Yamadori Yew Hunting.

Before and After.

About a year ago a friend of mine mentioned he had a Yew tree in his way that was blocking the access to the side of his shed.

Knowing I am a Bonsai fanatic and have the tools and toys to remove most small trees or Shrubs; he probably thought I’d either want the tree or could at least help him solve the issue and remove it quickly.

I told him that if he wasn’t in a rush I’d like the opportunity to collect it rather than just get the chainsaw out and reduce it to a stump.

So began a year or more of preparation and some serious graft.

So what is Yamadori?

The word itself, literally translated from Japanese, means; “collecting plants in the mountains.”

So what’s all the fuss about then?

While the obvious answer is “Free Bonsai Trees”; actually it’s not the most important part. Nor would they often be considered free…

Ask anyone who has a Bonsai or indeed a Bonsai collection and you will get as many unique or diverse answers as the trees in their possession or collections.

One main theme though will be to have a tree that looks ancient and mature. This is very hard to replicate by only growing a tree in a pot. As the tree and it’s roots will essentially only grow slowly and to fit in that pot.

To get a Bonsai tree that has a big thick and aged trunk that looks impressive but also exudes power and age; one needs to go beyond sowing a seed in a pot and repotting it every few years to allow it to grow. That seed in a pot will grow into a “tree” but it will never be a very large tree nor will it look like it is a mature one.

This is where Yamadori comes into play and some very well matured and sizeable Bonsai are made.

When a tree is collected from its natural surrounding and has been grown for years it will be far larger, taller, thicker and matured; as well as having been exposed to nature and the elements, so will show those scars and trials. It will have had years if not Decades to spread deep and far spreading roots. Sucking up moisture and nutrients; allowing it to grow and mature into an impressive piece of material.

Taking a tree from the ground and transferring it into a pot is a feat in itself and that is why I mention they shouldn’t be considered “Free Bonsai Trees”.

It takes a lot of time and effort to collect them; more to ensure they survive the collection process and then go onto being trained to live a life later once they are back to a healthy state to become “Yamadori Bonsai.”

Often The most prized of all Bonsai trees.

Both for value and appearances.

Yamadori Bonsai are often the most prized possession in a Bonsai enthusiasts collection.

They will usually stand out from other trees due to their aged and mature appearance, vastly increased size of trunk girth and often stunning weather work bark. Simply because they grew naturally in the ground so had more room to grow and their roots could spread further and deeper. Also they were allowed to reach for the sky and in doing so to support that height and amount of foliage they are required; to “Thicken up” and bulk up.

Or else they will fall over or succumb to the elements and weather.

So why does it take so much time to collect Yamadori?

If only it was as easy as seeing a tree while out and about and being able to dig it up there and then to take it home. Put it in a pot and job done…

Depending on the tree and size, where it is and of course the serious question of who owns it or the land it is on. It requires time to secure access and permissions to collect the tree.

Yamadori hunting is also a time intensive process.

If you are lucky enough to spot a tree you think you could turn into Bonsai, you have to ask the land owner, get permission to remove the tree, prepare the tree, dig out the tree, remove the tree; and then go through the lengthy process of pruning it and preparing it to go into a container.

Then perhaps years of follow up pruning and intensive care and love. Eventually repotting it into its final home; a bonsai Pot.

This is why Yamadori Bonsai stock is at the higher end of the price spectrum and much sought after.

Smaller specimens probably can be collected the day they are located, a tree that is on the smaller side and easily accessed may indeed, if you have permissions; be “harvested” in an hour and taken home and put into a container after some quick root and foliage pruning. Then worked on over the next year or so to get it healthy and growing again. All ready for the joy of selecting a style for the Bonsai and then designing the trees final image.

The tree featured in the image above has taken over a year to collect.

Due to the height of the Yew tree when I was first asked if I wanted it.

It required reducing in height dramatically. It took a chainsaw to remove or “Top the tree” and a good third of it was removed initially, then later on another large section was again topped. To reduce the height and bulk; but also start reducing the amount of foliage on the tree and reduce the workload put on the roots later on when the tree was removed and a large portion of its roots would be severed during collection.

