A great start to the new year – Part 2

This year I have a lot of styling projects in the pipeline. Most of these are first stylings of new established trees, mostly yamadori. But a few are revisiting old friends for follow up styling or restyling.
In the case of one old tree, it’s about reinvention.The tree in question is a Mugo Pine, christened the “Swiss Dragon” by the late John Naka.
This old pine has a special place in my affections because I have had some input to the trees development, because of it’s documented history and because of the many people that are connected, through the tree.
For me, this image of the “Swiss Dragon” (taken by and courtesy of Farrand Bloch), at the Gingko Awards in Belgium. Was the tree looking at it’s best since it had been collected in the Swiss Alps.

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Unfortunately as sometimes happens, trees can have set backs. In the case of this old tree, lets call it inappropriate work, stressed the tree dramatically, which resulted in the loss of a third of some of the major branches. Some of these branches were very important to maintain the trees image at that time. At that time the owner of the tree wanted to keep the tree looking like the “Gingko” photo image which was impossible. For example, to replace a 3-4 centimetre thick branch with one of similar maturity (thickness and ramification) would take many years. Also over time the live vein had died back substantially. And so what at the time looked like a wide live vein was in fact 40% dead. Again another reason for a redesign as the live vein would not look correct and would give styling problems once cleaned up.
All the problems associated with the tree in it’s current state and all the potential or possibilities the tree still offered were explained to the owner so that they could make an informed decision on the way forward. However it transpired that the owner decided to sell this famous old tree.
A new owner was found fairly quickly for the tree and fortunately I was engaged to look after the tree and continue to care for the trees return to full strength. While we waited for the trees health to stabilise and vigour to return, I discussed the problems associated with the tree in its present state and all the possibilities the tree still offered were explained to the new owner, as I had with the previous owner. The new owner agreed with me that the future of the tree lay in a complete restyle. However over the two years we waited for the tree to improve, the new owner decided to sell his collection and I was asked to find a home for his trees, including the “Swiss Dragon”. I must admit that at this time I worried that people who came to view the tree, would walk away once they could see it did not resemble the image it once had and which everyone remembers at the Gingko Awards in Belgium. And it transpired that many people did just that. To buy the tree in it’s current state, you have to have vision, patience and the drive to want to see a once old tree returned to it’s former glory. And if you have the image of how the tree once looked in your mind, you must put that aside. Because now we are starting a new chapter in the life of the tree. It’s about honouring the past, yes! But the trees future is in what happens from when you take on the challenge to put the tree back where it formerly was.
I was over the moon when one of my own students decided he wanted to buy the old pine after discussing with me what I thought could be done to resurrect the tree and to take it to that next chapter in it’s life.
He, like myself, thought it important that a tree with such history, should not be lost to the world. And I got excited because he was excited about the challenge, and also because I would continue to be involved in the trees evolution. I was there when the decision was made to change the tree’s design just before the start of the new millennium. And I contributed to the new image chosen by Dan Barton and Pius Notter by bending a significantly thick branch about 120% to place a branch at the back, without which the new design would not have been possible. I then brought the tree to the UK and was responsible for it’s image and refinement going to the ‘Gingko’. I have over seen it’s return to health and now I will hopefully make Phil, the new owner happy that he took on a project that others found daunting. But we will have to wait and see.
It is not going to be a quick fix for this old tree. It will take quite a few years to get the tree looking something like the new image I have in my head. But all being well, we will get there.
Phil who now owns the tree, somehow managed to unearth some really old images of the creation of the “Swiss Dragon” on the ‘tinterweb’. I would like to share them with you here. I apologise for the quality of the images, but I think that can be over looked when we are looking at a bit of European bonsai history

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This is the “Swiss Dragon” when it was just another collected Mugo Pine.

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This is the late great John Naka with the tree ready for the photo shoot with Pius Notter at Pius’ home in Boswil, Switzerland.

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Here is John carving the tree. At this point no work has been done to the branches or foliage.

