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The following article was written by well known South African bonsai artist and author, Dr Carl Morrow, and details the 22 year history of a Chinese maple bonsai. I am excited to present this content to you as I am sure you will enjoy reading and learn from it.


For about 20 years during the 1980s and 1990s, the bonsai clubs of Cape Town had the opportunity to visit a farm near Franshoek to collect Chinese maples (Acer buergerianum) that had naturally seeded into the area surrounding a grove of trees reportedly planted by Cecil John Rhodes.   Most of the large trunked maples seen in Cape Town come from this seedling stock.

Chinese maple bonsai yamadori

The tree before collection, 1996.

The tree featured here was collected in 1996.   I have always been interested in finding unusual or striking trees to be developed into my bonsai. After battling through a dense mass of seedling trees with Len Redfern, we came across a medium sized sapling with an about 7cm trunk that had fallen over some years previously. The branches had grown up off the raft to take over as new main trunks. At the base of the tree there was a short section of original trunk with a strong new shoot growing just above the base of the tree. I fell in love the moment I saw the extreme curves that had developed in the tree. We dug the tree out and I took the base while Len took the rest of the raft.

Chinese maple raft style bonsai

The whole raft, 1996.

The beginning

Initial development

Collected chinese maple

The tree in a pot, 1996. 

I planted the stump back into its original orientation and sealed the large cuts with Japanese cut paste which encourged callousing over the cut surfaces. I then set about developing continuation coils in the trunk along with densely budded side branches. At that time I had found out how problematic it was to allow primary branches to grow, wire them into shape and then expect interesting ramification to develop from the widely spaced nodes down the branch axes. This meant that I did an aggressive winter prune each year to get a series of short internodes.

Chinese maple yamadori development

After 4 years of development, 2000.

Primary Branches

The mistake I made was to only allow single primary branches to develop rather than multiple forked arrays of branching away from the trunk. A branch structure of a primary branch with secondary branching coming off this main axis in a herringbone type pattern was taught to us in the past but this results in an artificial branch development that makes the tree appear quite young. I also focused on getting the branches to angle downwards rather than allowing an undulating up and down movement that would have allowed a canopy to develop rather than a defined apex on the tree.  

Chinese maple bonsai primary branch structure

The single axis branches being trained downwards

Improving the nebari

While the branches were being developed, I also worked on the root base of the tree (nebari). Seven seedling trees were in-arch or approach grafted at the base of the trunk. This made the root base much more interesting rather than the original, flat view of the trunk being framed by thick surface roots on the left and right of the trunk.   When grafting roots you need to be very careful to have the final level of the base identified so that the grafts are neither too high nor too low on the tree.

Grafting roots onto Chinese maple bonsai

The two grafted roots after some years of healing, 2005.

Read more about grafting on Chinese maples here

Container selection

Finding the right pot has been an enjoyable, 20 year process that will probably continue to evolve going forward.   It started with a deep, oval grey Toen pot with cloud feet that was the first pot that I ordered from a Japanese catalogue.

Chinese maple Toen bonsai container

Toen pot after ten years of training, July 2006.

It was bought in about 1992 through Shibui Bonsai Kai in Johannesburg who was importing pots from Tokoname in Japan.   The tree to develop well but the pot was always a too deep for the tree.   I then found a brown-grey, wide, shallow Chinese oval with an interesting thunder border pattern around the middle of the pot wall.   The shape and depth were good and the pattern created uniqueness but both the colour and deep detail made the pot a bit too powerful for the tree.

Chinese maple bonsai

Chinese Pot after seventeen years, August 2013.  

Then on 25 April 2013 another parcel arrived from Tokoname, but in this case it was posted directly to me and in it was a 41 cm white, glazed Yamafusa oval.

Yamafusa potted Chinese maple

Yamafusa pot after eighteen years, September 2014. Also note the discoloration of front left branch.

Carl Morrow chinese maple autumn leaf

The Trident Maple in Autumn colours.

I am very happy with the tree-pot combination and, interestingly, the pot does seem to be losing some of its new glossiness already. 

The tree developed very well and has become quite famous in Cape Town.   It has been awarded solitaire status at the Cape Bonsai Kai (3 times winning its category and then scoring above 80% in its last show, picture taken by Terry Erasmus). Only later have I become aware of the errors in design and development.

Carl Morrow Chinese Maple Award

Coiled Maple at 2013 CBK show, best tree on show. 

Read more about container selection here.


How has my bonsai art and thinking changed in this time?

When the maple was collected, I was 24, studying at university with no children or house and still staying at home.   I am now 46, paying a bond, married and happily raising two children.   Clearly, my perspective and understanding of the world has changed dramatically and this naturally feeds through to my bonsai.

Seeing the change and evolution that has happened raises the rather difficult philosophical problem of only being able to apply your current knowledge and skills to your trees. Over time these skills should improve and your outlook can change quite substantially resulting in what was once an ideal outcome or vision becoming obsolete and substandard.   The bonsai community also changes over time.   These changes will drive the change of what a “perfect tree” should look like.

What do you do in this situation?

Do you conserve your tree as a milestone in your bonsai development or do you periodically totally redesign the tree (if it is possible) to fit with your current thinking.   Following the second path will mean that the redesign cycle will continue to occur time and time again.   The third option is to sell the tree and find another one that fits better with your current interest and skill!   From distant observation of bonsai in Japan, it seems that mature bonsai are often traded and frequently redesigned which constantly adds to the beauty and character of the mature trees.   Part of the driver is this is that a Kokufu winning tree (Japan’s premier bonsai exhibition) cannot be entered in the competition again until it has been substantially redesigned.

In this tree, I achieved ramification and branch character not seen in many bonsai 10 to 15 years ago.   We are now so powerfully influenced through access to online knowledge and by the change towards more naturalistic trees that show the character of their species that I am no longer very comfortable with the tree.   One of the nicknames for the tree is the “Pine-Maple” and this is a very good description of what I have done.   The tree has a strong, single trunk line with relatively thin branches have been trained downwards into very neat triangular shape – A pine tree!

The other problem that has developed over a number of years is the small, but important branch on the front left of the tree is declining in strength.   It grew off the trunk at a strange angle and this unnatural angle seems to be choking its health now.

How can this tree now be changed?

I have invested so much time and effort into the tree that it is difficult to open my eyes to see what the possibilities are.   It will be very hard to get away from the single trunk line and so I think the changes need to happen with the branches.   I need to re grow most of the branches to get a tree that has a more upwards and rounder look than the current pine shape.   The position of the branches is generally good but they need pruning back to the first twig ramification to re develop the branches in a more reticulate, twiggy manner allowing them to rise up above the plane of the current branches so that space is more naturally filled around the tree.   

As I have said I don’t have a clear vison of what this will look like and so the first step will be to sit, contemplate the tree now during winter and I will draw different options to see how it could be developed into a more naturalistic design.

Wish me luck!

Read more about growing Chinese maples as bonsai here.

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