I’m a big fan of stewartia. The variety officially known as Stewartia monadelpha goes by “hime-shara” in Japan and the unimaginative common name “Tall Stewartia” – a usage I’ve yet to hear in bonsai. They develop medium-fast and are known not for their white flowers or small, fuzzy fruit but for their beautiful copper-bronze trunks which when brushed just right look as metallic as they do organic.
To my liking there just aren’t enough stewartia bonsai around. Catching a nice one at an exhibit is always a treat. I’ve been growing mine for almost 10 years and it’s still a few years away from its first exhibit. It was picked from among a dozen gallon-can trees destined for a Boon workshop at a GSBF convention and grew with little attention for most of the past decade.
During this time I learned a few things about the variety. It’s usually the first tree in the garden to wilt when dry, and the first to get crispy leaves when it’s really hot. It also recovers from these traumas quite well which makes it a good candidate for leaf pruning.
Now that the trunk has reached an adequate size, I can focus on developing the ramification. After a single round of cutback last summer, I learned that branches develop quickly on stewartia. The tree received some attention from Michael Hagedorn last winter and is now ready for some summer cutback.
Front, before cutback and leaf pruning
When the spring shoots run to about 5-7 new leaves, I can trim back to 2 new leaves and expect plenty of late summer and fall growth, thus doubling – and sometimes trebling – the number of shoots I’d get if I only cut back once a year.
After cutting the new shoots back to 2-3 new leaves per shoot (I left more growth on interior shoots) I noticed that the tree was still quite full. Although it looked nice, I knew that leaving it so full would stress the interior shoots I am working to develop. Increasing the light these shoots received would do the trick. Leaf pruning would allow me to both weaken strong areas while letting light into the weaker areas – two results that work wonders for achieving balance.
As you can see from the above photo, the leaf-size on stewartia can vary significantly. This variation provides a clue as to how much leaf to cut when leaf pruning. The actual process of cutting is straight forward: first fold, then cut.
Folding the leaf
Cutting the leaf
Leaf, after cutting
Although the object isn’t to make the leaves all the same size, it can work out that way because the larger leaves are usually the ones shading the smaller leaves. When I was finished leaf pruning, most leaves ended up on the small side.
After some painstaking clipping I was confident the tree’s interior would get the requisite light needed to strengthen the interior shoots.
After cutback and leaf-pruning
Now the trick is getting the tree through the hottest part of the summer – with less foliage! To do this I keep the tree under shade cloth and watch the water very carefully. If all goes as expected, I’ll have plenty of new shoots to work with next year and be that much closer to getting the tree to its first exhibit.
Note for the curious – the tree is growing in a handmade pot by Sara Rayner.