Larch from Seed

When I told of of my bonsai friends that I was planning on starting some larch from seed, he looked at me like I was dense and asked “Why?”

It is a fair question since we have access to very good wild larch in this part of the world. However, the good larch grow in rocky soil and larch in rocky soil send out just two or three large roots, therefore almost always having a bad nebari. Furthermore, collected larch have a rough and wild appearance. You will never find a collected larch with the features needed to make a “softer” classic upright bonsai. I’m not saying the classic look is better than the wild look. They are just different… and different is good in a bonsai collection.

Newly collected larch. The appearance is coarse and wild, with sharp curves and great bark. The nebari is buried, but trust me – its bad. Note the natural sacrifice branch :)

The question still remains – why larch? Why not something more classic like maple or black pine? There are three answers for that: 1) I see larch as one of the most beautiful species on the planet, 2) Larch can growvery fast in my climate when you want them to, and 3) Larch are bomb-proof and idiot-proof (so long as they are established). I am very lazy and hate dealing with exotic species that require special attention in the winter.

The only drawback I see in American larch is the slow bark development. For that reason, I am also growing some Japanese larch as apparently they bark up faster.

Basically I just want to produce some very nice shohin larch and also have some larch to plant in the ground as longer term “bigger” projects.

The process starts by making seedling-cuttings. The idea is you remove the taproot a few weeks after germination to promote lateral root growth early in the life of the tree.I’ve never done this with larch, but don’t see why it won’t work.

Little seedlings waiting to have their roots removed.

The best time to do this for pines is when the stem has turned reddish-purple, so I’m assuming the same applies to larch. Rooting hormone was applied after this step.

They were planted in a mix of turface fines and perlite. A top layer of something finer like sand would have been better, but I didn’t really have anything available. The seedlings are now in part shade and covered in a dome to increase humidity.

Ginkgo biloba ‘Mariken’ Air Layer

This is a very dwarf and dense variety of Ginkgo that I picked up at a specialized nursery for a good price. I keep telling myself that I will not buy nursery material unless it is exceptional but it is tough to live by this rule!

Ginkgo biloba 'Mariken'. If the layer is successful, this tree will quickly develop into a simple but attractive shohin.

Anyway, like most dwarf conifers, this specimen is grafted  – and the graft is very ugly. I knew this when I bought it, so air layering was definitely part of the plan.

Graft showing massive reverse taper below the bulge.

I have air layered a number of trees successfully in the past, and normally start the process in the late spring after the leaves have just hardened off. Of course, there is more than one way to do things in bonsai, and Graham Potter made a video which does a great job of summarizing his approach to air layering. The video can be watched here.

A summary of the key points of his process is as follows:

  • Start the layer in the early spring, when the tree is just beginning to show signs of activity.
  • Cut away a ring of bark, and scrape away all of the white phloem tissue until you have reached the sapwood below
  • Clean cut the top of the ring with a sharp knife
  • Rooting hormone doesn’t really help
  • Pack the sphagnum moss tightly against the trunk. Good contact between the moss and the trunk is important.

I am keen to try Graham’s approach, because starting the layer as early as possible will give it more time to develop in our short growing season.

The one time I tried a Ginkgo air layer, it failed. The tree bridged the ring wound – probably because I did not scrape away the phloem. When I re-opened the wound, the tree died. However, I know that Ginkgo are conducive to air layering because a friend of mine has layered a pretty chunky branch of a specimen Ginkgo yard tree.

The ring wound after scraping away the white phloem tissue.

The completed layer, packed tight up against the trunk.

Hopefully this tree continues to bud out and shows some roots soon!

Bonus Tree

This big siberian elm was collected from a 50+ year old hedge in 2010. I found a little surprise when repotting it last spring.

An old low branch had rooted after being in contact with the soil.

Since the branch was too low to have any design merit, I cut it away.

Later in the season, it became clear that this freebie shohin has some nice potential. The pot is by Chuck Iker. Too small for the development of the tree, but its all I had handy when I separated it from momma.

It has nice bark, taper, and movement, alth0ugh it is far from perfect. There are absolutely no roots on the front of the tree (you can see this where it is lifting up above the soil level). I am certain that a large portion of the front of the tree is dead. It might take some time to figure out where. Nevertheless, it has good branch placement so even if the front becomes a hollow in the future, it should still make for an attractive little tree.

Next year I think I will reduce that lare jin to a hollow. It will probably go into a slightly larger pot to allow for some more rapid branch development.