40th Annual Mid-America Bonsai Exhibition


Best of show, Gary Andes

This past weekend I was able to experience Midwest bonsai at it’s best. The Midwest Bonsai show is the largest in the area and many enthusiasts from surrounding states and the east coast attend. Many beautiful trees, as well as some comedic entries, were displayed in the exhibit.

I came both as a participant, helping table and load trees, and as a guest able to chat and enjoy the show at my leisure. I was able to meet many new people as well as others I was only acquainted with through various online bonsai groups.

The venue was excellent as well, hosted at the Chicago Botanic Gardens. I was able see the permanent bonsai collection, Japanese, and waterfall gardens. On display was a rare corpse flower too! Unbeknownst to me, it bloomed just as I was loading the trailer and left.

I hope you enjoy this post and without further ado, on to the pictures.

Day 1:

Friday morning I finished work early and scrambled to the station to catch the earliest train heading north.

Cool weather, great for the show


on time!

I made it by early afternoon. I met up with John, a friend from bonsainut and walked through the exhibition with him.



The show displayed a range of trees from novice to professional categories. The quality in the professional category was outstanding. The ones photographed were among the best in the show.




Upon observation all the white pines displayed at the show were grafted. That said the grafts were well done and extremely clean. I’d love to have a pine like this but both my climate and wallet won’t tolerate it.



At many shows sometimes people pay too much heed towards the awards. Bonsai is a product of many years of labor and love. Receiving critique and watching other trees get more recognition is not an easy thing for many. Jim Doyle’s display reminded both participants and onlookers to enjoy the show. Served with humor on the side.

Although illegible in this photo the note reads, “who climbed these trees first…man or monkey?”


An aptly chosen banana accent plant.


Monkeys hanging in the trees


A nice larger douglas fir displayed by Andy Smith.







An interesting 10 tree shohin display by Dan Turner. It is a bit too busy for my personal taste but an cool display nonetheless.


Cool root over rock trident by Mark Fields.




If you look carefully at the trunk you will notice a very smooth line diagonally across the trunk. Early in the tree’s development wire is wrapped around the trunk between the graft union of black pine root stock and white pine. The wire bites into the tree as it grows and the surrounding cambium thickens. Over time the wire is completely encased. The method is controversial for some but given enough time is a viable method to thicken a trunk and induce some character. Signs of this technique being used was visible on most white pines at the show.


I believe this is a Virginia pine. A eastern US pine but cool to see native species used other than stuff from the mountains. (–this is actually a Scott’s pine but there was a similar looking Virginia pine at the show)



Grey Owl juniper. Nice well developed tree but not in best health. Many foliage pads were pinched hard in the last season or 2 and appear to be sulking.



Here is a sign provided by the Chicago Botanic Gardens that accompanied Bill Valavanis’ trees.


Below is Bill Valavanis’s Dwarf Brush Cherry he displayed at the same show 40 years ago.


The development of the tree was shared as well:


A Kashima maple also by Bill Valvanis, in development for many decades.


The progression was displayed as well:



Seen below is a Tanuki. No, not the brown racoon looking thing but the tree. The deadwood on this tree was artificially attached to the live vein. Also known as a phoenix graft, a young tree is closely bound to a piece of deadwood and allowed to grow together. A successful graft will introduce character to the tree and create the illusion of age. They are difficult to do without the tree appearing contrived.

On another note in Japanese culture Tanukis are depicted as a mischievous and deceptive animal, often capable of shape shifting into people or inanimate objects. Thus the adoption of this name for a tree that tries to deceive the viewer.



A nice red pine. The apex feels too strong in my opinion. I discussed with John the possibility of removing the apex and bringing the the immediate branch on the right in as the new apex. The movement of the tree feels disjointed with the apex fighting with the lower branching. A very nice tree though and something I’d like to own.




An outstanding large “Kokonoa” Japanese white pine. Perhaps my favorite tree in the exhibition and highly refined.



Twisting pomegranate. These trees have very brittle branches and coarser growth. They are not an easy species to get a high level of branch ramification with. I was told by Owen Reich that the tree was primarily developed by clip and grow with some wire use.




Excellent suiseki display by Dan Turner. The chrysanthemum stone in particular is a gem. “Cheaper” chrysanthemum stones you find on ebay or in peoples collection will only have one flower pattern. This one has a complex array of prints that evoke the feeling of dragonflies and lilies.



Shots from the permanent collection:

Boulevard Cypress


Trident Maple



shimpaku raft
European olive


Walter Pall limber pine


Day 2:

I started my day bright and early and hitched a ride with Jeff from the Hidden Gardens. No roosters to start me off but some hens clucking will suffice.


The show was rough in terms of sales with most of the interest in cheaper pre-bonsai to mid-high range trees. In between and over was a rough bet. Exceptions to this were Sara Rayner who did exceptional for the show and Nitsu pottery seemed to do well with good prices on nice pots. Andy Smith had some killer material for low prices and Todd Schlafer did really good for his first vending experience as a bonsai pro.




I watched a Kathy Shaner demo later that day. Unfortunately I was not able to get a before picture of the tree, but here is the finished work. The demo tree was a black hills spruce provided by Andy Smith. Kathy discussed in depth about preserving the manner the tree was growing in and to showcase the struggles it had in its life. She set primary and secondary branching in place but did not do too much detail wiring. Much of the tree was preserved giving lots of potential design paths for the future. The tree was raffled but I hope I can see where it is taken in the future.




