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Flowering Trees

by Frieda Mueller

Those purists who negate flowering trees as bonsai miss a great deal as, to paraphrase, one crowded hour of glorious bloom is worth a year without a shape. They have not all got such uninteresting shapes anyway, and it is a tremendous joy to bring them indoors and watch every moment of their fleeting beauty.

After many years of playing around, I have at last acquired a little knowledge and some common sense in growing them. As my experience is entirely restricted to the Western Cape, growers in other areas might have to modify potting times to suit local conditions. The general treatment for all flowering bonsai is the same.

Potting soil

Good coarse soil with plenty of sharp sand and a couple of handfuls of well matured leaf mould, compost or manure, plus a small handful of hoof and horn meal per pot. Repot every year.

Fertilising

The only fertiliser I use, apart from the basic soil mix is Seagrow. I give heavy weekly applications in spring and autumn and light applications throughout the summer, except during the hottest most scorching weather. And with the exception of heat-wave conditions, I water only once a day in the late afternoon, when I do it so thoroughly that the pot drains at least three times.

Training

With very few exceptions do not attempt to wire as they are far too brittle. If the desired effect cannot be achieved by scissor pruning, pull the branches around with guy ropes (in miniature). On no account practice nipping, as with maples, wild olive, white stinkwood, etc. Give them full sun throughout the year until the leaves and/or blossoms appear and from then on until cooler weather they appreciate filtered shade.

Stock

As whatever hefty healthy thing I buy and cut down to appropriate size never seems to lose that "tree sawn in half" look, all my specimens are started from cuttings. air layering's. or very young nursery stock. I plant the young thing in the ground for a couple of years to acquire some size and strength before putting it into a pot. After a year or two of pot training, it very often goes back into the ground either to thicken the trunk a little more or because it temporarily displeases me and I want it out of sight and mind.

Pussy willow

Quite a pleasing tree throughout the year in spite of rather big leaves. Mine started life as a cutting in 1966. It needs a somewhat roomy pot and plenty of water. When you have enjoyed the yellow catkins bursting from the slender red upward sweeping branches in very early spring, give it a really drastic pruning and shaping right down to the old wood. Trim the roots and repot and then leave it alone.

Common yellow bush jasmine

A large specimen makes a graceful space filler and the bright yellow flowers which go on and on for weeks are very attractive. It is one of those things which makes tremendous fibrous root growth which hardens the soil. For best results repot in autumn and in spring. Cut out unnecessary branches completely in autumn, but on no account shorten the rest. At the same time, give a light root pruning and repot. In due course, when it has finished flowering, in late spring, drastically prune both top growth and roots and repot again.

Prunus

My tree is the red leaved single blossom variety made from an air layering in 1968. As it is just plain horrid in summer, with its outsize tatty leaves. Mine lives almost permanently in the open ground. Just before bud movement in early spring, I dig it up, trim its roots sufficiently to fit it into a pot and enjoy the blossoms. When the vigorous shoots which it sends out immediately have hardened somewhat, I cut it down to the bone and put it back into the ground.

Tamarisk

Although not breath-catching, this is a very pleasing little tree throughout the four seasons. Mine was made from an air layering in 1968. Give it a good top and root prune when it has finished flowering in spring and repot. In the course of summer. a few unwanted branches can be cut out and the excess fluff at the base of the branches must be pulled off to bring out the elegance of the tree. At the same time. the branches must be pulled downwards to weep like a willow. Do it either with string or very loose wire which can be removed after a few weeks.

Wisteria

A truly lovely subject for bonsai as the blooms are spectacular and the tree itself is quite passable the rest of the year. Repot at bud movement in early spring, root trimming just sufficiently to give a bit of space in the pot. DO NOT APPLY FERTILISER FOR AT LEAST SIX WEEKS, and after that only a gentle one like Seagrow. I know to my cost as the best tree I have ever had (past and future) was a forty year old wisteria which I killed with one small application of granular fertiliser which a grower with four times my experience of bonsai coerced me into using. The wisteria is a vine and to keep it in tree shape. the long shoots which it continually sends out must be shortened to one or two eyes. With maturity it sends out less long shoots and develops more flowering buds.

Crab apple

When in bloom. a glorious sight. really ugly in summer and quite attractive when bare. I bought a young grafted specimen in 1961. It now has a stout trunk and beautiful strong surface roots. It has deep pink buds which open into a profusion of white blossoms on long drooping stems. It was not until I discovered that it must be repotted in AUTUMN and not in spring that it has blossomed so successfully. With the autumn repotting, shorten the roots but do not touch the branches until after flowering and then prune lightly so as to keep the shape. I am afraid that my tree does not bear its little golden apples because I keep it indoors for a good three weeks and the bees do not get a chance to fertilise the flowers.

Kumquat

Comes into its own when the fruits change to orange. but it is attractive throughout the year. My tree has developed from a young grafted specimen acquired in 1961. I fee! that the optimum time for repotting would be immediately after tile fruit drops but as I have not got the courage to repot a mature tree in February, I wait for the cooler autumn weather even if the tree is already in flower again. I do. however. give a judicious and fairly severe pruning just after fruit drop and shorten long, sappy big-leaved shoots several times in the course of the growing season. Root pruning is of course attended to before repotting.

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Salvaging wire - Off-cuts of heavy electric cable (three centimeters diameter) as used by the Electricity department will keep you in copper and galvanized wire for a few years. Galvanized wire can be used for stay wiring and also tying down trees and pots against the wind.