air layering to reduce a large Hibiscus sinensis

hookilau(long island NY)October 8, 2012

I inherited a rather large Chinese Hibiscus standard that is about 7' tall from bottom of pot to top of canopy. It does not seem to be grafted.

The roots are mostly feeder & encompass the *entire* pot. It's a big ol' pot from Walmart, the biggest I've ever seen anyhow. It's about 24" across & at least that tall.

I'd like to air layer this tree to reduce the length of it's trunk. It would make a lovely table top patio tree if I can do this. The trunk is about 3" thick. Can anyone advise me as to whether I have any other options with thissort of material? I just pruned it heavily so that I can bring it in for the winter. I expect Spring time is the best time to carry out such a feat?


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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

Easily doable. How about a picture?


    Bookmark   October 10, 2012 at 4:39PM
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hookilau(long island NY)

Thanks Al =)

The above were estimates, I broke out the tape measure & here are the actual stats;

trunk is 5" in diameter
tree is 5" tall from soil line
pot is 2' wide & 19" tall

entire pot is filled with feeder roots, when I potted up (not realizing I could & should pot down) there was but a mere 1" of room left in the circumference of the pot. To which I added the craptastic bagged potting soil. That was in July when I inherited this tree from my mom as it got too big for them to bring in & out of the house anymore.

canopy is currently 2.5' wide (recently cut down from 5' to bring in).

Previously, my dad kind of chopped where ever to keep it in a lollipop shape. The canopy growth had always been sparse. Have a look.

    Bookmark   October 14, 2012 at 10:00AM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

So let's say you've successfully layered the top off & you have some nice roots right where you want them ..... now what's your vision for this plant?

If you're not in a rush to complete the layer, you might start prepping the tree now. Wrap a few (2-3) 8-10" zip ties around the trunk immediately below where you want the roots to emerge.

Then, wrap some black electrical tape around the trunk immediately above the zip ties, but wrap it so the sticky side is out. The extra moisture and etiolation will get some root initials started, so when you put the layer together it will happen fast. The zip ties will bite into the cambium and restrict the flow of carbohydrates moving downward through the phloem, but water and nutrients will still move upward through the xylem. A bulge rich in carbohydrates will form above the constriction, and roots will readily form there. If you want a perfect root system to form - an important part of all quality bonsai, you can help it along like this.

Use your fingers to spin a 1/8" brad-point drill until the cambium is removed from the holes. Use a toothpick to fill the holes with rooting gel just before you complete the layer, using a good quality soil and a suspended pot. You can pack some moist sphagnum moss (not peat) around the layer if you like, then keep it moist.

You should end up with a layer like this

You can still see the heavy wire I used instead of a zip tie.

An impressive root system and basal flare for such a young tree:


    Bookmark   October 15, 2012 at 4:27PM
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hookilau(long island NY)

Thanks Al.

To be clear, I should apply the tourniquet now & then in early Spring complete the procedure? or is it meant to happen at the same time? if so, should I do it now or in early spring?

Not surprisingly, I have no vision for this tree as yet. It's structure is too confused for me. If I could reduce it, I feel I could study it better. It was always pruned to be a lollipop so I feel I need to see it out of that context.

I don't think it helps that there are several large branches that were incompletely removed. It gives the appearance of 'stump branch' where an unsightly mid-shaft amputation was carried out, leaving a goofy dead stump at the base of a live branch.

I'm hoping that after it's separated from the goofy trunk it'll speak to me =>


    Bookmark   October 15, 2012 at 8:25PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

Yes - apply the tourniquet now .... and the tape, or something to keep the area where you want roots to form in the dark.

In thinking about your plant, I think the first think I would do is get the top layered off and growing well. In your plan, you need to be thinking ahead to getting rid of the heaviness where the old trunk was truncated - near the top of the tree, and starting to develop a new top. Also, any bar-branches need to be corrected and unnecessary branches removed. It's really difficult to offer any meaningful advice from here for lack of perspective. As I see it, you can keep the tree formal and upright and concentrate on developing branches so the lowest are the heaviest, or you can really shorten the trunk, lose most of the branches, and choose a near vertical branch coming off the trunk as a new leader, changing the planting angle so the new leader is vertical and moving back toward a point immediately above where the tree comes out of the soil, and chopping everything above the new leader. The problem is, I have no idea which option is best or how many more options there are, because I lack having the tree in front of me on a turntable so I can SEE the options - even the obscure ones. You need a hands-on mentor to guide you in the tree's refinement.


    Bookmark   October 16, 2012 at 2:14PM
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hookilau(long island NY)

Yup, I get what you're saying. I have it in the middle of the living room so I've just been staring at it =) and since it's so big, every now & then, I get up & thoughtfully orbit it. Refinement will come with time I expect.

Tourniquet & tape applied. I gave myself a fair bit of room & ended up with the stricture about a hand span from the last branch.

