The Shandong Blog
Baby Dragon cascade ready for spring 2019.
Started in 2012 as a one year graft that is bent down with wire to produce the first 2 trunk curves.
The lower branches grow slower from less sunlight and tree dynamics that promote stronger growth upwards. In a couple more years the lower sections will have branching like the top. The bottom is allowed to grow strong this year.
For the first time the top looks good because the trunk has good size branches with smaller twigs. Next year all the top twigs get wired into a better position. The top is not allowed to grow strong.
Do you see a dragon shape in this design? The long tail is down low and a fire breathing head is in the making on the top left.
January 2019 and the first ever flowers on a dwarf ‘Flower God’. The flowers are small as expected, but not expected are the orange sepals. Sepals are the sheaths that cover each flower and I have never seen anything but yellow on all other Shandong flowers. A few are female flowers with the ovary too small to see clearly, but have the usual shortened stamens. The ovary is orange, not the usual yellow. These flowers are from a 4 year old graft which is a young age to bloom. The unique color distinguishes it from all other Shandong flowers so the name “Flower God’ that it got six years ago is fitting, and amazing. When these small trees have hundreds of small twigs loaded with tiny flowers it could be quite a break through for maple bonsai, plus these beautiful flowers are a step closer to getting a third generation ‘Fire Dragon’. Among dark azalea leaves are new ’Flower God’ leaves emerging red below the flowers, (bottom left).
December, 2018 and planning the next moves on this Baby Dragon with a 3” trunk and a 6” root flare, or nebari. It had a 2nd trunk chop back in early July and now it’s major decision making time. First step is to study what you have and then make a plan drawing of where you want it to go (above). To the top of the wire is 18” but the plan is to go to 25”. The trunk and branches will all be tapered and not straight, so both will need cutting back several more times. Finding the front and the branches to use now will avoid costly mistakes that could crop up several years down the road. There are 29 branches to choose from on the lower trunk, below ‘A’ , and I plan on keeping 10, but chose wisely as ones cut off now will be very difficult to ever get back. Wire will be used to get the branch angle I desire from the trunk and must be done now before they get any bigger and can’t be changed. So with that all in mind, next you choose when to prune the remaining branches because you can do it in late winter or early summer, with pinching the whole time in between. Letter ‘A’ is the new top growing to the left of the wired branch that will give movement to the trunk. There are buds there on top and bottom. The one on bottom is desired because the one on top will grow straight up but the one on bottom with the top bud removed will curve upwards toward the sun into a nice curving trunk. The area at ‘A’ is small and there are dormant buds below so I will let it grow out, including branch ‘B’ and thicken until June when I will prune both plus the current top with wire on it. This is also a better time to get those dormant buds to grow from a hard pruning. The first branch, ‘C’, is small and straight so I will let it also grow out until pruning in June and select a curving bud also at that time. It will be cut way back to the 2nd internode where the spacing is short. After the first 2 internodes those long shoots always produce internode spacing that is too long for a great bonsai branch. Branches are going to be thicker on the bottom and get gradually smaller as you go up the trunk so cutting the lower branches back that much to get good internode spacing and curves will undoubtedly slow everything down, but I’ve decided to get it all right, even if it takes a few more years.
November 24, 2018 and visiting a customer’s Fire Dragon and other Shantung maples.
This 6 year old dwarf named ‘Flower God’ is in a bonsai pot for the first time in 2018.
Despite a lot of root pruning back in February it grew pretty good. The third branch from the top on the left grew back nicely after cutting it back to a couple of inches. The first branch on the bottom right did not grow as fast as hoped but I will point it once again to the sun and with lots of new roots it should respond.
The leaves are all small this year as I did not allow a lot of larger summer growth leaves but kept summer growth pinched off. In another year or two of this I will see lots more back budding on the interior of the branches.
The trunk thickened nicely this year and must be due to the lower nitrogen, higher phosphorous and potassium fertilizer. Other smaller Flower God’s were successfully root pruned very hard this year and did survive.
Two months of record rainfall and two days of record low mid-October temperatures force many Shandong in pots into the early fall color in north Texas. The ones in the ground with warmer roots are not so early. Fall colors on this October 30, 2018 are not their best, especially the reds that need time to make the red pigments and dissolve the yellow pigment in their leaves. Left - Baby Dragon cascade bonsai this year proved you can develop fine ramification with very fine branch tips by not letting it grow and with some leaf thinning and removal to reduce the energy on those branches. I’ll show the detail once the leaves are gone. Center - TARP Dragon typically has yellow fall color so is less affected by the early fall. The top was shorted in spring but no new shoots emerged so it had to be shortened even further to create a whole new top. Right - The original FIYA Dragon is a semi-dwarf red fall color cultivar but has an orange red color due to the leaves changing too early in the season. Many maples in pots are now showing signs of summer stress on the leaf edges, which even though there were 5 days of intense 107 to 110 degree high temperatures the main culprit is high root temperatures. High nitrogen levels combined with the heat is also a factor.
Baby Dragon dwarf Shantung maple, July 2018, and Super Dragon Shantung (right). It would be hard to find a better grower than a Baby Dragon. The new growth and fall colors are very nice too. This is growing in a 45 gallon black plastic pot and even in this very hot year with 8 hours of full sun, it just keeps on growing. It is 7 feet wide. Recently, two large, nice lower branches are removed when I decide I do not have enough space long-term for them in my small full sun area. With the low branches gone the umbrella top will grow even faster. Earlier I discovered that most of the water is running down the sides of the pot, leaving the center bone dry. I put a slow drip over several spots around the center of the pot and it started doing better. Next year it will go into a 95 gallon. I have seen first year grafts grow over 200 feet if you total up all the growth on all the branches. This is one Shantung maple that I really wish to see when it is really big.
Even with the ridiculous heat in Texas this summer I stand by my quote that “you may not like it, or understand it, but the weather is always perfect.” Besides, having extreme heat in mid-July when the trees are still strong is better than high temperatures that happen later in August into September, after the trees are weak from a long, hot summer. Who knows but maybe all these record highs will stop the growth on some of the truncatum dwarfs and induce flowering next spring? That could lead to some 3rd generation trees.
Six new dwarf truncatum bonsai are started this year 2018. This is a Flower God, one of the 2 very first grafts that are made in 2014. It is cut back from 6 feet tall to 8 inches with 90 percent of the roots removed back in February and potted in a large bonsai pot.
In early June it is cut back hard again and most leaves are removed, and today, July 20, 2018, it is in the middle of a big Texas heat wave , (110 degrees fahrenheit, 43 celsius). It gets sun until noon every day, then dappled. My yard has spots with 8 hours sun, to all dappled, and that gives me lots of options. Next year the branches will be selected and wired into place.
The intense heat has slowed down the growth but so far it shows no signs of heat related stress from high temperature reduced photosynthesis.
‘The Blob’, the lone surviving 2012 dwarf seedling from 40 that were found, completely left to grow on its own for 7 years without pruning, and shown for the first time anywhere.
With a natural crooked trunk, good bark, and many spaghetti-like branches, it would make a good bonsai. Sometimes it’s best to just let dragons be dragons but I just might start another bonsai.
The leaf is different from the other dwarfs and may not have been a seed from a Fire Dragon but I did not keep records on that back then. It is about 3 feet tall from its base. It has never lost a branch from shading itself or any other reason. I rotate the pot 180 degrees every 2 weeks. It has never been propagated.
Beautiful bark of Flower God dwarf Shantung, left is the original tree and right is a similar size grafted clone. One of the best attributes of this dwarf is the small detailed bark that is perfect for bonsai. Everything is small on this true dwarf seedling from the size of the leaves, to the flowers, to the roots. Flower God is, however, a very good grower. The original is created in 2012 as an improbable hardwood cutting (see below). Well over 200 subsequent attempts to recreate that event over the last 3 years are all unsuccessful leading one to believe that the original creation is indeed a miracle. The graft (right) with a similar diameter trunk is half the age and due to the faster growth it has deeper fissured bark.
July4, 2018 and I’m pinching the top while leaving the lower branches to grow in order to keep a nice tapering trunk. This Baby Dragon is a 7 1/2 year graft and still in the trunk development stage but could turn out to be my best as the tapered trunk is large. There are 2 long branches right about half way up and just above the second trunk chop I made exactly one year ago today. I no longer just let them grow out everywhere to heal the trunk chop wound because that also creates other problems that have to be corrected. The goal is to keep the branches similar to these sizes to keep the energy down low and slowly cut the branches back over the next few years and then start making the final branches. Creativity is a chaotic process.
June 25, 2018 and the dwarf Shandong 2013 graft is performing well and living up to its name, Pure Fun. It was a 4 foot by 4 foot tree in a 10 gallon pot just 4 months ago. All the initial mass of leaves were removed just 3 weeks ago and now I have the beginnings of a good bonsai. The only problem is a couple of cat claw scratches on the bark from back in April. I am careful with only using pruners that are cleaned with alcohol and only giving it 3 hours of the full hot Texas sun this year. One or two days a week I skip the watering.
The grafts are excellent growers with good spring color, very good red new summer growth, and orange to red fall color. The grafts produce extra nice bark that is thick enough to hide the graft union.
Early June 2018 and Pure Fun dwarf Shantung maple is pruned of most of its leaves. It is a 4 year old graft and in its first year in a bonsai pot. It grew out well with several new buds and lots of large leaves. Now the leaves are removed to encourage even more new buds and to begin the process of branch development. The leaf petioles are left on and will be pushed off when the new growth appears in 7 to 10 days. Then a lot of the growth will be pinched back to the first set of two leaves.
This procedure is not recommended for most newly potted maples but it appeared to recover from the severe root pruning when I saw the new red growth coming out in late May, and the named dwarf Shantung are very good survivors with much vigor.
May 2018 and Flower God dwarf Shandong in it’s first bonsai pot, with its new akedama soil, and its new fertilizer and I feel free and confident again. Leaves are very small, internodes are short, and new buds closer to the trunk are emerging.
The last 2 years the growth mostly occurred on the outside which helped to thicken the trunk but then all that growth had to be removed. Now my new method is to grow them from the inside, not the outside, totally opposite of growing them to sell when I owned the maple farm.
I carved small holes and filled them with rooting hormone at the soil line on one side to improve the appearance of the surface roots which will be exposed later. The holes were covered with spaghnum moss and then living moss.
