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Australian Native Plants as Bonsai - 2007

Catalogue Notes from the November 2007 'Australian Plants as Bonsai' exhibition held at the Australian National Botanic Gardens.

Acacia howittii
    Sticky wattle
Year first styled 2003

The plant’s natural habitat is the southern Gippsland hills of Victoria. The common name is due to the slight stickiness of the phyllodes (leaf-like structures). In spring, it produces pale, lightly scented, light yellow balls of flowers. I acquired this as a starter plant from a Canberra nursery. The stem was thinner than a chopstick. My dream was to create a weeping style with an Australian native. The A. howittii was my logical choice as its leaves are similar in shape to the weeping willow except much smaller which is ideal for a bonsai. Trying to keep it upright was a struggle as its stem and branches were skinny and it kept falling over. Staking and wiring were the only ways to overcome this. I learnt many things about the characteristics of this plant which was invaluable to me in keeping it alive and healthy. This was my first attempt at bonsaiing an Australian native.      In the autumn of 2006 it was re-potted into its present container.  Both the plant and I seemed to have come a long way even though it is only 4 years since I brought it home. I am happy with the results so far and hope that it will continue to improve with the years to come.

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Allocasuarina torulosa

   Forest Oak or Forest She-oak
In training since 2003
Babingtonia virgata
   Dwarf Tea-tree
       In training since 2001

The two trees here together were originally part of a more varied group planting, exhibited in 2004, representing a corner of the Australian bush.

The fast growth of the trees, however, soon necessitated the removal of several, leaving only the Allocasuarina and the Babingtonia.  A nice surprise was provided by the small Allocasuarina, which grew from the roots of the large tree, early in 2006.  Yet another can be seen starting on the left side. Both the Allocasuarina and the Babingtonia need frequent watering and regular fertilizing. They prefer a shady spot in summer.  The Babingtonia is pruned twice a year, but the Allocasuarina’s foliage needs frequent care. The tips of the ‘needles’ need removing, especially those that branch. Also, to avoid too much of a criss-crossing of ‘needles’, it is necessary to thin them out from time to time. Neither of the two trees has ever been wired.

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Allocasuarina torulosa
    Forest Oak or Forest She-oak

The tree was acquired from reasonably advanced nursery stock in 2006 and has been in training ever since.  Apart from its appeal in a static display, there are additional elements of this tree that reward the observant.  In winter it assumes a maroon colour and on a sunny winter morning it looks almost red.  After a shower of rain, when the sun comes out, the hair-like branches are covered in tiny water droplets that glisten and refract the sunlight.  Lastly, on a breezy day, the wind whistles through the branches - close your eyes and you are in a grove of


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Backhousia myrtifolia
    Grey Myrtle
Year first styled 2005

The Grey Myrtle, or Ironwood, is a tall shrub or small tree, found near water courses of the coastal regions of southern NSW through to central Queensland and grows to a height of 5-10 m.  It has not been widely used in bonsai, but as its many virtues become known, its use is extending.  It responds very well to  pruning and if heavily pruned it will shoot from very old wood.  If regularly tip pruned during the growing season, it ramifies strongly and also reduces in leaf size by 70-80%.  Young leaves can be a rich  velvety, burgundy red, later becoming shiny dark green.  The grey myrtle has small white to cream flower heads but as yet my tree has not flowered.  The species can be adapted to most bonsai styles.   This tree was a starter plant obtained from Roger Hinnrichsen’s Cambewarra bonsai nursery in 2005 and I’m using clip and grow techniques to develop it in a Chinese or penjing root over rock style.   The tree was  re-potted from a plastic training pot into a shallow round Pat Kennedy Mirkwood Forest Pottery bonsai pot.  

