/ Inspiration

Trees of New Jersey

Seeing this new tree at the nursery got me thinking.

Elm Bonsai with One-Sided Roots

According to the "rules" this is not an ideal bonsai because it does not have roots flaring out from the base 360 degrees around the tree. The tree looks rather 2-dimensional in the photo (tough to take pictures late in the afternoon on a stormy day) but it does have a good degree of depth to it, as well as excellent bark texture. So the question becomes: can this happen in nature? Do the direction of the roots in-fact influence the top growth of the tree?

The woods here are primarily composed of Maples, Oaks, Ash, Elm, and Walnut. There are also some Red Cedar, Sycamore, Dogwood, Catawba, Honeysuckle and Wild Grape. The elevation of the land is divided by a brook (it looks higher in the photos because of yesterday’s rain) and I have to assume that the cliffs are caused by a previous level of water at some point in history. The one side is roughly 30 feet higher than the other.

According to the styles of bonsai, trees that grow on a cliff should be styled as a cascade. I have yet to see a tree break its genetic habit of growth to form this pattern. Plants reach towards the light when they grow (remember the videos from the Private Life of Plants) and the trees in these woods of New Jersey seem to be no different.

Trees growing on cliff.

Trees growing on cliff.

Notice the almost right-angles on most of these trees as they reach towards the sun, and come up with a regular, genetically called-for "broom" formation. Perhaps it is a different story at extreme altitudes, where the wind and the snow beat a tree into submission, and the path of least resistance is down. However, I have my doubts at abilities of a deciduous tree to withstand such treatment. Evergreen needles are designed to minimize water-loss due to evaporation from sun and wind, and allow a tree to begin photosynthesis as soon as the temperature allows, maximizing the growing season. Deciduous leaves are like solar-panels, trying to maximize surface area. This structure is similar to a sail, catching the wind, stripping the leaves of water and ripping them from their branches in high winds. The leaves fall in the winter when the snow would prevent photosynthesis and put additional weight on the tree. I have my doubts that the conditions necessary to create a cascade effect on a deciduous tree can be found in New Jersey.

Another example that defies the lack of relationship between the ideal roots and top growth is this sycamore.

Sycamore Roots

Sycamore branches

The trunk on this tree is has a diameter of over 4 feet, maybe more. Notice the one-sided nature of the roots as the water and lack of soil prevent them from extending to the other side. Yet that does not seem to influence the top growth of the tree in the least, they continue to pursue their genetically defined structure.

It is well-known that roots do influence the health of a tree, and its growth as a result. However, the amount of roots seems to be more important than their direction, as influenced by the trees growing on cliffs, and those of root-over-rock.

Root over rock

The pathways determine the health of different parts of the tree. As long as the pathways are all there the tree should grow as genetically intended. Rather, the roots can be viewed similar to water: taking the path of least resistance and changing their shape to fit a certain area. Most of the trees in the woods were similar to this giant.

Giant trunk.

Perhaps this one had started as a sharp curve as well, growing first straight-out and then turning to face the sun, I cannot say. At the same time it is one of the largest trees in the area so it may have just always had a straight path to the sky.


This tree as well, sits based on a slope and is quite large.

Tree on a Slope.

As you can see, this has not been enough to override genetics.

Top of tree on a slope.

What about the trees that are on flat ground? They should have a nice root-flare too, no? Especially if they’re old. I guess that someone forgot to tell that to this giant oak.

Old Oak.

Old Oak Crown.

Take a look at the base of the tree, the roots just disappear into the ground! No dramatic flair. Maybe this is due to it growing on soft lowland!

![Old Oak Surface Roots (Or Lack There Of).](https://blog.allshapesbonsai.com/content/images/2009/10/IMG_3339-300x225.jpg

One thing that this old tree does have is dead-wood branches. Tradition has it that they don’t appear on deciduous trees in bonsai.

Oak Jinn

And it’s not just found on that tree either.

Deadwood on deciduous tree.

Deadwood on trunk.

I hope these images will help you to design your trees, and make them look like trees that you know. Now for some advice:

Don’t be afraid to break the rules in order to make a tree look more convincing. The Japanese created bonsai designed on their interpretation of trees after thousands of years of observing nature. Rather than doing the same, we create our bonsai based on their bonsai. It is a copy of a copy. Instead of following blindly, I would encourage you to go look at the trees around you. There may be differences between native trees and hybrids. Your area may look different than the photos I show here. However, when you see enough trees you will start to form a picture of a tree in your mind, an ideal tree with the characteristics that you remember, even species-specific. Then with the techniques of bonsai and horticulture you will be able to create convincing trees that look like the miniature form of their giant counterparts. Always tell a story with your bonsai. Have a reason for why it’s shaped the way it is: where is it growing, and under what conditions? Always question why and how things are done.

All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.
~Ralph Waldo Emerson