Advice on an Eastern Red Cedar

(Rick) #1

I posted this on another forum but, thought I’d try here also.

I have no experience with bonsai but, have always appreciated the art. I recently decided to start learning about bonsai in the hope of picking up a new hobby. I’ve read enough posts on different forums to know that ERC makes for poor bonsai material but, figured since I needed some trees to practice on anyway . . . Why not.

My buddy was going to bulldoze an Eastern Red Cedar on his property and I talked him into taking a coffee break just long enough for me to hastily dig it up. I had to be quick about it but, managed to save a lot of the rootball. I stuck it in a large pot (I had sitting around) that was already 3/4’s full of some potting soil from last summer. If it survives a Cape Cod winter, I’d like to try some shaping and styling in the future. I was hoping for some instructive advice.

As is typical for ERC, this tree wanted to grow into a fence post. However, since it was located on a windy bluff, nature kept it somewhat short and shrubby with a fairly thick trunk (for it’s height). The trunk has some taper and a little (very little) movement.

For those of you that don’t completely despise this native species, can you please tell me what my next steps should be regarding this tree? I realize it needs some time to recover and get healthy before I do any cutting but, any suggestions on styling/shaping would be appreciated.

P.S. I plan on purchasing additional (more acceptable) species of trees to learn and work with simultaneously

(Gregory Goldstein) #2

Hi Rick. Like you I am new to bonsai, and so cannot answer your question as to the next step. However, can you tell me why Eastern Red Cedar is not a particularly popular species to work with in bonsai art?
Sincerely, Gregory

(Rick) #3

Hi, Gregory. Among the reasons I’ve seen listed (and can remember off-hand):

  • Eastern Red Cedar (ERC) trunks are uninteresting. They grow ridiculously straight and have little to no taper (think telephone poles).

  • The branches on younger trees tend to grow at upward angles that are difficult to redirect with wire because they will tend to spring back once the wiring is removed.

  • I also think people have said that you may unexpectedly lose branches.

  • Something about the foliage being less than desirable.

  • People aren’t big fans of the shredded nature of the bark.

  • Eastern Red Cedar is a perpetuating part of the life cycle of a disease that effects apple trees.

. . . it goes on and on.

My desire to want to try out this difficult material is:

  • It is a free tree (for a complete rookie like me) to practice on. Having no experience, I’m destined to kill a few trees and “free” makes that a LITTLE less painful.

  • ERC is one of the few iconic trees representative of Cape Cod . . . It’s everywhere.

  • I like the species and something (that I don’t totally understand yet) drew me to this particular tree.

  • I’ve seen a few examples on the internet that were very nice trees. I’m sure these trees were styled by masters but, it’s not like I’m expecting any of my trees to look like they’ve been created by a master bonsai artist.

At any rate, the thing has already been dug up and I’m determined to push forward with this tree until I am “enlightened enough” to want to stop.

(Frank Corrigan) #4

You have requested some advice regarding the next steps.

  1. Monitor your watering carefully to ensure that the soil does not remain waterlogged in the pot.
  2. Keep all the remaining foliage until the tree is showing signs of new growth and definite recovery.
  3. Do not take any further steps to prune or otherwise disturb the tree until the recovery is strong. Think one or two growing seasons.
  4. You may remove dead branches or unwanted moss, debris.
  5. When recovery is complete then you will be in a position to select branches you wish to remain after finding the front.
  6. The front of the design should combine the best view of surface roots and movement/taper within the trunk.

(Rick) #5

Thank you, Frank!

I will resist the urge to start thinning out some of those whorls of branches.

I know it’s WAY premature and the photos are limiting but, do you have any ideas for styling a tree like this? As I care for it (over the next year or two), I’d enjoy contemplating some of the possibilities.

(Frank Corrigan) #6

You are correct in that it is very difficult to suggest a specific design from one picture. There is no way for me to evaluate the various perspectives and planting angles without seeing the tree.
#5 and #6 above are the first steps, then the process flows from there!
What is appropriate for the foliage type, natural growth pattern?
What does this particular tree offer in particular?
Does it have a main feature that you would like to focus the design on?
For example here is an Alaskan Yellow Cedar. It is atypical in form and a standard design format is inappropriate. The top picture shows the current progress, the one below a previous step prior to compacting branches and foliage. So one cannot go to the books and find step by step directions. You will need to look at all the options over a period of time to choose the front and appropriate panting angle. After that a particular framework of foliage will likely suggest itself.

