This tree was collected ca. 1995 by John Biel in preparation for the IBC ’97 convention in Toronto. Dozens of cedars and larches were collected to be used as workshop material for that event, and afterwards they were dispersed around North America with their new owners. If you’ve seen or heard of a thuja or larix in the USA that was “collected in Canada some time ago”, there is a fair chance that it was collected by Reiner Goebel or John Biel in the early ’90s in preparation for the convention. John and Reiner are two of the old guard of the Toronto bonsai scene.
Marc Noelanders styled this larch during a workshop at IBC ’97 and the new owner took it home. Unfortunately the owner passed away a year later and Reiner Goebel inherited the tree.
Here is the oldest picture I have of the tree in 1998.
The tree developed quickly in Reiner’s hands – here it is in 2004:
In 2006 it was potted into an outstanding Horst Heinzlreiter pot. At this point the tree was near its prime, with dense ramification.
Reiner is doing well, but as of this year is completely retired from bonsai. I bought this tree from him in 2015 and it was in a state of decline. It had not been pruned for a few years and most of the interior growth was dead. The tree was also quite weak – I don’t think it had been repotted since the previous image in 2006 (9 years prior).
The best features of this tree are the stunning old bark and the exceptional nebari (collected larches with good nebari are very rare). To highlight the elegant trunk and delicate bark, I removed the majority of the old low branches which had gotten too thick. This was a difficult decision as the branches had incredible character and old bark all the way out to the secondary branches. However, major changes were necessary in order to come up with a design that brings out the key features of the tree and is sustainable for many years into the future.
A few weeks ago I sat down with this tree and did some rough wiring. This is the best solution I could come up with. I’m pretty sure it isn’t better than the original design, but the important thing is this tree can be maintained in this image for a long time. I would really like to add a secondary trunk on the left side to make it a twin trunk, however it will be difficult to find a small larch which has comparable bark characteristics. Next year it will be planted either in a nanban-style container or on a flat stone.
Most of the old crusty larches I collect need grafting. It seems the older they are, the farther the living foliage is from the interesting part of the trunk. Three thread grafts were started on this larch in spring 2014 and all three of them failed this summer (despite not yet being separated from the donor branch).
I’m not sure why they failed, but I think it might have had something to do with long period of time elapsed. Ideally, once started, a thread graft will grow rapidly and then take within a few months. Unfortunately, these grafts hardly elongated last year therefore they had no change of reaching the thickness required for fusion until they really started to take off this year. But in July of this year when they should have been fusing, they were instead girdled and died. This is purely anecdotal, but I believe that the callus that formed around the edges of the drilled hole was somehow too hardened-off or otherwise too old to readily form a graft union with the threaded branches by the time they were thick enough to do so. Or maybe the drilled hole didn’t form a callus at all.
Anyway, they failed and I needed to re-graft. Late summer is not a good time for thread grafting larch, so I tried a traditional approach graft instead.
The phrase “bonsai is not a rescue mission” is sometimes used to discourage eager bonsai enthusiasts from trying to make a bonsai from every plant they find. Instead, we should focus on the best material we can possibly get our hands on, thus increasing our chances of making something we can be proud of.
Sometimes, however, bonsai really is a rescue mission. Story time!
Last August I responded to an online ad where someone was selling their collection. Not knowing what to expect from the vague description and two blurry pictures of some tropicals, I arrived surprised to see a very old and once impressive bonsai collection in its final death throes. This elderly gentleman had been doing bonsai quietly in his backyard for 30-40 years, away from the clubs and shows, and now was in the predicament of having to sell everything due to failing health.
He had (understandably) put off selling them for years, but in those last few years the trees suffered greatly. To make matters worse, everything was planted in pretty much pure topsoil and was weak to begin with, therefore many were unable to handle the stresses of erratic watering.
Some of the tougher species were still hanging in there, but other more finicky ones like this impressive Japanese white pine had no chance.