Baby Dragon TM first time in a bonsai pot at age 7. The roots were much better than expected so it could have gone into a smaller pot and it may in a couple more years. This was in the ground for 4 years and that usually makes a bad root system for bonsai. Now the very porous bonsai soil has a layer of spaghnum moss on top to help produce the nice shallow root system that fuses together over time and will be slowly exposed. This is called the ‘nebari’ in Japan and some consider it the most important aspect of a good bonsai.
At this point the second trunk chop needs to heal and I am finally starting to work on the branches. The bark is awesome for a maple. The leaves are a little large right now after the severe pruning sending out a lot of energy to a few leaves.
May 1, 2018 and dwarf Shantung Flower God (left) and Happy Dragon are growing nice and slow in their new small pots, with very small leaves from a cold spring, root pruning, and reduced nitrogen fertilizer. The NPK ratio I am using is 12-15-30 with half the nitrogen as nitrate and half ammonium. Micro nutrients and a 1 percent calcium are included. I use 1 tablespoon in 2 gallons of water and apply twice a month at this time of year. Shantung maples like calcium for fast growth so I may need to add gypsum or calcium nitrate later, but for now the slow, steady growth is what I seek and allows the wires to stay on longer. This fertilizer should also help with flower production, which will be awesome because of their very, very small yellow flower clusters, perfect for early bonsai shows. I did call it Flower God after all.
April 15, 2018 and the dwarf Shandong bonsai are now growing well after struggling from repotting and root cutting. Several of them had so many roots cut it felt like I turned them back into cuttings. They have been wilting during the hot afternoon sun and then recover and grow new leaves at night. The dwarf seedlings in pots all seem to start growth early before the roots become active which causes the new soft leaves to wilt. They have extremely small roots and it takes them a while to catch up to the leaf growth but don’t worry and don’t overwater. The best is to give them shade during this time and let them dry out on some of the days when possible. It takes them 2 weeks or more to get the roots active or to grow enough roots for them to be able to go back into the afternoon sun. Grafted trees have stronger root systems and are not prone to wilt.
Fairy Dragon, left, is 8 years old and has new red leaves on every branch. It is shown behind TARP Dragon showing the different leaf size.
March 20, 2018 - Dwarf Shandong Flower God and Baby Dragon early spring. Things to do: Pinch new growth back to the first 2 leaves. When the growth resumes you will then get 2 branches. If you want to slow down a branch then you can also remove some other leaves which also allows light in and down. Growth needs to monitored frequently to balance or redirect the energy in the tree throughout the growing season. The top and branches with lots of leaves will grow faster than the lower branches or ones with fewer leaves. Let a branch grow out a foot or more and that will thicken that branch but watch that it doesn’t get too big.
February 2018 repotting. Maples are usually shown without leaves in bonsai shows. The really good ones are old. Mine are young, no more than 8 years, but getting better every year. Left - Seedling Shantung maples in a forest style with exposed roots. Center - Baby Dragon dwarf cascade style after pruning. A lot of the top was cut back hard. Two branches on the middle right were removed. The lower section was left mostly intact so it will strengthen. Some of the those branches will be removed later and are called sacrifice branches. Right - Wire is used to bend all the branches on this 3 year old Flower God. You can also train branches by pruning. There are 2 buds at every node. Every other pair of buds either go up and down, or left and right. The best prune would chose the direction you would like the branch to grow and chose that one bud and cut the other off with a slanted prune cut. You should also remember that the amount of light will very strongly affect how much and the direction a branch will grow. This one is a garden bonsai which is bigger and will be planted into a decorative bowl pot in the future. It also has some straight sacrifice branches on the bottom to help increase the size of the trunk down there.
February 2018 repotting. Left to right - Fairy Dragon, Happy Dragon, and Flower God original trees, and a large trunk of Baby Dragon finally going into a custom made green bonsai pot (my favorite color and it will look nice with the dwarf yellow-green flowers). I am now using akadama, a near neutral pH clay from Japan with excellent particle size with good water and nutrient holding capacity. Akadama is further mixed with similar size 1/8”-1/4” particles of pumice and black sand. This is the bonsai soil used by bonsai experts in Japan for maples. The soil is very porous and no smaller particles are allowed which would affect drainage. They are repotted about every other year. Lots of root work with pruners, saws, and water to wash off all the old soil in some cases. The first two are mostly unpruned shapes.
February 2018 repotting. Wiring the dwarf Shantung’s flexible wood on original Micro Dragon (left). The mostly natural shape of the original Dancing Dragon born in the first batch of dwarfs in 2010 (center left). The 2013 first graft of the first dwarf discovery shows no graft scar and has great bark and a shape just like mother Fire Dragon. It is now in a bonsai pot and all the branches were removed to get new smaller ones (center right). New ones like this 3 year old dwarf seedling that is not from Fire Dragon are put into the bonsai program. Dizzy Dragon (right) got its name from falling off a table in its first year slowing its growth but it is a fast grower. In this small pot it should slow down and the best bonsai long term are grown carefully and slowly. Some of the trees are developing horrible large roots for bonsai and that is probably from my impatient use of excessive fertilizer, water, and Superthrive.
White Dragon on 12/13/17 a glowing pink at sunrise. It could be due to a thinner leaf with a waxy cuticle covering. One year graft is upright and branched at every internode. By now I have run out of good names but there is history in ancient Welch mythology and England using White Dragon flags. Mature petioles are nearly pure white.