(Rick) #7

My God . . . that is beautiful!

(Frank Corrigan) #8

This is a collected tree, The root recovery after collection took two years, Then after deciding to plant more upright the roots were developed further in a different plant for two years. The branches have been reduced, wire and bent for compaction over the past three years, while the foliage has been compacted and encouraged to the interior. During the winters over the past two years i have been cleaning and carving the deadwood. The tree has been under development for 6 or 7 years at this point.
If you wish to start visualizing some change in your tree, it is likely the two largest branches on the left of your current picture will be removed.Then the resulting scars will affect selection of front and angle of planting. You may wish to look ahead at possible apex choices once the two larger branches have been removed.
Do not forget to carefully assess the root structure and its appearance before proceeding.
As you can see all my comments are geared towards the Bonsai facts of life.
Things Take Time, and the Devil is in the details.

(Jonas Dupuich) #9

Ditto what Frank said about tree care and development. Thought of another way, you now have 1-2 years in which to figure out what to do next! I’ll often research a species before working on it, selecting examples I like and don’t like and identifying, when possible, any patterns.

As for whether or not the species is great for bonsai, the first thing that comes to mind is that anything that can survive a Cape Cod winter deserves a chance!

Various techniques can help with the large leaf size (sawara cypress techniques could be a good model). The other challenge could be interior branching. Am not sure about how good back budding is or whether grafting is a good option for the species. And if neither of these approaches helps, then the silhouette may end up larger than expected.

Will look forward to future updates!

(Vern Maddox) #10

Just saw your post and have a few comments. First, The ERC is not a cedat, but rather a juniper - Juniperus Virginiana. I live in Texas and these trees are almost an invasive species, so very easy to find and collect. I’ve heard some of the reasons why not to use them in bonsai, but I think they work. They are very strong, grow fast and have very flexible branches, up to a point. If wired correctly, the branches should not “spring back”. The do tend to grow straight trunks but that des not necessarily mean the trunks lack interest. In fact, the trunk on your tree looks very interesting to me. The tree needs a lot of thought to achieve a good design, but that’s what bonsai is all about. I have several and enjoy them. They are a good representative of wild, native trees and we need more of them in bonsai.
Good luck, and don’t believe everything negative you read on the internet. Jonas and Frank have given you some good ideas, so go for it.

(Vern Maddox) #11

I just looked again at your tree and, on second thought, it doesn’t look much like an ERC. Actually looks more like a thuja. Maybe the foliage looks different on the ERC in different parts of the country.
Would appreciate thoughts from Jonas and Frank, and you, about the possibility of your tree being a true cedar and not an Juniperus Virginiana.

(Jonas Dupuich) #12

@vmaddox1 - I’m not familiar enough with the species to make a call, and it’s hard for me to tell from the photo, but it does look more like the Eastern red cedar than the thuja from what I can see.

(Frank Corrigan) #13

Common names in various parts of the country can often lead to confusion as well! Not a species that i have worked with, and the pictures are not so clear. Perhaps an update from Rick with spring foliage would make it easier to identify for sure!

(Rick) #14

Hi Vern
Thank you (and everyone else) for all of your input. The tree is definitely an Eastern Red Cedar. There are not that many varieties of tree species on Cape Cod . . . white and black oaks, pitch and white pines, some maple varieties, and ERC dominate the wild landscape. Of course, Thuja can be found here but, ERC is one of the (few) trees I’ve learned to readily identify. In any case, just as many knowledgeable people had correctly predicted, I believe I killed the tree. Instead of sprouting new growth (like the few smaller ERC I have since collected), the tips of the branches have been turning brown and showing no new growth whatsoever. I feel terrible but, I do get a little solace from knowing that my buddy would’ve plowed over it the day I made my half-ass attempt at saving it.

(Vern Maddox) #15

I guess the appearance is a bit regional. Our ERC in Texas looks a bit different. It is still a good tree for bonsai so don’t give up on it. Sorry you lost your tree but it was a good effort on your part.
Good luck with ERC in the future.

(Rick) #16


The tree that I attempted to salvage had been growing on a sandy bluff along a beach front property. The brutal conditions kept the tree short.
On Cape Cod, ERC are more apt to look like the trees in these photos.


(Frank Corrigan) #17

Looks like great candidates for gnarly windswept style. Love those trunks.