I regularly went back to the tree over the next 6 months or so and reduced the branches and amount of foliage the Yew had or was producing. Also to check on the health of the tree to ensure it was still putting fresh foliage out; also to ensure it was back budding and making new growth to fill the blank areas on the trunk where new branches would eventually be needed.

While also starting to loosen the soil around the base of the tree and start to look at the root structure and get a glimpse of what lay below the surface. This was key to the later stages of harvesting the tree.

I loved the trunk of the tree and the amount of large and thick roots that spread out from the base of the tree; called the “Nebari”. So seeing how large and how many of these large and thick roots lay below the topsoil was a key factor in how much of the root I would need to save or how deep I would need to go when the day came to collect this Yew tree.

Can I dig it; yes you can…

Permission to collect the tree granted.

Tools to dig it out; sorted.

Now it was down to waiting for the right time and the tree to be ready.

Digging it out took a good few hours of hard work and sweat.

(Also a few tears and a large portion of swearing. As I was filming the harvest and for the final part where the tree gave it up and came out of the ground… The camera unbeknown to me had fallen over; so this key moment was lost while the lens was pointing at the stump the camera was placed on to record the momentous event…)

The chainsaw came into play for the thickest roots, several digging tools and an axe were also used. Mostly though it took perseverance and the effort of raw physical muscle to finally wrestle the Yew tree out of its long term home and remove it out of my friends way.

Leaving a sizeable crater as the root ball mass was pretty thick.

The root crater required to dig out the Yew tree and the rootball I salvaged.

So what next?

Once I trollied the Yew out of the way, I took it back to my workspace and did some root pruning to allow it to fit into the container that would now house the Yew. Removing the thicker and unnecessary roots and allowing me access to the more fibrous and essential root system that the tree was going to need more than ever over the next year or so. These are the ones it feeds and drinks from; so are vital to a trees survival.

Then I heavily pruned the amount of branches and younger recently grown twigs to massively reduce the foliage the tree would have to support; given its roots had just been severely reduced in number. This is vital as the less strain on the roots the more chance the tree has of surviving the process. The more foliage the tree has; the more water and food it needs to be able to take on. Rescue those and it’s needs are also reduced.

Reducing the upper trunk of the Yew once again so the height and weight of it wouldn’t cause the tree to topple and also bring it closer to the size I wanted the final tree to have.

Leaving myself a good amount of excess height at the upper end of the trunk for later; so I could remove the chainsaw marks where the tree had been reduced. To allow a more natural or polished look and feel once the tree was healthy and I knew it had survived. So I could start turning it into Bonsai, through further training; and the roots had also been trained to allow me to get it into a pot I choose for the tree.

Again, wanting thin and fibrous roots, not thick ones without much ability to draw water and food from the soil. The thicker roots are more for stability and anchoring a tree into the ground.

Yew trees are fairly tolerant and robust; this is handy given the size and scale of what had just happened to this tree.

Once I had done an initial cut and clean of roots and foliage, it was time to place the tree into a container I had ready for the tree.

So what now?

This Yew tree will be looked after and have a careful eye kept on it to see it has survived over the next few months. Once it starts showing signs of new foliage and growth I will slowly start to feed the tree in Spring. Encouraging it to again, start back budding and putting out new growth.

It might spend a few years in its new container while the root mass develops to support the new growth required. It will pretty much be left to its own devices till it has filled out and during that time I will gently clip or prune this new growth to allow a branch structure I require to form. One I will eventually wire into a design or form I like.

I will also start to remove the scars and obvious machine marks from the chainsaw at the top of the tree and form a more natural feature; utilising wood carving techniques allowing me to create a “Deadwood” feature.

I have it already in mind I would like to create a deadwood feature or “Jin” so it will appear that the tree has been struck by lightning. So will have died off and the damage remaining whitens or seems bleached. (the “Jin” will be preserved so it does not rot.)

This is an aesthetic choice but the tree will decide itself what method is best used if it survives and depends largely on how it grows on if it does.

Yamadori Yew and Shadow.
(My Border Collie x Kelpie & Therapy dog.)

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