Blue Atlas Cedar Saga

Blue Atlas Cedar Saga

Bonsai Design Cedar Phutu

While not a traditional bonsai species, Blue Atlas Cedar seem to be good subjects for bonsai. They have short needles naturally; grow quickly under good conditions; and seem to respond well to bonsai work. I've never seen this species in Japan, and I’ve never had many of them, and those I've had generally come and go quickly from my yard. With one exception - the subject for this article has been with me since 2005.

 August 2023 update: check out this video!

Years ago, Jim Gremel of Deer Meadow Bonsai told me that when he began his growing operation, he screened many different species of trees in tests to see which would be better to work with. Atlas Cedars was one of the species that he concluded were very useful. When I visited his nursery, he was making good progress; he had hundreds of Atlas Cedars growing in his fields and many more in containers.

Rows of Blue Atlas Cedar, Green Atlas Cedar, and Black Pine at Deer Meadow Bonsai.

There are more good than bad aspects of cedars, but among the species' most problematic traits is that it lacks an ability to reliably back bud on old growth. When I acquired this tree there was no growth within 18″ of the trunk. There was a good base with some nice flare to it, and a trunk with some movement, but there was nothing to use to build a canopy.

The tree had been grown in the ground by a former member of the Bonsai Society of San Francisco. He had used the double colander technique that is most often applied to pine trees; when I got the tree I had to dismantle a mess of tangled roots and colanders before potting it into a large container to grow for a year.

After the tree was healthy, I had to figure out how to use the trunk. It was clear that my only option was to graft the tree. At the time, not knowing much about grafting I was a bit flummoxed about how to proceed. I formulated a plan to do approach grafts since they were a higher success rate and I had been told that cedar are difficult to graft due to the thick bark.

My plan was to grow out shoots from the existing top branch and to bend them around gradually to be in position for approach grafting. I think I may have been inspired by a thread grafting demonstration that was using trident maples as a subject. Unlike tridents, cedars in containers send out only about 6-12″ of growth per year in my experience. Thus it took more than two years of growing and waiting before I had enough growth to get the grafts in position.

As I look back at this plan I can’t help but wonder why my past self didn’t think to obtain a couple young blue Atlas cedars from a nursery and use them for grafting…thus saving myself two years of waiting. But, as with all things, I can’t go back and do it more efficiently, instead I can only take this as a lesson - the next time I want to try something I don't full understanding, I should make a plan with someone more experienced! 

I completed the grafts in the summer of 2008 and unfortunately I don't have photos of the process. I recall being nervous about the success chances and being nervous about damaging the trunk in the process. By early 2009 it appeared that the grafts were taking so I started the process of transitioning them to growing from the trunk.

March 2009, in the garden. While transitioning the grafts, bark is scraped off of one side and the wood slowly whittled away beneath the graft point.

April 2009, before work.

April 2009, after wiring. I wired the growth that would be the branching while the grafts were still transitioning. Cedars like to spring back up after wiring so I didn’t want to wait until the branch grafts took out of concern that they would already be difficult to bend.

In early 2010 I moved to SoCal. I found that cedars, like many of my other trees, didn’t grow as well in Thousand Oaks as they did in San Francisco. Thus, three years later, while the grafts had been completed and the tree was growing, it was not growing so well that I made much progress. In late 2012 I moved back to San Francisco. It didn’t take long for this tree to take off again. 

October 2013, after wiring additional branching.

With the climate on my side and the tree growing well, this tree made a lot of useful growth in a short period. Between 2012 and 2015 I had three good opportunities to refine the tree, each time with a full canopy of shoots to select from. All that I had to do was choose the right ones and wire them into place. I find that wiring the branching without smashing needles is quite challenging, even more so than wiring Japanese Black Pine branching.

May 2014, before work. The new shoots that the tree made were all looking healthy and ready to be either positioned or cut back.

May 2014 after wiring some branching and reducing the tree a little.

As you can see in the after photo from May 2014, I had the notion that I was going to create another layer of foliage above the existing one. The idea in my head was that the tree needed to be slightly taller so that the taper in the trunk would match proportionally with the height of the foliage mass. I had planned to allow the top branch to grow out and then create just about another inch or so in height.

May 2015, the tree was growing quite well for the third year in a row so I was able to harness the growth and refine the silhouette once again.

December 2015 – the canopy is as refined as it will be for this year.

Ultimately, it seemed that the top didn’t need to be any taller than it already was and that filling out the sides was enough to create the silhouette that I needed. Boon Manakitivipart and I had repotted the tree back in 2011 but left it in an over-size ceramic grow pot since at the time we had some health concerns. In December 2015 the branching was looking good and it was time to prep the tree for its first show the 2016 Bay Island Bonsai show. 

I had selected an older Japanese pot for the tree, one with a wide rim and flared sides because it suited the large nebari and relatively compact form. Once I settled on the container the challenge was to make the tree fit. The nebari of the tree was considerably larger than the trunk and it was very deep front to back. The tree barely fit into the container!

Repotting was challenging – the tree barely fit into the new container because of the large nebari.

The photo at the top of this article shows the tree potted up into the show container and the branching cleaned up. The 2016 BIB show featured trees under 18″ only. This tree at about 16″ stacked up nicely. Read "The Finer Points of Making a Bonsai Stand" to see the tree in the BIB show on the stand I built for it. 

2021 Update: Here's what this tree looks like today! You can see how the crown and branch pads have filled out.


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  • Eric W Schrader on

    Hi Jerry – tap roots are a bit confusing as a term, but yes, you should be trimming the roots, removing the largest roots while leaving smaller side roots.

  • Jerry Wilding Dorsey on

    Great looking trees. My question. the tap root. I just purchased a B.A. Cedar about 4’ 10" from top of container.
    I want to repot soon and should I cut the tap root at this time?

  • Susanna R on

    Beautiful tree and thank you for sharing the growth.

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