The Beauty of Age

Today our society is obsessed with the beauty of youth. Whether it’s the beauty of a young person, fresh with the promise of a life yet to live or the crisp freshness of a lithe new sports car, or perhaps the neat regimented beauty of a newly landscaped garden. Youth is simple, shallow and predictable.

Age, on the other hand brings complications. Our bodies begin to change and that early sparkle of youth quickly fades, the car becomes unreliable and the garden unruly. Beauty in the fashionable sense is left behind. I would however suggest that with age comes great beauty but in a different way. With age comes knowledge, experience and a depth of character that cannot be easily won. With age comes the understanding that we cannot win every battle but must adapt and change.

I feel that our painstaking art of bonsai fly’s in the face of our modern way of living. In an ‘instant’ society bonsai presents us with a path that cannot be hurried, there is no instant gratification. Each step has to be taken in its turn and shortcuts will, in time, return us to the beginning to start again.

When I began my bonsai journey nearly 20 years ago I sought to change my trees outward appearance… which is the whole point. However I was unaware of how much my Bonsai would change me. Before pursuing bonsai I was drag racing and tearing about on huge motorcycles and so my first few years cultivating trees was very frustrating. They move so slowly!

The story of this English elm (ulmus procera) probably started 60 or 70 years ago. Around 1993 our paths crossed in a car park beside a local pathway. Beneath the rubbish and old tyres I perceived a glimmer of magic in the crusty old stump. The tree was swiftly removed and headed off for an adventure. Despite my clumsy unskilled attentions the tree survived it’s move and the following spring began to grow well in it’s large mica pot…. a small step up from the car park.

The tree was getting along just fine but I lost interest after reading an article in a book on bonsai that stated deciduous trees and deadwood just don’t mix. Today I know differently but as an impressionable beginner I was easily swayed. My local landscape features a great many large old deciduous trees, practically every one shows some deadwood areas, particularly hollow trunks and broken branches. This convinced me to persevere with my elm….. thankfully.

The trunk of the tree had large areas of soft rotten wood surrounded by heavy callous tissue. Obviously it had been cut down to the ground a long time ago. I decided to remove the degraded wood, and so using a besom style wire brush on a low speed flexible shaft and with the aid of a vacuum cleaner I started work. I just removed the rotten wood back to hard material, no carving for shape or texture was done. Much of the wood was waterlogged so I allowed time for this to dry before proceeding. Over the winter of 1995 the work was completed and the tree began to take on a very interesting character with it’s deep dark hollows and swirling bark. At this time I pruned back the long juvenile growths that came with the tree to form the basis of trunk and branches. Now I had a very interesting trunk but no bonsai in sight.

The next 3 years I allowed the tree to grow unchecked all year and then pruned the extensions heavily in autumn. By 1999 I had the tree in a much smaller training pot and he was becoming quite twiggy. In August I defoliated the tree and for the first time applied wire to form some basic shape. When the leaves re-emerged it became apparent that the elm was going to be a nice bonsai tree. In my ignorance I figured that another couple of years would see the tree ‘finished’. In 2002 I planted the tree in a custom made pot by David Jones of Walsall Studio Ceramics and figured the tree was complete….not so!

In the U.K there are several hundred different and extremely localised forms of elm, most are naturally occurring hybrids. This tree is a type specific to East Anglia. Defined by short stubby slightly hairy leaves, it has fine twigging and short internodes. Large old trees have a very unique rough bark. This type is considered to be one of the original native forms of ulmus in Britain.

It has taken me a lot of years to understand the growth habit of this tree. It only takes one season to fill it’s pot with roots. However I have noticed that re-potting too frequently encourages the tree to throw out long juvenile shoots. Leaving the tree slightly pot bound slows the growth to a more even tempo which helps with building ramification. This tree is always strong and responds to leaf pruning very well, however I have not found the technique particularly beneficial in increasing ramification. Now that the tree is becoming quite twiggy I allow it to make just four leaves before pruning back to just one or two. I constantly remove any large leaves that grow, also any suckers that pop up from the trunk.

By summer of 2007 the tree was looking very good, with dense ramification. However I was not satisfied because it always looked unkempt and scruffy. I decided to defoliate the tree and give it it’s second wiring. This time it was only the twigging that needed shaping with fine wire…. and a lot of it. The tree has many small branches. The work was carried out in August and once the leaves re-emerged the elm had a much neater appearance with good open spaces. Elm is very flexible but the ramification does not thicken like Chinese elm. I expect the wire to remain in place until August 2008.

It took a lot longer than I expected to develop this tree. Much of the delay was doubtless down to my inept fumblings. I now understand that a tree is never complete. The pictures from 2007 show the tree in it’s best form to date, however there are still many areas to improve and so the work goes on. I have made many mistakes and wasted a lot of time but, the tree has forgiven me.

With the experience I gained from cultivating this tree I have found it possible to shorten the timescale in developing elms. The important thing is to have a plan at the very outset and to understand the work required at every step. Being too impatient at the beginning will invariably cost us dearly further down the line. We must always be guided by careful observation and analysis. We have to learn to ‘read’ our tree and then act accordingly. I think it is better to work hand in hand with the tree, only taking steps forward when he is ready. At every stage we must give deference to our material. Any tree will take time to heal and readjust following a period of work and we must make allowance for this. There is a big difference between surviving and thriving.

So after 14 years my elm has changed a great deal…. and so have I. The only difference is that the tree is becoming more beautiful, I am not! The tree has changed me as much as I have changed it. I have learned the value of patience. It’s a great experience to stand before an audience and transform a tree in a couple of hours but I now understand that bonsai is what occurs BETWEEN the times we work on our trees. All we can do is point a tree in the right direction, the real magic and beauty comes from within the tree and in its reaction to our crude actions. The most valuable tool in the development of bonsai is TIME. Age does indeed bring beauty.

collected elm for bonsai

This elm was collected from a local car park where it languished amongst heaps of rubbish and old tyres in 1994. I had read that deadwood has no place in deciduous bonsai but just had to give this stump a chance.

elm bonsai

(Green leaves) By 2000 the branches were forming up very well. The deadwood areas are all natural. Work consisted of using a wire brush on a flex shaft to remove all of the rotten areas before preserving with teak oil. The trunk is a maze of passageways all interconnecting.

bonsai elm in Autumn

Autumn 2002. The tree has settled very well, tertiary branching is forming nicely. The final pot is by Walsall Studio. A slight change of front is planned for 2003.

elm bonsai

“The tree in summer 2004”


elm summer pruning

Beginning summer leaf pruning.

This is going to need some wiring soon

This is going to need some wiring soon.

fine wiring and new leaf growth

Summer 2007 after fine wiring and new leaf growth

Mature summer image 2007

Mature summer image 2007

trunk detail

Trunk detail.

Elm and Graham Potter after 15 years

Nearly 15 years together

trunk detail

Trunk detail

The pot harmonizes perfectly with the tree

The pot harmonizes perfectly with the tree

elm autumn colour

Autumn colour 2007

Graham Potter