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Trees From Seed - Bonsai The Slowest Way
packets of tree seeds

Growing trees from seed has a charm that begins with the joy of germination. It continues as each seedling progresses through its tender stages to become a promising sapling. This potential fully fledged tree, given the correct care over time, can become a bonsai. A tree that has been under your personal supervision for its entire life.

Many say that they have no luck with trees from seed but it's not surprising that it can prove difficult. Think about tree seeds in the wild for a moment. Almost every mature tree produces hundreds, sometimes thousands of seed every year. How many saplings germinate and survive? Very few in relation to the seed produced.

Berries on a rowan tree

* Seeds are a natural larder in winter and are consumed by insects, birds and small mammals. (So don't be greedy and strip a plant or area completely of its seed.)

* Seed falls randomly and may land where successful germination is impossible; on dry rock, barren paths, drives, a lawn where seedlings will be mown, or anywhere starved of light.

* Saplings are tender morsels for passing herbivores including slugs, snails, caterpillars, weevils, rabbits, goats, cattle and sheep.

* In some years the weather conditions are unsuitable for germination, too warm or wet in winter, too dry or cold in spring.

* Young seedlings need regular rainfall until the roots have established themselves. A few days without, at this critical stage, is enough to kill many.

* Many seedlings are prone to attack by a variety of fungi. These cause the syndrome known collectively as damping off

That any tree survives to grow into a mature specimen is basically down to overkill in the seed production department. If there weren't so many seeds, we would never see any new trees. Success can be achieved with persistence and a willingness to experiment. Anyone should be able to achieve good results provided they follow the basic guidelines. Try to understanding how and why things occur in nature. If you remove most of the risks, 100% germination is not uncommon and, given care, this produces far more saplings than would have survived in the wild.

Collecting Seed

Scots pine cones with loose seeds film cannisters for seed storage
Scots Pine cones and the seeds obtained Seeds stored dry and airtight in film canisters

As I said above, most trees produce massive amounts of seed and the majority is usually viable, i.e. it has the potential to germinate and grow. Obtaining seed is often just a matter of identifying a tree and waiting for the seed to ripen. Collection of seed from friends gardens, roadside trees, hedgerows, woodlands and on country walks is a good way of securing a wide variety of plant material freely, if a little slowly.

Some sources of seed are arboreta, parks, churchyards, castles and monuments. You need permission from the owner. If you can arrange to meet, explain what you want and why, assuring them that you will act responsibly and abide by any rules.

Use a good handbook, for identification, if you are uncertain of the type of trees that you are collecting from. Examples are suggested at the end of this article. Once a tree or shrub has been identified, there are some points worth bearing in mind;

* Does the plant exhibit the characteristics that you require? Some trees are variable and may exhibit smaller leaves, shorter internodes, better autumn colour or bark characteristics. Seed grown from those trees may not exhibit any of the desired characteristics, but is far more likely to than seed from trees which do not.

* The seeds may be hybridised i.e. the result of cross pollination. e.g. European Larch crosses readily with the Japanese Larch giving rise to the Dunkeld Larch. All three are common in forestry plantations. If seedlings true to the species are required, seeds must be gathered from an isolated tree known to be true.

* Variations within a batch of seedlings are likely. This variability can be an advantage. Sow more than you think you will need and then select the best seedlings for your requirements. It is especially important to have a good number to select from, if you wish to grow a forest group or other multiple planting, where uniformity is desirable.

* Avoid seed from trees that show any sign of disease. Be an opportunist in late summer and autumn. Whenever you go walking, cycling, visiting gardens, parks or arboreta keep an eye open for seed from a likely looking tree or shrub. It helps to have storage materials with you so that the seed can be conveniently saved and labelled; envelopes, paper bags, photographic film canisters etc. The time to collect seed can vary due to the prevailing weather for the year but generally the seasonal routine is predictable. Prunus and Betula in late summer, Aesculus, Crataegus, Fagus, Quercus, Taxus, Acer, in autumn, Larix, Pinus, from autumn into winter.

Some Seeds Need Special Treatment

Maple seed are best collected as soon as they're ripe. This is when the seed wings start turning brown. Stratify - keep them in damp sandy peat outdoors through the winter and sow in spring.

ALDER, collect some of the small, cone like seed heads in autumn and store in dry room until they open. Shake vigorously in a large bag to remove the seed. Store dry and cool before sowing in spring. Berberis hybridises easily, so an isolated plant is essential if you want true to type seedlings. Requires stratification to break down the seed coat.

