a suiseki that you would like to display for the members to view please do so.

Bonsai Tools

Your first peek at a bonsai tool catalogue can be absolutely frightening! The truth of the matter is, there are very few tools required to do bonsai. As in any hobby or art form “needs” can stretch as far as the purse strings. In a beginner class, it might be suggested a minimum of three tools:

  1. Medium sized (8”) concave cutter
  2. Medium sized shears (with handles that feel best)
  3. Pointed chopstick

Many beginners are a little more anxious and want a tool set. A good five piece set consists of:

  1. Concave cutters
  2. Medium shears
  3. Wire cutters
  4. Rootrake or rootpick
  5. Tweezers

When on a limited budget, the one tool, above all others, is the 8” concave cutter. This tool is difficult if not impossible to substitute, and is recommended by every bonsai instructor. (Although the 6” concave cutter is less expensive, it is frequently too small to do the job and is often misused.)

Bonsai tools have been created especially for bonsai by bonsai people. Each tool has a specific purpose, although many are duplicated and only differ in style and size.

Concave cutter:
Removes small to medium sized branches very close to the trunk. Leaves no “nubs”. Cuts heal quickly and smoothly.
Knob cutter (spherical):
Makes deeper cut than the concave branch cutter. Used for thick roots or heavy knots. This is not a substitute for the concave cutter.
Trimming Shears:
There are many sizes and shapes. Bud Shears: Small scissors for convenience with tiny trees and bud trimming.
Remove dead leaves, bugs and needles from conifers. Also utilized in pulling weeds. Those with a flat spatula end are used for tamping soil and loosening soil around edge of container on older trees. Straight or angled is a personal preference.
Folding type are popular. They are often used on collecting trips or at workshops - primarily for larger plant materials (heavy branches and trunks).
Wire cutters:
Specially designed to reach and cut wire on a bonsai without damaging the tree.
General Purpose Pruning Shears:
Not a bonsai tool, useful for initial pruning of wild branches and extensive root systems.
Small leaf Trimmers:
An inexpensive novelty item used by bonsai growers.
Variety of shapes an sized to pull soil away from the base of the tree, to expose any dominate side roots. Also used to untangle roots.
Jin Pliers:
Used to purposely create dead branches, which are called jins.
Branch Benders:
Used to curve or straighten branches that are too heavy or awkward to be bent with wire. (Actually they are small jacks.)

Taken in part from Bonsai Business, June, 1996. A publication no longer in print.

Thinking (?) Plants

by Thomas Powell

Do plants think - reason - feel? Some thirty years ago, research in India, Canada and the United States showed that music had beneficial effects on plant germination, growth and health. From corn to bananas to petunias, various instruments and the human voice produced improved growth. Even sound percussion transmitted through the earth worked: in India, performing the “Sharat Natyam dance without trinkets on ankles” made marigolds grow 60% taller and bloom fourteen days earlier. All sorts of sound waves, scientists believe, have a resonating effect on the “naturally irritable” protoplasm of plant cells, affecting their metabolism so they synthesize more food.

Now the first complete decoding of the genetic makeup of a plant is showing how plants react to all kinds of stimuli. Using a very fast growing and multiplying weed of the mustard family, Arabidopsis thaliana, cooperating researchers in may countries decoded the genome of this plant. This has given them a “Rosetta Stone” to greatly speed decoding of all plants.

Many genes which control hormone receptors in plants have been identified. These are the means by which plants sense and react to even minute alterations in their environment. Through them a plant can “see” changes in the amount or quality of light, or “feel” wind, fluctuations in temperature, or insect bites, or “hear” thunder or the bussing of a bee. Plants thus have complex and often very efficient mechanisms for dealing with physical and chemical stimuli.

This is not to suggest that there is an emotional component - plants do not like or dislike anything, or feel pain, pleasure or anger. Emotion and reasoning seem to be qualities reserved for the animal kingdom. The human mind is governed by more than a purely reactive survival instinct.

On the other hand, there is something called vitalist philosophy, which postulates that everything in nature is guided not solely by mechanical forces but also by a need to achieve certain goals of self-realization. Do plants “want” to grow their best?

Reprinted from The Avant Gardener, Vol. 33, No. 5, March 2001, pp. 37-38

Editor’s note: Maybe there is something to the idea from one of our members to play some light jazz for our bonsai trees to keep them fit and well. Maybe some of you “scoffed” too soon.

Banyan Trees for Bonsai

Yvonne Padilla

In the world of Bonsai the Banyan tree is widely used as an excellent choice for Bonsai. The Ficus species is a member of the banyan family and there are around 600 varieties of Ficus. Planted in the ground in warm climates, these trees can take over and strangle every thing in their path. Referring to the “Guiness Book of Records 1991” is the great Ficus benghalensis located in the Indian Botanical Garden in Calcutta. This tree boasts 1,775 supporting aerial roots, a circumference of 1,330 feet, covers three acres and dates back to 1787. Well, we won’t try to find a container to fit a tree that size. Since there are so many varieties to choose from, a collections of several is possible. Ficus are easy to grow in this area and I highly recommend them for the novice.

