Posts tagged “Eastern Hemlock

Canadian Hemlock aka Eastern Hemlock, Tsuga canadensis as Bonsai

This is the first tree I ever collected, over eight years ago now. The development of this tree has been one step forward, two steps back. There is limited information out there on T. canadensis and I’ve only seen two that could be called bonsai (this tree  isn’t one of them). This is probably for two reasons: 1) it is hard to find worthy material, and 2) they are a quirky species to work with.

Eastern Hemlock are unique for a number of reasons:

  • They very, very much prefer a rich and moist organic growing medium. I almost killed mine by transplanting it into a coarse, inorganic medium. Replacing it with topsoil restored the health of the tree.
  • They can tolerate practically any light condition from full shade to full sun. For bonsai development, several hours of direct morning sun is good for promoting backbudding and branch development. Full direct sun tends to cause the foliage to lose it’s rich green colour.
  • Despite their delicate and almost “weak” appearance, they heal over wounds better than any conifer I can think of and better than many deciduous trees. This makes grafting easy on T. canadensis.
  • The branches are very flexible however they are extremely weak at the crotches. They will suddenly and heart-breakingly tear from the trunk with little notice during heavy (or even moderate) bending operations. However, their capacity to rapidly callus over wounds means that a branch will more often than not survive, even if you have torn half of the base away from the trunk.

I have learned and re-learned these points “the hard way” on this poor specimen over the years. The resulting setbacks have probably doubled the time it should have taken me to get to the current stage of development. Now this tree has immense sentimental value to me despite being one of the last trees that draws the attention of any visitors to my yard.

I believe Eastern Hemlock is by far the most delicate and feminine species native to eastern North America, and perhaps even all of North America. This makes it priceless in our catalogue of native species and worthy of greater attention. I just wish material was easier to come across!

My T, candensis today after finally getting the main structure set into place after eight long years.

My T. canadensis today after finally getting the main structure set into place after eight long years. Still a long way to go but I think the hard work is done. 

Last summer I was trying to fully style the tree and had to stop at this point after I tore a major limb that supported two major branches - the first branch on the left, and the back branch,

Last summer I was trying to fully style the tree and had to stop at this point after I tore a major limb that supported two major branches – the first branch on the left, and the back branch.

The tear in the limb last summer. Remarkably, the more important branch (second primary branch) survived despite losing much of the secondary growth. The back branch completely died

The tear in the limb during last summer’s work. Remarkably, the more important branch (second primary branch) survived despite losing much of the secondary growth. The back branch completely died

Growing near a trail in April 2007.

Growing near a trail in April 2007.

Collected and potted up showing the current front.

Collected and potted up showing the current front.

An Eastern Hemlock Story and a Lesson Learned

Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) is rarely seen as bonsai because good material is hard to find. They bark up slowly, and grow in shady protected environments where exciting stunted material is rarely found. I’ve only seen two really good pieces of Eastern Hemlock yamadori that impressed me. One is dead now, and I have been trying (unsuccessfully) to buy the other one for awhile. I’ve never seen a mature and refined T. canadensis bonsai.

This Tsuga was one of the first decent trees I collected, back in 2007. It was growing in a dark understory near a trail were it was getting battered and bruised by passing vehicles. It has the beginnings of mature bark which is a sign of some age. Ring counts on a cut branch lead me to think the tree is 40-50 years old.

It had a shallow root system growing in mostly leaf mold, and I took home a mostly intact rootball. It grew happily in the moldy compost for 3 years, sending out 3 extensions every season. The tree seemed very strong.

Then, I had the bright idea to try and get it in a training pot and some coarse bonsai soil. The tree HATED it. Its growth slowed down, and the apex started to die back. It almost looked like a fungal attack, but whatever it was I am convinced that it was a symptom of a more fundamental problem – the soil mix.

The lesson here it to grow T. canadensis in a fine, organic mix. It may be the low pH that they like. Many people know this already (see Nick Lenz Bonsai from the Wild 2nd Ed.) but I was stubborn and in a phase where I though “bonsai soil is better for everything”.

So this spring I raked about 80% of the bonsai grit out of the pot (without removing the tree). The root system looked pathetic. I packed in sifted top soil and hopefully this will help the tree to recover. If it doesn’t help, I am about ready to throw in the towel with this one.

As a side notes, T. canadensis heals over wounds incredibly well. For such a delicate conifer, you would not expect it. This makes them suitable for grafting. The first branch on the right near the top of this tree is a successful one-point graft.