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Pemphis acidula is a plant species found in tropical and subtropical regions of the world where it is often referred to as a shrub. It is native here in the Philippines where it does not have a dormant period. As a result, the trunk size of a large Pemphis can reach around 1.5 meters in girth!
The nice rugged character and shape of many of the trunks is the handywork of the strong winds and big waves that sweep across the reefs, knocking over the Pemphis growing on them, during each typhoon season (August to December each year). The winds then change in and around March and the onset of the hot summer months begins. During this time the Pemphis will grow vigorously upright again. It is this seasonal change in the weather and growth habit that creates such beautiful bonsai material.
Pemphis is a very strong tree and can withstand the harsh forces of nature. They have the ability to grow fast and can generate new roots and buds very quickly.The picture above shows strong back budding on a Pemphis just one week after partial defoliation and wiring of the branch. Note that when defoliating, we have to leave the tips of the branches with several leaves or the branch may suffer and dieback.
The leaves are small and thick and sometimes become round like beads when sprayed with sea water daily.
Pemphis needs sea water in order to survive as bonsai. In my experience, I have noticed that Pemphis bonsai that are not given a regular spray of sea water become very weak and sooner or later, branches die back after a while or worse, we may lose the tree.
The seedlings shown here (courtesy of Carl Rosner) are sprayed with daily with seawater.
Strong new buds appearing from old wood
Most Pemphis grow in the rocky coastlines amongst coral rocks. Since the roots grow into the rocks, collecting them is rather difficult, Most of the time, we buy collected trees without any roots, that is, the trees are cut away from the rock when they are collected, leaving the roots behind. However, this does not pose a problem, as they quickly send out new roots and shoots when given a moist environment. Sometimes we see them grow roots when they are placed in shade and watered several times daily even before they are potted up.
Roots growing in the upper two thirds portion of a trunk that has been kept moist.
Pemphis bonsai should be positioned under direct and full sunlight for the whole day if possible. A location which has good air circulation is ideal. I water my Pemphis up to three times a day during summer and twice a day during other parts of the year. For bonsai soil, I use volcanic cinder with the size of about an inch to ensure excellent drainage and good water retention. This also allows oxygen to penetrate the soil to keep the roots healthy and grow profusely.
Frost hardiness and cold tolerance is not an issue here in the Philippines but Pemphis are reported to be hardy to around 12°C. Temperatures below this can cause Pemphis to suffer.
Pemphis leaves are susceptible to attack by caterpillars. these little critters really love to munch up the leaves and can almost totally defoliate the entire tree in a matter of few days. I don't experience this problem since I spray the leaves with seaweed extract mixed with sea water. One can also use the formula for sea water we can purchase at pet stores if the natural seawater is not available in the locality.The roots are also susceptible to nematode infestation, usually if the soil we use is completely inorganic. To combat this problem, I use some shrimp or crab shells. The fungus that attacks the shrimp or crab shell is the same fungus that will attack the nematodes.
It is also worth mentioning that the Pemphis are greedy feeders, they have to be fertilized very often in order to attain maximum growth potential. Though the use of chemical fertilizers work well with Pemphis and most of the bonsai artist here use chemicals for their Pemphis, I am inclined to use organic fertilizers for all my trees. I have also noticed that the pests and diseases do not seem to pose any problem to my trees since I have gone organic five years ago. As a result it has been a long time since I used insecticides and fungicides on my trees.
Pemphis acidula is the best candidate material if we want an "instant Bonsai" in the Philippines. For even an artist with only very basic bonsai skill can have a show-type tree in just two years. What more can one ask for?
This tree was collected in the wild in the summer of 2006 and was given to me as a gift by my good friend Mr. Teddy Lim in September of the same year. This is the front that I chose since it has very good movement and the natural shari is very interesting. I painted the shari with lime sulfur and it turned white, highlighting the dead wood. Note that about 60% of branches and foliage have been cut off before this picture was taken.
Base is 10"/25cm and the height is 38"/95cm.