Bonsai Master Walter Pall visits the Chicago Botanic Garden

It is with great pleasure that I announce that international bonsai master Walter Pall will be at the Chicago Botanic Garden, performing a demonstration on the collection’s oldest tree.

PHOTO: Bonsai Master Walter Pall contemplates his work.
Bonsai master Walter Pall contemplates his work.

Pall has performed on many international stages, and is one of the world’s most popular bonsai artists. He has visited the vast majority of European countries as well as South Africa, Australia, Canada, Israel, Argentina, Brazil, and the United States.

His lectures are a treat. Pall’s philosophy about bonsai demonstrations is first and foremost to provide a basis for high-quality bonsai work. He adds a substantial amount of explanation so that the audience can clearly understand his development process, and he tells amusing anecdotes along the way.

Please join us for Pall’s demonstration on Wednesday, April 13, from 6 to 9 p.m. Find additional information about Pall and see pictures of his amazing trees and work on his website at

Pall will work on a limber pine (Pinus flexilis) that was donated by Gerald Weiner in 2007. This tree was collected in Estes Park, Colorado, at about 10,000 feet in the early 1980s by Harold Sasaki, and is estimated to be around 800 years old.

PHOTO: The Garden's Pinus flexilis, or Limber Pine, estimated at 800 years of age.
The Garden’s limber pine (Pinus flexilis), estimated to be about 800 years old

Though he initially was looking for landscape material, Weiner could not resist purchasing this tree for a bonsai in 1987 on a collecting trip to the Rocky Mountains. This is the largest and oldest tree in the Chicago Botanic Garden’s collection, and it is an absolute honor to have Walter Pall come and work on it. This is a must-see event!

PHOTO: Bonsai master Walter Pall in the greenhouse.
Bonsai master Walter Pall in the greenhouse

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Bonsai 360

Bonsai are traditionally shown with the front side of the tree facing the viewer—the back side of the tree is not in view. Most bonsai displays have a backdrop of some kind as well. This allows the tree to stand out and be viewed without any distractions.

In this unique display—shown for the first time in the Krehbiel Gallery in the Regenstein Center—we give you a look at our bonsai from both the front and back side of the trees. This allows our guests to see the entire tree and appreciate a different perspective.

PHOTO: Bonsai 360-view.
The Krehbiel Gallery exhibition displays trees so they may be viewed from all angles.

Choosing a “front” to a tree happens early in its development. A front is chosen in order to present the tree in the way that tells its story best. This can change as the tree matures and changes. The front should highlight the most interesting features of the tree, whether it’s nebari, trunk movement, shari, or jin.

PHOTO: A bonsai's nebari, or surface roots; the base of the tree.
A bonsai’s nebari, or surface roots, form the base of the tree.

Often, the nebari (visible root base) of the tree is used to determine the front. This is the oldest part of the tree, and the most difficult to change. Nebari conveys the age and stability of the tree.

Trunk movement is another way of choosing a front. From one angle, a trunk may seem rather straight and uninteresting. However, adjusting its position and angle even slightly may bring out the movement that makes a tree special. The red pine below has great trunk movement and sets the “attitude” of the tree.

Sometimes a front is chosen for its deadwood features. A striking shari (dead wood on the tree trunk) or jin (dead wood on a branch) can set the tone for the entire tree. The white part on this tree is dead wood, and the reddish brown is called the live vein. The contrast of the dead wood, live vein, and bright green foliage is fantastic.

PHOTO: Trunk movement is a highlight of this red pine.
Trunk movement is a highlight of this red pine.
PHOTO: This juniper displays amazing shari.
This juniper displays amazing shari.

Equal care is taken to develop the back of the tree. If the front of the tree is the star of the show, then the back can be considered the supporting cast. The back of the tree provides depth and perspective to the tree. Without these strategically placed back branches, the tree would appear two-dimensional and lack interest. Back branches can also be used to help frame in interesting parts of the tree toward the front, like dead wood branches (jin).

PHOTO: Back of bonsai ficus tree.
Back of ficus tree

When you view this exhibit, look for the indications of the trees’ front and back. The front of a tree will have fewer branches along the trunk line, exposing its trunk’s best features. The back branches cover more of the trunk line, potentially covering features on a tree that are less interesting. Most trees also have a natural lean toward the viewer. Some say the tree is bowing, in order to welcome or greet the viewer.

Ficus front, notice the exposed trunk line.
Notice the exposed trunk line in this ficus front.

Whether you are viewing the back or front of the tree, you can see the time and care that has gone into its creation. Many of these branching choices were made nearly 100 years ago. Each branch has its place in creating the entire tree. When front, back, and sides come together in harmony to represent nature, it makes the wonderful living art we call bonsai.

