Australian Plants online
Index   Back Issues   ANPSA Home

Styling Australian Species as Bonsai: Mallee Eucalypts

Roger Hnatiuk

One of the questions I'm frequently asked is 'How do I style this eucalypt?' I'd like to focus here on some of the variety that we find in the traditional, or not so traditional 'mallee' form of eucalypt. These forms of eucalypt can be readily grown under bonsai culture techniques. An earlier development stage mallee-bonsai is shown in Fig. 1.

Eucalyptus hybrid
Fig. 1 Eucalyptus hybrid
Young mallee form

Most people who have tried growing eucalypts from seed, or bought young ones from a nursery, will be aware of the 'lignotuber'. It's that knob of tissue near the base of the stem of the young plant. There may be several of them on one stem. like beads on a string. Most people see them as unsightly. Some have cut them off and the scars have healed over well, while others have simply had more lignotuber tissue grow back, or the plant has died.

Whatever your experience, it is worth knowing that the lignotuber has an important biological function: it can store energy to kick start recovery after injury such as by fire or insect attack, and it harbours many potential buds for producing new trunks if the existing one is damaged. This also is seen by some as a major detraction for a bonsaiist.

Certainly, on a young plant, the lignotuber looks unattractive: it is out of proportion to the trunk and doesn't help make the trunk look like it is tapered. As the plant ages, the trunk or trunks grow in girth and eventually the lignotuber is incorporated fairly smoothly into the overall mass of the lower trunk. Thus, one of the signs of "age" in these plants, is just that. The lignoluber, while still present and often identifiable, no longer looks like a bead on a string. It's a bit of an alternative to looking for the classical nebari, which isn't to say that large, typical roots can't be present on a lignotuberous trunk too.

You can learn to both love and style with lignotubers if you discover what trees in the wild look like when they have lignotubers. I've written this article to help introduce one of the commonest lignotuberous eucalypt styles: the "mallee".

Broadly, there are perhaps three recognisable mallee forms: the largest such as the "tree mallees' or "bull mallees": the whipstick mallees, including some called "mallets", and the shrubby mallees. Like all eucalypts, their bark is a significant feature to appreciate. They can have rough, fibrous barks or smooth shiny "gum" barks. Amongst the latter are found some of the 'minni-richi' barks with wonderful vertical curls of newly-shedding bark. All are produced in pot culture too.

Eucalyptus behriana
Fig. 2 Eucalyptus behriana; Bull mallee  
Eucalyptus kingsmillii
Fig. 3 Eucalyptus kingsmillii  

Tree mallees are characterised by what in their own environment are large trunks with heavy branches, topped by relatively dense masses of fine branches and leaves confined to the tops of the tree (Fig. 2). There will be more than one of these massive trunks arising from a lignotuber. Though 2s or 3s are commonest, up to 8 also occur. You don't need to worry about even or odd numbers of trunks - there are no superstitious numbers to avoid out in the mallee.

Eucalyptus sepulcralis
Fig. 4 Eucalyptus sepulcralis
Weeping mallee

During the life of your bonsai, you will probably lose and regenerate trunks more than once, so don't worry about the number at any one time. The trunks may be somewhat crooked in an attractive, rough, way (Fig. 3). or they can be fairly straight with only a slight arching.

The whipstick mallees are so called because their trunks are so long and thin that they look like sticks used for whips. The essential characteristic of these mallees is the presence of more than one trunk that is very much taller for its diameter than would ordinarily be seen in bonsai, let alone trees. They are topped by a relatively small spreading canopy of leaves, just at the top. They can be from fairly large trees with respectable trunks, through to dense thatches of very narrow stems. Some extreme forms, such as Eucalyptus sepulcralis (Fig. 4) and E.pendens are a variation on the traditional 'literati', but they don't have strong bends in the trunks and the canopy will usually be quite thin,not a dense 'cloud' or 'hand' of foliage.

The shrubby mallees form the last of this broad grouping. As their name implies, they look more like shrubs, but in truth, it seems to me that it is our language that is limiting us here. We don't have words to adequately describe the rich diversity of growth forms that woody plants produce. I wish I was better at coining useful words: we need some for these situations.

Getting back to the shrubby mallees: their characteristics are the presence of several trunks, that may be quite crooked, or straight, depending on the location and species. They tend to form low greenish - greyish - reddish - orangish masses of foliage, often reaching to near the ground so that their trunks are not easily seen. They can look a bit like the tree mallees, but much more delicate and much shorter, even when mature. Their leaves may point upwards, rather than hanging downwards, and they are often rather thick. They may look like a miniature version of a tree mallee, or they can be quite idiosyncratic with fascinating twists, bends and sweeps of their short trunks.

One final mallee form deserves mention. It would make a kind of group planting. In semi-arid Australia, there are mallee 'rings'. These started life as a single mallee tree or shrub, with a single lignotuher. As time passed and the lignotuber grew, and fires and droughts ravaged the plant, the centre of the lignotuber disintegrated, leaving an outer ring that continued to expand outwards. As centuries passed, the ring expanded. Today we see them as a ring of small mallees around a vacant centre that may be several metres across. All the mallees around the perimeter of the 'grove' are parts of the same tree, just disconnected over the long aeons of lime. Forget your maple or spruce forest; this would make a splendid bonsai form with accompanying story to tell!

From the newsletter of the Australian Plants as Bonsai Study Group, December 2006. Roger is the leader of the Study Group.

Index   Back Issues   ANPSA Home

Australian Plants online - 2007
Association of Societies for Growing Australian Plants