After much haggling I went home with two larches, a ginkgo, and a Japanese maple – three very tough species that had managed to survive but were now in serious need of rehabilitation. This was August 2014 and some of the trees were already showing fall colours- A sign of definite stress.
I’m happy to report that all four trees survived the winter and were completely barerooted and repotted this spring. They seem to be doing well and I anticipate that they will have recovered their strength by the end of this growing season.
If you follow the traditional guidelines, the best time to wire and repot Larix laricina is when the spring buds are just starting to open. This is usually the most practical time to unwire larches too, because around here it is the only time they are without needles and not frozen in the ground. This “spring buds just starting to open” window can be very short – often just two weeks in mid to late April. Needless to say, if you have a good number of larches like I do, spring gets pretty busy. Add to that repotting a couple dozen more trees, building a new bench set up in my yard, and a couple of collecting trips, and you have an insanely busy last few weeks.
Here is one larch that I recently worked on. This tree changed hands a couple times in the last few years, and I snatched it up almost exactly one year ago as soon as I had the opportunity. I was collected about 20 years ago yet has spent most of that time in bonsai limbo, without a coherent design. Most of the finer tertiary branches used to create this structure were grown last year.The tree was also gently repotted into a simple Yamaaki container that suits the semi-cascade style pretty well.
After a few more years of ramification development, this will be a killer chuhin sized larch, and I am proud to be its new caretaker.
This old American larch (tamarack) bonsai, along with two others, was stolen from a private collection in Toronto on June 23rd, 2014.
If you have seen this distinct bonsai, please call your local police department and/or contact the owner Elisabeth Leslie ewleslie[at]icloud.com
The bonsai community is tight not only in Toronto but worldwide. Hopefully we can use this to our advantage to help get this lovely tree back to the owner.
I bought this tree in December 2012. Being an established forest, it had some nice character but also some major challenges. Besides the unsuitable pot, the forest had far too much symmetry and the branches were too “stubby”, for lack of a better word. The variation in the trunks (diameter and height) is limited, Some of these things would be easy to correct, but others more difficult or impossible. The year 2013 was spent just growing it out and lightly pruning to develop a more elegant branch structure.
As a side note, this tree spend the entire winter out on a bench completely unprotected. This was the coldest winter in southern Ontario in over 20 years with many days in the -20 Celsius range and a few in the -30s. Fortunately there was a lot of snow and this larch was right at home.
The first step for this year was to wire everything. This probably took 12 hours, spread out over several days. Conifer forests just take so much wiring, it can be overwhelming.
The next step was to plant it in a more suitable container. This slab was custom made for the forest by local potter Geoff Lloyd. One thing we neglected to think about was the front of the slab. The slab was designed for a forest pointing to the right, yet this forest obviously points to the left. As a result I ended up using the “back” of the slab as the front. It is still an attractive side, but has a slightly less interesting profile than the other side.
The next step was removing the tree from the old pot and raking out the perimeter of the root ball. The bottom of the rootball was not touched at all. The perimeter needed to be raked out quite a bit so it would fit within the boundaries of the narrower new slab.
A muck mixture was made to mold the rootball within the contours of the new slab. The mixture was something like 2/3rds humus, 1/3rd chopped sphagnum, and a cup or two of akadama dust, plus water as needed.
After mucking the perimeter, the rootball was completely mossed. The purpose of this was mainly to prevent erosion of the freshly worked rootball, but of course there is an aesthetic benefit as well. Besides the muck, no new bonsai soil was added. The roots still have plenty of room to grow in the original root mass. Larches are perfectly happy with dense matted root balls with scant amounts of soil. It will be a long time before I need to refresh the soil again.
Now that the tree was in its new container, the branches could be placed. Many guy wires were used to reposition the trunks. Again, the goal was to give this tree a definite leftward movement. This was accomplished by pulling most of the trunks to the left and extending out the leftward growing branches while compacting those growing to the right side. I find forests to be immensely challenging as there are so many design considerations. The branches and trunks were adjusted again, and again over several sessions. I am still not 100% happy with the design but I think it is the best I could do without removing or adding trunks. That is still a future option, but for now the work is done.