Most Ficus develop aerial roots. For the roots to develop, they need a nice warm climate and lots of humidity. You may choose to keep the roots or cut them off. When the trees get to a more mature stage, they usually develop figs. The tiny figs vary in color from green when they first appear, to dark brick red with light green spots as they mature. Since there are so many varieties, there are many different leaf shapes making the trees more interesting.

The Ficus is suited for many different styles of Bonsai: broom, informal and formal upright, root over rock, forest, saikei and others. They are tropical, but a very tough species.

Reprinted from Corpus Christi Bonsai Club Newsletter, March, 2001

Moo the Dew!

Experiments conducted in Brazil have shown that a solution of fresh cow’s milk in water can be as effective as conventional fungicides for controlling powdery mildew on greenhouse grown plants. In most cases, solutions of ten percent or more milk applied twice weekly performed at least as well as benomyl or fenarimol fungicides applied once a week. This should please growers looking for alternatives to synthetics - you’d be hard pressed to find a more “organic” fungicide than milk! (Note: Sprays containing thirty percent or more milk caused an innocuous mold to grow on the leaves.)

As for why fresh cow’s milk has fungicidal properties, researcher Wagner Bettiol points out that milk contains phosphates and potassium salts, both of which are known to help control powdery mildew. He also cites milk’s broad anti-microbial properties as a factor, saying that various constituents of milk has been shown to inhibit the growth of particular fungi, and that others may even induce systemic disease resistance in plants.

Reprinted from Bonsai News, Lake Charles Bonsai Society, September, 2000.

Things To Do In April

John Miller

This is one of the more delightful times to be into bonsai. The renewed leaf growth and new flowers help bring a new elation to your spirit. Bonsai brings you closer to the world of plants than other forms of horticulture. I wouldn’t want to say that the rewards are greater but they certainly are different than other ways of raising plants. So stop and enjoy before getting out there and working your tails off.

Keep up the pinching and trimming. This is the time of year you can lose your ramification and shape in a hurry if you slack off. You will not generally be doing any major pruning at this time but, if your tree has slowed its spring flush of growth, you may be able to do some work. Elms and junipers don’t bleed much but maples and pines will weep considerably at this time of year. Watch the training wires - the tree can increase in diameter really fast.

Sunlight is a very important at this time of the year. It helps keep leaf size and internode distance down and is a must for good flower color. One year I had left some pink azaleas in the shade house where they also had some shade from a large tree. They were almost white when they opened. If you have your tree in a shaded or protected location, don’t move it to full sun directly. Give it more exposure gradually to allow the leaves to harden off. Plants can sunburn just like us only they turn brown instead of red.

Fertilized on a regular schedule but use a weaker solution until growth slows. Use a balanced fertilizer on most trees. Flowering and fruiting bonsai need one higher in phosphorus. When you go to a nursery, especially ones into organics, look for products which can supply trace elements. One that I use is Green Sand but others are just as good.

Insects and fungal disease love warm damp weather. My particular bane is leaf spot on elms and yaupons. Spray with a fungal spray if you see any spots on the leaves of your tree. Several insect pests can disfigure the plant, especially during the tender growth stage. Aphids especially and also some leaf eating worms. Spider mites usually don’t get much done during the cooler weather. Diazinon and Malathion can be used at a reduced strength. I have gone to a systemic spray such as Orthene which seems to give better control over a longer period. Environmentally, long lasting sprays are not desired but since I have better control spraying bonsai and do not spray it all around, I feel I am not damaging the world.

Reprinted from Fort Worth Bonsai Society Newsletter, April, 1997

Indoor Bonsai for Better Health

Spread the word that plants absorb toxins, such as formaldehyde and benzene, and may be the answer to solving sick-building syndrome.

If humans move into closed environments, they must take along plants, nature’s life-support system. It is important to have living plants in our homes and work environments. Plants absorb toxins and produce oxygen. The ficus is a listed variety that helps clean air in closed environments. It is a hardy choice and will do well under less-than-perfect surroundings.

Winter Haiku

Jeff Holmes

Haiku poets view small and large things in the world throughout the entire year, but winter is special. In general it is a time of peace and tranquility. Northern areas are covered in layers of snow that mute sounds and give a surreal quality to many normal surroundings such as buildings and trees. Southern areas experience cooler temperatures and more precipitation. Most plants go dormant, awaiting the coming of spring and a new year; a new period of growth and vitality.

In the western world, fall events predict the changes to come. The first signs of cooling temperature are usually in October when bonsai artists must begin making plans to winter-over tender trees.

Children at the door
dressed in costumes and laughter -
‘Trick or Treating’ me

Fall brings cooler air
Perhaps some rain - maybe none
But the sun still shines

The weather is changing. We look for signs to tell us how cold or how long this winter season will be so we know how much to protect our trees. Some weather signals are obvious, while others require more subtle observation.

