2008 – The Veteran

The Veteran

by Malcolm Potts

New Plymouth

This tree has involved more visions than the Book of Revelations! The first was Leo Jury’s. In 2000 he generously offered me first choice of two Blaaws junipers that he had rescued after they had been sawn about and torn out of a garden. The trees had been up to 3 metres tall but had had their tops and some branches hacked off. The biggest challenge with these trees would be to somehow hide or disguise many deep saw cuts in the trunk.

Although my primary collection is all NZ natives, this was a long-sought opportunity to indulge in some carving (of which I had absolutely no experience), on a faster-growing species. The first task was to reduce the top a little and get the tree established in a large training pot. Then a design gradually emerged.

The second vision came to Adriaan Engelbrecht. I felt the tree needed to be reduced in height by about another 30cm and was showing him where I proposed to make the cut. “Cut it?” he cried. “There is a lovely little tree sitting on the top. You must air-layer it.” Yes, a lesson learned. Having decided the top piece was redundant, my tunnel vision was concentrating on what was to be left, without studying what was to be cast off. So air-layer it I did, having to wait 16 months for the air-layer to develop sufficiently to ensure survival of the top tree.

February 2002

The new tree (Fig. 1)
From the rest (Fig. 2)

Separation of the two trees in February 2002 was very successful. Development of the big bottom tree (Fig.2) presented little problem as an informal upright. All it needed was branch selection, lots of pinching out and a good shari. On the other hand, the smaller tree intrigued me more, and I spent a lot of time that year studying it, waiting for root development, and disguising some problems, without any strong ideas that said “This is the way to go.”

(Fig. 3 )First potting of air-layer

Enter Joy Morton

(Fig. 4) October 2002

With Joy Morton before the start of styling. The (Apex) top branch facing away from her became an ugly jin for some years.

Joy spent half a day with us, awaiting her flight home from a weekend club workshop here in October 2002. There was a little shopping to do but, of course, there had to be time for a wander around my bonsai collection. Now the branch that I had retained as the eventual apex was sentenced to death. Joy saw quite a different tree hiding there, requiring perhaps a longer development period to achieve her vision for my tree. That was good enough for me. Off came that branch, leaving a large stump for jinning, which presented a new problem, for that jin would poke straight out the front of the tree. A front that I had selected and that met with everyones approval.

I mention everyone because this tree has often been discussed with other hobbyists and been the topic of “opinion sessions” at our bonsai club. When about 15 people all study a tree and tell how they visualise its development, the owner has a gold-mine of ideas to explore, sift and decide. Sometimes a suggestion is accepted, other times the suggestions reinforce the owner’s vision, or lead to other ideas, with the overall result being that a lot of participants learn something.

After Joy’s visit there followed 3 years of wiring, trimming and carving. The carving had two primary aims – 1. To dispose of those awful saw-cuts; 2. To make the hollow storm-damaged tree I had dreamed of. Each took a lot of doing with my rudimentary tools – a “bit-saw” in an electric drill, a B&D Powerfile and some chisels. But it was fun.  The old saw-cuts went deep into the wood and demanded more wood and bark-removal than desired but there was no turning back. Another time I would try hard to fill and patch some damage, rather than remove so much. The major difficulty was to finish up with a believable result while hiding the flaws and retaining sufficient cambium layer to feed the remaining foliage.

(Fig. 5) February 2003 – First carving
(Fig. 6 )February 2003 – First carving

Typical deep saw damage forcing extreme carving.

(Fig. 7 )February 2003

December 2003 – One year later.

(Fig. 8)

Before and after pinching out.


To avoid the artificially stark white dead wood so often seen on bonsai, I have tried a few experiments with colouring the lime sulphur used to preserve such wood. Indian ink was too expensive for the amount I need, so one drop of black paint tint eventually sufficed, although I have more to learn about this.

June 2004 – Starting to hollow-out what once was a shari.

(Fig. 10)

The “back” in May 2005

(Fig. 11)

By June 2005, the trunk above the hollowed-out portion was largely in two pieces with foliage on each. (Fig. 11). The next vision was seen by daughter-in-law Kathryn Potts, a born artist who will inherit the core pieces of my bonsai collection. She saw the tree was top-heavy and suggested that most of the foliage be removed from the top of the shorter back piece of trunk. What a difference that made. The branches on that secondary “apex” were stripped and retained as bare wood.

(Fig. 12)

Fellow club members were then evenly divided over whether the original front should remain or a new one diametrically opposite, be chosen to display the new jins. (A bit further around from Fig.12) However, to me some other branches and foliage “didn’t work” that way. Thus the front remained at a point where one could not quite see into the hollow trunk, and where “Joy’s Jin” pointed a little to one side, somewhat hidden by new foliage.

(Fig. 13)

More development of the remaining branches followed but I was still unhappy with the overall look. Although the second branch emerged from the trunk at a strange angle, which could not be altered, I felt it had to be retained as there was no other branch on that side. Many times I had toyed with removal of that branch but shied away.

August 2005 – Continued styling

(Fig. 14)
(Fig. 15)

January 2008 – Now in a bonsai pot, before and after pinching out the foliage

(Fig. 16)
(Fig. 17)

It was not until Lindsay Muirhead visited our club in April 2008, with fresh eyes and fresh ideas, that I was convinced to remove that second (right-hand above) branch, with just a small jin retained.

Not only did this amputation dramatically improve the tree’s appearance, (Fig.18), but also it prompted the 180 degree rotation in the tree’s front, (Fig.19). The dead branches are now on view and the tree looks more balanced. The hollow is not immediately visible, but adds to the intrigue.

(Fig. 18)
(Fig. 19)

Of course the bonsai is not finished; it never will be, with further branch and foliage development required. In the meantime I do get an enormous amount of pleasure out of “The Veteran.”

And what happened to the “parent” tree? Well, that’s another story.