Ulmus parvifolia, commonly known as the Chinese elm or Lacebark Elm, is a species native to China, India, Taiwan, Japan, North Korea, and Vietnam. It has been described as “one of the most splendid elms, having the poise of a graceful Nothofagus“. A small to medium deciduous, semi-deciduous (rarely semi-evergreen) tree growing to 10–18 m (30–60 ft) tall and 15-20 m (50-70 ft) wide with a slender trunk and crown. The leathery, lustrous green single-toothed leaves are small, 2–5 cm long by 1–3 cm broad, and often retained as late as December or even January in Europe and North America. The apetalous wind-pollinated perfect flowers are produced in early autumn, small and inconspicuous. The fruit is a samara, elliptic to ovate-elliptic, 10–13 mm long by 6–8 mm broad. The samara is mostly glabrous, the seed at the centre or toward the apex, borne on a stalk 1-3 mm in length; it matures rapidly and disperses by late autumn. The trunk has a handsome, flaking bark of mottled greys with tans and reds, giving rise to its other common name, the Lacebark Elm, although scarring from major branch loss can lead to large canker-like wounds.
Propagation of elms is easy as they develop from roots, cuttings, seed and layers very easily. In this article it is root cuttings that I wish to concentrate on. There is no faster way to develop an elm bonsai. In China elm bonsai are developed from root cutting and developed by the thousands. The S-curve elm seen in bonsai shops around the country as well as the big box store is grown for export only. Somehow the Chinese felt that us westerners liked this movement thing in bonsai. Lucky bamboo caught on and so elms should be styled likewise.
The root cuttings are collected in the winter and sown in plastic pot. As they grow they are switched over to ceramic bonsai pots and they receive the rest of the training in these pots thru shipment to places all over the world. It is hard to comprehend just how many are grown there. These photo’s were smuggled out of China for a friend of mine in the bonsai nursery trade. He has allowed me to share them here.
At Brussel’s bonsai this would be about the $800.00 stuff
These on the top shelf would be about $2500.00 at Brussel’s.
Big commercial nurseries like these in China use lots of pots for export. Most of these come from Lotus Pottery.
Sorry about the quality of the photo’s but I thought it would be fun to see how this is done on a large-scale in a foreign country.
Now we switch gears and come back to America to see how it is done on a much smaller scale and with a little more intimacy. Up close and personal. All photo’s from now on are by Justin Case. Elms are one of the type of trees that grow well from root cuttings. The new buds emerge right from the cut end of the root. It is this ability that allows one to propagate from roots since interesting shapes and large sizes can be cut from the roots and struck. Traditional cuttings taken from hardwood branches of other trees always yields a rather straight uninteresting start which will always require some sort of chop later to create taper. By starting short elm roots and leaving only the very tip showing from the top of the soil, the start to convincing taper can be created from day one.
During the production of this large cork elm, I reserved this first branch stub since it was pretty large and I wanted to have a larger branch to start with.
The new shoots came right out of the end of the cut branch and I was able to develop from there.
Roots are taken from larger elm trees in spring during repotting. The roots are cut away and thrown into a bucket of water to be processed later.
The roots are taken from the water and trimmed up and cut shorter or planted with long trunks for literati or cascade forms in mind.
Even Neagari (exposed root) forms can be saved from the tangled roots. These make interesting Penjing subjects or creative shohin.
Large roots can give a good start to larger trunked specimans and can save years of time. The root may be only a year old but they grow so fast and plump that large tree seem older for the ease of one year old roots.
Once the roots are planted it becomes a waiting game. Then soon, the small buds begin to appear at the cut ends of the root. they start as small pin pricks of green in the cambium area of the cut end.
Sometimes the entire cambium ring will turn green, during this time some or most of the buds will be rubbed off to allow one or two to grow strong. These shoots can grow and then leaders chosen later.
At the end of about three years the tops of the tree should be full of small branches. These should be pruned regularly to keep the plant compact. At the end of three years the plants are separated from each other in the large pot and planted out into clay pots on their own.
For the next three-years, regular pruning must take place many times during the year. It is very easy for the plants to get out of control and lose the “shohin” feel if they get too leggy.
The canopies can be hedge pruned to keep up with twiggyness. This is not so much because we are going to keep this ramification, it is because we need the choices for direction since all of the training will be by clip and grow. No wire.
Continue to prune for shape all year-long.
By the end of the fourth year they will be ready for a final prune for fall.
Even after I prune in fall I always get a flush of buds, that’s just the aggressiveness of the species.
At the start of spring of the fifth year the plants should look like this. All the twigs are cut off and choices for direction had been made in Fall. Now we will begin the canopy for the final product. This is when we will keep new secondaries and begin working on tertiaries.
Now the leaves come out and we can watch to see what they do and be ready to prune and keep direction. I had only eight to keep me busy but 8 is all I could handle. I wonder how many Chinamen it takes to keep those fields in check?
After the leaves harden off I cut again for shape. This time I have drilled holes around the soft clay pots for guy wires to ease branches into place for better shape. This works well with elms since they grow wood fast and will keep their shape in a matter of months.
This is the beginning of the sixth year, The training from hear on out is very light pruning just to fill in the canopies. I selected 8 pots from my shohin pot collection. They are a combination of Chinese and Japanese, some signed pots and a glazed Begei. (bottom left)
I prepare the pots with screen and wing dings. I bend them like this because I like the purchase the loops have against the pot on the root side.
Its been six years since the roots were taken and now they will undergo final shaping in the small pots that will slow them down considerably. I need the rest, these 8 have kept me hopping for the last six years.
Six years from gro-pots to sho-pots. Very fun and very fullfilling. It is a lot of fun to see a project all the way thru from beginning to end.