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Banksia marginata
    Dwarf Silver Banksia
Year first styled 2003

One of two Banksia marginata purchased from a nursery in mid-2003. Provenance is suspected to be Tasmania . It was left in the original container and fed with slow release native fertiliser and pruned quite severely. The plant responded slowly, but consistently put on new growth. In autumn 2004, it was transplanted it to its current pot and has settled in well. During spring and summer of 2004-05 it commenced flowering. The flower spikes are persistent and attractive. There are currently three flower spikes, one of which appears to have aborted. This tree is quite frost hardy and is suited to the Canberra environment.

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Callistemon 'Captain Cook'
Year first styled 1995

This tree was grown from an air layer taken from a garden plant in 1992.  It was in a training pot for a couple of years and then transferred to a bonsai pot and styling began.  It is repotted about every 2 years and cut back after flowering.  It also needs some finger pinching of the tips.  I vary the type of fertiliser used.

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Callistemon pallidus
    River Bottle Brush
Root over Rock style
      Year first styled 1995

The inspiration for this Callistemon bonsai was found in the trees growing on rock bars in the Ovens River, near Myrtleford, in north east Victoria.  Seedlings germinate in the hollows of the rock and roots develop, following the cracks and crevices, often clambering for some distance over the bare rock in search of reliable anchorage and sustenance in the meagre soil pockets.

Regular flooding forces the majority of growth to point downstream and the trees are often elongated with sparse foliage. Many of these trees show scarred trunks and broken branches from impacts of flood borne debris. These trees show resilience and survival despite the hazardous nature of their habitat.

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Casuarina equisetifolia

    Dwarf Beach She-oak or Australian Pine
Year first styled 1987

The origins of this tree are a bit murky as to exactly what it is and where it came from. What we know for sure is that it is a cutting-grown dwarf variety of Casuarina .

It is a very slow growing Casuarina with stiff and sometimes brittle foliage and branches. The trunk has thickened very nicely without any special techniques. It has been grown mostly by just trimming unwanted foliage, but after some storm damage a few years ago it was carefully and successfully lightly wired at the front to repair the damage.  I have found the tree to be very hardy and a most rewarding subject for bonsai.

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Ceratopetalum gummiferum
    New South Wales Christmas Bush

This species is typically found as a large shrub or small tree. The leaves can be up to 70 cm long but will reduce quite well when used as bonsai. The flowers are small and white. However, the most conspicuous part of the bush is the red sepals which develop and enlarge greatly after pollination.

This plant was purchased as a seedling and I have been growing it for five years. It is a fast grower and has been re-potted numerous times. To allow the display of flowers and sepals best, it must be allowed to grow unpruned for several months prior to flowering. This gives the bush an untidy but striking appearance until it can be trimmed heavily after ‘flowering’. It has been placed in a hand made pot coloured to simulate the mineral beach sands where (ocean road between Lake Cathie and Port Macquarie) I have seen them grow abundantly.

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Eucalyptus crenulata

    Victorian Silver Gum
Year first styled 2003

Nancy Stacpoole originally grew this specimen of the Victorian silver gum, also known as Buxton gum, in 1988 as a part of her extensive collection of Australian native species she was experimenting on for use as bonsai.   The species has a restricted natural occurrence near Buxton and Yering in Victoria but is widely cultivated in gardens in south-east Australia where it can reach 12-15 m in height.  Canberra specimens can be seen near the Faculty of Science building at the ANU.

The juvenile foliage is beautiful with reddish tips and the mature heart-shaped grey-green leaves have ‘crenulated’ edges.   I transferred this tree from its black plastic pot into a shallow bonsai pot from Earth ’n Bonsai (Roger Hnatiuk) and have used the ‘clip and grow’ shaping technique.  The branches sprout from numerous buds and grow every which way and trying to find a natural yet pleasing branch ramification structure is challenging.

 Leaf reduction is my main aim as is improving the overall shape of the tree.   The old bark curling off the trunk adds age to this bonsai.