Yup, my plan is to separate the top from the trunk & then see what I can do. I think there may be a few branches that can be layered as well so this growing season coming up will probably include more practice =>

Here's an odd question...what will happen to the remaining trunk once separated? Will it die? It's about a mile of straight & boring highway. Is it possible it might sprout buds?

    Bookmark   October 16, 2012 at 7:00PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

I was just talking to a budding bonsai artist on the phone today, and she mentioned exactly the same thing. "I pick up a plant, rotate it this way & that, inspecting it carefully from all sides, then put it down because I don't know what to do, even though I know something needs to be done." What I told her is that knowing what to do doesn't come easy to many bonsai artists. Most of us acquire a sense of what the tree wants to be only after observing others transform trees in workshops, demos, and magazines, and after discussing our own trees' potential with other artists, especially those more experienced - or being present when these evaluations are made regarding the trees of others.

It's likely you'll get some back-budding on the old trunk. If you do, you'll end up with a 2fer1. I agree with the mile of straight/boring hwy analogy, but if you bring the tree back to good vitality, a low chop will produce the back-budding you need to start building a tree on the existing roots, or you could opt to layer off the bottom section of the trunk again - depending on what the roots look like at repot time.

For me, bonsai is the ultimate horticultural challenge. There is no limit to how far you can go in your search for proficiency and perfection of the artistry, and part of its reward is the bond you necessarily form with plants. Keep playing with and exploring ways to manipulate plants in ways that improve their ability to reach their potential - both in terms of health and appearance. I think you'll find, if you haven't already, that the ability to manipulate plant material adds an extra layer of opportunity to extract an added measure of satisfaction from the whole growing experience - even if it's not bonsai related.


    Bookmark   October 16, 2012 at 10:07PM
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I have a Hibiscus similar to yours. It is not as tall but was given to me as a 'tree Hibiscus' with a single trunk. My plant is destined to live in the same pot. I have cut it back many times (as you have done.) I have also root-pruned it.

My Hibiscus did back bud and has also sent up new shoots from the base. These plants grow very fast, both green and roots. They can become root bound in one growing season.

This past Spring, I cut approx. 2/3 of the root ball, including thick woody roots. This was quite a feat because I did not have a saw. Plant did not lose a beat, and the roots have again filled the pot. I'm not sure how long I can keep it in the pot without root pruning again.

I am letting it back bud and grow this season to see how it looks. I intend to take off most branches to develop a new leader. My plant now makes smaller leaves bit continues to flower constantly. I'm curious whether the flowers will get smaller as they appear too large for the leaves.

Good luck with the air-layering. I hope you post back with your results as I would be interested. My plant is now at a desirable height so I don't think I would layer it, but I'll watch your progress.


    Bookmark   October 19, 2012 at 10:26PM
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hookilau(long island NY)

therein lies my problem =) I have yet to find a suitable outlet for an enthusiast with little working knowledge yet eager to learn. There's a bonsai club further out on the island that I may end up having to join, though they do not have any events for a newcomer listed. They meet once a month & the next 2 meetings are elections & holiday party, soooo...yeah.

I was hoping someone would know of a bonsai nursery in my neck of the woods but magic 8 ball says 'outlook not so good'. I'm visiting my favorite garden centers & (not meaning to but inevitably) collecting material in the meantime =>

This spring will be loads of fun.

    Bookmark   October 20, 2012 at 11:06AM
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hookilau(long island NY)


I'll surely post an update on the Hibiscus. I have a couple of others that are much smaller that I've cut back drastically to bring in. They didn't miss a beat either.

I'm hopeful the trunk will backbud, there are lots & lots of bumpy points that I could swear are nodes. So far, we've only lost a few leaves but even after the severe haircut & change of environment it didn't pout at all. I was a little surprised at this but it's good to hear they're tough that way =>

Had I realized they would take to reduction so well, I'd have done the monster's roots & pot down. It's just as well, I've always wanted to try air layering & the added stricture is also intriguing.

I'll update when it does something, for now, I'll just stare 0_o

    Bookmark   October 20, 2012 at 11:48AM
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silentsurfer(6A OH)

hi Antoinette,
just sayin howdy, and watching w/Interest.
may try the 'prepping' technique on an f. retusa here soon myself, so,,
wishing you the Best! :)

too bad about the lack of local clubs and bonsai nurseries,,
but Im convinced You Will Overcome. :)

ps: Quit Staring!! they'll grow. lol :)~~

    Bookmark   October 24, 2012 at 6:45PM
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hookilau(long island NY)

lol! I can't help it, I'm a looky lou, haha.
I appreciate that SS =)

If all else fails, I've still got my chopped jades & of course the overwintering peppers to play with. All of which are doing really well so far, new growth abound!

The Hibiscus looks great so far. All summer outside, leaves turned yellow & dropped. Now that it's inside, it hasn't lost any. I can't believe it's so much happier inside.

Anyhoo...updates to come over the next few months =) If you try the tourniquet technique, let me know how it works out for you. I'm planning on trying it with an i. crenata just as soon as I decide which branches will go => back to staring, heh heh!


    Bookmark   October 24, 2012 at 9:23PM
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