STRUGGLING TO carve BONSAI DEADWOOD? SUMMON THE HELP OF TERMITES.

What is Deadwood

For the benefit of readers who are not privy to the terminology, a deadwood is exactly that.  It is dead, and it is wood.

But in the world of bonsai, it is something else more than just a wood that is dead. It is a part of a bonsai tree, often created deliberately to enhance aesthetic effects primarily by portraying that the tree is aged even if it is not.

It also suggests to the viewer that the tree has gone through difficult times as evidenced by that scar or scars which mark its body. It tells that the tree has endured a long fight with the harsh elements of nature and fortuitous events like fire, lightning and typhoons.

Deadwood should look naturally weathered and ought to be located right to complement the artistic replica of the tree.

It should also be exquisitely designed, suggesting that it was meticulously sculptured by the combined action of time, heat, rainfall, drought, poor light, insects, other herbivores, and microorganisms, which work was completed only after many long years.

In this art of miniaturized trees grown in containers, deadwoods can be either a shari or a jin or just a depression or a scar that is left on the trunk by a dead branch after most of the softer parts were eaten by insects and rotted by microorganisms. In driftwood style of bonsai, a major part of the tree consists of deadwood.

Shari is found on the main trunk. Interesting ones consist of continuous strips that somewhat twist around the trunk from base to upper part of the tree side by side with live bark. A jin is that dead part of a branch including the tip or an entire branch.

But it is not easy to create deadwood.

A perfect, artistically fitting deadwood is rarely found naturally on a bonsai material. If there be any dead part, it most likely needs to be refined more.

But creating or refining a deadwood is not easy. It is not enough that a portion of the trunk or branch is simply stripped of bark.

Creating bonsai deadwood should be considered a form of wood sculpture. It can be performed with ease by a person having the artistic gift, the skills and patience, as well as the right tools.

One who goes outdoor and is keen enough to be able to see the details of those exceptional shari and jin on standing trees should likewise be more adept. In contrast, it is quite puzzling to beginners particularly those who are not used to handling sharp-bladed tools such as knives and chisels.

In fact I myself still struggle in creating a shari or jin which is compounded more by lack of appropriate tools. This is particularly true with adult molave trees having dead parts. The wood of this tree, especially when dry, is very hard. Hammering a common nail into mature wood is often an impossibility.

Termites to the Rescue

I discovered about 15 years ago that an existing deadwood can be possibly enhanced to perfection without doing myself any carving or sculpturing. There’s more success on argao tree (probably Premna integrifolia Blanco, also called mulawin-aso and san xu xiu huang jing in Chinese according to stuartxchange.org). The technique also applies to molave or Vitex parviflora Juss. but with little success.

I discovered that termites are excellent wood sculptors.

Even in silence, termites cause damage by eating wooden parts of the house, as well as furniture and anything woody or made of wood pulp. But in bonsai I found them extremely friendly.

I was then active in bonsai making. I used to collect bonsai materials consisting mostly of argao from a pasture land with permission from the manager. Many of those trees with trunks up to the size of my arms were stunted, heavily branched, thorny, and had become pasture weeds.

These trees generally grew prostrate on the ground due to constant trampling by cattle. Both trunks and branches grew into different directions, sometimes curving (see the picture above). Stems in contact or covered with soil were often rooted.

At home I segmented these trees into individual bonsai materials each with rooted base. These were propagated with the application of the plastic tent or kulob method in which the edges at the open end of the plastic bags were pressed on the ground.

Later when the plastic tents were opened, I noticed that some trees had mud tunnels and nests. When these covering of hardened mud were removed, it was revealed that dead parts had been eaten by termites.

Their sculpturing of those deadwoods were stunningly beautiful!

Summoning the Help of Termites in Making Bonsai Deadwood

Since that first discovery with argao, I experimented on how best to exploit the services of these dreaded insect pests, the soil-dwelling termites. Here are my observations:

1. Only dead parts of a tree are eaten by termites. Stubs of live trunks and branches remained intact. New shoots and leaves were unmolested.
2. They prefer one tree species over another. For example, they like argao more than molave.
3. The pot holding the tree should be in contact with the soil and the edges of the plastic bag at the open end should be pressed on the ground but not completely sealed. This allows the insect to climb towards the tree from the soil within and from the outside peripheries via openings under the edges of the plastic enclosure.
4. They only swarm on those trees inside plastic tents. Probably the constant availability of water inside appeals to them.
5. They prefer those trees in shallow rather than in deep pots.
6. Placing shreds of carton paperboard around the pot tends to attract them.
7. The extent of their sculpturing work depends on the duration that they are allowed to eat dead wood undisturbed.
8. Placement of any pot on a specific spot on the ground is a hit or miss. There is no certainty that the tree will attract termites.

Back to Bonsai Making

After a long absence, I’m back to making bonsai but there is no more of that pasture land.

The pictures attached here and in the immediately preceding article on bonsai shaping are from recent work. For those using desktop, please click the picture above to launch image gallery showing some work of termites on molave deadwood.

- Ben G. Bareja Aug. 8, 2019

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