Losing trees: The Ben Oki Azalea

I have read that Kurume azalea are good for 20-30 years as bonsai, and this one has been containerized now for 20. Unfortunately, I’ve known it wasn’t long for the road for the last few years. I’m glad to have enjoyed it in a bonsai pot since I styled it with Ben Oki over 15 years ago. But the trunks have large dead spots in the back, and have gradually rotted away until some right-side branches critical to the current design have died. So this is the last time to enjoy the show of this twin-trunked azalea. I am satisfied that I have done well by the design set by Mr. Oki all those years ago in an Iowa machine shop, but bonsai is a 4-dimension art, with that 4th dimension being time, which takes its toll on everything.

So here is the show, as of 4/15:

Here are areas of dieback on the right side:

And even more pronounced from this angle:

Here is a shot from below, showing the relative health of the left side.

Here is a shot from the back showing the rotting trunks.

If I simply reduce the dead spots on the right, I’m delaying the inevitable. I have often wondered if the left side was strong enough to be interesting on its own. Especially because the right side has a couple very straight sections with really no taper.

Here are a couple views of a potential new front.

While the dead and dying branches needed to go, I went slowly with the hope of finding a stopping point which would preserve as much of the tree as I could.

Top first:

A little further…

I considered working with what remained above, but the right trunk’s flaws were on full display, so…

Leaving us with this potential front:

Next order of business is to remove the flowers. I like the idea of retaining the leftward-movement.

Now, a good first round of pruning.

And some wiring is started

Continuing, photo-check, edited to show some adjustments needed:

Adjustments made…

Pretty sure it hasn’t been repotted in 4 years, and the roots were a matted mess, which required an hour of combing and hosing to reduce. Then, I made some wedge-shaped cuts to work new soil into, and provide space for new roots to grow.

Soil is Kanuma and lava, 2:1.

Pot by Byron Myrick. It has the right feel, but is slightly too shallow to get the perfect angle. Next time…

The planting angle I wanted was tricky because the root ball was so dense, so I settled for a compromise. Next repotting, I’ll try to get it tilted up just a bit more like this:

A lot can happen in 5 Years

Looking at this night shot, I was struck by the quantity of ramification developed over the last few years. Often when we look at trees, it’s easy to forget how far they’ve come over time. It can be valuable to look back to see how trees have improved…or digressed over the last few years. It helps reflect back on pruning techniques, mistakes, “should’ves”, and good calls.

First, an overlay of the same group of trees, 5 years earlier…2016.

Chinese Quince, lots of pruning and multiple rounds of wiring has resulted in a denser and quiet canopy.

Ume, not known for developing fine ramification, has also grown a nice, twiggy top

Hawthorn. This 5-year span is not as impressive because in 2016 it was still growing out after significant work in 2014, reducing several primary trunks. The recent shot is a bit messy but the work this year was to restore order: pruning for taper and getting branch clusters down to pairs, wiring out.

Shimpaku has gotten softer, more padding and more rounded. I have also changed the trunk to more upright, and the foliage movement more toward the left:

JBP, lengthened the second branch up on the left. This tree has gotten densely ramified, and the tasks over the last few years have been around maintaining good density.

Nursery stock Shimpaku, subject of a recent pots, shows how much can be achieved in a short time with Shimpaku junipers.

Taking it a step further, corkbark JBP, ‘Taihei’. It resents work, so I am taking it slow…fall pruning only, light wiring, and guy-wires. It has come along better in the last few years after recognizing how slow I need to go.

A couple trident maples. Notice how quickly the last step of making a bonsai, twiggy branches, can be achieved with these:

Japanese black pine with lots of flaws in the upper trunk. Slowly but surely the branch development is coming along. I still have confidence this sill be a great bonsai one day. I love the bark.

Itoigawa, denser and wider. I really need to get around to working on this one again.

Japanese Black Pine winter work

Wired in 2019, repotted in March 2020, candle-pruned in July 2020. Here is how it looked in December 2020:

Time to clean up moss from the soil and lower trunk as well.

After pulling old needles, balancing strength by also pulling some new needles, and reducing shoots down to evenly-sized pairs. Upper part complete:

Lower branches complete:

Needle pulling and balancing complete, and moss cleaned up:

Night shot shows the profile nicely:

Since it had grown considerably after it was wired last, it was time to remove the wires and prepare it to wire again. Wires removed, and soil top-dressed:

Now the tree is ready for a new round of wiring…which was done by Bjorn at Eisei-en in early February. Here is the result of this round:

The plan is to allow the lower branches to continue extending to accent the trunk: