Documents: Special Interest: Bonsai:

Semi-Cascade Bonsai - An 'Ancient' Potentilla
by Ruth Staal
October 7, 2007

Last fall, when shrubs were on sale at garden centres, I bought a little one gallon potentilla at a ridiculously low price. It was not at all symmetrical, or even pleasing to the average purchaser who was looking for the bushiest, healthiest one to be found. Of course, we do not want our bonsai to be symmetrical, and unusual shapes create a challenge we simply can't resist. This plant had a twisted trunk and several of the branches slanted downwards - not a preferred shape for a garden shrub but a perfect chance to try a semi-cascade bonsai.

Potentilla fruiticosa is a shrub native to the dry prairies. Many other plants, such as cotoneaster , natal plum (Carissa gandiflora), firethorn (Pyracantha sp.),fuchsia , and juniper can be used, depending on availability and difficulty of winter care. Potentilla is one of the hardiest shrubs in the area where I live, but cannot survive outdoors in a pot in the winter (because of our rapid temperature fluctuations) or indoors at room temperatures. I am fortunate to have a cold room with flourescent lights, where it lived happily dormant all winter in its original pot. In warmer climates, deciduous bonsai could live in a protected spot outdoors over the winter. In April, I started pruning out all unwanted branches, to expose a trunk which grew in an interesting upward curve for a few inches and then bent dramatically downwards and to the right.

Semi-cascade bonsai resemble plants growing on a cliff face, a rocky shoreline, a canyon wall or a windswept hiilside (as is common with potentilla). The branches grow downward and outward because there is less stress at that level. This type of plant might be on a hillside facing away from the prevailing wind, so that wind whips above it but all foliage is below the wind. The foliage on the downward sweeping branches grows upwards towards the light and the tip of the lowest branch often grows slightly upwards. The tip does not extend far below the rim of the pot, which can be shallow or with a smaller surface area and deeper.

Semi-cascade bonsai generally have an apex or head of foliage above the downward branches, representing a lower branch, or tail, of the tree. Incorporating a back branch in the head adds depth that is difficult to create on the lower branches. Above this point, the trunk has bent over severely, or the trunk has broken off, and the lower branches survive below the area of stress. The tree's roots on the side of the tail are compressed by the stress of the downward branch and are knuckled or buttressed. On the opposite side the roots have an anchoring function, counter-balancing the pull on the tree. A sturdy root should be visible above ground and pointing away from the tail to indicate this .

My little potentilla was a 'natural' and needed no wiring to maintain a graceful curve in the tail. It was planted in a tall, red clay pot, about three inches square by about five inches deep. It should have bright yellow flowers soon, adding to its appeal. Try a semi-cascade bonsai in a variety of plants. All will be different, representing something in nature that appeals to you. Someone else might create a totally different style from the same plant, but yours will be special to you, and that is what makes bonsai such a satisfying hobby. Create and enjoy!

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