Capsicum bonsai: starting out

A long while back, when faced with a local surplus of overgrown pepper plants at the local home improvement center, I discussed the bare basics for converting pepper plants into bonsai. A few years of experimentation went by since then. Capsicum peppers adapt rather well to bonsai training, and while they grow into a good form rather rapidly compared to most plants, they also have specific needs and considerations that most bonsai enthusiasts rarely encounter otherwise. It’s not often that one starts out with good examples of what to watch for in one plant, but a particularly aggressive Bhut Jolokia pepper raised as a container plant needed trimming back anyway, and this guy had some promise as a bonsai.

Starting out

Looking from above

Unbeknownst to most people content to raise hot and/or sweet peppers in the garden, Capsicum plants last more than one season if protected from freezing. This isn’t negotiable: peppers can’t handle even an hour of subfreezing weather. If you want to start with new seeds right now, understand that you’ll need to get this plant into a container fairly early, and you have to bring it into a space that gets lots of sun through the winter. For best results, don’t let the temperatures drop below 50 degrees F (10 degrees C), and try to keep the container off surfaces that conduct or trap cold, such as bare concrete.

This example here was the end-result of an experiment courtesy of the Chile Pepper Institute, back when the Institute was the one main source for Bhut Jolokia pepper seeds. Naturally, said experiment started right at the height of the new Texas Drought of Record, when relative humidity dropped to as low as 7 percent on most summer days, so only a few Bhut Jolokias survived the summer of 2011. One, though, not only survived but bore fruit, so it came inside for the winter and went into a one-gallon landscaping pot. One more summer outside, and now it’s ready for an initial assessment and shaping.

Essential tools

Before starting, make sure that you have tools and supplies on hand, and in a space where they’re readily accessible. Besides the standard tweezers and secateurs, I’ve become appreciative of microfiber polishing cloths for mopping up various fluids, and of a watch knife for shaping branches. Go with whatever works the best for you, but note that with peppers, you’ll probably do the vast majority of work with maybe one pair of scissors and a pair of chopsticks.

More tools

Another aspect to consider with peppers for bonsai is that these are NOT trees, and don’t stop reminding yourself of this. Pepper branches tend to be much more flexible than those of the tree species generally used for bonsai, but they’re also more prone to damage. Bend one too far, too quickly, and you stand a good chance of crimping the branch and thus permanently damaging it. Because of this, when wiring, I tend to go with very low-gauge, very soft wire. Standard copper bonsai wire can be too strong and inflexible for peppers, so I stick with aluminum, and the skinnier, the better. In the photo above, the smaller loops are aluminum jewelry wire, picked up at deep discount at the local Michael’s store, and the annealed wire is perfect for wiring up the ends of pepper plant branches without damaging them.

As with all bonsai projects, this one is an ongoing work, but it’s still going to take a while to clean it up. If you’re one of those who needs background noise while working, I recommend setting up an indoor work area and dropping something into the DVD player. I recommend something that combines hope for the success of the final work with a bit of mystery, and so I had the perfect film running while doing the initial evaluation and cleanup.

Dave Bowman looks on in horror

Yeah, Dave, I know how you feel.

The base is a mess

Before going any further, let’s start with cleaning up the winter residue. Since our Bhut Jolokia was outdoors all autumn long, the pot desperately needs removal of the various chunks of dead leaf, spent twig, and occasional cigarette butt within. (Do NOT ask me how the cigarette butt got in there. I can’t smoke, so it wasn’t mine.)

Cleaning it up

A few photos earlier, you may have noticed a bottle of isopropyl alcohol in the collection of tools being used. That’s because while cleaning up, I make a point of regularly sterilizing all of my metal and plastic tools with IPA while proceeding. Those microfiber cloths hold quite a bit, so they’re used for wipedowns, but I also recommend keeping a shot glass full of IPA on hand for dipping tools as well. Considering that peppers are as susceptible to tobacco mosaic virus as tomatoes, coming across that spare cigarette butt during the cleanup made me especially glad I had a consistent disinfection program going on.

