China Doll 'tree'

tx_ag_95(7/8 Lewisville)May 18, 2012

Hi all,

I have a China Doll tree/plant that I inherited from my mother when my parents started traveling full time. She always kept it outside under the patio. I keep it outside under a mature oak tree. (No, sorry, it can't come inside as there's not enough light!) It's brought into a greenhouse in the winter, which is part of the problem. This past winter, it didn't go dormant but kept growing, so when it got too close to the eaves of the house, it grew parallel to the ground. I'm OK with it looking funny, but I have a feeling that it's going to start growing "up" again...which means it will NOT fit back underneath the eaves next winter (the greenhouse is essentially a modified lean-to built next to the west wall of the house).

The plant has enough emotional value to me that I want to keep it. While I could bring it inside in the winter, I'm afraid it would die as the room it would be in would get VERY LITTLE light from a sole skylight in the winter. So, what are my options? It's been happy outside the last 5-6 years (it's always lived outside since my mother got it in San Antonio), ever since I got it (6 years ago) and when I repotted it (5-ish years ago) it started growing again for the first time in AGES. It sprouted a new trunk (good cuz the old one then died) and has continued to put out new growth since then...and didn't seem to be really bothered by the drought Dallas, TX had last summer even though I didn't water as often as I should have.

I don't have much experience with rooting cuttings, and I'd really rather keep the same root stock and have it keep growing than take a cutting and root it and start over while throwing away the original plant. Luckily, the other tropical plants that I "inherited" don't have the same issues! Can anyone help me? Thanks, if you can!

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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

Why not repot (a real repot) and just cut the plant back hard in a month or so & then cut the plant back hard? Most hobby growers seem to feel there is no alternative but to cut a hole through the roof when their trees get to tall, but bonsai artists are able to keep trees centuries old in small pots on little tables so they can be viewed at eye level because they are so short. If you want to take on the tasks of repotting/hard pruning, I'll help you.


Here is a link that might be useful: This might be worth a look ....

    Bookmark   May 18, 2012 at 8:39PM
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tx_ag_95(7/8 Lewisville)

Because I'm scared that that will kill it???

The plant itself is over 6 linear feet tall. It's at least half my age and probably close to my age. I repotted it a few years ago because it was a bit rootbound and had little soil left in the pot, and it DID take off. But, I have ONE plant, and I don't want to kill it (my mother wouldn't kill me but I'd still feel TERRIBLE!).

It's in a pot, it's tropical, so I HAVE to be able to fit it underneath the eave of the house come November or else it WILL die...unless we have another mild winter, and I'm NOT betting on THAT.

It's in a pretty big pot right now, I don't know that the roots have grown into it yet. I intentionally put it into a MUCH larger pot when I repotted it.

Let me know if the link to the picture isn't working, so I can find another way to insert the picture.

I'm tossing this back out there with my current comments/explanations. And I thank you for your help. I really do appreciate it!

    Bookmark   May 18, 2012 at 9:14PM
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stonesriver(6B Tennessee)

Hi, Tx:

Link didn't work. If you go to the African violet forum "gallery" there are two posts with step-by-step instructions on how to insert photos.

Do you have a plant-knowledgeable friend or a nursery you trust to help you repot your China Doll? Do you feel comfortable doing some root pruning and potting it yourself? Would you feel comfortable "topping" the tree instead of severe pruning? That's what I would do; a plus would be it will make it bushier.

I know how traumatic it can be when a plant to which you have sentimental attachment needs care. I could never do a severe cut back on a plant to which I were attached. But it sounds like you're going to have to bite the bullet and do something.

I would suggest a repot in a container slightly larger than the rootball and pruning a little at a time as you feel comfortable and see the China Doll isn't suffering from cutting back.

Best of luck,


    Bookmark   May 18, 2012 at 10:14PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

The size of the tree doesn't matter much. On a regular basis, every 2-5 years, I bare-root/repot trees that are collected from the wild that are hundreds of years old.

When you pot up, instead of repotting ..... well, I'll leave a copy/paste job from something I wrote about why potting up is a limiting practice and repotting (which includes removal of all or large fractions of the old soil and root pruning) is a rejuvenating process. Your tree didn't really 'take off'. What actually happened is the potting up temporarily eased SOME of the limiting effects of the root congestion the tree is under, which resulted in the tree being able to grow a little closer to the genetic potential it is endowed with. The trees new ability to grow with reduced restriction is simply proof of the restriction that will continue and increase in effect as time goes on. With regard to your plant not yet having grown into the new pot: a plant can be horribly root-bound and still be over-potted. Once the core root mass becomes congested, the effects on the plants growth and vitality are permanent unless the root-bound conditions in the oldest part of the root mass are corrected.

