Bonsai Palms

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Bonsai Palms

In 1991 or 1992, my wife gave me a gift of some bonsai tools, a Chinese Elm, and some books on bonsai. The books are full of pictures of amazing, and sometimes very old, bonsai "subjects." I was immediately fascinated that a plant that normally produces leaves the size of your hand will produce them the size of your fingernail under the right conditions.

Bonsai combines horticultural, technical, and artistic skills to produce a living work of art. A well-grown bonsai plant will "miniaturize" in all its parts and eventually have the appearance of a mature tree. It is not a genetic condition of the plant, but rather a condition of its owner's efforts at bonsai culture. According to _Simon & Schuster's Guide to BONSAI_, bonsai culture is over 1500 years old, and originated, most probably, in China.

As part of my newfound interest, I joined the San Diego Bonsai Club and participated in weekly meetings at Casa del Prado in Balboa Park. Very early in this association, I noticed that no one was doing any bonsai with palm trees. I started asking other members whether it would work, and how it could be done. Usually, this brought either a blank stare or a shrug of the shoulders from the person I was addressing. Palm trees were probably the last thing they wanted to think about while they trimmed their ficus and juniper. Fearing ridicule, and because of the generally negative reaction, I didn't tell anyone I'd already started a few palms as bonsai.

Once, on a bus trip back from a bonsai show in Los Angeles, I was making my now-familiar inquiry regarding palms as bonsai subjects, and drew the attention of some of the more "senior" members of the club. One of them turned and, somewhat irritated, asked: "That's what you're interested in? Palm trees?" I shrugged my shoulders and nodded. It was pretty clear that my interest in palms was a "square peg" in the "round hole" of the Bonsai Club.

Shortly after this encounter, I resigned as a member of the Bonsai Club and joined the International Palm Society, and started quizzing IPS members about palms as bonsai subjects. I have to say that there is usually very little difference between a Bonsai Club member's face or an IPS member's face when you inquire about bonsai palms. Not surprisingly, one IPS member asked me flat out: "That's what you're interested in? Bonsai?" I should have anticipated that response.

Through persistence, I finally did learn that Rhapis are sometimes grown as bonsai. Some are genetic dwarves and all seem to tolerate being rootbound. Additionally, they already have slender trunks and grow slowly. In other words: It's easy to keep them in a pot. However, pictures of the ones I have seen don't suggest to me that they are "miniaturizing" dramatically the way true bonsai do -- leaves, trunk, and all. I am not only interested in keeping the plants small, but also in growing them to healthy, miniature, mature, trees.

About a year or so ago, I had a conversation with Walt Frey, and was pleased to learn that he, too, was interested in bonsai palms. He told me about a Chamaerops humilis of his that has been in the same pot for years and has miniaturized over time as a result of its cramped conditions. He hadn't used any root pruning techniques, though, and we talked generally about palms and bonsai. At last: a kindred spirit.

Next, I wrote to Drs. Natalie Uhl and John Dransfield to get their input regarding bonsai palms. Dr. Uhl referred me to Dennis Johnson, who wrote a small article on some bonsai palms he saw in Indonesia. The article appeared in the April, 1991, issue of _Principes_. Pictured were a Dypsis lutescens and a Cocos nucifera --both of which looked, honestly, like they were in desperate need of a root pruning.

Dr. Dransfield told me that there is a tradition in Indonesia of pot-growing clustering palms. Apparently, Calamus ciliaris can look very pretty when its aerial stems are pruned back. His favorite bonsai palm, however, is Dypsis lutescens. When grown well, it produces dwarfed fronds, slender short stems and very dense clustering. He also informed me that Dick Douglas, ex president of IPS, used to have some handsome dwarfed Trachycarpus fortunei (the form normally called T. wagnerianus) growing in bonsai pots, with very tiny leaves.

I have several palms that seem good candidates for bonsai because they have survived root prunings and seem to be miniaturizing. These include: Phoenix roebelenii, P. canariensis, P. reclinata, Butia bonnettii, Chamaerops humilis, Dypsis decaryi, Syagrus romanzoffiana, Trachycarpus fortunei, and Trachycarpus "takil".

Every other Spring, I've been cutting 10-40% of each subject's roots, giving each some new soil, and putting them back in the same pot. My pots are deeper than traditional bonsai pots because the palms were climbing too quickly out of those. I fertilize only very lightly, and never around the time of a root pruning. Most of these plants are watered two to three times a week and seem to be healthy. Most started this process as seedlings or one gallon plants. I've chosen plants that won't be missed too much if they perish in the process. So far, I haven't lost any.

I'm only three or four years into this "experiment," but am encouraged that some of my plants are showing signs that my efforts will be rewarded. It's important to remember that a good bonsai is not just a stunted plant--it's a healthy, miniature tree. I'd be interested in hearing from anyone who has any information or experience to share: It's a pretty lonely road, and I could use all the company I can get.

I would encourage all of you to flip through a bonsai book the next time you're in a bookstore. If you're not really familiar with the art, you may be surprised by what you see. I would also encourage you to do a little root pruning on some smaller potted palms and see if you like the result. It takes a little time and patience, but we're all pretty accustomed to that. It will be years before my subjects have any appreciable trunk on them, and only then will I be able to tell if they are really miniaturizing the way they seem to be. In the meantime, I'm enjoying the creative process. Hmmmm..... Dypsis decipiens in a thimble? Could be.

Contributed by: David F. Schwartz

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