View the Bonsai 360 pop-up exhibition in Krehbiel Gallery through January 24, 2016.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and

The Gift of Bonsai

Bonsai are often given as gifts around the holidays. Unfortunately, many of these trees don’t survive very long. In this blog, I will cover some of the dos and don’ts about purchasing a bonsai as a gift, tell you where you can get quality trees, and give a little information on what to do if you receive one of these wonderful trees as a gift yourself.

PHOTO: Juniper bonsai for sale at a large garden center.
Juniper bonsai for sale at a large garden center

During the holiday season, little areas pop up in megastores and mall kiosks to sell bonsai (or “mall-sai,” as I call them). These bonsai are reasonably priced, cute, and seem to be a perfect gift for the horticulture enthusiast on your list. But before buying that little tree, there are a few things to consider.

Tree health is essential. 

PHOTO: Glued-down rocks on a gift juniper bonsai.
Glued-down rocks on a juniper bonsai

Often, a tree’s leaves will give you a good indication of its health. Waxy, shiny leaves and the indication of new growth are signs that the tree is healthy and actively growing. Dull, spotted, or damaged leaves are things to look out for. These may be indications a tree is unhealthy or stressed.

Be sure to gently feel the foliage, especially on junipers. Junipers can stay green even after they have died off. If branches are brittle and dry, avoid that tree.

It is also a good idea to feel the soil. If a tree is bone dry or standing in water, that should be a concern. Many of these trees are mass produced this time of the year. They are grown out in 3-inch plastic pots, removed, and placed in bonsai pots with the root ball untouched or wired down. Most trees are covered with standard potting mix instead of bonsai soil, which can retain too much moisture for many species. Often, rocks are glued to the surface for aesthetics, but they also hold the tree in place so they don’t fall out while the tree is being shipped. This is a lot of stress on a tree—especially in the winter. These trees are usually repotted in spring and often come from southern states.

The changes in climate, humidity, and daylight may also contribute to tree stress. Many of these trees do well when purchased, but the added stress they go through increases your chances for failure.

Buying a tree from a reputable nursery will increase the chances of success.
Local and national retailers that sell quality trees include:

Now that you know what to look for, and where to find it, let’s discuss a few of the more common bonsai species that work well for beginners.

Bonsai for beginners

PHOTO: Banyan ficus.
Chinese Banyan ficus (Ficus retusa var. microcarpa)
PHOTO: Willow leaf ficus.
Willow leaf ficus (Ficus nerifolia / Ficus salisafolia)
PHOTO: Green Island ficus.
Green Island ficus (Ficus retusa ‘Green Island’)
PHOTO: Little Gem ficus.
Little Gem ficus (Ficus benjamina ‘Little Gem’)

Among the most popular tropical bonsai trees are the ficus, due to their adaptability, vigorous growth, and many varieties. There are more than 825 different ficus species of evergreen trees, shrubs, and woody climbers. All of these trees should be kept indoors when temperatures are below minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit, and most prefer bright light and high humidity levels. In most cases, a south-facing window will work well. If your light is low indoors, additional lighting is a good idea. There are many kinds of supplimental lighting on the market so finding a size and shape that fits your needs should be easy. Our midwestern homes tend to be dry in the winter (due to heating), so misting your trees daily with a spray bottle is also a good idea. Doing this will increase the humidity and prevent leaf loss. Providing an evaporation tray is another good way to provide supplimental humidity. Avoid putting trees where forced air heat will blow on them. This will dry out the leaves and cause stress to the tree.

Some ideas for the more advanced bonsai enthusiast:

PHOTO: Snow Rose serrissa in flower.
Snow rose serrissa (Serissa foetida) in flower

Snow rose serrissa (Serissa foetida) also make great bonsai. They have small foliage (some variegated), great bark, and produce little white or pink flowers. They are more sensitive to watering and environmental changes than ficus, however, so this tree might be better for someone who is a little more experienced.

PHOTO: Bougainvillea bonsai.
Bougainvillea bonsai

Bouganvillea are another popular bonsai species. They are best known for their paper-like flowers in a variety of colors. Though a tropical plant, they like a their soil on the dry side, since they live mostly in sandy soils. They take well to pruning, grow quickly, and will produce flowers all year long.

PHOTO: Baby jade bonsai.
Baby jade bonsai (Portulacaria afra)

Baby jade (Portulacaria afra) is a succulent bonsai. Well-draining soil is important to the health of this tree. Over-watering is one of the main problems with this species. The leaves should be shiny and plump when it is well watered. Wait until the leaves start to shrivel just a bit before watering. Dull, shriveled leaves are a sign the tree is very dry or unhealthy.

PHOTO: Juniper bonsai.
Juniper bonsai (Juniperus sp.)

