From the Digest

Bonsai Expert Presents Intensive Workshop

PhotoBy David Wolfe (August 2009)
Photos by Ralph Olliges

New York bonsai expert Susan Amoy shared her obvious passion for succulent bonsai at the August 2009 HSCS meeting, where she described and diagrammed basic bonsai concepts as she demonstrated staging techniques at a rapid-fire pace.

As Amoy explained during her presentation at Missouri Botanical Garden, bonsai does not require special training, but a good “eye” for form and design is essential. Tools like basic pruners, pliers and wire cutters are sufficient to start, although segregating “good” tools from the everyday helps extend their lives.

Amoy said succulent bonsai offers options from simple designs to “more dramatic” and complex stagings. An understanding of the basic bonsai forms makes bonsai treatments easier. The shapes – formal upright, informal upright, slanted, semi-cascade and cascade – relate to the positioning of the plant’s main trunk. Whatever the form, the overall shape of the bonsai and its foliage should resemble an inverted cone.

In further explaining the art of succulent bonsai, Amoy said, “The pot is like the frame for the plant.” For upright plants, use low pots that show off the plant forms, she said. Use neutral pot colors to accentuate foliage. Consider pots with some color to complement flowers.

After studying the plant and the design options it presents, Amoy starts each staging by visually positioning the plant off center in a pot that complements its shape and culture requirements, then tying the plant securely into the pot using aluminum or copper wire of various gauges. Plant-appropriate soil mix and some top dressing complete the basic staging.

PhotoAmoy’s bonsai advice covered many topics. For example, choose a plant based first on its trunk, then the branches and sub-branches. When staging, be sure the trunk remains the main focal point. When trimming and shaping branches, “don’t pull on the wires, place them.” For most plants, use a slightly moist mix during initial work, then adjust watering relative to the shape and material of the new pot.

And don’t be afraid to add natural materials, Amoy said. When she repositioned Mike Hellmann’s Operculicaria decaryi nearly on its side in a new bonsai pot, she placed pieces of coral rock around the gnarled, exposed roots and stabilized them with quick-dry concrete dyed to match the rock. Amoy even wired a spiny opuntia cactus to a large rock and enhanced the appearance and functionality of the staging by shaping a “water dam” of “muck,” a mix of clay and soil.

Definitely think of initial restaging as “foundation work,” Amoy said. Such major changes can significantly impact plant growth and health. Bonsai plants also require ongoing shaping and trimming, and so may not be ready to show for two or three years. Patience is required.

Through presentations and workshops, Amoy is preaching the gospel of succulent bonsai to more traditional bonsai audiences. “When you say ‘succulent,’ most of them think of a jade plant,” she said. That leaves out a world of interesting plant material.

Bonsai is an ancient art form, yet “it evolves as our plants evolve,” Amoy said. The rules of bonsai can be stretched to include many succulents and even cacti.

That’s a good thing, she said, and over time, succulent fans and bonsai experts are discovering increasingly common ground. “Both groups are meshing and finding interest in each other,” Amoy said.