BONSAI: Collecting Trees from the Wild Part One



BONSAI: Collecting Trees from the Wild Part One

This is the first part of a series of 3 articles by Walter Pall on the subject of collecting wild trees (yamadori). Originally printed in Bonsai Today #74,75 and 76, these articles fueled my own ambition to collect old, wild trees for use as bonsai. The information contained within these articles were of enormous help in not only successfully collecting and ensuring the survival of my collected trees, but also in teaching the respect necessary before one removes trees from the wild. HH

More of Walters work can be seen at his website

Walter Pall with a huge collected bonsai

The author with an ancient collected Juniper

The Ethics of Collecting Trees from the Wild

There are opposing positions on this subject. Both those who defend this activity and those who oppose it have their reasons for adopting one position or the other, reasons that will be explored.

Why obtain material for bonsai from the Wild if it is something that is not very attractive and, in addition, looks as if it would be a very laborious task?

Those who are favour of it have several reasons in defence of their position:
· Many native species, often the best for bonsai training, are very difficult or impossible to find in a nursery.
· In the nursery, trees are cultivated to grow as rapidly as possible and generate money. This means that, in many cases, they will not have the desired quality for bonsai.
· Trees grown from seed or cuttings need decades to reach a quality similar to that of trees collected from nature. Even then, there is an enormous difference in quality.
· The character of a tree only develops with age. A collected tree expresses the struggle for survival through its appearance and bark. This is very difficult to achieve with nursery seedlings.
· Collected trees have a unique history, written expressly for each one of them, making them more interesting and desirable.
· Collecting trees from nature can be fun and some might even go so far as to consider it a sport.

Why should these trees not be collected?

Those who oppose this activity also are supported by good reasons:
· In the majority of cases, the trees will not survive the procedure.
· Even though permission maybe available, it is a license to kill if you do not know exactly what you are doing.
· Independent of the fact that trees are never collected in nature reserves or parks, they always come from a specific biological habitat.
· Collected trees often need years to re-establish themselves before actual shaping can begin.
· For those who are not experts, many trees collected from the mountain have too much character. Quite possibly they will not know how to make use of their potential.

Of course in all civilised countries, just going into fields anywhere and collecting trees is forbidden. There is always a property owner, even though it may be the government.
For that reason, it is essential to get permission for the collection of plants. It is best to study beforehand where and what it is that you want to collect. Generally it is possible to obtain permission, except for trees in nature reserves or parks. If you explain to the forest ranger or farmer that you are looking for very small trees of lower quality and that afterwards, footprints will be erased and holes filled, usually you can count on getting a favourable response. Often, they can even tell you where you should begin looking.
They may also think you are crazy, but that is something you will have to accept.

It is best to get written permission in order to avoid difficulties that may arise later on. Many good areas belong to farmers who have a habitual relationship with trees that often even includes being bothered by them. Sometimes, a small compensation accompanied by the promise that holes will be filled is sufficient.
Clearly, you may also find people who think that a fortune can be made from bonsai. For that reason, it is better to say young are looking for specimens for your garden. It is a small lie that harms no one.

The collector of bonsai may face danger during the hunting season, generally in Autumn, so be particularly careful in this season.

Anyone who does not have much experience with trees and does not know with certainty how and if it possible to keep a collected tree alive ought not even attempt it, not even with the mandatory permit.
An essential requirement for this activity, in addition to a permit, is having extensive knowledge and experience, at least in gardening.
Anyone who does not know the tree and its needs is better off abstaining. Although the technical term may be ‘material for bonsai’, the bonsai enthusiast should never forget that a tree is a living thing that must be treated properly.

Collecting Trees from the Wild

The base of this Juniper in the Rocky Mountains is more than 12″ (30cm) wide. It is possibly over 500 years old, but, in spite of that, it can be collected because it is found in a crack full of humus

Many times the experienced collector finds a tree that is good itself, but knows that after collecting there will not be much chance of it surviving. It is a very common situation since the best material for bonsai is usually found in locations where the conditions for survival are very harsh and so the trees are weak and greatly castigated by nature often with roots that are very ramified and exposed.
This means that you will not find a compact rootball and the majority of the roots will break off and be lost in the collecting process. The best rule is: in case of doubt, leave the tree where it is.