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Eucalyptus nicholii
    Narrow-leaved Black Peppermint
Year first styled 1999

Found at the south Canberra dump in the Revolve section in the summer of 1995. It was in very little soil and full of disease. (mealy bug and sooty mildew). Only being new to bonsai, I thought that if this plant could survive these conditions it had potential, and it being a native, it was my opportunity to experiment with the horticulture and structure.

Over the following months I removed the pests and when it showed signs of new growth I re-potted, cut back the old wood and trained a new leader.  In 1999 I potted it into a bonsai pot  Then in 2001 I drilled a hole from where the new leader was formed to the base, where I opened up another hole making it hollow.

In late October 2003 I re-potted it into an oval, unglazed pot and in December of the same year I removed some of the rough bark to reveal a dead section of the trunk.  I then cut this piece out creating another hole in the trunk.  To make it a fully Australian work of art I re-potted the tree into a  Pat Kennedy pot in October 2005 as seen on the ANBG web site.  It was entered into the BCI competition in 2006 and received an Honourable Mention.

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Eucalyptus viridis
    Green Mallee
Year first styled 2003

This tree was a gift from a member of the Canberra Bonsai Society in 1997.  Because mallee has a lignotuber, the shape of the tree was not particularly attractive because the trunk diameter was much smaller than that of the lignotuber.  It took six years for the trunk to thicken sufficiently to a stage where training as a bonsai could commence and the tree was put in the current bonsai pot.  Although the tree has responded well to general plant maintenance it is still not mature.  The bark will eventually be similar to that seen on box trees (E. albens), finely furrowed and shed in crumbly flakes.  E. viridis is found on the western slopes  of central and northern NSW and in isolated areas of northern Victoria and Queensland.  The tree is frost hardy to minus 7 degrees C.

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Eucryphia lucida
    Tasmanian Leatherwood

Endemic to Tasmania, it is an understorey species found in mixed forest to rainforest environments, with an altitudinal range from sea level to 1000 metres.  It needs a shady environment, plenty of water, is frost resistant, but drought can destroy it.   In its natural habitat, it can grow to 30m in height.   The flowers are the source of the very productive Tasmanian Leatherwood honey industry.

I purchased this plant at the Yarralumla Nursery about 2 years ago, kept it in a larger container until recently, when I trimmed its foliage and roots and replanted it in its present home.

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Year first styled 1987

This tree was grown from seed collected in 1980. It spent about five years in a training pot before being transplanted into a bonsai container. It is trained in an upright style like ones growing in parks. Every three or four years it needs to be cut back strongly to maintain the compact growth. It grows happily in a rich, well-drained soil with plentiful water and fertiliser. It is very good for beginners as it is a very hardy plant that responds well to pruning, but it does not like frost.

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Ficus platypoda
(syn. Ficus euginoides)
Small-leafed Morton Bay Fig
        Root over rock style

This bonsai was presented to me by a Japanese friend 10 years ago. The tree is over 20 years of age.   The leaves are getting smaller and the roots bigger and fatter.   My next task is to give the impression of a 200 year old fig growing beside Sydney Harbour.

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Ficus rubiginosa 'Little Ruby'
    Port Jackson Fig
Year first styled 1995

The ‘Little Ruby’ fig is a slow growing natural dwarf of the Port Jackson fig and is propagated from cuttings. This tree was first trained for bonsai last year  when it was used as a   demonstration tree at the 2006 Exhibition of Australian Native Plants as Bonsai.

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Ficus rubiginosa
    Port Jackson Fig
Year first styled 1996
It has been in my collection since April 2006.  It was first prize in the raffle at the Weston Creek Bonsai Group Autumn Show in 2006.

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Kunzea ericoidies
Year acquired 2000

The sparse foliage was at the tip of the trunks.  The tree was re-potted in August 2000 and all trunks were pruned to their current height.  Since then continual pruning and shaping has brought the tree into its present style.  The tree was potted into its bonsai pot (created by Pat Kennedy) in September 2004.  This tree was displayed at the 2004 Australian Plants as Bonsai Exhibition.