Dawn coming early
with nightfall further away -
daylight savings time

New born, sky-borne clouds
whispering weather changes
but who will listen

Toad by my driveway
preparing to hibernate
for our short winter

As the weather gets colder we move our tropicals inside or put them in the greenhouse. We remove unnecessary wire and check to make sure what remains isn’t too tight. Hardier trees we leave out to enjoy the coolness with us. Some we place on the ground and protect the roots and pot with warming mulch.

The nighttime silence
of a fireplace burning wood
returns my childhood

Strong winds force the branch
to bend or break, giving in -
bamboo leaves just wave

During the winter we stay indoors and practice our haiku and sumi-e. On milder days we can go out looking for suiseki and bonsai to collect, or just enjoy nature.

No one notices
a buried stone’s character
until it/s unearthed

Looking for new stones
recent creations
from centuries past

Before we even realize it, winter is over. Anticipation of spring, the new vigor of our trees, and all our preparations for trimming, repotting, styling and watching them grow begin anew. In our minds spring begins another new year.

Small boys are yelling
at one another - and me
I’m now in the game

Cloud shadows ahead
softening the dolor green
where things are growing

Sunbeams through the clouds -
someone’s cautious prayers, or
just sunlight at rest

Reprinted from San Antonio’s Snips ‘n Clips, December, 2000

In Japan, they have replaced the impersonal and unhelpful Microsoft error messages with Haiku poetry messages. Haiku poetry has strict construction rules - each poem has only 17 syllables; 5 syllables in the first, 7 in the second, 5 in the third. They are used to communicate a pithy, timeless message, often achieving a wistful, yearning and powerful insight through extreme brevity.

The essence of zen:

Your file was so big.
It might be very useful.
But now it is gone.

Ash Juniper

Libby Pulley

(with permission)
Latin name: juniperus ashei
AKA: mountain cedar, cedar brake, Texas cedar, sabino, enebro, tascate, taxate, post cedar, cedro, blue-berry juniper, rock cedar, Ozark white cedar

We call them cedar trees, but actually these evergreens are classified as junipers, members of the cypress family and the division coniferophyta (cone bearing plants). The species name, ashei, is in honor of the American botanist William Willard Ashe (1872-19032). Ashe junipers are the most common trees in the Austin area, flourishing especially in the limestone soil and full sun of the hill country.

All parts of the cedar tree are used by man and other animals. Extracted cedarleaf oil is appreciated for its clean smell and used in a variety of household and other products. Tree resin contains up to 75% camphor (think Vicks VapoRub) and is used medicinally. Birds and mammals feast on the blue berries, and the endangered Golden Cheeked Warbler uses (exclusively) the sloughed bark of the very mature old growth trees for making its nest. Of course, cedar wood has been used by man for centuries for a myriad of products, from arrow shafts to fence posts.

Ashe junipers exist in two reproductive forms, like people do. There are male trees and female trees. Female trees are the ones that have the beautiful frosty blue-green berries, which are actually fleshy-scaled tiny cones in which seeds are produced. Male trees produce bright yellow projections which emit the dreaded pollen that causes cedar fever. A truly impressive sight is that of a male cedar tree at the moment the conditions are just right and it releases a yellow cloud of pollen. (Aaaachewww!) Reprinted from Tree Clinic Quarterly, 1st Quarter,2001.

Dought-tolerant Plants for Bonsai

Huisache, acacia farnesiana: The sweet acacia or huishache grows from a shrubby plant to a tre reaching 35 feet high. Distinctly vase shaped, heissache is slightly throny, and produces a spectacualr spring floral show of fragrant, yellow, ball-shaped flowers in late winter or early spring. The riverwalk in San Antonio is ablaze with color when these trees bloom after a gray winter.

Texas persimmon, diospyros texana: A shrub to small tree, Texas persimmon may reach 40 feet in clutivation. It grows in thickets ans is a nuisance to ranchers but is easily trimmed to interesting shapes for ornamental use. It has beautiful, peelling owter bark and smooth inner bark with shades of gray, white and pink. Texas (also called Mexican) persimmon produces small, sweet, edible fruit, though full of seed.

Golden-rain tree, koelreuteria paniculata: A very attractive small tree, golen-rain tree is native to the Orient and grows to about 30 feet. It produces excellent spring color when it flowers in bright yellow clusters. Its fruit is nice, too. Papery, bladderlike capsules appear in midsummer and persisit into winter. It is at lease a three-season tree. Golden-rain tree grows almost anywhere. Its only real pest may be the boxelder sbugs, but they do not apear to harm the tree. It has once-compound leaves.

Chinese pistache, pistacia chinensis: The Chinese pistache possess many qualities. It’s nearly pest free, reaches 20 to 30 feet tall, and once extablished it requires little care. It is not attractive as a young tree, but as it matures, it will produce an umbrella camapy. Fall color can be spectacular.

Editor’s note: This is part of an article appearing in the Austin Gardener published by the Men’s Garden Club of Austin, February, 2001.