Logically, no matter how good the tree may be, do not dig it up if the season is not right. Most trees that are found by chance and collected during vacations are not likely to survive.

If you find several suitable trees, but are unsure if they will survive, it is best to take only one in order to gain experience and to be able to collect the others later on.

Locations can be found where, by collecting the trees growing there, you are even saying them certain death. Such would be the case for example, with those places where highways or roads through the forest have been constructed or widened, where ski-lifts are constructed or under lifts or high tension cables under which all types of new growth is regularly destroyed.
As you may have read, even though it does not have to do directly with bonsai, there are organisations dedicated specifically to saving trees.

They may also be found in pasture land where trees are regularly cleared or in gravel pits and quarries that have to be enlarged.
So, therefore, these are locations where you can collect trees that are practically condemned without feeling guilty.

The chief objective of one who intends to collect a tree ought to be keeping it alive. The chance of survival of the tree depend on:
· The experience of the enthusiast
· The type of tree
· The special conditions of the location
· The preparation of the tree
· The tools used
· The season of the year
· The amount of rain in the location where it is to be collected (it has to have rained in previous days)
· The difference in climate between the place where it was found and the location where it will be placed (the greater the change, the more danger for the tree)
· Care after collecting

Tools for collecting trees

Collecting Trees from the Wild

The serious enthusiast has the proper tools. A strong, sharp-edged shovel, long-handled pruning shears, pruning scissors, a strong pickaxe and a collapsible saw are needed.
Sometimes heavier equipment is needed such as a block and tackle or a chainsaw.

For trees that are found on large rocks or on walls of rock, climbing equipment is necessary. A rope at least 75 feet (25m) long can also be very useful. Trees can be lowered with it and it can also assure one’s safety while working on dangerous terrain. In addition, a large quantity of wet cloths will be needed for wrapping the rootball as well as large plastic bags.

A backpack with an aluminium frame in which larger trees can be placed will often be indispensable for long trips. There are special devices designed for hunters enabling them to transport a large amount of game over difficult terrain. Obviously, these can also be used for large trees. A large knapsack will serve for carrying most of the tools, but will usually be too small for a tree.

Several bottles or a large container of water are important for the one undertaking this task and also, perhaps, for the tree. Bringing along a camera is a good idea.

Collectors often travel through areas little frequented by other people. A small accident that generally is not very serious may become a tragedy.
For that reason, a first aid kit should always be carried. Carry a mobile phone with emergency telephone numbers. If you are accompanied, it is always advisable for the others to also carry a mobile phone or walkie-talkies.

In view of the list of tools, it is understandable that some people look first for a road for their cars and then a suitable tree. But do not be discouraged yet.

The expertise is in finding, not in looking

Collecting Trees from the Wild

Whoever goes into the mountains in search of ‘ready made’ trees to be used right away as bonsai is going to be very disappointed. With very few exceptions, there are no trees out of doors that can be transplanted directly to a pot and classified as bonsai. At most, good raw material can be found, that is, material with more or less interesting shapes that provide starting points for the experienced enthusiast. In truth, the most worrisome and complicated trees are very often the best ones. For that reason, only an enthusiast with sufficient years of experience will be capable of finding truly great material, because he will be able to see on the site itself the basic shape and will know how to decide if the tree can be used or not.

The expertise is in finding, not in looking. This means that there is not much likelihood of success if one goes searching with the firm expectation of finding a pine pre-bonsai that would be ideal for the ‘formal upright’ form passing by all the deciduous trees and even pine trees that might lend themselves perfectly to being shaped in other forms.

There are some people who go into the forest to look for mushrooms and always find more than the rest of the group. There are fishermen who always catch more fish than all their companions. There are bonsai enthusiasts who find many more good trees than an entire group.
What do these people have in common? They know secret or even several that the others possess, but the likelihood of having such persons as instructors is slight.

