Collecting a Western redcedar for bonsai
On a whim, I attended a bonsai show in Sacramento last month (click here to read my post). The exotic-looking miniature trees really struck a chord in me, and I started to read up on bonsai. I’m still at the very beginning of what might end up being a life-long journey and I feel I need to learn a lot more before I even attempt to work on a living plant. However, when we were at my in-laws for Thanksgiving, I couldn’t help but notice the thousands (literally!) of saplings growing everywhere on their 2½ acre property. There is white pine (Pinus monticola) and Ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa), but above all there is Western redcedar (Thuja plicata).
As its Latin name already indicates, Western redcedar isn’t a true cedar (like Lebanon, Atlas, or Deodar) but rather an arborvitae. That’s why “redcedar” is spelled as one word rather than as two, as would be the case if it were a true cedar.
|A few of the many mature Western redcedars on my in-laws’ property|
While Western redcedar doesn’t seem to be used much as bonsai material, there are so many of them at my in-laws’ that I decided to collect two of them to experiment on down the line. (A close relative, eastern whitecedar, Thuja occidentalis, is a popular tree for bonsai on the East Coast and in Canada. If you’re curious to see what it can look like as a bonsai, go to the website of the Toronto Bonsai Society, click the Galleries button on the top and then click Cedar on the left.)
Picking likely candidates was actually the hardest part. One of the most important criteria for a bonsai is a strong, interesting trunk. I bypassed many saplings because their trunks were too spindly or ordinary and finally settled on two that had a relatively thick trunk relative to their size, with peeling bark and some scars to give them character.
|My first candidate, about 2 ft. tall with a trunk diameter of ½" at the base.|
I removed some of the rocks for better access.
As with any plants you did up in the wild, the goal is to remove a generously sized root ball that has as many fine feeder roots as possible. At least that is the theory. On my first sapling I ended up with hardly any feeder roots; I think they broke off as I rocked the tree out of the ground with the shovel. I was disappointed and felt guilty for potentially having killed a tree. I don’t know what its odds for survival are but it went into a bucket which I filled with native soil.
|Did I just kill this sapling?|
|I asked my mother-in-law to take a few photos of me digging. She ended up taking more than 70 so I combined them into a little movie.|
For my second tree, I picked a sapling that had good clearance on all sides, and I was more careful as I dug around it.
|My second candidate, 3 ft. tall with a trunk diameter of 1" at the base.|
In spite of recent rains, the soil below the top inch or two was completely dry and it fell off as I lifted the root ball out. While there aren’t as many roots as I had hoped for, it looks like there are enough for the tree to survive. Knock on wood!
|I was able to preserve what I hope are enough roots for the tree to survive|
The next time I attempt to dig up a tree at my in-laws’, especially a taller one with a thicker trunk, I’ll ask my father-in-law to fire up his backhoe. That should make it much easier to preserve as many roots as possible.
The next step now is to pamper these young trees until they show sign of new growth. Then I can begin to train them for bonsai. By then I will hopefully have taken a workshop and acquired more knowledge and skills.