Dwarf Shandong graft of ‘Happy Dragon’ on December 3, 2017. Metro Maples will propagate more of this for bonsai. Grafts grow much faster than the original seedling but still not big for 3 years. Later it will be air-layered for bonsai.
Close-up of ‘Happy Dragon’ dwarf Shandong maple graft on December 3, 2017. Red as my coffee cup. The normally thumbnail size leaves are larger on grafted ones, especially the summer growth leaves as shown.
‘Flower God’ dwarf Shandong maple on December 3, 2017. This is a summer cutting left to grow with its own shape and is 3 1/2 years old. It received 2 TBS Osmocote , some Calcium nitrate, and in summer a little gypsum and 20-20-20 all purpose. This is protected from the one hard December freeze we had and then fall colors last a full month.
Why do some of the small leaves of Flower God turn mixed colors instead of all red. Usually the smallest leaves are found in the lower interior from early spring and summer growth leaves are larger. I’ve got 6 theories so far and have been able to eliminate some of them, but nothing explains it perfectly yet. It is most likely a combination of the size of the leaf containing less energy and the wild up and down fall temperatures in north Texas making them turn fall color too soon.
Original ‘Happy Dragon’ on November 15, 2017 at 8 years old. I like what I see 50 years from now as a bonsai.
Some ‘Baby Dragon’ TM pictures from 2017 and is a nice cascade at 8 years. Use the arrows to scroll thru.
‘Sweet Spot’ Shandong maple is awesome on November 30, 2017 when I visit Metro Maples. 15 feet tall and wide after 20 years. Unfortunately the spots have not been reproduced on grafted trees. Collected some Fire Dragon seeds too.
Dwarf Acer truncatum ‘Baby Dragon’ TM Shandong, or Shantung maple is making an excellent cascade bonsai. Eight years old here on November 11, 2017. It colored up early this year. It does take some effort to get the lower branches to grow as the top gets more sun. Keep the top branches from growing by pruning and it will work out just fine. Use bonsai wire to shape the branches where you want them. It is a vigorous dwarf.
Mother ‘Fire Dragon’ on November 30, 2017 at Metro Maples. Around 33 feet tall. The caliper at 1 foot above ground is over 13 inches now. A seedling in 1999, the red is noticed right away among hundreds of other yellow Shantung maples. First grafts in 2002 and sales began in 2006 after the patent approval and with thousands already in inventory.
Flower God dwarf Shantung in bonsai training. Fall, first leaves in spring , summer, and a mock up of the final goal.
Mother Fire Dragon TM at Metro Maples on September 16, 2017. Trunk is over 13 inches in diameter now.
Flower God dwarf, the miracle tree, in bonsai training with new pink growth on June 16, 2017.
Super Dragon TM on May 8th at Metro Maples showing it’s natural fountain shape and leaf color.
A 5 year Baby Dragon graft in July, spreading and slightly weeping from dense leaves growing on thin branches.
A dwarf Shandong in 2017 in bonsai training. 5 years old, 1 1/2” caliper trunk. This shape resembles Fire Dragon.
One retirement plan is to create dwarf Shandong bonsai. TARP Dragon, Happy Dragon, Pure Fun, and Fairy Dragon.
A good maple trunk for bonsai is a tapered trunk. Maples will have trunks with the thickness about the same from bottom to top unless it goes through a period of trunk chopping. This Baby Dragon was started in year 2010 and grown in the ground until November 2015 when it had a 4-5” base at the soil line and then chopped and potted in this large growing pot. The middle left trunk, where you see some grey cut paste, is almost healed up 2 years later but on July 8, 2017 I noticed the new top was getting too large and about to lose the taper so I decide I must make the second trunk chop. Behind you see the 6 foot of tree that was cut off. It isn’t the best time to do this but it is a Baby Dragon and they will do most anything you tell them to do. Early June or February are better times to trunk chop. Japanese bonsai masters don’t like maples trunk chopped as it leaves a tiny scar but with truncatum’s thicker bark that may not be the case.
Retirement from Metro Maples , Dec. 31, 2015 and home for good. Time to rethink my life and goals. I bring home 225 small trees in an effort to finish some Shantung maple testing, to try and get some 3rd generation seeds, to create or refine some Shantung maple bonsai, to introduce the bonsai world to dwarf Shantung, and to make my backyard full of maples with awesome beauty to show my treasures to all. Above are some brought home to this sunny area called The Dragon Lair. In retirement, it should be no less adventurous and thrilling than before.
Late 2015 with record rainfall for the year, and my work at Metro Maples is almost over. I plan to retire and sell the farm to Scott Hubble and it couldn’t be in more capable hands as he is a very accomplished expert after 9 years of maple farming. I grew over 33,000 Shantung maples. I even had a dream of my original Fire Dragon at 250 years old and complete with elves that were bricking up a hollow trunk on the back side. The photo shows the larger Fire Dragon now in all sizes, a mid-size growing FIYA Dragon, and a dwarf Flower God. Here is a listing of other worthy Shantung maples I have named in case anyone ever wants to grow them: Baby Dragon and Super Dragon patented trees, Gate Dragon, the columnar Doric Dragon, Golden Dragon, Skinny Dragon, King of the Shandong, Blaine’s Dragon, Hubble’s Dragon, Sweet Spot, Deplorable Dragon, Dizzy Dragon, Bride of Dragon, Son of Dragon, Happy Dragon, Dragnado, Micro Dragon, Nano Dragon, TARP Dragon, Green Dragon, The 2nd Coming, Pure Fun, Fairy Dragon, White Dragon, Dancing Dragon, FDBD#8, Eye of the Dragon, Witches Dragon, Orange Dragon, Neglected Dragon, FDBD2015#1, FDBD2015#2, and Sugar Dragon. 36 beautiful survivors.