Trees were judged Friday evening and were displayed with awards on Saturday. Gary Andes twisted pomegranate won best of show and Bill Valavanis’ Kashima maple won first in the professional division.



Day 3:

The day started off slow but by early afternoon the show became fairly crowded with visitors crowding around vendors and trees. I had more leisure time–least until it was time to pack out, but enough to explore the gardens.

Here are some shots of the Japanese and waterfall gardens.




I enjoyed good bonsai conversations with Loren and talked with Owen who filled me in on the bits about the apprenticeship and bonsai professional life. Also met a younger guy Griffen if I remember that right. Griffen is a younger bonsai enthusiast who started back when he was 12 and now has done bonsai for 4 years. He was helping out Jim Doyle for the show. Its cool to meet other “young” people into bonsai as I’m often the youngest at every show and event I attend!

Group shot with (left to right) Jeff, Todd, me, and Loren.


I also talked to Sara Rayner and bought a pot from her.



Got a shot with Owen towards the end of the show.


Last look at some cool trees and then I packed out. Well, after a good 3 and a half hours of loading trees and shelves. Jeff and I packed out a trailer tight! One more tree and it would be sitting with us in the truck cabin. đŸ˜…




All in all it was a great show. I made some new friends and thoroughly enjoyed my time there. Big thanks to Jeff who not only saved me a lot of time and train fares, but enabled me to meet many people in the local bonsai scene both in the show and out.

Pursuing bonsai professionally is a huge goal for me and I’ve been trying to explore possible paths that can open up bonsai as a sustainable career for me. There’s a large gap in knowledge I need to fill before I can find what will work for me.

Owen has helped me out in this regard a lot over the course of the show and I owe him thanks as well. I’ll see on returning the favor.

Thanks for reading and feel free to subscribe to see updates on my trees and more bonsai adventures. I will be investing into photography in the coming months and will get the rest of my trees up on the blog with quality pictures.



Carving Hornbeam at the Hidden Gardens

I’ve been heading down to the Hidden Gardens often this past month. My work schedule at Argonne is pretty variable, so days I get off or get out early Jeff’s been letting me hang and help out at the nursery.

One of the projects I recently worked on was an American Hornbeam with massive dieback. In contrast to the coniferous yamadori found at the nursery Jeff started carrying collected deciduous material. Mainly American hornbeams, but red maples, lilacs, oaks, among others can be found.

Many of these trees have significant post collection dieback. On one end the dieback detracts from the value of the tree–the likelihood of creating a “seamless” trunk becomes increasingly difficult.

The same dieback however provides an opportunity to impart character and to impose a ruggedness characteristic of trees at the Hidden Gardens. Jeff gave me full reins to pick out a hornbeam to carve–so I did!

I have very little carving experience, but I did participate in one Will Baddeley workshop discussed here.

The tree I selected had a decent base with twin trunks–both of which significant dieback.



I neglected to take good before shots but there wasn’t too much to show. The bark was carefully stripped to separate the dead and live regions. The two trunks were crossing significantly so Jeff and I decided to cut the left one off. With minimal movement and little top growth on a mostly dead trunk the decision was easy.

I proceeded to shade the regions I wanted to carve out. When using high powered die grinders and dremels its easy to take out a chunk of tree you’ll never get back. Better to take it slow then to hog down big chunks of wood right off the bat.



After assessing the deadwood I began carving. First with the lower chopped trunk then with the top. A dremel was used both to establish a hollow and to add detail work. A die grinder was used on the top to remove excess wood.

The final height of the right trunk will actually be much lower (up to the sharpie) but I opted not to chop it back. Currently the narrow strip of cambium is solely supported by some top growth. Chopping lower risks dieback to the extent where deadwood will comprise more than half of the trunk. While deadwood has its place among deciduous trees it can easily become overpowering.

The trunk will be left alone with the intent of approaching grafting one of the suckers mid height onto the trunk. Until growth is established either through backbudding or grafting cutting back poses to great a risk.






The bottom carving turned out very well. The top, not as much. It was challenging creating a wide channel through the curved trunk. The same techniques I used to create detail work on the smaller lower trunk resulted in a contrived appearance on the top. The second mistake I made was not offsetting channels in the top enough. This meant you could see through the trunk at some angles. Fortunately this was not the case for the potential fronts.


Flaw in top work seen here


I may try to clean up the top more in the future and put more depth in the “flatter” areas. For now we’ll see how the grows next season as its not particularly strong at the moment. Working on this tree was good practice and I’m certain my next carving project will be even better.

Big thanks to Jeff for letting me potentially butcher a tree. I just hope that my work increased the value of the tree instead of depreciating it. Â đŸ˜…

On a side note I’ll be heading up to the Midwest Bonsai Show possibly all 3 days! I offered Jeff to help table and prep for the show so I’ll be hitching a ride with him up to the botanical gardens. I’m trying to reach out to the bonsai community more and hope to meet many people there. I plan to document the show on my blog so stay tuned.

For your viewing pleasure here are some photos of a sunrise I recently photographed: