Last week I wrote that it’s important to look for the surface roots when evaluating bonsai (see “Check the surface roots“). What is it that we’re looking for?
We want to see the connection between trunk and roots.
Surface roots on corkbark elm
When we see surface roots – nebari, in Japanese – we can get a sense of how secure the bonsai is in its growing medium. The roots not only secure bonsai in place, they are the vehicle through which the tree can interact with the soil – a key part of the tree’s existence.
The role surface roots play can differ from variety to variety. Often collected bonsai, particularly junipers, emerge between cracks in rocks. This leaves no opportunity for the tree to develop surface roots. For this reason, it’s acceptable for otherwise excellent trees to lack surface roots.
No surface roots – Sierra juniper collected from between rocks
Other times surface roots are a jumble. In these cases our best hope is that there is no evidence of reverse taper.
Surface roots on cork oak
Many trees grown as bonsai for a long time are repeatedly planted too high. In these cases, you might find surface roots that look like they’re sitting on top of the soil or floating in the air.
Surface roots above the surface of the soil
In these cases, we can improve the appearance of the surface roots by planting the tree lower in the pot.
Sometimes roots can display the characteristics we most appreciate in the trunk of the tree. For pines, this would be fissured bark.
Aged bark on the surface roots of a black pine
The appearance of lichen can also convey a sense of great age. This is often the case for white pine bonsai.
Surface roots with lichen on white pine
In general, surface roots are very important on deciduous bonsai. One reason for this is that it’s easier to develop surface roots on deciduous trees than it is to develop them on conifers. The appearance of these roots, however, can vary widely depending on the species.
A good non-typical example is stewartia bonsai. Over time, old stewartia bonsai develop knuckles where the roots enter the soil. We don’t think of this as a flaw because stewartia naturally grow this way.
Surface roots on stewartia bonsai
Large knuckles on stewartia bonsai
Maples, on the other hand, readily develop great surface roots. Because of this, our standards for maple bonsai nebari are high.
Nebari on Japanese maple
In many cases, the surface roots on deciduous varieties greatly contribute to the initial taper of the trunk.
Surface roots on Japanese maple contributing to the flair of the trunk
The most extraordinary examples are spectacular.
Surface roots on trident maple
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