February 2015 and the unknown is revealed. First flowers on a dwarf Shantung maple and they are very small. Peter Gregory calls them the smallest maple flowers he has seen. I think they are gorgeous flowers too. These occurred on a high graft Baby Dragon that is grafted two years earlier on a dozen branches on a 10 gallon seedling Shantung. I did not know if the dwarfs would ever bloom or what they would look like and am completely overwhelmed with the flowers. Now if only I can get some seeds and get some 3rd generation maples. The US Patent Office is finally reviewing my patent application that is filed a year and a half ago, but I do get to add the flower descriptions. The patent is approved after 2 years from the filing date.
Flower God dwarf Shandong maple in December 2014. It has great potential for garden and bonsai use. Dense hard yet flexible wood, small leaves, great bark, small flowers, hardy, heat tolerant and vigorous. I believe that heat stress is a factor in producing the many new dwarfs, along with inbreeding. After the many years of struggling to grow hundreds of thousands of maples in containers in all kinds of harsh weather, I’ve come to realize, and you can quote me on this, that “you may not like it or you may not understand it, but the weather is always perfect.”
Blooms on Fire Dragon TM at Metro Maples, early spring before the leaves in 2014.
Super Dragon TM growing at Metro Maples in May 2013. It maintains bright yellow leaves all year.
Fire Dragon at Metro Maples in a 300 gallon container in 2013.
My good friend, Rene Rodgers, doesn’t even looked tired after helping Scott and I unload 20 tons of maples in March 2013. His Fire Dragon is a very nice red in the alkaline clay in Mansfield, Texas on December 12, 2016.
Oregon grown Fire Dragon TM at Munn’s Nursery, Brooks, OR. It sells fast even among his 55 acres of Japanese maples.
November 18, 2013 and both ‘Fire Dragon’ TM and a yellow fall Shantung called ‘Gate Dragon' are spectacular. Gate Dragon is picked out from other 15 gallon seedlings with a superior shape without pruning, strongest vigor, and fall color.
Super Dragon Shantung on November 23, 2012 showing it’s true fall colors which is rare in Texas due to the hot fall temperatures. Here it usually gets a little greener in early fall then turns a pastel yellow. This year a reverse osmosis water purification system is installed and the major water issues are fixed.
Victory from the Summer From Hell and very few casualties, plus 2 more United States Plant Patent filed, so I promote myself to a 3 Star Maple General. I sometimes think I’m General Patton reincarnated and have his big ego to prove it. All my life I’ve been determined to succeed at whatever I do but in my everyday mind my love and addiction to plants is all I see. At Metro Maples this guy really believes “it’s all about the trees”. Ask anyone, I don’t even to try to sell them as I’d just as well keep them. I grow them all like they are going in my garden and price them where I don’t care if you buy them or not. Business is good but decide to keep the farm small.
Robert Hafkesbring owns Designs In Nature with a large tree inventory and delivers and plants more of them than anybody in the Dallas Metroplex. A good friend and business partner that loves my trees and buys every named Shantung maple I have for his beautiful new garden. He motivates Tree Town USA into growing Fire Dragon. Left is a 2 year old Eye of the Dragon dwarf growing like a weed in the worst clay possible. On the right we are in front of a favorite Shantung of his while I bring him yet another maple for his yard.
A miracle in early 2012. One of my top ten favorite new dwarfs is lifted February 17th after only 23 days as a hardwood cutting. Lots of roots and even 6 new leaves. None of the 5 scions off the mother plant are successful grafts and a few weeks later the mother plant is dead. So this is the only surviving piece. This cutting grows nearly 3 feet its first year. I’ve never seen anything like this. I give it the best name I can think of, Flower God. Cecil Briley used to call me Flower God and a supreme flowering Japanese azalea I love is named Shinsen, and that translates into Flower God. So after naming 25 trees I name this one after me.
About 40 of the ‘Fire Dragon’ dwarfs die in 2011 from the record heat and/or phytotoxic spider mite spray and genetic deficiencies. The remaining have a truly glorious fall color display that lasted into the next year. I still have 60 to test and eventually name. It takes extraordinary techniques to graft these dwarfs with extremely thin branches. That’s a 2 year old branch shown above and it’s still thin and older wood doesn’t graft well. None of the 2012 dwarf Shantung grafts take.
