If you’re a fan of oak bonsai, you’ve likely heard of John “JT” Thompson. For those who don’t know JT, he’s one of the most generous bonsai teachers in the San Francisco Bay Area.
I’d seen JT’s trees in exhibits for years but I hadn’t seen his collection until last week when I visited to record an interview with him for the Bonsai Wire Podcast. Before we sat down to chat, JT showed me some of his favorite oaks.
John “JT” Thompson
Right off the bat, JT called attention to a basic decision we have when styling oaks – whether to style the trees like oaks or like bonsai.
Here’s a cork oak styled in a relatively traditional bonsai form.
The trunk has gentle movement and most of the branches grow outward or slightly down on the lower half of the trunk. This is a common approach for trees that fit the pattern of one of the basic bonsai styles.
An alternative approach to styling oaks is to reproduce a more oak-like structure. The cork oak below is an example of this approach.
The trunk has gentle curves, but instead of supporting slender, descending branches, the trunk splits into smaller trunks (or vertical branches) that grow up and out – a pattern commonly seen in mature cork oaks growing in the landscape.
We have the same basic choices when we style other oak species. The coast live oak, for example, is well-known for its meandering trunks and branches. As a result, it’s common to incorporate meandering branches into coast live oak bonsai whether the goal is to create a tree that is more oak-like or more bonsai-like.
Informal upright coast live oak
Semi-cascade coast live oak
Semi-cascade coast live oak with slender, meandering branches
One of JT’s more massive coast live oaks, still early in its training, is taking on a characteristic oak-like form with the branches splitting off the main trunk and rising upward and outward.
Coast live oak
JT also showed off some of the more interesting oaks in his collection, including a few species that are rarely grown as bonsai.
Mount Tabor oak
Chinese cork oak
After enjoying the garden, JT and I recorded a conversation in which JT shared his approach to oaks and the story of how he got started in bonsai. If you’re looking for tips on growing oak bonsai, check out the recent episode of the Bonsai Wire Podcast.
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