The Taming of the Hornbeam

How fitting that the last image in the previous post be of the tree in this one. We didn’t plan it that way… I promise! 

Creating that essence of age that we strive for in deciduous material is a combination of several tasks over the course of many years. In the early years it is important to impose interesting movement into trunks or sub-trunks and secondary branching with the use of several wiring techniques. I won’t cover those here however our friend and “bonsai bum” Will Hiltz has written an excellent article on a technique that Daniel Robinson calls “baby bending”. You can read the article here . This technique was applied to the tree you see below for many years developing the sub-trunking and secondary branching that is evident. It has been detail wired at the tertiary level on several occasions and the time came for it to be done again.

After re-wiring two of the other hornbeams in the garden Daniel asked me to take on this tree. Of course doing so meant I would have to take the tree home with me. It is one of a batch of trees purchased in the early 90s at Brussels’ and is the largest in the collection. I accepted the challenge to work on the tree as I have a somewhat personal relationship with it. This tree is one that for me stands out amongst the crowd. I can’t help but be in awe of it every time I spend time with it. The aged bark and gnarled branching give me the feeling of a tree that has seen the great passage of time. In wiring it I didn’t want to lose this feeling however I wanted to create the limited sense of order in the branching that inevitably helps frame the rest of the story.

It is important to impose a sense of age to the tertiary branching that is commensurate with the rest of the tree. To do this one of the most important elements is to add a sense of wandering to the branching. We see in ancient trees that the tertiary branching has movement toward the outer edges but that it is not entirely linear this is the “wandering” that I am talking about. Many events have occurred in the life of the tree and a slowed growth habit along with recovering from these events will shape every part of the tree including the fine branching.

Since one of the goals of the wiring was to add not only movement into the branch settings but a sense of age, this meant that the branches needed to have a downward overall movement to them. Forcing all the branches to just move downward however would not create the layering effect that gives life to the foliage. To create the sense of depth and layering in the foliage it is important that we realize that even in the sections of a branch there are additional apices.

As you look at the completed work one thing you will notice is that with the organization of the branching it has become more clear that each subtrunk has on it several apices. These multiple crowns add to the sense of age as opposed to the youthfulness we might see in a delicate thin trunked mountain maple image. This is part of what makes trees like this one feel so natural.

(before getting started on the job of wiring out the tree)

Wiring a tree this large can be a daunting task, but the joy in completion is certainly worth the effort. The key of course is to just start. You will find that once you start that you quickly get the hang of it. On this particular tree I mostly used size 1 and super fine copper wire (#24 salvaged from some twisted electrical line)


(close up of the lower right hand branch wiring)


(the branch from the side.. you can see some of the layering discussed above)


(another shot showing the outward “wandering” movement of a branch)

What is hard to see in the above image is that not all the movement is on a single plane. To give volume and shape to the foliage it needs to have movement in all directions. In the lower sections of the tree this is less pronounced but still visible.


(the final result after about 20+ hours or wiring… I go slow and just enjoy the process)

The final image reminds me of a wild and natural ancient tree while still having a sense of balance between chaos and order. Of course the pot here lends some information to the ideals behind part of the styling as well. A beautiful antique Chinese pot, the planting may seem odd for many people however the deeper aged pot helps lend an aesthetic feeling of timelessness to the tree. An overall image that , at least to me, is pleasing.

The tree has since been returned to Daniel at Elandan Gardens, where it lives and can be seen on display.

questions and comments are always welcome….. please feel free to join in!

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3 thoughts on “The Taming of the Hornbeam

  1. Sublime. As I look at the tree, it is centered and peaceful…except for the lowest branch on the right, which seems to wistfully reach out toward another time or place…always the promise or hope of movement in a new direction..I find this most compelling.

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