Fire Dragon at the end of the hottest year on record in north Texas, year 2011. This colored up in the hot, completely dry sand without any irrigation. Notice the dead eleven year old juniper. All the Eastern red cedars and honey locust die this year. The trees are also attacked literally by a million spider mites that came out of the dry forest. Good water wells are mostly dry, producing only about 1,000 gallons per day. Three separate fires erupt nearby in August and the old house to the east, just across the street, is burnt down. A large fire came within 200 feet on the north. Scott and I went back out there about 6 pm and connected 700 feet of hoses to help the volunteer Fire Department to put out the blaze. Average highs were 103.7 degrees with 79 days over a hundred. Despite all these enemies it is the greatest victory for the Shandong and Japanese maples as they fight and survive what Jimmy Turner of the Dallas Arboretum calls The Summer From Hell.
A fall garden of Mother Fire Dragon TM and a 2003 graft leaning out over the koi pond in year 2010. A whole book could be written about water issues at Metro Maples. The good shallows wells are producing very little for 8 years now and 4 attempts at finding new water all ended in dry holes. The local coop water is expensive and so loaded with sodium and lime it kills Japanese maples and stunts and burns Shantung maples. I drilled my own deep well but it was not much better. Through a strategy of mixing wells, hand watering, and monitoring with a salt meter I somehow learn to survive the yearly droughts and record heat using only 4,000 gallons per day for 18,000 trees, many of which are large 10 gallon to 25 gallon size. I pray and cuss often but the only message I ever receive is ‘Keith, keep going, you’re the only one that can do this.” This also lead me into an in-depth study of plant nutrients and this knowledge with my water management skills would prepare me for the future.
In 2010 with ‘Baby Dragon’ already in production about 100 new dwarf Shantung seedlings are discovered. This time the parent is ‘Fire Dragon’ and the new dwarfs inherited their mother’s fall color and came in at least 5 different growth habits. I am resolved to study the mystery of the new dwarf Shantung maples.
Rare Texas fog in spring 2009 in the garden that is started in 2004 and now full of maples, including mother ‘Fire Dragon’ TM in the top center with a Yasemin below. There’s also a Crimson Queen, Paperbark maple, Shindeshojo and Aratama Japanese maples in with my Japanese azalea collection. Scott and I are challenged keeping up with the demands of growing and selling our increasingly popular trees as the financial collapse in 2008 didn’t slow us down much. We still deal wholesale and retail and are bringing in specimens from Oregon, bare root from New Zealand, and grafting 5,000 of our own each year. There are over 18,000 maples and azaleas in production in hundreds of varieties. I grew many different species from natives to ground covers to azaleas from the beginning but in 2008 it changes to all maples.
The men behind the maples, Keith Johansson (left), and Scott Hubble with a couple hundred Fire Dragon dug in August 2008 which are rooted out and ready to sell in two months. A huge 70 mph hail storm in April tore up a lot of the long soft growth from the previous greatest growing year ever. Hundreds of hours are used fighting a gas pipeline but won a rare victory and kept them off my property. Customers drive hundreds of miles to come for Fire Dragons and once sold 65, mostly large ones, on a single Saturday retail in fall. Scott is a good worker and every customer loves him.
‘Fire Dragon’ showing its best red in a great warm and rainy year, 2007. 2004 was also a good growing year. The other years were all hot and dry and the trend seemed to peak in year 2011 in what looks like a 30 year cycle with other hot periods in Texas in the 1930’s, 1950’s, 1980’s, and 2000’s. Ginkgo Autumn Gold reached peak color the following day.
The maple knoll in 2007 had the most beautiful Shantung ever grown. It took an extra year or two compared to other growers that pump them up with too much nitrogen and water. Ours are pruned with thoughtfully spaced branches and stakes are not used so the trunks are stronger. The roots are in the perfect sized pot for the size of the tree. It is one of the most fun times as Scott and I drive down every week and pick up more and more good looking Fire Dragon for several years and haul them to the Shandong sales area. Eventually the demand would outpace us and we would run out of inventory so prices go up.
In 2007 I join The Maple Society and go to the Morris Arboretum and find this 100 year old Shantung maple. That’s Dr. Richard Olsen who works at the US Department of Agriculture. The USDA is doing research on Shantung maple with a goal of introducing trees but the program is dropped in 2016. I ask him why they ended the program and he tells me it is because they have me doing it. He has 2 Fire Dragon planted at the US National Arboretum. I met many other knowledgeable people in the Maple Society like Peter Gregory, Hugh Agnus, Talon Buchholz, Tim and Matt Nichols, Todd Laseigne, Keith Warren, Sue Weigreif, Jim Schmidt, Frank Byles and Cor van Gelderon and many more. In 2008 I want to go to Japan and ask my wife but she doesn’t want to go. I must go. I sign up myself and get in big trouble and have to sleep on the couch for 6 months, but I must go. Other Maple Society meetings take me to Holland, Westonbirt Arboretum, northern France, Atlanta, Oregon, Washington state and Washington, DC, and North Carolina.
My very good gardening friend, Sue Mohr, Clinton, Arkansas, received one of the first Fire Dragon in the fall of 2006. We are in the Ozark Chapter of The American Rhododendron Society and she taught me a lot about plants. The photo on the right is Fire Dragon in June of the following year showing zero damage after a tremendous late freeze that damaged trees from Oklahoma to North Carolina. The freeze destroys 3 years of native and ornamental tree growth but Fire Dragon even in full leaf is undamaged. The ultimate hardiness test. You fall in love with trees and people like this.
