What is Yamadori Bonsai? [Collecting Bonsai In The Forest]

Yamadori is the practice of bonsai collectors searching the forests and wilderness for trees to dig out, take home, and create bonsai with.

Yamadori bonsai describes just one of many ways to begin creating bonsai trees. The word, literally translated from Japanese, means “collecting plants in the mountains.” The actual origin of bonsai most likely began with yamadori.

More liberal translations, such as “collecting trees from the wild,” are more appropriate today.

Why collect Yamadori Bonsai trees?

You will need to have a lot of experience and luck. Finding bonsai material from the wild is difficult, which can be hard work and not always fun. 

Many of the most desirable native species for bonsai training are difficult to find in a nursery. 

Nursery Bonsai vs. Yamadori

Trees in a nursery are grown to produce money and grow quickly, so they will often not be the desired quality. Reaching the same quality as trees grown from cuttings or seeds takes decades. Even then, quality can be vastly different. 

With age, a tree’s character only gets better. 

The appearance and bark of a collected tree reflect its struggle for survival. This is difficult to do with nursery seedlings. Each tree in a collection has a unique story, which makes them more desirable and interesting. 

An older tree can often have a less-than-perfect appearance due to the passage of time. This imperfection makes it unique and memorable. This is what I love about collecting – these trees are often found in the wild and have amazing shapes and movements.

Our attempt to recreate some visual wonder is only the beginning. 

Collecting Yamadori

A Stunning Yamadori Juniper Near the Ocean
A Stunning Yamadori Juniper Near the Ocean

The conditions in which the trees were collected are often not ideal. They have suffered from severe erosion and extreme droughts. 

You will be able to benefit from the guidance and assistance of an experienced person who can readily identify species and specimens that will translate well to bonsai.

Tools to Bring

  • Loppers
  • Folding pruning saw
  • Large pick
  • Shovel
  • Short-Handled mattock
  • A few pieces of square burlap
  • Tying material (for the root ball once dug out)
  • A pair of gloves
  • Camera
  • Journal
  • First Aid Kit
  • A permit to collect trees (if needed in your local area)

Pro Tip: take samples of the earth from nearby species to make mycorrhiza, and add it to the soil mixture once you plant your yamadori bonsai at home. The beneficial microbes are an excellent addition to your new plants environment. 

Digging out the Tree

To begin, dig a trench just outside the trunk. Then, clean the nebari and weeds. 

To save as many rootlets as possible, you should stop as soon as the first roots are visible. 

Resist the temptation to remove any foliage. The production of hormones in the leaf tips is crucial for the growth of new roots. 

The root ball should have a round shape and straight sides. It should measure 12-14 inches in diameter or be as deep as it is wide. You will need to trim the root ball at its ends with pruning shears.

Once the root ball has become freestanding, you can start to sheer the sides using your shovel until the tree is on a small pedestal. 

As you work, cut any tap roots, and be sure to leave the ball intact. 

Push a burlap square underneath the root ball. Gently push the entire plant onto the surface. Continue to shave the soil from the ball until it is almost free of all soil. The ball should then fit in a milk crate. 

Clean up the taproot with a saw. The tap root cannot grow beyond the contour of the root ball. Otherwise, it could become unstable when handled.

Spray the fine roots continuously. The burlap should be wrapped around the ball immediately. Continue wrapping the entire ball in twine until it is completely solid. The ball should be lifted from the hole. 

Last but not least, fill the hole back in. This will restore the ground to its original condition. 

Caring for Yamadori

The tree should be repotted twice in the next two years. It is important to remove all clay soil as soon as possible. This could take as long as a year. 

Regular and aggressive feeding is required. 

A final note about soil mixes: Akadama is not recommended

The soil mixture must be well aerated. The soil mix must contain no decomposition-prone particles. A soil mixture of medium lava rock, pumice, and other materials is best for yamadori. This ensures that the airflow does not become obstructed by fine dust particles. 

Where to Find Yamadori?

Have you ever wondered how some people seemed to have the oldest and most beautiful bonsai? The answer often is — they let nature do the early work. Yamadori grows in the wild for many years, sometimes more than a century, before they become bonsai trees.

Mountains aren’t the only place to find such treasures. Flat lands like the Florida Everglades are prone to ocean winds and hurricane damage.

Be sure you are not in a park or preserve because the fines can be steep! 

Also, know the trees you are collecting are not endangered or protected.

Desert areas may also provide unique trees through years of drought and drastic temperature changes. Mountainous regions expose trees to some of the harshest weather conditions, creating many potential yamadori bonsai trees.