Then how can you discover one of these secrets? Clearly, everyone will think that the secret is in knowing the right location. Well no, the secret lies in recognising guidelines which works as follows:

The bonsai enthusiast goes walking through the field and at some point in time finds a tree that meets all the requirements for being good bonsai. A suitable location has been found; where there is one, there will be another close by.

It is not a question of knowing an especially good place, but of finding each time a location that, even in areas where you have never been before. If you go looking in another location and by chance find another pre-bonsai….well, you can start to draw conclusions.

What do both locations have in common? What is the reason for the trees being so small in both places?
If, for example, in both cases it is a location that is close to an area of wild pasturage, where in winter deer come to nibble the shoots of small beeches, you have found a clue. It follows that you will have greater possibilities of success if you go to places where there is pasturage for livestock.

Whoever repeatedly enjoys this type of success will recognise that there is a whole series of clues like this that narrows the search. Acquire more knowledge about trees, open a dialogue with them, understand them better and you will find more and more suitable specimens to be worked on and to be converted to bonsai.

Where can you look quickly?

Start in a place for which you have a permit for collecting trees or a least, where the possibility of obtaining it exists. There is no sense in looking for the best pre-bonsai in nature reserves if collecting there is not permitted.

Where are the best possibilities?

Collecting Trees from the Wild

Generally in areas that are considered extreme. That is , places that offer places that offer a species minimum necessary for sustaining life, the limit. If a tree is found in a location where there is little available to keep it alive, but too much to cause it to die, it will remain small, grow compactly and will develop an interesting shape. A location that can be called extreme will often depend on the species. A pine tree continues growing strongly in practically pure sand, while the same soil causes great difficulties for a beech tree.
Consequently, a beech that by accident is growing in a soil of pure sand can be very good beginning material. For the pine tree, more conditions need to be lacking, as for example, a greatly exposed location on a very inclined slope in the crack of a rock.

High areas generally offer more possibilities for success. But there are a large number of slag heaps, quarries, embankments, quagmires, declivities with steep slopes, banks of streams that become torrents in the Spring, rocky terrain, large stones covered with plants and coastal regions, that is, almost any places that the farmer calls ‘uncultivated’.

The main problem is that trees collected from these areas have the very great disadvantage of being very weak. Consequently, the likelihood of their survival is very slight right from the beginning.

For the survival of a collected tree, locations that are much more favourable, that are actually good for the growth of the species, but where, due to environment causes that occurred a single time or over many years, trees cannot develop naturally. This may be the case along the edges of roads where vegetation is regularly cut down, pastures where animals nibble the shoots and branches or where even the trunks of small trees are broken or the farmer cuts back the vegetation, edges of forests where deer nibble the new shoots in Spring and the renewed growth in Winter, slopes left after avalanches where damages is repeatedly done, but without the trees finally dying, military training areas where trees are constantly broken, but not killed.
All these places, with the exception of avalanche slopes, have various advantages. In most cases it is possible to obtain permit for collecting, since it is ethically sustainable to collect a tree which if not collected would not only suffer, but also would be unlikely to survive. Since the trees are growing in good soil and are relatively young, they will have a healthy, ample rootball that is very helpful to their survival after being collected.

Inexperienced enthusiasts usually think that most good trees are found in very hidden away and untouched areas. They are completely mistaken.
Man, with his machines and animals is the best generator of raw material for bonsai. The best trees are found especially along roadways or even in towns. Fantastic specimens can be found in places where for decades a hedge has been pruned, where someone has pruned away the trees in the garden, where many years ago livestock passed through the thicket, nibbling on it, where someone for several decades has kept small trees in pots or in a cemetery where a shrub was kept small. Logically, a permit cannot always be obtained for removing the tree, but nothing is lost by asking.

The best time to look for trees is when it is not possible to collect them due to the season, since you will not be tempted to carry them off and you will not take the first one you will find. Since, for the tree to be collected with any likelihood of success, you only have a little time in Autumn and a few weeks in the Spring, there is a great deal of time to make a selection.

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January 24, 2023


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