High nitrogen fertilizer for Baby Dragon TM with warm temperatures makes for very bright color new growth.
Baby Dragon sits around for years in the shade for ease of maintenance but once the grafted clones are put out into the full sun with some July rain like in 2010, the striking new pink growth became quite apparent.
‘Baby Dragon’ has thumbnail sized leaves and can take all day Texas sun but is planted in a shady spot and ignored for many years. This photo from June 2007 shows it at 14 years old. Propagation began in year 2009 after 3 years of rapidly increasing Fire Dragon sales.
Besides propagating a lot of Fire Dragon in 2007 a little plant discovered in 2005 and is first called Dwarf Golden Dragon is getting attention. Shown above in spring 2007 compared to the famous Golden Fullmoon Maple, A. shirawsawanum ‘Aureum’. Dwarf Golden Dragon later becomes the patented Super Dragon TM.
In early 2005 the 15 foot high mound named the Maple Knoll is created with a bulldozer with top soil from a pond that is dug. It is a pot in pot system that holds 400 15 gallon Fire Dragons. Also early that year I hear the space shuttle Challenger explode in the sky. Roy Gallegos, right, is a great volunteer Saturday salesman and also helps during a week in May when we install 4,000 spitters in this area to grow Shantung maples. Spitters are similar to a drip system but spitters spray out water over the entire soil surface. 2005 was the start of what I call the Maple Wars because demand was rising 20% every year all across the country and growers of Japanese maples had not been propagating enough so they totally ran out of red Japanese maples. I had several offers to sell my entire stock but turned them all down to keep a supply on hand for my loyal customers. The year was extremely busy with retail and wholesale customers and teaching clarinet lessons. Also a huge drought where even cotton would not grow, forced me do a lot of hand watering to save water as the shallow wells were running dry and new drilling produced only dry holes. The sand, just below the surface, on the Maple Knoll in summer is 145 degrees. Temperatures halfway down on the inside of the black plastic pots is 125 degrees. I am all alone as the bugs and ants all stay underground and the mosquitos have no rain to reproduce. A total of 15,000 trees were repotted which helped to save water and satisfy the growing demand.
Fire Dragon in year 2004 is planted and a fenced garden is started. It is not as big as it could be because in 2002 and 2003 I cut off every twig for propagating new ones which slows down the growth. All the twigs I could graft in 2002 is 65 trees. In 2003 it was 400 trees but after that it is 1,000 trees or as many as I want. Fall color was orangish-red that year but very bright. Texas A&M University announces Shantung as one of only two trees as a Texas Superstar. Of course I sell out quickly of seedling Shantung as I am the only one I know growing them.
It is an on the job learning experience with nobody to talk to in Texas about growing maples. All the nurseries thought I was joking when I tell them I’m growing Japanese and Shantung maples wholesale in Texas. I did find a good friend and passionate maple farmer in Brooks, Oregon, Carl Munn (left) that had 55 acres of maples and had started ten years before me. Sometimes we could find a moment to chat over the phone where I could pick up some grafting or growing tips and we shared stories and laughed at our difficult problems. Even as difficult as maple farming can be neither of us would be happier doing anything else.
Fire Dragon is born in 1999 the same year my mother, Dorothy Manning Johansson passed away. My mom had a rare, one acre Asian style garden with maples, azaleas, dogwoods, peonies, pines, etc. and an asian decorated house in Bartlesville, Oklahoma where I grew up. Her 1998, and last Christmas present to me is this precious stone bonsai, shown above. Notice the truncated base and leaf shape and color compared to a spring Fire Dragon. The bible I inherited dates back to the Civil War and also contains our family tree history. The first time I open it and the first line I read is “Praise the Lord and the Trees Will Sing”. I couldn’t believe that message jumped out at me at random on the first opening and began to believe that somehow my Mom is an angel behind my tree. I also once heard my name called out from the vicinity of Fire Dragon and turned around and answered “What?”, but there is no one there. I search the grounds but never find anyone. Is it the voice of God and what other trees would He lead me too?
June 2004 and Fire Dragon first grafts from 2002. The property is a dense mature oak forest with green briar and poison ivy everywhere. I estimate I cut 400 miles of briar by hand. Expenses are kept low meaning lots of back breaking long hours of work. These and thousands of plants are hand-watered for several years before irrigation could be installed. The only machine is a chainsaw, and is combined with shovels, wheelbarrows, and pruners. The work week is everyday and no time off for vacation or sickness, and no time for deliveries. If you want to buy my maples wholesale or retail, you had to come get them yourself. I feel like a slacker after only working 360 days that year.
One of my favorite pictures is taken in the fall of 2001 and compares fall color on my Fire Dragon with the old standard Japanese maple, Bloodgood. Fire Dragon’s leaf is thicker than Bloodgood so the leaf does not glow the same, but the color is much more true red. This is the third straight year of red so I know that it is consistent in its red fall color and I make plans to begin propagation of the tree.
