Collecting Mountain Hemlock for Bonsai

Guest Article by Graham J. Hues. Page 1 of 2

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A Special Yamadori Trip- September 2013.

This article concerns the topic of an unusual collecting trip, and the aftercare treatment of Mountain Hemlock (Tsuga mertensiana) which is generally found on the west coast of Canada. More specifically, the Campbell River, British Columbia (BC), which is located on the East Coast of Vancouver Island.

The aftercare treatment, general growing and design practices will be associated with this sub-alpine species that is collected in the high mountains of our area and some basic ecology information on this species will also be explored.

The Special Collecting Trip:

Like most, if not all, yamadori collectors I’ve usually picked an area for collection based on past history, or have researched a new one with the use of back country maps or Google earth (which is increasingly the new way of accessing areas for us as it shows all the newest logging roads which are pushing up close to the subalpine).

So I’m usually up early, load the vehicle with the tools of the trade (including the collecting permit), a lunch/snacks, lots of water and then drive for a few hours, hike for some time and then start looking for candidates for collection. Once collected, the specimens are wrapped, strapped to a back pack or just slung over the shoulder and taken back to the vehicle.

However, a few times each year my work (see bio below for more details), my joy of bonsai and my love for Mother Nature all come together. It is one of those days that I’d like to expand on.

Why we were in a helicopter

As part of my operational work, each year my colleagues and I spend a few days in a helicopter exploring our “Tenure” (large operating area); monitoring our operations, examining the forest ecosystems, recording information on noted disease, insect outbreaks, recent slide activity (young mountains subjected to large amounts of rain and within an earthquake zone)etc.

We also make land management decisions and declarations, all of the collected information is then exported into the company’s database which in turn gets forwarded into the BC Province’s forest tenure database once we return to the office.

Sounds like fun hey – well, it definitely does have its benefits as we get to see the landscape from a birds-eye view, but after a short journey to our first area we start to get down to business and it becomes more than just a joy ride. It’s hard to describe but I liken it to going on an extreme roller coaster ride for hours on end as we dip, dive, and rise up/down at great speeds, making abrupt turns when one of us notes something of interest. All the time we are looking out the window watching things fly by the window at 60-120km/h, collecting data, both with a camera and then taking written notes, back and forth etc….its this last activity that provides various levels of motion sickness to those of us that are subject to it.

mountain hemlock for bonsai

Our normal routine is that after a few hours in the “chopper”, we ask the pilot to land so that we can have a snack, lunch or just a break so that we can “clear out heads” and get our equilibrium back to a somewhat normal range. On this particular day we were travelling from one valley to the next and the pilot picked the shortest route, having to rise way up and sneak through a high mountain pass. When we reached the pass, the pilot looked for a suitable landing area and picked a wonderful spot at an altitude of approx. 5000’ (1500+m). As you can see from the photos it was a beautiful sub-alpine ecosystem with a small lake and scattered small ponds. This was in late September and there was a small trace of the first snow on the north facing slopes but on this day it was melting fast as there was a temperature inversion so it was nice and mild.

mountain hemlock for bonsai

mountain hemlock for bonsai

After a quick bite to eat, the pilot, my colleague and I explored the area, each of us having a different experience – as a yamadori collector I focused on the coniferous sub-alpine species looking to see if there was anything to collect in the short time I had (figure 3). As a forester, I marvelled at the ecosystem and the extreme environmental conditions the area, and the trees/plants are subjected too, and also realizing that it was way above and outside of our operating zone.

I also reviewed my maps (GPS- on and I-Pad mini) and noted a potential hiking route (trail from the end of our closet logging road which was approx 1km away below in the upper valley to the east) that I could suggest to the local forest district office, which would then allow others to enjoy the splendour and beauty of this little piece of these paradise meadows and mountains.

I soon shifted my attention to potential trees for collection and seeing as though I didn’t have much time or tools (just a small trowel I had in my backpack), I collected 3 small Mountain Hemlock (Tsuga mertensiana) specimens that were close to the helicopter. Within minutes I had them dug up (their entire rooting system being within the forest floor which was only 3”-5”(7-12cm) deep), wrapped-up, ready for transport and loaded into the helicopters rear storage compartment.

Although our time in this area was less than 40 minutes, it did provide me with a great opportunity to get a couple of trees ….but just as importantly it also challenged me from a forestry related perspective as these areas are very unique parkland areas with new growth, advanced regeneration, maturity, death, decay and occasional ancient individuals. The ecology is unusual and has evolved over the last 9000 years, since the last ice-age in this general area.

I don’t think the trees (see photos next page) will ever be “show stoppers” but with time, lots of care, attention and detailed work, I think they all will become very decent bonsai. Each has a different style, the smaller one leans towards bunjin (literati), the other two informal uprights.

This was truly a wonderful day of work with a little bonsai fun thrown into it……I can't wait until next year and will be more prepared (additional tools)!

>>AT Collecting Mountain Hemlock for Bonsai: Page 2 of 2