Bonsai Trees

Case Histories

Berberis - (berberis thunbergii atropurpurea)

Berberis Bonsai Style: Informal Upright

I remember the day clearly - it was a scorching Sunday at the end of August and I was exhibiting some of my trees at a nearby garden centre. A friend had promised to come along for support.

She had often said that one day she would dig me up a huge berberis that was the centrepiece of her front lawn as the tree was just too big. I didn't think for one moment that it would be that day! She arrived and proudly handed me a sack containing the largest trunked berberis that I had ever seen.

The roots were poor and the foliage was wilting. She explained that every year the tree would grow up to almost 2 metres high (6 feet) and then she would cut it back hard in the spring. This procedure had been going on for 40 years, hence the enormous trunk and wonderful old bark. I thanked her very much as she had obviously gone to a lot of trouble to dig the berberis up, but thought that there was little chance of it surviving. What a pity!

Berberis Bonsai History: Training

I packed up my trees at the end of the day and headed home with the berberis in the car. When I arrived home, I pruned off all the branches, leaving the powerful trunk bare. The roots were also pruned hard as they were badly damaged and torn, as this berberis had been quite a project to dig up!

There was very little root left and so I was able to pot the tree into a bucket and it was left in a shady place to recover, but it showed no signs of life at all. I left it unprotected all winter as I was convinced that if not dead already, it soon would be! The berberis got soaked, frozen, covered in snow and was completely forgotten. Spring arrived and to my complete surprise the berberis began to bud and grew strongly throughout the summer.

Following its resurrection, I hoped to plant the tree into a bonsai pot the next spring. However, the tap root caused a problem, being as large as the trunk itself and growing downwards.

I spent time carefully 'nibbling' the root away to allow the tree to sit comfortably in the pot and the large wound was sealed. I then trimmed the branches to create a definite structure and front. The berberis was then left to establish in a cold greenhouse for the next month. I was not going to leave it at the top of the garden this year!

Many shoots duly arrived and I let them establish well into the summer. I carefully allowed the soil to dry out, reducing the sap in the branches and making them more flexible so that they could safely be positioned with wire. During the next four years the berberis remained in the same pot, being repotted twice. The branches were not pruned and grew unchecked for the rest of year to help them thicken.

By now the berberis had outgrown its pot and it was time for a change. I purchased a larger rectangular Japanese pot that was a perfect match, being a soft, purple colour that would blend with the foliage. Wanting to make the tree look its absolute best, I wired every branch and twig, which now being older wood, were easier to bend. The next day the tree was planted into its new pot and the overall appearance was greatly improved.

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