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Here we see Pius and John repotting the tree after the very first styling. The pine would stay in that pot for 15 years without being repotted. The next time the tree would come out of the pot would be to go into a CERTRE pot after it was restyled by Dan Barton.

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And here is the first photo taken of the Mugo Pine after styling and repotting in its new guise as “The Swiss Dragon”.

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And in this last photo from the archives, here we see John making some small adjustments to the tree after the repot.

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Here is ‘The Boss’, Dan Barton working on the “Swiss Dragon” in the garden of Pius Notter. It was at this time, the old pine had a facelift for the new millennium. It is a credit to Pius, that due to his love and respect for John Naka that the tree was never touched by anyone other than John on his visits to Switzerland. It was always John’s tree. However, with the decline of John’s health in later years, news reached Pius that John was no longer able to make long haul flights. It was at this point that Pius said, OK it is now appropriate to take over from John. Pius new John would not be able to see or work on the pine again and so felt comfortable in working on the tree without John. It is something that we see little of today, it’s called respect!
When Pius and Dan and myself discussed a restyle of the tree, many options were discussed based on how the tree had changed over time, in some places for the better and in some places not so good. The live vein over time had shrunk back, some deadwood that had been created was rotting out. And so a lot of thought went into finding the right compromise. After some deliberation a new angle and new ‘front’ were settled upon and over a few days the tree was reworked by Dan Barton and then repotted into a new pot by CERTRE of Italy.

On one of my visits to work at Pius’s place I mentioned that I would love a tree like the “Swiss Dragon” one day. Pius said that if I was interested he would let me have the old pine. Unfortunately as is usually the case, I did not have the funds at this time. However I new someone who would like the tree and after a few months I brought the old tree back with me from Switzerland to the UK.
As I said this tree has connected many different people. Pius Notter, european yamadori pioneer and the original owner of the tree. John Naka who originally styled the tree and gave it the name”Swiss Dragon”. Dan Barton, who restyled the tree for the millennium. Ian Stewardson bonsai collector who was the first owner of the tree in the UK. The incomparable potter, Gordon Duffet who made both the original round pot for the tree (see first image above), and the current pot which is a fraction bigger. Then of course myself who has had a small hand in progressing the tree from Dan’s original work. And finally today, my student Phil who is the proud owner now, and who with my help will see the tree progress.
The point of all my ramblings has really been to document for you and for myself I guess, the road this old pine has taken since being collected in the Alps around 1985. And also because I wanted to show how trees evolve with time. Something which many trees do not get as they are often redesigned “just for something to do”, and passed around from pillar to post to never reach their potential, passing through many owners hands in a few years.
Here is a photo of the old man of the mountains after the first stage of our efforts to resurrect “The Swiss Dragon”.

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We still have a lot to do to get the tree to the point where the tree could be exhibit able again. But the longest of journeys start with a single step. We have taken that first step.
Some of the problems that have needed to be or still need to be addressed are that the new character branch lower left needs to be developed considerably for both mass and density. The pad needs to be a lot bigger and extend further to the left and also have better ramification. The same applies for the first branch lower right. The crown still needs to be brought forward towards the viewer more, which is not quite so evident in the photo because it is two dimensional and I will lower the crown a little more and make it rounder and not so pointed. We need to monitor some of the old deadwood areas for decay and I personally would like to blend in the deadwood a little more. But it is not my tree, I can only make suggestions to the new owner.
On a different note, here is a small Scots Pine that has taken that first step on the road to being a bonsai. Here the Before & After.

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And here is an image of morning frost on ‘Sylvestris’ needles as a reminder that we still have more cold to come.

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The International Joy Theough Bonsai programme I have initiated this year (2015), will be an ongoing educational programme.
Hopefully if you the people who attend these study days with the invited masters enjoy yourselves. And if the the masters themselves have a good experience, then my idea is to invite them back to establish an ongoing relationship.
But I am already looking at potential new course leaders for 2016.
I want to bring you the best, and in many cases this will mean inviting people who have never been seen in the UK before but who are up there at the top doing it right!
So if you want to be kept abreast of what I have planned ahead, keep coming back and checking out the blog.
Until next time!