Deciduous Early Development Part V: Styrax

This Styrax is still a pre-bonsai. A tree ‘on the way to find out’. Nibbling away at it as one might on a mature bonsai will keep pre-bonsai development to a standstill.

For pre-bonsai, particularly a larger tree, our goal is to create the tree’s structure—the primary gestures and proportions—in a big flat or nursery pot in a handful of years that might take decades in a bonsai container.

The next few years with this Styrax will be focussed on proportional structure, Part 1. Refinement in a bonsai container is Part II. We’re after a really chunky tree here, so it’s still going to take a while, and I would expect another 7-8 years of Part I in the nursery pot.

Part I structural goals would include:

  • Trunk girth almost the size we ultimately want
  • Trunk taper mostly completed
  • Branching that is age-convincing (see Studying Old Styrax), in taper and girth
  • Root base (nebari) without major holes in it
  • Front roughly identified

This specimen debuted in the Deciduous Early Development series in 2019, almost exactly a year ago.

This photo from 2020 shows an alternate front, and the development of one year. Not a huge change, but some. We’re going for a big, fat-trunked tree here. Grown naturally in the ground, the Styrax is a small- to medium-sized tree that tends to the slender side. In a pot, it’s surprising how chunky it easily gets, resembling the meaty proportions of Chinese Quince. That is the goal we hope to achieve with this one, but it will likely take another 7-8 years.

A few thoughts played around with here: Tip the tree slightly forward (it was leaning back from this view); investigate how the nebari is developing (may need a root graft here and there, or, for the time being, sphagnum in the holes which may initiate roots); leave stubs where the red pipe cleaner is, and let the green pipe cleaner shoot grow to be the new leader.

The top branches were pruned back, the bottom ones left on. We’ll get chunkier secondary trunks and lower branches this way, which will speed along the girth of the lower trunk and nebari areas, and create better taper all along the trunk. Pruning back the low branches hard next June or even in the fall will create branch taper, which will give the illusion of age.

For faster development, try ground growing. Many nice bonsai are created this way. The only caveat there is that while development is faster, so are the development of problems. Keep on top of them. For my own situation, and for a tad more control, I prefer growing on in flats and nursery pots. You can also rotate trees from the ground to flats and vice versa.

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