Bonsai Autopsy Procedures

Over the past few months, members of the club I belong to comment that they have lost trees (killed) to including JBP’s, maples or junipers. I to have lost trees. I assume this happens to others. None of these results are openly explored to determine the cause for the death. My assumption is that the death is related to something I did or something l did not do. My question is to learn from this death so l do not repeat the same death the next time on my next purchase of the same tree. Is it correct to conduct an autopsy on my dead trees to learn from this experience. If this can be done please tell me how!

I always try to figure out what’s gone wrong when a tree dies. Checking the foliage and the roots can sometimes provide clues, but by the time the tree dies it’s often too late to know for sure. I find it’s most helpful to follow up on any signs of weakness as soon as I spot them so I have a chance to follow up and learn more.

There are so many variables to consider that i consider daily observation of the trees critical to gaining insight into why we lose trees. Sometimes the reason is fairly obvious, identifiable disease, insect damage, root rot. Often i feel it is a combination of circumstances that leads to their demise.
The key offenders appear to be, husbandry errors in watering, soil conditions, placement of species. Followed frequently by amount of work done at one time or the wrong time. Then one has to consider the aftercare required for certain techniques and situations.
Keeping track of condition changes and work done often provides a great starting point for diagnosis.
Observing changes when they begin to occur is critical, once the tree is dead i question what can be learned. I have found seeking advice early from someone who works with that species locally is an excellent first step.

Also, I think that one of the ‘mysterious death’ effects sometimes comes after letting ceramic pots receive full sun in the Summer. the sun can literally bake the trees roots, at least the ones at the edge of the pot. Roots like to stay cool and usually are when in the ground. When we put them in a artificial environment, then we need to protect the roots from excessive heat in the Summer. I wrap my ceramic pots with aluminum foil, at least the ones that are receiving full sun. I also live in S. Ga. (zone 8B). Perhaps the sun is not as ‘brutal’ up north.

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Good Point. The sun is pretty hot here in the summer. I must admit that most of my trees that are in pots are kept on the benches in more protected areas. Trees in grow boxes or grow beds are more exposed. I have not experienced any of the pot heating issues. We usually do not experience more than 85 to 90 degree Fahrenheit summer days though. If i expect very hot sunny weather i shift more sensitive trees to more protected areas. A bigger problem for me is to protect trees from too much rain in the winter. Inorganic substrate with reasonable particle size and bottom drainage layer is the rule of thumb in my nursery. Even in the grow beds.

3 posts were split to a new topic: Help with sick cedar

With respect to the autopsy issue, l am aware that the first step if this is process issue is the need to determine IF the tree is dead. I know for instance that elms and maples will drop their leaves as they go dormant in November and December. That does not mean that they are dead and therefore should be discarded. I know that old Pine needles turn color in the winter. I also know that tropical trees also drop leaves in the winter and that is a reason for moving them indoors. My point for raising this issue relates to human autopsy’s. You do not want the process done on anyone who is still alive. I also understand that if you water too much or too little you could have killed your tree. What I am trying to learn about is if the tree is dead, can the examination of its roots, soil mix or other factors exist that will help me prevent the same issue or issues that caused the tree to die in the first place. I would like to learn something valuable to avoid recurrence of such deaths.

I understand the question. The answer depends on the resources at your disposal.
If one can examine the roots and isolate diseased tissue for examination or collect and identify pest organisms then it would lead to preventative measures in the future.
I believe for practical purposes as Bonsai enthusiasts the ability to interpret the situation while the tree is alive is likely to be easier to do.
For example understanding what a desiccated root tip looks like compared to a rotting root. Identifying root grubs or root aphids, and taking appropriate measures. I know this is not " autopsy" but in fact the practice of carefully examining trees that show signs of weakness for indicators that will explain the cause.
The practice of emergency repot is much maligned, but in my opinion far more valuable in providing needed care direction then generally understood. issues like dry core of original soil, too much bark that inhibits root growth or too much water retention. A visual of the root development pattern can also provide insight.
I suspect the issue with autopsy involves the timeliness of collection of samples for examination in the laboratory before decay alters the results. That is the usual problem with tissue and disease organisms. often it requires the removal of a sample from a living but affected host in order to determine what affected the other plants or organisms.
The best people to address this issue are likely the plant health certification agencies and laboratory networks.

Me too, wrap my pots in aluminum foil in the summer months

Earlier this week I came across a video from Herons Bonsai in England on the use of spaghnum moss as a rescue remedy for ailing bonsais. The video showed the results of placing the sick tree in what appeared to be a two foot bye four foot four inch high plastic container stuffed with spaghnum moss. The tree appeared to have developed a mass of new roots. The video did not explain the extent of the trees initial problems or any root cutting that may have been proformed before being placed in the container. Is this process being used here in the US to try and save trees in distress? If yes, what other details in this process if any are involved?

Interesting - first I’ve heard of the approach.