Twisty Potentilla Clean Up

Potentilla fruticosa (Shrubby Cinquefoil) is one of my favorite species for shohin bonsai. In rocky northern regions, interesting specimens are easy to find which can be yanked out of the ground like turnips with a nearly 100% success rate. They are not a particularly common subject, but can still be found in bonsai gardens in most temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere. I’ve seen amazing specimens coming out of North America, Europe, and Japan.

This is one of several small potentilla I collected last spring. In the proper soil they will quickly develop a fibrous root system and are almost always ready for rootwork the following year. Unfortunately (like junipers) collected potentilla may stubbornly hang on to a few long thick roots that can be difficult to chase back. Cutting back roots has to be done with great care because the compartmentalized nature of their growth can lead to dieback of live veins that are critical to the design of the bonsai.

I collected this tree because while crawling around in the mud I caught a glimpse of a twisting trunk hiding beyond the weeds and flakey bark. The initial clean up is one of the most important steps with collected potentilla, because you never really know what you have until you remove the bark and punky wood.

So here we are, nearly one year after collection, and I finally get to see what I brought home with me!

This shaggy mess is typical for collected potentilla. The paper-like bark hides the most interesting features of the tree.

It seems that there is some potential with this little tree, but it is impossible to tell until further cleaning is completed and the nebari is exposed.

The flakey bark peels away easily with tweezers or using your fingers. It is also necessary to scrape and dig in the many crevices of the tree, where dead bark becomes trapped and rots between the fusing stems.

Once the bark is removed, the dancing nature of the trunk becomes clear. It is also clear that this tree is the result of several stems which have fused together at the base. The cleaning process is not nearly complete. Getting all the old crap out of the crevices takes lots of time and patience, and will probably take another couple of lazy summer afternoon sessions of picking and scraping. Nevertheless, the work done here is sufficient to map out the design.

The next step for this tree will be rootwork in the next few days. If the root system does not need major operations, it will grow strongly and I should be able to cut it back hard in the late spring or early summer. Potentilla backbud profusely and reliably, but they need to be cut back quite ruthelessly. After that, the deadwood work will come. I intend to reduce the live veins to emphasize the twists in the trunk.

It is worth noting that potentilla are ridiculously hardy, and I find they are always the first species to wake up in the spring. Some of mine are already leafing out, 2 weeks earlier than normal due to the mild winter we experienced. I usually repot them when the leaves just begin to emerge, although this is definitely not the only time they can be repotted.

On to the next one!

5 Responses

  1. Andrew

    Nice blog!!

    March 28, 2012 at 12:04 pm

  2. Franz-Erik

    I have just aquired a number of potentilla that I plan to bind together in order to create a “quick thick” single trunk specimen. I imagine the peeling bark will disguise the fact that it will be a multi-trunk project.

    Now ……. reading your contribution about how the potentilla rots so easily, would it be a good idea to design it as a “root over rock”, thus keeping the trunk well above the surface of the soil?

    July 23, 2012 at 2:46 pm

    • Hi there,

      if there is no exposed deadwood on the tree you don`t need to worry about the rot issue.Binding young trees together is a good idea. I`ve seen it done before – they will fuse rapidly to form an impressive trunk. Most thick trunked potentilla in nature form as a result of fusing suckers, so it is a perfect technique for bonsai.


      July 24, 2012 at 11:04 pm

      • Franz-Erik


        Thank you very much for your inspiring reply. I didn’t really want to make it a “root-over-rock” project anyway. I figure that there should be only ONE MAJOR eye-catching feature in a bonsai specimen and the twisty, gnarled trunk of the Potentilla ought to be that ONE feature. Using a rock with it would probably confuse “the eye”.

        In gratitude,
        Malmö, Sweden

        July 25, 2012 at 4:38 am

  3. Pingback: Step forward for Potentilla fruticosa #3 | Lakeshore Bonsai: Bonsai in Toronto, Canada

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