Thanks for reading. Don’t acquire too many forests if you value your sanity!
This is a busy time of year. Once the ground thaws the larches start to move almost immediately. Then, you only have a few of weeks to get all the wiring done. This is a main disadvantage of wintering larches in the ground.
This small forest and a much larger one have taken up a lot of my free time over the last week or so.
The other deciduous trees have already lost their leaves, but the tamaracks are just reaching their peak. They produce the most incredible golden yellow, which my cell phone camera cannot even come close to reproducing.
Here is another new American Larch (Larix laricina) forest I picked up at a recent club meeting from a friend who was selling off some trees at bargain prices.
It is not a small forest – the tallest tree measures about 70 cm. Nevertheless I can move it around pretty easily. It was assembled from young collected trees about 10 years ago. They are starting to show some maturity although it will be many more years before they start to show flaky bark.
The pot is obviously not ideal. Some sort of slab or very shallow unglazed pot would be an improvement, although it will not be cheap to find something of the right size.
Lots of wiring needs to be done as well, and the positioning of some of the smaller trees needs to be tweaked. There are 12 trees, but the planting maintains some asymmetry so I’m not sure if it is necessary to add or remove a tree. The thing that bothers me most is that there are too many trees of the same diameter in the right side of the planting.
Overall I think the basic structure of the forest is well done, and it will be fun to work on over the next few years.
This tree must be one of the great American bonsai masterpieces…. although some may not call it bonsai.
This is ‘Penelope’ by Nick Lenz. Some decades ago, Nick got the idea to plant a young larch (Larix laricina) on a cheap concrete garden statue, and ended up producing something truly amazing.
She is named after the faithful wife of Odysseus who patiently waited many years for the return of her husband in Homer’s Odyssey. Here she is lounging under the semi-shade of early spring larch foliage.
Penelope was recently on display at a bonsai exhibition at the McMichael Gallery in Toronto.I posted a picture of her in a recent post, although I feel she is deserving of a little more attention.
I know that this is a composition loved (and hated) by many, and I am fortunate that I get to see her pretty often since she was deported to a private collection in Toronto some years ago. This post is for everyone who has not seen her since she was published in Nick Lenz’s book Bonsai from the Wild (get the book if you don’t have it). She certainly has grown since then. If you can’t see her in person, hopefully this video is the next best thing.
Don’t forget to change the viewing resolution to 720p.
This ramrod straight larch has a fascinating twist in the lifeline of the tree. I saw this tree while out on a hike and was perplexed by the growth of the trees in that immediate vicinity. Many of them (living and dead) within a small area (about 100 square meters) had an intense spiraling grain for no apparent reason. It must have something to do with the way the wind howls through that little clearing… or perhaps it is something else, beyond my understanding. Nevertheless, it is interesting how such a dynamic live vein can give life to an otherwise dull tree. It would make a unique bunjin-gi. This guy was not collected, however. I don’t have permission to collect where these trees are growing, but I still like to look 🙂
This unusual but impressive American Larch (Larix laricina), aka Tamarack was grown from scratch by the eccentric American bonsai artist Nick Lenz. The tree is currently owned by a good friend of mine, who has been a student of Nick’s for several years. He estimates that it took Nick about 20 years to produce this trunk from a collected whip. American larch with taper like this are rare to find as yamadori (but certainly not unheard of).
This tree is a few years into its development as a bonsai, and still has a ways to go. The unusual “thrusting” branch inside of the curve may seem unsual to some people, but it is a very common sight in Nick’s trees.
My friend has far too many bonsai, so I am happy to help him out during the busy times of year (I feel like I have far too few bonsai!). I eagerly accepted when he asked me to wire this tree for him (as long as he provided the wire :)).
In the Toronto area, heavy freezes are to be expected until late March/early April. As a result, this tree was wired, but the branches were not set. Without winter protection, there is always a risk of freezing temperatures damaging recently bent branches (even with larch – one of the most cold-hardy species on the planet).