No Yokonai Bonsai

An Interview with John Thompson

by Cheryl Petty -- February 2, 2009

Oaks are common species for bonsai and rewarding to the enthusiast willing to find them. John Thompson, member of Midori Bonsai Club in San Jose, has been interested in oaks from the beginning, collecting many different kinds of oaks from all around California. He has been on collection parties with Harry Hirau to Jaw Bone Canyon in Mojave, learning and improving his technique and resulting in 60-70% success.

In November 2005 John was invited to conduct workshops and demonstrations for the Redding Bonsai Club at Turtle Bay Museum and Exploration Park in conjunction with a collection trip the next day to Whitmore, east of Redding in the foothills. This started two years of collecting at this location for John, adding several trees to his collection of 150 trees. John says, “ That’s too many for one person to handle. All your time is spent going around watering and not developing your trees.” His goal is to get down to 20-30 really good trees, including his collected oak with 6-7-inch trunk.



Canyon oak is widely distributed throughout California, Oregon, Baja California, Channel Islands, Nevada and Arizona, and it can be found from sea level to 9,000 feet in foothills, mountain canyons, slopes and ridges, making it adaptable to a variety of climates for the bonsai collector. In fact, it is the most widely distributed oak in the state. Another common name for this tree is Maul Oak. The characteristics of Canyon Live Oak that are most appealing to bonsai enthusiasts are the naturally small, even tiny, toothed leaves that are evergreen, and they have flexible branches when young.

Quercus chrysolepis, Canyon Live Oak, is an evergreen, typically 20-50-foot tall tree naturally forming multiple trunks with smooth gray bark covered with lichen and moss that can live 300 years. On exposed cliffs and ridges they are densely-branched shrubs. Growth form and other characteristics can vary greatly. Leaves are elliptical shaped, shiny dark green above and pale blue or gray beneath with minute golden hairs. Spiny or toothed margins are commonly seen on leaves of younger trees and stump sprouts. Smooth margins appear on older branches higher on the tree, and it is not uncommon to find both forms of leaves on the same tree making identification confusing. Acorns make positive identification, and this one has golden hairs on the cup, giving it a common name of Gold Cup Oak.

Canyon Live Oak Quercus Chrysolepis

Canyon Live Oak Quercus Chrysolepis

Collection Tips

When you collect a tree you have to imagine the size, get down on its level, not standing over it looking down. Clear out brush and debris so you can look for movement in the trunk and check the roots before starting to dig, says John.

Once you have your specimen at home and potted, don't do anything to it until you see vigorous sprouts 6-12-inches long the following spring after it was collected. Then it’s ok to start fertilizing. John likes to use a basic granular organic 5-5-5 fertilizer, scratching several tablespoons into the surface. Traditional fertilizer balls are out for John because of the annoying habit neighborhood squirrels had of carrying them off. He also uses foliar fertilizer spray and an anti-transpirant after wiring.

Styling with Oaks

Native oaks require native soil and a long period of adjustment after collection.

Native oaks require native soil and a long period of adjustment after collection.

John wants to remind us to “ think about the tree's structure, made up of jointed branches. Trim back to the first node, going in the direction you desire, rather than bending, but this takes longer.” If you keep at it five to ten years, cutting at the nodes to make the sinewy and crooked shape that gives the feeling of a real Canyon Live Oak, you should have not only the silhouette of a fine tree but also the numerous small branches that bifurcate and become more complex. This complex branch structure is one characteristic of a fine bonsai.

Please refer to article 'Yamadori hunting with the Redding Club Part I' for a complete list of references.

Published Golden StatementsThe Magazine of the Golden State Bonsai Federation Vol xxxii No.3 May/June 2009 Part II p.15