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Lagarostrobus franklinii

    Huon Pine

This native species is not actually a pine but a podocarp. It is only found in the west and south west of Tasmania, next to rivers and in boggy areas. It is a relic of Gondwana with pollen records dating back 135 million years. The timber was used for boat building as it did not rot and was not attacked by marine organisms due to its natural oils. Logging has reduced the stands to less than 10,500 hectares that are now fully protected within the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area.

It grows very slowly and one tree is known to be over 4000 years old. The Huon pine is dioecious with male (pollen) and female (seed) cones on separate plants. The seeds are carried on scales and are water dispersed.

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Leptospermum laevigatum
    Coast Tea-tree
Age 10 years

This semi-cascade tree with exposed roots was started from a semi hardwood cutting 10 years ago. Once established it was grown in a tall plastic pot to allow the roots to grow to a long length so they could be exposed to the dramatic effect that it is seen today. This particular variety of tea -tree is very hardy and responds very well to continual tip pruning and annual root pruning. Root pruning is best conducted during mid August to mid September. The grey-green foliage is around 2cm long so it has very good proportions for bonsai work; as do the flowers which are around 1.5cm to 2cm in diameter. They are white, appear singly on the plant, and have five petals.  They appear on the plant from September through to November. Branches should be wired when young as the wood can get quite rigid in a short space of time. The rough looking pot that the tree is growing in suggests the location of a plant growing in harsh conditions.

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Leptospermum obovatum
Year first styled 1986

This tree is estimated to be about 100 years old. 

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Year first styled 2005

Leptospermum ‘Pageant’ is a hybrid, strong growing with quite dense
foliage, so there were plenty of branches to choose from when styling.  I acquired the plant from a local nursery two years ago and, leaving it in the original nursery pot, started styling immediately.  In September of this year (2007) it was moved into a bonsai pot for the first time. This is only a training pot as I envisage something shallower for its final pot. After the tree recovers from its repotting I plan to reposition someof the main branches and do some extensive wiring of the minor ones.

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Melaleuca armillaris

    Bracelet Honey Myrtle

This species is a fast-growing, bushy shrub or small tree to around 5m with fine, crowded dark green leaves.  Numerous small white brush-flowers appear in late spring and often again in late autumn, providing food for nectar-eating and insectivorous birds.  This is a hardy shrub and is adaptable to a wide range of conditions.  It will tolerate coastal exposure and will grow in poorly drained soils.
This tree has developed into a very pleasing bonsai, responding readily to regular pruning.  I like the movement in this tree, the up-thrusting branches represent the characteristic growth found in many native trees which grow on the coast.

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Melaleuca decussata

    Cross-leafed Honey Myrtle
Year first styled 2004

This plant  belongs to the Myrtaceae family.  Small leaves are arranged in two pairs of opposite rows forming a cross when viewed from above (hence the common name). Mauve flowers are carried in small, cylindrical spikes on short, lateral branches or at the base of leafy branches. Flowers fade to white as they age. At this time plants become covered with small, colourful spikes. This year is the first time that this tree will flower.

Melaleuca decussata
is well known in cultivation and has proved to be hardy and free flowering. The species occurs in Victoria and South Australia. The Cross-leafed honey myrtle will cope with both moist and dry situations.

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Melaleuca ericifolia

    Swamp Paperbark

This tree from nursery stock was planted in the garden about twenty two years ago. It  was transplanted to make way (ironically) for a bonsai display area about seven years ago and then again dug up and transferred to a large nursery pot in 2002. It has only ever produced one shoot from its somewhat shortened trunk and after re-potting last winter into its current pot, immediately dropped all its leaves. It recovered after careful nursing during the spring to what you see today - a somewhat bedraggled tree but with potential.

