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Cedars for Bonsai

by Brent Walston


Cedars! I love cedars. One of the very first plants I purchased for bonsai, over fifteen years ago, was an Atlas Cedar, Cedrus atlantica. It is still with me and now is a two foot tall, four inch trunk, two man cedar with well developed foliage pads and very short needles. It will go to its first show this year. These trees make spectacular formal upright and cascade bonsai.

Cedrus in general

My Cedrus atlantica has a nice deep green color typical of the species, but not typical of what you find in nurseries. Unfortunately almost all the Cedrus atlantica seedlings available today come from C. atlantica 'Glauca', so that what you get is neither the powdery blue of 'Glauca', nor the deep green of the species, but rather a pale blue green very much like C. deodara, but with shorter needles than deodara.

Growing Cedar from Seed

Seed from isolated trees has been very hard to get. Seed from all the cedars is very easy to germinate, but extremely sensitive to water and will damp off in an instant. Soak the seed overnite in warm water, pour off the water and dry the seed just until the husks become papery again, it should not be wet to the touch. I put mine in the sun on paper towels and it takes about fifteen minutes to reach this stage. Put it in a thin plastic bag with no paper towels or other medium, just the seed alone, it has adequate internal moisture. Fold over the top of the bag do not seal. Put it in the refrigerator at forty degrees F for thirty days or less if it begins to sprout. Take it out of the fridge.

As the radicles of the seeds emerge, remove them and plant in a good well drained medium. Regular bonsai soil works well. Plant it by sticking the radicle in the mix, leaving the bulk of the seed out of the soil. This will help reduce damping off. Usually two or three planting sessions is necessary to plant all the seed because the radicles emerge over about 2 weeks. At the end you can just stick the ungerminated seeds in the mix by pushing them in point down with the seed sticking in the air.

Water very carefully, waiting for the surface of the mix to dry before re-watering. Keep the humidity down, don't cover them with those little domes or plastic covers, this will only invite fungal problems. I have lost lots of cedar seed; this is all necessary, unless you want five or six plants out of a whole quarter pound packet. I plant directly into cells (plug trays) to avoid disrupting the roots when transplanting. Once the needles emerge they are pretty safe and easy to handle. This applies to all cedar seed.

Formal Upright Cedars

Large trunk cedars are very hard to produce by any other means than the 'broken top' method. This involves growing out the tree as rapidly as possible to about fifteen gallon size, a process that takes ten to fifteen years. The low branches must be preserved during this process, since cedars, like most needle conifers, are loathe to form new growth on old wood. Very weak spindly branches can be coaxed back to big healthy major branches if they are still alive. Such was the case of my big cedar. It was in a fifteen gallon can when I bought it and was probably already ten to fifteen years old. Nursery stock in fives or fifteens is just fine if the low branching is still alive. Such material can usually be purchased for $25 to $65. This can save you five to ten years.

Next decide how tall you want your tree to be, six times the diameter of the trunk is ideal, but you can give yourself some leeway because it will increase in diameter while in training. Also formal uprights very often violate this guideline and are taller and slimmer that this ratio implies.

Next, look for a likely spot to cut the top off. I look for a set of close internodes around the height I want; this will give a good apex. About six inches above this point make a forty five degree angle cut on the BACK of the tree about halfway through. Grab the top of the tree and break it, pulling it down and ripping the wood and bark on the front of the tree. You can pull it down as far as you want exposed wood to show, all the way to the crown if you like, but not into the roots or rot will result. When pulled down to the right position twist and break it as much as possible to get it free at this point. You may have to do some cutting, but breaking it free looks more natural.

At the cut portion of the top, split the wood vertically with branch cutters and pull down bundles of fibers with pliers until no saw cut marks are visible. The effect that you want is that of a lightning struck tree. I grab the fibers with the pliers and roll the pliers down the trunk rather than give a straight pull, you can exert much more force this way.