Starting out

With that out of the way, let’s look at what we have. After a good year of growth, peppers tend to have a good stout woody stem with a strong root system. That’s the good side. The bad is that they also sprout lots of buds, too, and all over the place. This means that within a year, the pepper’s basic structure includes a lot of crossing branches, half-dead stubs, and other flaws. Put your pepper on a turntable of some sort and give it a good look, from above and below. Swing it around a few times, and take note of structure that you want to preserve and structure that needs to go.

Closeups of buds

Since it’s still spring, prepare yourself for pulling and clipping a lot of fresh buds, particularly where the main trunk meets the lowest branches. The good news is that while other plants may need grafts to add desirable features lower onto a trunk, sometimes you can get whole new ideas just by leaving the pepper alone for a while. In this case, though, since all I really want to do is open up the interior, they’re all going to have to go.

Pepper jin

As an aside, remember how you need to keep remembering that peppers aren’t like other bonsai plants? That applies most to deadwood techniques. This branch helps demonstrate why establishing jin and shari on a pepper usually doesn’t work. When pepper branches die off, the resultant wood becomes extremely fragile, going powdery in most cases, with a noticeable pith instead of heartwood. Trying to manipulate it usually means watching it break everywhere but where you want it to break, and the fragments usually destroy any sense of scale intended to be established. One of these days, I’m going to experiment with various fixatives that might build up such delicate wood, but for right now, that puppy is going to have to go.

Likewise, scarring up a pepper trunk to give it an impression of age requires different techniques. While the trunk itself is strong, the bark is tender and thin enough that the standard burning and reaming techniques for woody bonsai aren’t necessary. Gentle scraping with a watch knife blade is usually enough to establish the appearance of deadwood, and wood stressed with regular flexing, such as in plants exposed to regular heavy wind, splits in impressive ways.

Pepper trunk

Another consideration is that pepper nebari aren’t quite the same as those on other plants, either. After a few years, pepper roots get thick and tough, but as with branches, they don’t remain that way once they die. Larger roots turn into punk wood like branches, and the smaller ones simply shriven and retain all of the strength and aesthetic value of a piece of cheap wire insulation. With some patience, it may be possible to train pepper roots down the sides of rocks and the like, but that’s an experiment for another time.

At about this point, it’s probably time for another movie. Considering the sudden and thorough violence into which you’re going to engage, find one with appropriate sensibilities. In my case, I picked one that I regularly use as metaphor, such as when I tell my friend Billy Goodnick that when we finally meet, he’ll see my smile and suddenly regret looking for the ship’s cat.

Billy Goodnick visits the Triffid Ranch

Paul smiles for the camera

Again, the idea behind this exercise is to thin things out, establish a form for the new bonsai, and get rid of watersprouts and other extraneous growth. Here’s where we start…

A look at the mess

…and here’s where we end.

Finale of base

Don’t forget to use that turntable, and get a good view of what you’re intending to do. This experiment involved removing the majority of the green watersprouts coming off the trunk, removing any crossing branches, and encouraging new growth from the tips of the remaining branches.

Swinging it around

From this side, the the jin remains, but for how long depends upon what the pepper does in the next few weeks. If the current cleaning starts new budding next to the dead wood, I’ll probably remove the jin and allow the dead wood to form a hole in the trunk. If not, it may be time to try preserving it.

Pepper nodes
The last thing to watch for? Peppers tend to produce distinctive branch knobs at the trunk. If you don’t mind that your bonsai looks like a crape murder victim, feel free to leave them on. Otherwise, cut them off flush with the trunk and let them scab over. Over the next few weeks, keep a close eye on them, and don’t be afraid to pinch off any new growth in the vicinity. You’re trying to encourage growth at the tips of the branches, remember?

This is the first part of the saga. With luck, in a few weeks, you’ll see it continue, and within a few years, this might be a show-quality bonsai. Equally likely, someone else will exceed any of my silly experiments and come up with all sorts of different ideas, and that works too. See you in a bit.

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