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Flowering and Fruiting Bonsai

By Victoria Petermann

A great part of the enjoyment of growing bonsai is derived from watching the different seasons of the year leaving their mark on our trees. Flowering and fruiting bonsai usually show these changes in a spectacular way.

There is a great variety of flowering and fruiting plants which can be used. Some of these are indigenous to South Africa, like the bladder-nut, the brandy bush or the cross-berry. Others are exotics, like the azaleas, the pomegranates, the pyracanthas, the cotoneasters, the hawthorns, the bougainvilleas and the wisterias.

With the great variety of flowering and fruiting plants available to the grower, it is a pity that many bonsai collections don't display more of these trees. It is possible that this situation arises from the lack of easily available information on the cultivation of these plants.

When a plant flowers, it does so either at the tip of the branches, ego azaleas or in the leaf axils between the leaf stem and the branch like the flowering quince. These flowers appear in four different ways.

The first comprises those species which flower at the tips of the branches grown in the current year ego pomegranate and cross-berry. The second group is made up of those trees which flower only on the wood of the past year, either all along the branch or only on the tip, eg azalea and wild coffee. The third type forms blossoms on the lateral shoots of last year's branches but before they flower, the leaves grow a little, ego quince and apple. The fourth kind flowers from buds which were already created the previous year. First the shoots grow a few leaves and then flowers appear at the tip, ego jasmine.

To flower and fruit well, plants usually require a good amount of sunlight and careful watering. Some plants, like the azaleas, require an increase in the amount of water when the flower buds are forming. Others, like the bougainvillea, like to be slightly dry to produce a good crop of flowers. Using a fertilizer high in phosphorus (P) and potassium (K) and low in nitrogen (N) will also help to form next year's buds.

When pruning flowering trees, it is useful to remember that the flower buds of those plants which flower at the tips, are already formed in the summer. To increase ramification and to preserve the flowers only prune between the end of the flowering period and summer, not once the flower buds have formed.

Those plants which produce flowers in the leaf axils form their flower buds between late spring and summer. In autumn it is possible to distinguish between leaf and flower buds making it easier to prune the excess growth without sacrificing the flowers.

To preserve the blossoms for as long as possible it is best not to fertilize until after the flowering time is over; also avoid getting the flowers wet when watering.

After the flowering period, some trees will bear fruit. In order for the fruit to develop, the pollen produced by the male organs, must reach the pistil, the female organ of a flower. Some plants possess male and female organs together in the same flower, ego the quince. This makes it easy for these plants to produce fruit. Others have separate male and female flowers on the same plant, ego Kadsura japonica. A third group are those which have separate male and female plants. The gingko and bladder-nut both belong to this last group. It is therefore easy to understand why pollination in this last group is difficult. Both the male and female tree need to be growing close to each other and be flowering at the same time for pollination to take place.

In nature pollen gets distributed either by wind or by insects, but it is possible to pollinate bonsai trees by hand. To do so, the stamens (male organs of a flower) must be rubbed gently over the pistil of the flower, making sure that the pollen adheres to the pistil. This technique helps to produce fruit on plants which are not so willing to do it on their own.

Once the plant has set fruit, resume using a fertilizer which contains nitrogen and also increase the amount of water for the plant. If a lot of fruit has been produced, remove some of it so as not to over-tax. the tree. At the end of autumn, it is advisable to remove the rest of the fruit so that the plant does not weaken excessively. This could result in poor flowering the following year or worse, lose some branches.

When choosing flowering and fruiting plants for bonsai, it is advisable to select varieties which naturally have small fruits and flowers, as these do not reduce in size with bonsai techniques. These plants make a wonderful addition to any bonsai collection. They provide great colour and texture and create strong focal points in the trees at different times of the year.

If the plants have been well cared for, watered and fertilized throughout the year and yet don't produce either flowers or fruit. the problem could be that the tree is not old enough. Wisteria for example. only flowers on mature wood. The weather is also a factor, ergo cherry trees won't flower if the winter temperatures are not cold enough.

Flowering and fruiting bonsai can be grown as large trees, in which case varieties like the wisteria, yesterday-today-and-tomorrow or the pomegranate make excellent choices. For medium size trees. the choice of material is extensive. As mentioned.earlier, some of the indigenous plants to try are the bladder-nut or the cross-berry. Among the many exotics there's the hawthorn. the pyracantha or the azalea to choose from. If growing small shohin is preferred, then choose plants which already have small leaves, fruit and flowers such as the cotoneasters and the kurume azaleas.

The choice of flowering and fruiting plants for bonsai is vast, so be adventurous and experiment with new varieties which catch your eye.

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