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The Journey of my Purple Bougainvillea to the 1st National Exhibition

Written For Bonsai Focus Magazine
Erik Wigert 3-16-09

View photo gallery from this event

My fascination with Bougainvillea I’m sure started early in my journey as a bonsai artist. Living in Southwest Florida where many of these colorful plants dot the landscape with splashes of crimson, purple, and pink, I was bound to take notice of them. Bougainvillea is an evergreen vine which is just as happy spreading horizontally or hanging downwards as it is climbing upwards, it makes itself at home in almost any situation. It can be grown as a hedge, groomed as a ground cover, trained as a tree or contained in a pot in a variety of shapes. Its trunk tends to be gnarled, and larger landscape grown trees make excellent specimen bonsai.

When I began my bonsai nursery back in 2004 I noticed along the property line buried beneath several sprawling Brazilian Pepper Trees (a local invasive), a bright splash or purple. I knew right away that I needed to get a closer look. Upon closer inspection I found it to have quite a large trunk, but the foliage was intertwined with the Pepper Tree in a tangled mass of thorns. It took quite some time to prune back enough branches that I could get close enough to dig up the tree. At the time not well versed yet in collecting bougainvillea I left several large roots and took quite a large root ball. I planted the tree in a 25 gallon nursery container in an organic mix of pine bark and peat. The tree was left to grow with minimal pruning for about a year before its first styling.

On December 26th 2005 this Bougainvillea began its journey as a bonsai. I carried out a first styling and selected a few primary branches and cut back to form a new apex on both the main, and secondary trunk. I realized after this styling that much of what I had allowed to grow over the past year was too woody to properly reposition. Also many of the larger roots that had been left when I dug the tree needed to be reduced drastically to fit the tree in a mica training pot. After looking at what I was left with I decided that in the future I would be better served root pruning harder and potting Bougainville immediately in a shallow training pot. This way I am able to begin to wire the trees as soon as new shoots are long enough. The soil I use for Bougainvillea is a equal mix by volume of: lava rock, sifted pine bark, and turface. All particles are about ¼ to 1/8th inch size. This mix allows for quick drainage and promotes a dense branching root system. As a bonus Bougainvillea typically bloom best in our dry season, but in this soil they will bloom year round.

I continued to stay on top of this tree and whenever I had a new shoot long enough to wire I did it. Sometimes I left extra branches with the plan to remove them as the design progressed. It grew very fast and in October 2006, less than 1 year later, it was well on its way. The canopy was not quite full, and I continued to ‘topiary trim’ the crown in order to force more branching. The first ceramic pot I placed it in proved to be too small and I repotted it into a larger round container. The round shape seemed to fit the tree better and the tree continued to grow. In December 2007 as the tree came into a beautiful bloom I took the time to take quality photos. I had 3 month prior defoliated the tree completely and wired a lot of the growth. By now the tree was achieving its true potential. At 42 inches tall, it had an 18 inch nebari at soil level, and what color! This photo was submitted to the committee that selects 30 Bonsai each year to be displayed for a 7 week period at Walt Disney World’s Epcot center in Orlando, Florida. It, along with another large purple Bougainvillea I started the same year as this one, was chosen to be displayed and viewed by millions of the theme parks visitors in the Japan pavilion. In January 2008 I defoliated the tree again to force more blooms for the shows opening in March 2008.

My greatest honor with this tree however was when it was chosen by Bill Valavanis to be one of about 200 Bonsai chosen from around the United States to be displayed at our country’s 1st National Bonsai Exhibition. The show was to take place in Rochester, New York on October 11th and 12th 2008. I worried about producing a good crop of flowers for this two day show and when the tree came back from Epcot I began to prepare it. I defoliated about 10 weeks before the show and hoped for the best. My timing turned out to be good, and as I began the drive north to New York with my Bougainvillea in tow I was excited to bring a taste of Florida to the cold north! Bill had told me my tree would be displayed in a tokoname he had constructed on the main stage of the exhibition. This was quite an honor let alone to have my tree accepted but to have it as a focal point in the display. The exhibition was wonderful, and all of the trees were truly spectacular. Bill went to a lot of work and I was proud to be a part of history in the making. On awards night I got a huge surprise. My Bougainvillea was chosen by the three judges: Seiji Morimae, Pedro Morales, and Peter Warren to be awarded ‘Best Tropical Bonsai’. This was a spur of the moment award and each judge contributed $100.00 from their own wallets to make it possible. While some felt that tropical bonsai should not have been honored separately from their northern counterparts, I was simply proud to have been recognized at this prestigious event. The tree continues to thrive and I am currently working to enhance its ramification. I look forward to the future with this tree after a short, but exciting 3 years working with it to date.

‘Of all the beautiful flowers in the world the Bougainvillea outshines them all.’ – Chen Liangzhong


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