Developing Taxus bonsai

I find Taxus to be one of the best species for bonsai in my climate. The main challenge is getting them from ground-culture to pot culture, a transition which may take 2-4 years.  Pushing this process will pretty much always lead to a dead yew (I know from experience, unfortunately). So when you collect a yew from a garden (Which is one of the best places if you do not have them growing naturally in forests) take your time. How to go about this, I will discuss at another moment.

History of this yew tree

The Taxus bonsai-to-be in this post came from a garden renovation. In mid-summer 2018 I saw a pile of shrubs in a container. Clearly someone was cleaning out a garden. Armed with a question, loppers and a car I returned that evening and left the place with 2 new trees, a juniper and a taxus. Both were very unhappy. Besides having spent a few days in a container, they were taken out of the yard because they did so poorly! In any case, into the pumice this tree went, left to itself to recover. Over time, dead branches were pruned away, and not much else was done. Old branches started to die, yet here and there buds started to pop and a few new branches grew in 2019, putting me in a positive mood. In the winter 2019-2020 I removed dying branches and reduced the main trunks of the plant to create variation in height.

Come spring 2020 and the yew jumped to life as if nothing ever happened. By mid-July the tree was a ball of green and lush growth. The tree was back to health and the roots have established.

Preparing Taxus bonsai branches for wiring

Not being a patient person, I decided to go ahead and clean up the bush and do a first wiring. Ideal time for this is in mid to late summer, for me this is July and August. At this time the tree is going to start the late-season growth and can respond to the work done pretty much immediately. Young green branches have not lignified completely yet, and may set before spring. (Older lignified branches may well take 2 growing seasons to become established, requiring 2-4 wiring sessions).

The steps involved are:

Remove all duplicate branches.

At any one spot I only want 1 branch leaving the main trunks. Lower on the trunk I kept the older thick branches. Higher up, I give preference to keeping young green branches and remove old mature branches

Cut all the branches so that they bifurcate.

Every point of branching should have 1 main branch, and 1 side branch. If more branches are present, prune away the rest. Here I keep track of the length of the branch I eventually need: Longer lower down, shorter higher up. Knowing that Yew bonsai make new buds very easily it is not too critical to keep many side-branches. These will come

Remove all inner needles from the branches.

Branches should only have foliage at the ends. Normally when developing Yew, one would prune the branches back to roughly 10-16 needles of the current years’ growth, and pluck away the old needles to leave a similar number of old needles. In absence of old needles on many of the green branches, I just leave 20-30 needles at the ends, and pluck away the rest. This causes a very sad and bare looking tree, especially on first styling!  

Do deadwood work.

With the tree very bare of foliage, I like to also work the deadwood, shaping yins and starting a few shari if so desired. The reason is that this gives the bark time to create a natural transition and the deadwood time to naturally mature, as the canopy is growing out. Fresh deadwood and the edges of yin/share look unnatural for several years after creating them. As such, getting them in place as soon as possible is important to me.

Wire the branches. All of the branches.

At this stage you are setting the base for the tree. So, it is important to wire every single branch in place. In the Taxus bonsai of this post, a number of older branches could not be fully removed as no suitable side-branches were available on the trunk. In future sessions these might be replaced. Place the branches in a repeating pattern along the trunk as if it were an old tree. I like to have the branches of yews to hang down slightly, and place all secondary branches in the same plane, making the tree look very bare. Ensure to put some movement in the young branches as fully straight branches will look unnatural. But not so much that it contrasts much with the trunk movement.

Wait for the buds to pop

If this work is done at the right time of year, for me this is mid-to-late summer, July and August, you will see a healthy yew bonsai respond with a great number of buds popping up before fall. In good summers these should create branchlets before the growing season is over, filling up the canopy very fast.