Going wild

Ageing a Prunus avium – wild cherry
It was a journey of more than 15 years that began with simple native garden material and resulted in a stunning small-sized bonsai. Morten Albek guides us through the many stages of the tree

Cheap material
Seventeen years ago, in my very youth of exploring shohin bonsai, I found a simple Prunus avium (wild cherry) at a garden nursery. Native material and cheap, I brought it home as a subject for shohin bonsai without paying much attention to the time it takes before a tree like this gets the aesthetical qualities demanded. Young trees takes their time before they mature and qualify as bonsai. It is not sufficient to put a young tree into a pot, to call it bonsai. It has to have qualities that are the very soul of bonsai; that is, the aesthetical features like the age and maturity of an old tree and, of course, the reflection of a tree in nature.

01-Blodblomme aug2000
2000: Cut a young plant back hard to build up a new tree from scratch

The bark has to look old, which means it has to possess aged bark that only time is able to produce — cracks and textured bark, not just on the trunk, but also on branches are the evidence of age. When taking on a young tree it is important to have your mind focussed on the time it takes to achieve an ancient appearance. Deadwood worked trunks and branches can add age to a bonsai, but only time develops the bark.

2005: Deadwood shari worked on with power tools after part of the tree died from a root problem
2005: Summer

After 17 years
The wild cherry, Prunus avium, is now beginning to show this quality. The bark is gradually changing after 17 years of growth in a bonsai pot, with a total age about 23 years. Every year that follows, the qualities of this tree will be enhanced.

This feature, set against the simple spring flowers, or delicate late summer cherries, makes it a wonderful native tree for a bonsai. A further quality is its reaction to pruning. It is possible to cut it just above ground level in spring or summer and it will react with a flush of new growth shortly after.

Viewed from above, the still young branch structure is developing

The lower part of the trunk had interest; it was cut a few centimetres above soil level and initially the new growth was directed. I decided to add some deadwood carving later because one side of the tree had suffered and died back due to the root damage. Like the Japanese mume (Japanese apricot), some deadwood on cherry trees is quite a normal occurrence, therefore a natural feature.

The early years
At the beginning I therefore focussed on the quality of the deadwood by carving it and preserving it with lime sulphur to prevent rot. Later this changed, but first the story about the beginning. I often start shohin from scratch searching for a premature tree with potential. In this case it was garden nursery stock that in my earlier and more unexperienced era of growing shohin bonsai found its way to my heart. So at that time, I chose a young tree needing plenty of time to mature. The first thing to be done was to reduce the height and bring the material down to shohin size.

Easy to grow
The wild cherry is an easy tree to grow. It doesn’t demand much attention to the soil and, if the roots grow well, the branches and leaves respond. Keep good drainage though, as with all trees grown in a container. Strong growth will occur if well manured. Remove flowers during the training years. Leaving them to flower, will delay development of leaves and branches. It will also take far longer to achieve a decent branch structure.

After years of training, pruning back, and developing new branches, the tree now steps into a new period. The time has come for maturity. A bonsai living a long time in a pot, will eventually develop the fine structured aged bark that makes it stand out. Keeping a tree for years also adds age to the branches, making the picture complete. A bonsai might change over time and the owner may see new features in a bonsai after years of living with it. The wild cherry grew out of its pot after 16 years of growth as a bonsai and needed a larger pot. It is simply not possible to keep a tree in the same size of pot forever, no matter how slowly the tree grows. At some point a slightly larger pot is necessary to keep the tree alive and growing healthily.

2011: New front. In July the fruits changes colour and at that time they are ready to be eaten
2014: The wild cherry has developed and matured satisfactorily during the past seasons. Here it has been planted in a Japanese pot by Fusyo

A new front
The first step took place in 2011, when I selected a new front and new design. The back of the bonsai became the new front. The deadwood is hidden at the back and the now mature trunk and nebari have become the key features. Earlier these areas did not show the desired strength and maturity, but this has changed slowly due to patiently caring for the tree. Today it shows the required age, patina and the natural approach I strived for.

2016: A shell-shaped pot by Per Toxvaerd (DK) was chosen for the tree. Height of tree: 20 cm / 8″

In 2016 the tree was transplanted to a shell shaped pot by Per Toxvaerd (DK), which enhances the impression of a tree standing in a field of grass and showing all the naturalness of a wild tree.

Text and photography: Morten Albek