All this is done while still in the original can. If it is good health, leave it in this can while you do the branch selection and begin pad formation. Cedars can stay in containers for very long periods of time. Mine was in the same fifteen gallon can for over ten years. Once pad develop was nearly complete, I cut off about the bottom two thirds of the roots and put it in a large bonsai training pot. All root work on cedars is best performed in spring before the new white roots appear, usually Feb thru April depending on your location.


C. atlantica 'Glauca', Blue Atlas Cedar and C. atlantica 'Aurea'Golden Blue Atlas Cedar are the two most common species used for the popular cedar cascade style. Both of the cultivars have very short needles, and will form superior foliage pads when trained properly.

One gallon and five gallon nursery plants are generally used as starter material. One gallon size plants are still flexible enough to be bent downward into a cascade or semi cascade with little difficulty with traditional wiring techniques. Five gallon stock with one to two inch trunks calls for the big guns.

Large trunk stock plants are first protected with raffia. A bundle of wet raffia is placed lengthwise along the trunk as close to the branches as possible. This is secured by occasional wraps of raffia. Next, a thick copper wire is placed in th bed of raffia. The wire is secured by wrapping the trunk with raffia, changing direction every few inches by placing the raffia under and around the wire and going the other way. This locks the wire in place. Then another thick copper wire is placed around the trunk on top of raffia in the traditional coiled manner.

The bending is then done by hand or by bending jigs until the trunk goes straight down. It is often necessary to also anchor the trunk to the nursery pot to hold it in position. Next, bends are made at the selected branches so that each branch is on the outside of the curve.

This work is best done in August, with the wire left in place until the fall of the following year. The bonsai can be root pruned and potted the spring following. Thanks to Mas Imazumi, our club sensei, for this procedure.

Other Species of Cedrus

Cedrus libani

Cedar of Lebanon, Cedrus libani, has short needles of medium green with new growth of very bright light green. It is slower growing than C. atlantica and C. deodara and takes longer to form a decent trunk size, but the color is very good and the needles are shorter.

As far as I am concerned there is no finer cedar for small bonsai than C. libani 'Green Prince'. This is a real gem, rather rare and hard to find, it is extremely slow growing, reaching about eighteen inches in ten years. It has very short needles of a magnificent dark green, almost black color, the deepest green of any cedar. The new growth, like the species is lighter green, making a superb contrast. It grows in a soft upward spiral and practically makes bonsai by itself. I get more comments about the one in my rock garden than other plant. It must be grafted properly for bonsai since the understock will quickly out grow the scion and make a horrible union. Look for low grafts that can be buried so that the union can be hidden in the nebari. If it is high grafted, forget it unless you are willing to air layer it. Be prepared to pay big bucks for this rare dwarf.

Cedrus deodara

This cedar has little bonsai potential in my opinion. The needles are longer and tend to grow along the stem rather in clusters like the other cedars. It is rugged, easy to grow and faster growing than the others. It has a very fibrous root system and is universally used as cedar understock. If you find a big specimen plant with potential at a reasonable price, then go for it. But, as a long term project, starting out with young plants of the other cedar species is preferred.

Cedrus brevifolia

C. brevifolia, the Cedar of Cyprus was formerly listed as a variant strain of C. libani. It is now considered to be a separate species. Its only native habitat is the island of Cyprus. This is the shortest needle cedar of all the species. They are about one half inch long and of a rich blue green color. Until recently, it was only possible to obtain this species as grafted plants, but now it is available as seedling stock at a few nurseries. This species is highly prized for bonsai because of its short needle length, but has been little used due to the difficulty in finding nursery plants.


All cedars need full sun and sandy well drained mixes both as bonsai and landscape plants, although deodara seems to thrive under all sorts of adverse conditions in any Mediterranean type climate. They are not very cold hardy, but this is not much of a problem for bonsai, since they would need the same winter protection as most other temperate climate woody plants. They are not particularly heavy feeders and suffer from few diseases. The biggest problem with young plants is probably root rot from poor soil.

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