• Andrew Robson

Nursery Series (Stewartia part 1)

Korean Stewartia (Stewartia koreana)

Over the weekend I purchased this Korean Stewartia at a local nursery. It intrigued me not only because it was a species of Stewartia I wasn't familiar with, but because of its brilliant fall color. Stewartia is one of my favorite species for bonsai... its beautiful buds and interesting bark make for gorgeous winter appreciation, simple flowers and lush green foliage make for a delightful spring/summer, and stunning fall foliage creates an outstanding performance in autumn.

Nursery material is quite difficult to use when creating a bonsai, however, many people don't have access to quality bonsai material ... making it the only suitable choice for those hoping to build a collection. Plants sold for gardens at nurseries are grown with different goals in mind than plants grown specifically for bonsai. Often times pieces of nursery material are grown past the point of usability bonsai, having irreversible flaws built into the structures of the plants. Material selection at a garden center is a great challenge, but that challenging aspect can be rewarding when a suitable tree is found after long spans of time searching for something beautiful.

When shopping for trees to use as bonsai at a nursery one of the most important things to keep an eye out for is low branching. The Stewartia above not only had nice low branching, but also an elegant trunk line with no major flaws.

To begin, the Stewartia was defoliated in order to make clear and calculated pruning decisions...

cutting along the petiole

Because the leaves were about a week from falling naturally, they were still holding on snug to the branch. To minimize damage, the leaves were all individually cut on the petiole.

after leaf is cut

process is repeated

the buds and twig are now leafless without any damage... time to do the rest!

after defoliation

Now that all of the leaves have been removed, we can clearly see the structure and make calculated and precise decisions about where to prune and how to develop this piece of nursery material as a bonsai. Because the first branch is fairly high on the trunk (by bonsai standards, very low for nursery standards) a large bonsai will be the endgame for the size of this tree.

First step, find our main trunkline!

first major consideration: competing trunk lines

With a bonsai, we want to see one dominating trunk line. This tree had 3 competing for that role, so one was reduced to become a secondary line, one was removed (leaving a stub this time of year) and one was left untouched to thicken up to be the primary line.

competing trunk line is removed (leaving a stub this time of year)

The middle choice was removed because it had the worst (no) movement. One alternative to having just a single trunkline is to have a fork, where a dominant line is supported by a second submissive line. This structural design is quite common with stewartia bonsai, so rather than just removing the next competing line, a main line was chosen to grow out (the right side) and the other was left to become a secondary line (the left side).

secondary trunk line (left side) is reduced back by pruning to keep it smaller than the main line

other branches off the main trunk line are pruned back to introduce taper

new possible front choice, main trunkline is left untouched to thicken and develop

This piece of nursery stock needs years of work to transition it into life as a bonsai, but this first working helped to hit the reset button and set it on a path towards greatness. Deciduous bonsai lack the beautiful before-and-after sessions that their coniferous counterparts have so expertly mastered, however the culmination of simple work like this year after year yield outstanding results over time.

The next step for this tree is a spring repotting, where the organic-based garden soil will be removed and replaced with a volcanic substrate creating a sustainable future for bonsai culture.

Stay tuned this spring for part 2 in this nursery series!

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