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Melaleuca linariifolia
    Paperbark 'Claret tops'
Year first styled 2006

This is a dwarf form of the parent species, which occurs in NSW and Queensland. The new growth is an attractive dark red and the tree bears fluffy white flowers in spring and summer. This tree was grown in a pot for three years with regular trimming back to develop the foliage density. It was first styled in 2006 as a demonstration tree.

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Melaleuca styphelioides

    Prickly Paperbark
Year first styled 1981

Melaleuca styphelioides is a hardy tree that tolerates poorly drained soils or drier conditions. It occurs naturally in NSW and Queensland and may reach heights of 10m. It has been widely used as a street tree in Melbourne and Sydney. It has creamy-white flowers in cylindrical spikes in summer.

M. styphelioides is a popular bonsai specimen for its attractive bark, small leaves and readiness to shoot back on old wood. This particular tree was one of my first bonsai exercises and has been stripped back to the trunk, and branches re-grown several times.

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Melaleuca violacea

    Paperbark or Honey Myrtle

This 1½ m x 1½ m shrub from W.A. has small mauve flowers appearing in spring.  It likes open soil and a sunny position.  It is drought and frost resistant in a normal situation, i.e. garden and bush setting.  However, this bonsai has been grown in a saucer of water for about 18-20 years and re-potted every 6-8 years.

This western shrub does not need to be grafted to handle humidity, dry summer or root rot - characteristics of many garden settings in eastern Australia.  The only problems I have encountered are a few leaves being eaten by caterpillars.  These leaves are very easily clipped off.

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Schefflera actinophylla
    Queensland Umbrella Tree

This is one of the very few purchased plants in my collection.     Several un-styled trunks were closely knit by the roots, forming what I thought would be useful in developing a more artistic impression of an Australian rainforest.Following many years of pruning, regrowth of new basal shoots and the elimination of trunks unable to conform to desired placement, positions have recently been finalised.  New foliage is in the process of emerging.

This species responds to hard cut-backs and root-pruning during warmer periods without the possibility of a late frost. Drainage is also important where excess water is allowed to escape, avoiding root suffocation. Water is necessary for the rain-forest environment and it provides humidity.   I can’t provide the mist.
Line designing is important to bonsai styling, harmonising with the particular character set by the trunks of all bonsai plants including our native species and is best carried out with the minimum detraction from foliage. Satisfaction or disharmony is exposed more clearly thus obtaining an opportunity for alteration. In this example, eliminating thickness by carving may be used.  On the thickest trunk, up to about three quarters of the mass may be carved away.

My bonsai are created to tell a story- I envision danger lurking in the rain-forest with the dingo hungrily keeping an eye on the kangaroo drinking at the billabong.

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Syzygium luehmannii
    Small-leafed Lillypilly
This small-leaved Lillypilly has coppery red new foliage and the fruits are small and bright red. In nature in warm coastal areas, it grows into a very tall tree but adapts well to bonsai culture, accepting root –pruning well. I have shaped the tree mainly by trimming the new growth.

One common name is ‘Water Gum’ and it certainly likes a lot of water in hot weather. I grew this bonsai from a seed and it was first shown in 1998.

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Tristania laurina

    Water Gum

In the wild these trees grow very large- one I saw recently on the banks of the Daintree River was  more than 30 metres tall and had a similar spread with its roots dipping in the brackish water, living up to its common name  ‘Water Gum’. This tree is found along rivers of the east coast of NSW and Queensland. I have owned this tree for about 12 years but this is its first showing. It was a collected tree bought from a nursery near Nowra. I was attracted to its mottled grey and creamy white bark with knobby and damaged area at the base of the trunk. The tree is growing in a blue glazed pot . As a bonsai it is quite undemanding, responding well to pruning  and producing new buds on old wood.

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Photographs by Barry Brown, Graphic Designer, Australian National Botanic Gardens

Updated 30 October, 2008 , webmaster, ANBG (