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Acer ginnala
Development Sequence

before after



Creating bonsai via the trunk chop method is a very effective way to obtain trees with mature looking trunks in a relatively short period of time, maybe as quickly as three or four years. The following pictorial traces the development of such a tree in the example of an Amur maple (Acer ginnala).

The tree is one of two I bought at a local nursery in the spring of 1992. It was growing in the ground at the time, and was about 4m tall. While still at the nursery, I selected the spot to which the tree should be cut back, and took home only the stump with a fairly sizeable root ball. At home, the root ball was reduced and the major roots were re cut because the collecting tool, a spade, had left the ends rather jagged. After cleaning out the roots in that fashion, the tree was planted in the ground. I don't remember the reason for putting it in the ground; normally I would plant it in a container straight away, since the tree had neither appeared weak nor required further growing to fatten the trunk.

April 1993
In the spring of 1993, the tree was lifted from the ground and planted in a fairly shallow round pot. The choice of pot at this stage was determined purely by expediency and not by any consideration of design. Note the spindly branch growth. It emerged the previous year after the trunk was cut down. It was wired after the photo was taken. It is best to wire these shoots while they are young and can easily be bent easily.


June 1993
About two months after the picture above, the tree is growing vigorously. Some extensions are taking off in directions undesirable, and are pruned off in the following picture.


June 1993
Even at this early stage, the shape of the tree gives an indication of where it is headed. I must have had something in mind with the apex at the time, because it was allowed to remain unpruned, but I can’t remember what it was. Maybe I just couldn't make up my mind.


August 1993
At the beginning of August, I did make up my mind and cut back on the top extension as well.


April 1994
The tree survived the winter in fine shape, as it should. Amur maples are native to the Amur River region of Siberia, so should find Toronto almost tropical. Giving witness to its tenacity is its name: the ‘ginnala’ part translates into ‘little mule’.


June 1994
By late June of 1993, the skinny branches have produced a fair amount of foliage even after pruning it back at the beginning of the month.


October 1994
The tree is showing indication of its future shape. The branches are still spindly thin, but the overall outline has been established. Branch thickening and ramification improvement will occur naturally with the passage of time and appropriate pruning.
The fall colour of Amur maples more commonly is a very brilliant red. For some reason, I got stuck with the only yellow ones I have ever seen.


November 1995
In the spring of 1995, the tree was repotted. This time, more attention was given to the selection of a pot, and I chose a fairly deep oval pot with a dark blue glaze to contrast with the fall colour. The picture shows the tree at the end of the growing season, and the beginnings of ramification are evident.


June 1996
The tree is shown immediately after pruning off the new extensions. The foliage canopy is quite dense now, and individual branches can no longer be made out when in full leaf, which is a good thing, because it hides a bar branch or two. As time goes on, I may be able to correct the odd branch placement problem.


May 1998
Earlier in spring, the tree was repotted. It has now achieved the full foliage canopy and rounded top often associated with mature trees.


October 2000
I think the tree has achieved a pleasant shape. It is not terribly exciting – for that it would need more dramatic trunk movement.



But that is just a matter of finding the right material. The purpose of the above is to show what can be made from simple stumps. Keys to success include the following:

  • Selection of suitable material. Most deciduous trees can be used, maples being particularly suitable. Conifers do not lend themselves to trunk chops like the one shown, because they do not survive having all their foliage pruned off.
  • Developing the tree in a container rather than growing it in the ground for a number of years. Growing it in a container will take longer to achieve substance in the new growth, but the growth will be finer and therefore of a higher bonsai quality. It is also more easily controlled, because a tree in a container can be put on a turntable several times a year for close inspection from all sides.
  • Early selection of branches and determination of the future shape. Start shaping the tree immediately. It is much better to do this work as the branches grow rather than after they have become set and coarse.
  • Don’t be enchanted by overly vigorous growth – cut it off. Always know what you want to do with the tree and grow it with that goal in mind, eliminating all extensions that do not further the design.



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