Junipers make great bonsai material. They can be stored indoors, but require very high light levels and do not like to be over-watered. Many people store their junipers in a protected cold area for the winter. Knowing the source of your juniper gift is important. If the tree was purchased from a tropical climate and you put it outside, it will most likely not do well with the abrupt change in temperature. Likewise, if you get a juniper that was in winter storage and bring it indoors, that tree will suffer too.

When giving a bonsai as a gift, be sure to include care information to ensure your friend or loved one will have to tools to maintain this wonderful gift of bonsai. If you receive a tree as a gift, get as much information as you can on that tree to ensure you can properly care for it.

Just in time for those getting bonsai this season, take a bonsai class at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and

Overwintering Your Bonsai

Like so many things in tending bonsai, how you overwinter your trees is specific to the tree species and the region in which you live.

PHOTO: Bonsai in fall color.
Bonsai in fall color, before being prepped for storage.
PHOTO: Bonsai tree prepped for winter storage.
The same bonsai prepped for winter storage; tags indicate tasks to do in spring on this tree.

Here in the Chicago area, we need to take special care to protect our trees from cold temperatures and windy conditions. Prior to bringing in your tropical trees and tucking your cold hardy trees away for the winter, there is some work to be done. In this post, we will discuss fall and early winter care that lead into winter storage of tropical, deciduous, and evergreen bonsai.

PHOTO: A plant grow light gives tropical bonsai more daylight in winter.
This far north of the equator, tropical bonsai will need supplemental lighting for the winter months.

To maximize growth and tree health, your tropical bonsai should be outside during the summer months, getting the most of the warm temperatures and full sun. But before the temperatures drop—most tropical bonsai will not tolerate temperatures below 40 to 45 degrees Fahrenheit for any length of time without some damage—it is a good idea to slowly move your trees into lower light conditions. This will prepare your trees for the conditions in your house, and result in less leaf drop when they are moved inside. During this time you should also decrease the feeding of your tropical trees, slowing down the growth.

There are four things to consider when picking a spot in your house for your tropical bonsai.

  1. Lighting: Even if you have a south-facing window, most trees are going to require supplemental lighting for the winter months.
  2. Heat: Trees should be in a warm spot in your house, but should never be subject to hot, dry forced air or radiant heating.
  3. Humidity: Due to the dry nature of our heating, supplemental humidity should be provided. Humidity trays, spraying your trees daily with a spray bottle, and humidifiers are all good ways of increasing the humidity around your trees.
  4. Watering needs: Tropical trees tend to use less water in the winter. Over watering can cause root rot and a decline in tree health.

The preparation for hardy trees (both deciduous and evergreen) starts long before they are put away for the winter.

In late summer to early fall, you should stop feeding your trees with nitrogen. Nitrogen—the “N” in N.P.K.-based fertilizers— stimulates foliage growth. As fall approaches, we want to start sending energy to the roots, so using a “bloom” fertilizer with higher phosphorous and potassium values (P and K) is important. This will feed the roots and strengthen the tree for winter. It will also provide the tree with the energy for the spring flush. In bonsai, it is important to be proactive rather than reactive. The things we do in the fall determine how trees respond in the spring.

Snow on quonset.
A dusting of snow coats the ground and the outside of the quonset.
PHOTO: Quonset full of bonsai.
Inside, the cold-hardy specimens of the Garden’s Bonsai Collection enjoy being out of the wind and cold temperatures.

The pre-storage work done on your trees is important.
Our winter cleanup on all deciduous trees entails the following:

  1. Removing all the old foliage from the deciduous trees. This is most often done with tweezers to prevent any damage to the branches and next year’s buds. This step helps to prevent fungal disease forming on those leaves.
  2. Cleaning the bases of the trunks, and removing moss and weeds from the soil surface. This prevents constant moisture from touching the trunks and allows better air circulation to the roots.
  3. Performing minor pruning work. The larger cuts will wait until spring when it is safer. All cuts are covered with “cut paste” to seal the wound and prevent disease and damage to the branch.
  4. Tagging. Finally, each tree receives colored tags that indicate whether it needs repotting in the spring, has wire, needs wire, etc. These indicators are very important when managing about 250 trees!
PHOTO: Bonsai foliage is removed with tweezers before storing the tree for the winter.
Foliage is carefully removed by hand before storage.
PHOTO: Cutting away moss from the trunk of a bonsai.
Moss which has grown over the summer is removed.
PHOTO: Moss has been removed from the trunk of this bonsai pre-storage.
Moss has been removed from the trunk pre-storage.
PHOTO: Cut paste covers the fresh pruning cut.
Cover fresh pruning cuts with cut paste.

