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Chinese Elm - a definitive guide
The Chinese Elm or Ulmus Parvifolia is the most
popular tree available on the Bonsai market today. For the beginner
it is the ideal choice and is the place where most newcomers find
themselves having been tempted or presented with one as a gift.
I receive numerous questions regarding the care of these trees
and so will try and present the truth regarding this species,
warts and all to try and ease the ordeal of trying to keep it
As a species Chinese Elm grows wild in China, Japan,
Korea and Taiwan and though usually deciduous can be reluctant
to lose its leaves. In areas where they receive enough light and
warmth all year round they can be considered evergreen but this
can sometimes be misleading.. They are grown commercially mostly
in China on a vast scale. They are put into cold storage before
export so that they become dormant for the journey and once in
the UK are placed in warm green houses to recover.
So what can Margaret expect from her tree. Well it is pretty obvious that all other factors aside, there is not enough light and warmth to keep the tree evergreen through the winter. Argue if you wish, many do but California we ain't and no amount of wishful thinking will change that fact. So given our miserable british climate what can we do to get the best out of our Chinese Elm. Move to San Jose? Mmm, nice but not entirely practical. I have quite a few of these trees and some are kept in a cold green house over winter with minimal frost protection and they do just fine. They keep their leaves and continue growing with this minimal protection. Others stay outside in the garden and most go dormant duriing winter and for the most part they behave in a similar way to Oak or beech in that they hold onto the dead leaves in order to protectthe new buds. Depending on the weather they will start sprouting in February. Now I live in quite a mild spot on the North Wales coast. We get frost but it tends to be short-lived and not particularly hard. In colder parts of the country it would be advisable to give a little more protection but there is no need to go overboard.
I digress, lets go back to Margaret with her Christmas
present. Bear in mind that the tree has probably been in the country
for say 3 to 6 months. It has undergone fresh growth from a dormant
state in a nice warm green house before being shipped out to the
local supermarket, superstore or market stall where it has received
little or nor care in variable temperatures and light levels,
has been moved several times, knocked about, wrapped and dressed
up with a bow before arriving in it's new home. It is probably,
dehydrated, more than a little shocked and highly stressed. (Well
wouldn't you be after all that). What does it need now?
The Wrong Way - Oh my God, Aunt Mary must have spent a fortune on this tree, please don't let me kill it. Some of the leaves are looking a bit yellow, I'd better put it somewhere warm, near a radiator perhaps, theres no window nearby but that 100w bulb should give it plenty of light. It looks a bit dry but when I pour water on the surface it just runs off, so I suppose it must mean it's got enough already. I'll give it some fertiliser as well that'll do the trick.....
The Right Way - It's winter and this Chinese Elm being a deciduous tree will naturally want to lose at least some of its leaves in response to reduced light levels. That's why some of them are turning yellow. It obviously needs a rest somewhere cool until spring arrives, when there will be enough light to support fresh growth. It looks a bit dry and since water runs off the surface I will stand it in a bowl of water for 15 minutes to give the rootball a chance to soak up what it needs. Then I'll put it on the windowsill in the kitchen where it can get as much natural light as possible and I will have to check on it every day while I am at the sink. I won't need to feed it until it starts growing again and then I'll ask that nice Mark at Green Dragon Bonsai for advice ;- )
So in this way the tree gets to Spring well rested, recovered from it's pre-Christmas ordeal and in good shape to put all its energy into fresh spring growth. Having said that, given the right circumstances and as much natural light as possible some fresh growth may occur during the winter. The way to treat this is not to expect too much too soon and not to push the tree too hard into a premature spring flush. This means watering just enough and feeding lightly, once every 3-4 weeks.
Having briefly touched on the subject of yellow
leaves, now would seem a good time to expand on what is the most
frequently raised point about this species. At certain times throughout
the year some leaves will show sign of yellowing, usually with
black spots appearing followed by varying shades of brown. These
leaves will drop off during the growing season as the new growth
pushes it off but in winter will stay to protect the new bud at
the base. With Chinese Elm, some leaves may be discarded. at any
time of the year as conditions change but the main time is during
Autumn and Winter when it is adjusting its green area to the light
levels. Another time of change occurs in late spring/summer especially
if your tree is enjoying some time outdoors when having put out
as much new growth as possible will shed some of the older leaves
in favour of the fresh new ones and may lose some of the new shoots
as it decides that it has put on enough for this year and settles
down to enjoy the sun.
Once lighter days arrive, new buds will appear and fresh leaves will begin to emerge from just about anywhere on a Chinese Elm and feeding should begin. This can be either a liquid feed or granules. Granules have the advantage of being applied once to the surface and then a weak feed is given every time the tree is watered. They have the disadvantage of looking slightly unsightly, some may attract mould and dosage is a little hit and miss. Liquid feed can be given in more exact amounts on a weekly or fortnightly basis dependent on how much growth is taking place. Rather than stick to rigid time intervals I try and balance feeding with the amount of watering needed. ie More watering will wash away nutrients quicker and feeding frequency will need to be greater.
So we now have a healthy Chinese Elm putting out loads of new growth so you will need to know how to prune it.
The shape your tree takes from here on in is entirely up to you and pruning is almost as simple as removing what you don't want. Having said that, Chinese Elm has this strange system whereby if you cut a branch beyond a certain point the tree will give up on it and put its energy elsewhere. For this reason when trimming new growth, allow the new shoots to put out at least 5 leaves before trimming back to 1 or 2 depending on which direction you wish the next set of new growth to take. This process is then repeated throughout the growing season and in this way vigour is maintained.
It is a myth that Bonsai growth processes are somehow suspended. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is the constant renewal and redirection of fresh growth that produces the fine branch structures that symbolise the best Bonsai. Liken it if you will to a golf course. Divots and pitch marks soon take their toll on the grass andit is the constant regrowth that repairs this wear and tear. Imagine the mess if grass growth was slowed down!!
Well there you have it, everything you need to know about Chinese Elm. I am sure that I have not covered everything so if you have any further questions then please feel free to drop me a line.
Mark Kennerley updated April 2008
TOOLS AND TECHNIQUES - An outline of the basic requirements
THE CHINESE ELM - Everybody starts here, some home truths
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS - A whimsical look at some common problems
BONSAI CALENDAR - What to do and when to do it
STYLING - DEVELOPING THE EYE - Slightly more advanced but essential
5 MINUTE RAFT PLANTING - A simple project
THE ILLUSION OF BONSAI - More food for thought