Welcome to the Shandong maple blog. I’d like to start with the first picture of the first Shandong maple cultivar, ’Fire Dragon’ TM, taken way back in the fall of 2001 at Metro Maples, Fort Worth, Texas. I also referred to Fire Dragon as “The Tree of the Millennium”. It is thrilling to find this special tree and it changed my life forever. Metro Maples began in 1994 by me, Keith Johansson, an amateur gardener/plant collector and 40 years old but stronger than I’ve ever been, and a victim of corporate downsizing from a large oil company merger. It is located just outside Kennedale and Fort Worth, Texas on the far western edge of the great American Eastern forest. I also teach private clarinet music lessons as a source of income to pay off the loan on the land. My first web site was built by me in year 2001 in the very early beginnings of the world wide web. Also in 2001 retail customers are allowed after the first of many full page stories about Metro Maples appearing in both the Fort Worth and Dallas newspapers that brought in a potential of 6,000,000 new customers. Everything is eerily quiet on 9/11 as I watch the twin towers destroyed on TV in my neighbor’s house of Jim and Emily Tripp. They are the best neighbors ever and once owed a hardware store in Arkansas and gives freely of his knowledge and every kind of power tool. Jim helped build the well house, garden fence, and the greenhouse and is always there as a friend and to help out. I never would have had this land if not for him preventing the sand pits from crossing his land to dig out the sand that becomes Metro Maples. He always thought I needed a truck and a bobcat but I had to keep expenses low and used my SAAB 9000 as a truck and unload the heavy B&B maples, many of them 200 to 300 pounds, off the 18 wheelers with my bare hands. Fortunately, I never hurt my back or the trees.
It took 2 years to find 6 acres that is close to home and affordable. I found some land in Kennedale but the city regulations are costly and do not even apply to a wholesale tree grower. The land I found is just outside the town in an unincorporated area and is on the market for 20 years in an estate and never sold because you couldn’t even walk in it. It is the densest forest I’ve ever seen where you could not even see further than 15 feet. The land is covered with mature oaks with tens of thousands of sweet briar vines clinging all the way to the top, and mature poison ivy and in some areas the stoleniferous Cornus drummondii. It is the perfect environment for these plants with no competition in the hot and bone dry sugar sand that once was an ancient sea bed. I cut tons of briar with my Felco pruners and pull it down wearing long sleeves even in summer to minimize the painful scratches I got every day. It took 2 years to clear the front land for room to grow several thousand maples. In 2000 it is the start of really hot dry summers in Texas. The photo top left is an old wagon trail that went from Cleburn to Fort Worth and shows the oaks in August with all brown leaves after 110 days without a drop of rain. A patch of 20 foot tall mature staghorn sumac dies along with some yucca. I give a talk on the new global warming science to the Rhododendron Society. The photo on the right is a Shantung several years after it sat in a 5 gallon pot through the whole summer and lived without any water. I never find any other plant or tree, oak to cedar elm, than can survive in a pot in Texas without water so I name this one Neglected Dragon. I root some Japanese maples this year for a love of bonsai but don’t consider any Shantung maples as their leaves are too large.
I feel like an Okie from John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath leaving Oklahoma in late 1989. A finance major graduate of Tulsa University and a former financial planning and budget analyst at Cities Service Oil and Gas I cannot find suitable employment so a detailed plan is made for starting a maple farm using my talent for growing plants. The plan shows thousands of trees in inventory as it takes 3 to 5 years to grow a nice one, and it shows that it would be many years before reaching profitability. Possibly the hardest thing I ever did is to pick up the phone to get started and order 1,000 Japanese maple small grafts, 200 Shantung maples, 200 red Japanese maple seedlings from Oregon, and 300 large bare-root Japanese maples from New Zealand. Something inside me is telling me to make the phone call while my common sense keeps reminding me that the work is hard and the profits are low. I have the Japanese Maples book by Vertrees and a Fireglow that I bought in Oklahoma that is more red all year than others, but not a whole lot of knowledge about running a maple tree farm. I do know there are not many maples available to buy in north Texas, usually just Bloodgood, and there are so many good ones that are fairly easy to grow in the Texas shade. These maples give a whole new taller layer to the average shade garden. My first 2 years in Texas in 1990 and 1991 it never hit 100 degrees and summer rain is good so my rhododendrons collection is doing well, so it seemed at the time that the climate was nice down here in Texas. The first batch of Shantung maples contained a weird small leaf tree that took me a couple years to realize it was some kind of genetic dwarf. It would sit around for more another 10 years before I realized its potential and name it Baby Dragon. The maple shown above was also found early on with special fall colors a consistent yellow with red spots so I plant it in the ground to keep it also.
This Shantung maple blog is dedicated to: (Top Row Left to Right) - My Mom who is the brains behind the awesome asian garden where I grew up and getting me a job at Tom Ward’s nursery during junior and high school and the best cook in Oklahoma so I grew to 6’4” tall. My Dad who gave me my courage and strength. The Ozark Chapter of the American Rhododendron Society that cemented my love of plants, especially Sue Mohr, Leonard Millar, Nellie McEntire, Dr. John Thornton, Buddy Lee, Larry Coleman, Scott Weddington, and Dr. John C. Pair, horticulturist at Kansas State that suggested that I grow Shantung when I was just starting the farm. (Bottom Row) - My wife, Jeri Bisel and daughter Blaine that allowed me to start the farm. Frank Pronio, my clarinet teacher for 6 years that taught me discipline and that hard work pays off and a system for success. And Sparky, our Cairn terrier that chewed off both lower branches of a small Bloodgood that I picked up and rooted, thus giving me the idea to start a maple tree farm.