Evergreen trees and pines get their own pre-storage cleanup.

  1. Instead of removing leaves, we remove old needles on the pines. This is also done with tweezers, and needles are pulled in the direction in which they grow to prevent damaging the branch.
  2. Some light pruning is done as well as cleaning the surface of the soil.
  3. Winter is a great time to do major work on pines like wiring, making big bends, and carving dead wood.
PHOTO: Pre-wintered bonsai pine.
A bonsai pine awaits overwintering preparations.
PHOTO: The same bonsai pine after overwintering prep.
The same tree after overwintering preparations. It’s ready to be placed with others in the quonset.

We overwinter our cold hardy trees in a climate-controlled quonset. Through a process of heating and venting (if needed), the temperature is maintained at about 34 degrees Fahrenheit, which allows the trees to experience a dormancy period without getting a hard freeze on the roots. This allows us to keep very hardy trees along with those that might like things a little warmer. In the future, we will be adding an additional quonset that maintains temperatures in the mid-40s to accommodate more tree species properly.

PHOTO: Bonsai being trained with big bends.
Winter is the time for major work on pines like making big bends.

There are many variations of this type of storage that you can implement at home. Creating a space in a garage where you can protect the roots by packing mulch around the tree pots is important. Protecting the trees from wind is also important. High winds will dry out your evergreen foliage and deciduous tree buds, causing damage. Once deciduous trees have dropped their leaves and evergreen trees have experienced a frost, they will have minimal need for light, especially as the temperatures continue to drop. Using snow to cover pots and roots is a good idea. Snow is an excellent insulator, and if temperatures rise enough for it to melt, it will water your trees. (Note: You should never water a tree with a frozen root system—this will damage the roots!)

Proper winter storage will ensure that your trees wake healthy and ready to bud out in spring.

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and

World Bonsai Day

Join us for a new program at the Chicago Botanic Garden on Saturday, May 9: World Bonsai Day! 

Observed on the second Saturday in May, this day was established by the World Bonsai Friendship Federation (WBFF) in 2010 to honor WBFF founder and bonsai master Saburo Kato’s contributions to the world of bonsai, and to bring all bonsai enthusiasts together for a day to promote bonsai and friendship throughout the world.

PHOTO: The late bonsai master Saburo Kato.
The late bonsai master Saburo Kato

The oldest son of bonsai master Tomekichi Kato, Saburo Kato followed in his father’s footsteps cultivating bonsai, and at his father’s death, became the third-generation owner of Mansei-en Bonsai Garden in Japan, one of the most famous bonsai nurseries in the world. As an author, teacher, and poet, Kato inspired countless people throughout the world to learn the art of bonsai cultivation. He believed so strongly that bonsai could bring peace throughout the world that he founded the WBFF.

In 2014, the following organizations celebrated World Bonsai Day: National Bonsai & Penjing Museum (at the United States National Arboretum), the North Carolina Arboretum, the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens, the Pacific Bonsai Museum, and Rosade Bonsai Studio.

PHOTO: Jack Sustic (left), curator, National Bonsai & Penjing Museum (at the United States National Arboretum), with a volunteer, World Bonsai Day 2014
Jack Sustic (left), curator, National Bonsai & Penjing Museum (at the United States National Arboretum), with a volunteer, World Bonsai Day 2014
PHOTO: Curator Chris Baker of the Chicago Botanic Garden trims a bonsai, under the watchful eyes of Jack Sustic (far left) and bonsai master Harry Hirao (seated).
Curator Chris Baker of the Chicago Botanic Garden trims a bonsai, under the watchful eyes of Jack Sustic (far left) and bonsai master Harry Hirao (seated).

Join me, curator Chris Baker, and some of our bonsai volunteers in the activities below on World Bonsai Day at the Chicago Botanic Garden. The stages of growing bonsai will be featured with specific examples. Explore the tools, pots, wire, etc., used to practice bonsai, and get information on upcoming bonsai classes.

Program Schedule:

  • 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.: Demonstration: Bonsai Tree Styling
    I will demonstrate how major tree shaping is done, with a tree being formed into a bonsai.
  • 1 p.m.: Spring Garden Walk: Bonsai Collection Highlights
    During the scheduled Spring Garden Walk, I’ll be showcasing selections from the Garden’s Bonsai Collection and pointing out special spring highlights. (Note: due to the recent warm weather, the Korean lilac, wisteria, crabapple, or azalea bonsai may be in bloom.)
  • 1 to 4 p.m.: Demonstration: Bonsai Landscape Planting
    I will demonstrate how I create a “landscape planting” with multiple bonsai on a rock slab.

Come back to the Garden May 16 – 17 for the Midwest Bonsai Society Spring Show & Sale.

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and