Elements such as wind and snow can create twists, turns, dead branches, and a somewhat tortured look. Another advantage of collecting trees is no two are alike.

Walter Pall (Germany) is shown here with before and after pictures of a yamadori Rocky Mountain Juniper.
Walter Pall (Germany) is shown here with before and after pictures of a yamadori Rocky Mountain Juniper.

In addition to collecting trees, getting them to live and eventually having them look like this takes hard work, knowledge, and talent!

Getting the tree out of the ground and making it survive is only the beginning with Yamadori bonsai.

Collecting Trips

Whether you plan to collect in the mountains, such as Italian bonsai artist Mauro Stemberger, or on the flat lands of deserts or swamps, educate yourself first.

Your first bonsai collecting experience should be with someone who knows where they can safely find trees, what to take with them and how to keep you and the trees alive.

Mauro Stemberger – Yamadori Collecting

Tools such as shovels, branch loppers and saws are important.

Materials and water to protect the roots are vital. Proper clothes, shoes, and water for yourself are also essential.

Let someone at home know where you will be. Remember, cell phones are not always dependable in remote areas.

Once you get to a collecting area, do not dig the first tree you see. There will be more, and most likely better. Searching for the perfect bonsai is part of the adventure.

After removing plants, don’t forget to fill in the holes!

Purchasing Yamadori

You may want to purchase your prize if you are not into tromping, digging, and watching out for wild animals. Numerous collectors have done the work for you.

(You’ve probably heard the snake and gator stories; yes, they’re true.) Zach Smith, a bonsai artist with over 25 years of experience, lives in St. Francisville, Louisiana, where he collects subjects for bonsai.

Yaupon Holly Yamadori – Courtesy of Bonsai South

In his nursery, Bonsai South, you will discover Yamadori treasures such as these Bald Cypress, privet, hornbeam, and more. Zach says “I love the hunt!” And best of all, his policy is ‘ship only when ready ‘.

NOTE: When you purchase a collected tree, be sure it is well established and has been in its current container for at least a year.

Newly Collected and Established Yamadori Cypress

Thoughts on Yamadori Bonsai

From a Yamadori Article by Frank W. Harris

“ . . . a word of warning should be sounded: the supply of collectible native trees is not inexhaustible. When you go collecting, take only what you really want and can take care of. If there is a doubt in your mind whether you can get the tree out alive, leave it with its root system undisturbed.”

Read the entire article here: Bonsai Notes on Collecting

Urban Yamadori

‘Urban yamadori’ is a recently coined phrase that describes using plants with bonsai potential salvaged from yards, parking lots, and even trash heaps.

The word itself is Japanese for ‘collecting trees in the mountains.’ However, not all collected plants are from the wild. Growing bonsai trees from seed, cuttings, and nursery stock cannot compete with aged landscape plants.

In Miami, FL a bonsai artist discovered a perfect yamadori when she saw a small pink flower in her neighbor’s grass. It had been mowed over many times. The property owner was glad to have the “annoying little stump” out of the landscape. She was thrilled to have a new shohin Malpighia coccigera in her collection.

Before

John Hill, Ohio USA acquired this once scraggly juniper from a neighbor. He potted it in a training pot and established it in bonsai soil. After pruning, carving, and repotting, today it is on its way to being a beautiful bonsai! This juniper bonsai will continue to improve with refinement and age.

After

In Des Moines, IA USA Fred Truck saw this “quince in the yard of a house down the block and around the corner. The houses there were built about 1915, so it is likely that this quince has been there for at least 90 years. I dug up a division in 2003, August.”

It’s good to remember, not all potential bonsai subjects are obvious! Who would guess these two quince bonsai are both plants from the original mess of an untamed, antique quince?

Where to Find Urban Yamadori

Many potential bonsai are found quite a by coincidence. For example, the “collector” who found an old, free azalea on Craig’s List!

Many bonsai nursery owners habitually search for specimens and collect trees with bonsai potential. My eyes were always open to such opportunities in my Miami, FL, nursery days.

One evening I saw a row of very old Bougainvillea recently plowed over by an auto accident. Knowing they would not be replanted, it was quite a project, but I managed to get the best one into the trunk of my little Toyota!

How to Get Them – Sometimes Just Ask!

Today, some landscapers know how hungry we are for such treasures and sell old plants removed from jobs. Others will just give them away (sometimes bare roots.)

Many homeowners will readily trade new plants for their old overgrown landscape shrubs. If you see something special, it may be worth knocking on the door and offering to replace the old with a new nursery plant.

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