Bonsai Rocks: Collecting Stones from the River

Bonsai Rocks: Collecting Stones from the River

Collecting Phutu Root Over Rock

After thinking about the successes and failures of past root over rock  compositions I've made, I decided that I needed to get outside and collect stones specifically for root over rock bonsai creation. I just wasn't happy with the selection I found either in local stone yards or around my own neighborhood. They weren't specifically selected for use as "bonsai rocks" and thus produced less than optimal results. Lava stones have too regular a texture and minimal color variation; Napa field stone, a basalt, looks almost as dull and uninteresting as a piece of sandstone.

So I pulled on my hiking boots and went for a weekend excursion north, a region sometimes referred to as the "State of Jefferson". A friend recommended the location as a great place to find river stones. I have a great time camping; add some fun hiking and playing in cold river water for the purposes of creating bonsai, and I'm in my happy, amazing place. 

The Salmon River, what some call the “Cal Salmon” (since there seems to be a salmon river in almost every western state) is nice, if a bit remote compared to my normal habitat. I grew up in rural Mendocino county in Northern California. I spent a lot of time throwing river stones around in my youth, but I don't remember any of those being as beautiful as the variety I found on the Salmon River. While rock hunting and playing in the river, I gazed at the surrounding hills and noticed a remarkable variety; some were made of granite while others were made of darker stones. I was near the Marble Mountain Wilderness, which is named for a large outcropping of marble. The geology is diverse across a small cross-section of the land.

On to the bonsai stones I brought home. Below are four sides of a stone that is about 7 inches high. The shape is good if not ideal; I liked the color pattern; and the overall size is about right for a medium-size tree. 

I had fun imagining how I could plant a tree on this stone, and sketched one possible design:

The roots would grasp the top right portion of the stone and go around the lighter portion in the center. The tree should be low to the stone and the composition will look good planted in a shallow oval pot. I imagine that a trident maple would work, but I’m sure a pine would be good, too.

This is possibly my favorite river stone from the trip. I think the shape is fantastic and the color is interesting; unfortunately, it's only big enough for a large mame or small shohin size tree.


I envision a small Kishu juniper hugging the stone. Exposing roots can take a while on Kishu, but I think this will be worth it. Or perhaps a Western juniper from cutting?

This isn't a river rock, but it is from the same area. I found it along a trail in a scree slope. The angles are much sharper and seem to lend themselves to an angular tree. The top of the stone is about 7″ high and the stone juts out toward the viewer sharply when looking at the most dynamic side.

The back side has inferior coloration and texture.

The stone would make a great base for a pine tree with the roots clasping the left side and wrapping behind on the right side to emerge near the soil line below the overhang on the right.

Or maybe a Monterey Cypress, Point Lobos style?

I collected about twenty stones, ranging in size from just an inch up to about 15 inches across. I'll have fun creating root over rock compositions with all of them. If only making the tree were as quick as finding the bonsai rock and drawing a possible design!

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