About repotting vs potting up: I have spent literally thousands of hours digging around in root-balls of trees (let's allow that trees means any woody plant material with tree-like roots) - tropical/subtropical trees, temperate trees collected from the wild and temperate nursery stock. The wild collected trees are a challenge, usually for their lack of roots close to the trunk, and have stories of their own. The nursery stock is probably the closest examples to what most of your trees are like below the soil line, so I'll offer my thoughts for you to consider or discard as you find fitting.

I've purchased many trees from nurseries that have been containerized for long periods. Our bonsai club, just this summer, invited a visiting artist to conduct a workshop on mugo pines. The nursery (a huge operation) where we have our meetings happened to have purchased several thousand of the mugos somewhere around 10 - 12 years ago and they had been potted-up into continually larger containers ever since. Why relate these uninteresting snippets? In the cases of material that has been progressively potted-up only, large perennial roots occupied nearly the entire volume of the container, plant vitality was in severe decline, and soil in the original root-ball had become so hard that in some cases a chisel was required to remove it.

In plants that are potted-up, rootage becomes entangled. As root diameters increase, portions of roots constrict flow of water and nutrients through other roots, much the same as in the case of girdling or encircling roots on trees grown in-ground. The ratio of fine, feeder roots to more lignified and perennial roots becomes skewed to favor the larger, and practically speaking, useless roots.

Initial symptoms of poor root conditions are progressive diminishing of branch extension and reduced vitality. As rootage becomes continually compressed and restricted, branch extension stops and individual branches might die as water/nutrient translocation is further compromised. Foliage quality may not (important to understand) indicate the tree is struggling until the condition is severe, but if you observe your trees carefully, you will find them increasingly unable to cope with stressful conditions - too much/little water, heat, sun, etc. Trees that are operating under conditions of stress that has progressed to strain, will usually be diagnosed in the end as suffering from attack by insects or other bio-agents while the underlying cause goes unnoticed.

I want to mention that I draw distinct delineation between simply potting up and repotting. Potting up temporarily offers room for fine rootage to grow and do the necessary work of water/nutrient uptake, but these new roots soon lignify, while rootage in the old root mass continues to grow and become increasingly restrictive. The larger and larger containers required for potting-up & the difficulty in handling them also makes us increasingly reluctant to undertake even potting-up, let alone undertake the task of repotting/root-pruning which grows increasingly difficult with each up-potting.

So we are clear on terminology, potting up simply involves moving the plant with its root mass and soil intact, or nearly so, to a larger container and filling in around the root/soil mass with additional soil. Repotting, on the other hand, includes the removal of all or part of the soil and the pruning of roots, with an eye to removing the largest roots, as well as those that would be considered defective. Examples are roots that are dead, those growing back toward the center of the root mass, encircling, girdling or j-hooked roots, and otherwise damaged roots.

I often explain the effects of repotting vs potting up like this:

Let's rate growth/vitality potential on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the best. We're going to say that trees in containers can only achieve a growth/vitality rating of 9, due to the somewhat limiting effects of container culture. Lets also imagine that for every year a tree goes w/o repotting or potting up, its measure of growth/vitality slips by 1 number, That is to say you pot a tree and the first year it grows at a level of 9, the next year, an 8, the next year a 7. Lets also imagine we're going to go 3 years between repotting or potting up.

Here's what happens to the tree you repot/root prune:
year 1: 9
year 2: 8
year 3: 7
year 1: 9
year 2: 8
year 3: 7
year 1: 9
year 2: 8
year 3: 7
You can see that a full repotting and root pruning returns the plant to its full potential within the limits of other cultural influences for as long as you care to repot/root prune.

Looking now at how woody plants respond to only potting up:
year 1: 9
year 2: 8
year 3: 7
pot up
year 1: 8
year 2: 7
year 3: 6
pot up
year 1: 7
year 2: 6
year 3: 5
pot up
year 1: 6
year 2: 5
year 3: 4
pot up
year 1: 5
year 2: 4
year 3: 3
pot up
year 1: 4
year 2: 3
year 3: 2
pot up
year 1: 3
year 2: 2
year 3: 1

This is a fairly accurate illustration of the influence tight roots have on a woody plant's growth/vitality. You might think of it for a moment in the context of the longevity of bonsai trees vs the life expectancy of most trees grown as houseplants, the difference between 4 years and 400 years, lying primarily in how the roots are treated.

When I said "cut the plant back hard", my intent was a holistic approach that included root work/repotting, selective pruning, and a significant ht reduction, all of which center on a plant that can remain attractive and healthy over the long term.

You can read more about maintaining trees over the long term in containers by following the link below. Ball's in your court.


    Bookmark   May 19, 2012 at 5:50AM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

The link I promised:


Here is a link that might be useful: More about trees in containers if you click me ...

    Bookmark   May 19, 2012 at 5:52AM
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