If you are fascinated by trees then you cannot but love the Cupressaceae family of which belong the Redwoods, Wellingtonia and the Swamp Cypress and you should consider them a challenge to bonsai.
If you are looking for four of the largest living trees then here they are, each wonderful in its own right as a species of tree but also impressive in their true form as well as in miniature as bonsai.
- Wellingtonia / Mammoth tree / The Big tree (Sequoiadendron gigateum)
- Giant Redwood / Coastal Redwood / Californian Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens)
- Dawn Redwood (Metasequioa glyptostroboides)
- Swamp Cypress, Deciduous Cypress or Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum)
These are fabulous fast growing trees, with a love of high water levels and some may say they do not make a harmonious bonsai per say as they tend to outgrow their pots very quickly unless you root prune at least annually in the UK this is.
As they do like water, this cannot be stressed enough and grit trays seem to aid with this to prevent drying out. They can be wired, but remember their bark is very soft so can mark easily if left on too long .
Due to having a fantastic growth rate this means lots of pruning is required to tame this and they tend to be top growth dominant so you will need to control the top growth more than the sides.
There are some great examples of these species used for bonsai in America as this is their native habitat and they are more readily available there. However garden centres and tree nurseries are a good source of starter stock as well as they grow easily from seed and as they grow fast they develop fairly quickly.
Wellingtonia (Sequoiadendron giganteum)
Dan Barton produced the Wellingtonia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) in the lead picture and this he started back in 1977 and has written the history of it’s development in his book ‘The Bonsai Book- The Definitive illustrated guide’ (1989).
Key points that Dan noted were:-
- It needs abundant water including have the foliage sprayed
- Appreciates plenty of fertiliser
- Sheds a fairly high percentage of foliage in autumn
- It entirely hardy but responds well to winter protection which facilitates rejuvenation
- Focus on getting a straight trunk by using clamps
- Soft bark so avoid applying too much pressure
- To get the branches to remain in position split the undersides with a penknife
- Prefers rich compost
- Prolific root development
- Finger pinch foliage which encourages finer tighter shoots
- Remove all downward pointing shoots
They are easy to grow from seed and you get a good growth rate each year. They are from a monotypic genus and were introduced into the UK back in 1853 so still a relatively newcomer to the UK but they already have started to make an impact on the landscape. There are some cultivars that are grown including ‘Glaucum‘ which is a blue form as well as ‘Hazel Smith‘ plus weeping forms like ‘Pendulum‘ as well as a dwarf form called ‘Pygmaneum‘ as well as a variegated form ‘Variegatum‘ but nothing quite beats the straight Wellingtonia. Their foliage is rough and spiky though and it is evergreen but sheds throughout the year. They produce tiny fruits/ seeds hidden in cones and have a thick reddish bark when mature. Branches tend to rise upwards at the tips and they have a varied natural shape and often are shaped by nature as they are prone to lightning strikes due to the heights they attain. They are also prone to having multiple tops or crowns as side branches are fast growing and can form secondary leaders. The branches initially from the trunk curve downwards and then go back upwards giving a sweeping appearance to their form.
Giant Redwood / Coastal Redwood / Californian Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens)
This is monotypic genus for just the Sequoia sempervirens and this is softer tree to work with as a bonsai as the foliage is less prickly but still evergreen. The bark is thick and spongy and the branches tend to droop naturally. They also originate from California and are a majestic tree of great merit and was introduced in Europe around 1840. In the wild they can reach heights of over 371ft or 113 metres so are recorded as being the tallest living trees on the planet. There are a few cultivars which include ‘Adpressa‘ a form with creamy coloured tips, ‘Cantab‘ which has a strong form and ‘Prostrata‘ which is a dwarf form. For more images of these impressive trees as bonsai visit the REBS home page.
Dawn Redwood (Metasequioa glyptostroboides)
This is an elegant and delicate foliage tree, with soft linear feathery leaves that are also deciduous and you get the most stunning bronze to orange autumn colour. The bark is more cinnamon brown in colour and underneath the branches there is a unique impression like an armpit which aids in forming the characteristic fluting you seen on the trunks. They also are of a monotypic genus and bear their fruits in cones which mature in the first year. They like well drained soils and there are already a few cultivars including ‘Emerald Feathers’, ‘Gold Rush’, and ‘National’ considering it was only discovered in China in 1941 and introduced as seeds in 1948 (Hillier, 2002). As bonsai they do make a great formal upright but also are more often seen as group plantings, clumps or forest plantings.
Swamp Cypress, Deciduous Cypress or Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum)
The final one to make up the four most impressive trees for height and this their are two species in this genus, distichum and mucronatum. It is also deciduous and has soft feathery foliage and turns bronze in autumn. It is a wetland specialist and grows knee like growths or pneumatophores when submerged in water or swamps. Cultivars of this species include ‘Huresly Park’, ‘Nutans’ and ‘Pendens’ a form with weeping or drooping habit. It is native to North and Central America and is very dominant in the Florida everglades and was introduced around 1640 (Hillier, 2002).
Here is an example of a Swamp Cypress I have been working on in it’s winter image and also early summer image. I find that they respond well to guying down the branches as opposed to wiring and this aids with preventing back buds being damaged through wiring. They have very thin sensitive bark and this way you can adjust the pressure without affecting the flow of phloem and xylem along the branches. Being deciduous I have found that a lot of the ramification achieved needs to harden off within the same year otherwise this is shed during autumn and will need to be re-grown in the coming spring. They are very fast growing allowing for multiple pruning opportunities in the spring and summer and also back bud brilliantly and push new buds from the main trunk if you ever need a new branch in any location, one can be grown.
- Barton, D:1989, The Bonsai Book, The definitive illustrated guide, Edbury Press
- Hillier, J & Coombes, A: 2002 The Hillier Manual of Trees & Shrubs, David & Charles