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THE CALIFORNIA GARDEN

Restrained exuberance

Even the rambunctious bougainvillea can be contained when given the bonsai treatment. With delicate training, the vine can bloom into a miniature showstopper.

July 13, 2006|Robert Smaus | Special to The Times

SUMMER'S showiest vine is so huge it can cover a house, smother a fence or hide a hillside. But train it as a bonsai and it will live happily in a small pot forever, or nearly so. Bougainvilleas make surprisingly good bonsai, short, sturdy and gnarled beyond their actual years.

Of course, they don't get that way overnight, so an old-timer that has been trained and primped for years can be costly. At Yamaguchi Bonsai Nursery in West Los Angeles, one particularly large and handsome bonsai bougainvillea has a $750 price tag hanging from a twisted limb. That makes it important enough to include in that living trust you just set up, and some bonsai do get passed down from generation to generation.

No amount of money will part Paul De Rose from his remarkable 60-year-old bougainvillea, which is only 36 inches tall and as wide, though it started out as a 30-foot monster. He's president of the Kofu Bonsai Kai, a 500-member bonsai society in Orange County (www.kofukai.com), so he's what you might call a serious enthusiast. His bougainvillea has been in a container for 12 years, but the plant was already 47 years old when it was dug from a friend's garden.

That's one way to get a bonsai bougainvillea that looks truly ancient. Find a mature old vine that has grown too big for its spot, cut back the top so the vine is only 2 or 3 feet tall, let it sprout again and then dig up the thick trunk (with as many roots as you can get) and keep it in a "training" container. De Rose used a 36-inch galvanized laundry tub (with drainage holes).

For eight years, he pruned and shaped the top every few months, trimming the roots every three years so it would eventually fit in a special, shallow bonsai container. These containers limit the root system (while occasional pruning keeps it fibrous and healthy), which in turn dwarfs the plant. It grows in a gritty homemade soil mix of rock cinders, pumice and akadama (a special and pricey soil imported from Japan).

De Rose cautions that anyone digging bougainvillea plants should do so in summer when these tropicals are actively growing. When he found this bougainvillea in a friend's garden, it was leaning on a rock, so De Rose took the rock along with the vine and they still reside happily side-by-side.

Another way to get a substantial old specimen is to saw off a fat section of stem, and root it. At Yamaguchi, Hideyuki Yoshida roots cuttings in summer that are the length and thickness of a forearm, plunging the base into a 5-gallon nursery can filled with moist sand. It takes one to two years until the giant cutting is ready to trim and put in a bonsai pot. Before planting he trims off about 80% of the foliage and two-thirds of the roots. Big, rooted cuttings at Yamaguchi sell for about $50 to $100. Some cans have three rooted cuttings in them.

When training the plant, shoot for "perfect taper," as De Rose puts it. Roots and crown should flow into the trunk, which then tapers in toward the top, or the ends of limbs. The crown and roots of the plant are known as the nebari and are the most important part of a bonsai since they suggest the age, majesty and even direction of the plant. When looking for a bonsai candidate, you want good nebari. "That's most important," emphasizes De Rose, "everything else can be created" by careful training and pruning.

This will take years, and branches are often held in place by wrapped copper wires until they assume the proper shape. Naturally, De Rose, being a club president, suggests the best way to learn is to join a bonsai organization. There are more than 60 groups in the state and most belong to the Golden State Bonsai Federation (www.gsbf-bonsai.org). That's how he learned the craft. The techniques are involved and the aesthetic not easily achieved. His group is currently exhibiting at the Orange County Fair and will have a show Oct. 6 to 7 at the Fullerton Arboretum.

Of course, you can buy an authentic bonsai, which is why price tags hang from some at specialty nurseries. You will have to care for it, which may mean watering every day, though most enthusiasts have automatic systems, and the plants need occasional fertilizing, such as with mild fish emulsion. They will also need special pruning and feeding with a phosphate fertilizer to encourage summer's blooms. Some people take their bonsai to specialists like Yoshida for these tune-ups. His potting bench is surrounded by bonsai, hanging with white customer tags.

One caution: Don't get the colorful bougainvillea bracts wet or they will finish up rather quickly. De Rose's plants bloom from late spring to the end of summer. In winter, they are completely leafless in his Orange County neighborhood. By the way, the papery petals are colorful, modified leaves called bracts. The flowers are the tiny white things inside.

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