Betula BIRCH seed is produced in conelets that self destruct while still attached to the tree. Pick off the ripening conelets and place them in a paper bag in a warm dry place. Shake after a day or two and thousands of tiny, papery seed will be released. To obtain good germination stratify fresh seed leaving it outdoors for the winter. Sow in a prepared bed, on the surface, as sunlight helps germination.

Cercis siliquastrum (JUDAS TREE) seed is easily removed from the pods, once ripe. Untreated seed frequently becomes mouldy and rots before germination, so dip in a copper based fungicide prior to stratifying.

Conifers Cones may be dried and shaken but dismantling using bonsai tools is often necessary. Many Pinus and some other conifers have small pointed seeds with a papery wing. Stratification is not usually necessary.

Cedrus cones remain on the tree until ripe and then the outer scales fall away revealing the seeds with a large papery wings. Remove the wing and sow densely, as these have a low germination rate.

Laburnum seed is poisonous. The pea-pod like seed cases split with a pop in late summer and distribute seed widely. Once some of the seed cases have opened collect the pods, split them and separate the black seed. They may be sown immediately in pans or direct in a prepared bed in the garden. They usually germinate well after stratification.

Fruits should be allowed to rot until they are brown and dry. They are then easily broken apart and the seed should be washed and dried. Save the seed in cool dry conditions to be sown the following spring.

Pomegranate fruit dried out Pomegranate seeds removed from fruit
Dwarf Pomegranate fruit - dried out. Pomegranate fruit broken up to reveal the seeds

Acorns collected in autumn should be carefully inspected, as they can contain maggot-like borers that leave a hole like woodworm. These seed are not viable and should be discarded. Sow the rest in a half and half leaf-mould/sharp sand mix, just below the surface. Wire mesh protection is essential as acorns are mouse magnets! Place the seed tray outdoors for the winter and strong germination should occur in spring.

Crab apples, Pomegranate and Dwarf pomegranate, Prunus, Cherry, Quince and many other fruit should be left out through winter to rot. Separate the seed, wash clean and sow.

Purchasing seed

If you can't find or don't trust collecting it yourself, you can purchase many types of tree seed from a reputable seed merchant. Some garden centres stock packets of mixed tree seed or seeds for bonsai alongside packets of flower seed. These are ideal if you don't want a specific type of tree, as the selection of seeds is usually limited to a few easily grown species.

Don't bother with bonsai starter kits. They include unsuitable little dishes which shatter in the first frost. Being a "Gift" item they often stay on the shelves far longer than vegetable and flower seed would be allowed to and are rarely stored at the right temperature. Most of the seed is unlikely to germinate.

Seed catalogues make pleasant winter browsing. Some include a section specifically for bonsai or indicate in the text species considered suitable. Some offer pre-germinated or chitted seed, which are easier for species known to be difficult to germinate. A reputable seed merchant will provide optimum storage conditions, often refrigerated, and fewer disappointments are likely to result. Even so, it pays to keep any seed trays that fail to grow in their first season, protect from birds and mice and leave them out for a winter or two of stratification. Next month part two of this article will detail the germination and aftercare of seedlings.

Some recommended seed suppliers

Chiltern Seeds, Bortree Stile, Ulverston, Cumbria, LA12 7PB Tel 01229 581137 Catalogue lists hundreds of interesting seeds with a symbol to indicate suitability for bonsai. There are some that aren't given a symbol, so a thorough read is essential. Chiltern Website http://www.chilternseeds.co.uk/

Andrew Norfield Seeds Tel 01291 650306 Supply specially treated pregerminated seed, taking a lot of the uncertainty out of germination. The catalogue lists hundreds of tree seeds, most of which are suitable for bonsai.

Recommended identification books Alan Mitchell's A Field Guide to the Trees of Britain and Northern Europe, and Bob Press's Field Guide To the Trees Of Britain and Europe are both good pocket books for the field. J.D. Godet's Trees and Shrubs of Great Britain and Northern Europe, and Roger Phillips' Trees In Britain Europe and North America are larger format books that are more pictorially based and extremely useful for leaf, flower or seed identification.

There's No Such Thing As Bonsai Seed!

Novices note - when seeds germinate, they will not automatically become bonsai. If planted out in the garden they would grow into full sized trees. All bonsai require training to become miniature versions of the full grown trees that the seed originated from.

Photo’s, illustrations & text © Kevin Bailey 2000 - 2008

On to Trees From Seed Part 2

All Text & Photographs © Kevin Bailey 1998 - 2008