Bonsai In New Mexico—By Roger Case

I first became interested in bonsai in 1969 after attending the Japanese Obon Festival in Monterey, California, where there was a display of what I believed to be a wonderful group of bonsai. I was hooked, and followed up with a visit to a local bonsai nursery. But this was before I faced the rigors of graduate school!

In 1981 (after graduate school), I settled down in Albuquerque, New Mexico. There, in 1984, I took my first formal instruction in bonsai with the local teaching experts in New Mexico, Buck and Donna Buckholtz. Buck and Donna had both taught basic bonsai classes beginning some years earlier and continued until Buck’s passing in 2004. They taught bonsai for more years than most of my trees have been alive! That was in 1984, but bonsai had been alive (if not in a large way) in New Mexico for many years prior to that.

Perhaps the earliest purveyors of bonsai in New Mexico were George and Laurose Page, who operated a bonsai nursery in Clovis, NM, in the 1960s and 1970s. Clovis is located in the southeast part of New Mexico, on the eastern plains. Its climate is quite similar to that of the west Texas city of Lubbock.

In 1975, a small group of bonsai artists gathered in Albuquerque, then and still the state’s largest city, to form the Albuquerque Bonsai Club. To the best of my knowledge, there was no organized bonsai activity in the state before this time (other than the Clovis nursery). It has been alleged by Anthony (Tony) Mihalic, present owner and proprietor of Wildwood Gardens in Chandon, Ohio, that the Mihalics and Pages used to drive with their bonsai material to many of the southwest and Midwest cities whenever bonsai people got together for conventions or workshops.

However, the Clovis nursery closed in the 1980s, so then there was only 1 nursery with any significant bonsai activity. This nursery was operated by Sam Yamamoto, along with his wife and family. The Yamamoto nursery Japanese Nursery was located in Albuquerque’s North Valley along the Rio Grande River, in Albuquerque. It was here that the Buckholtzs taught bonsai, and where I took my first lessons in 1984 there. The Yamamotos continued operating this nursery until the city of Albuquerque had the land condemned for a bridge crossing the Rio Grande built in the l980s. Today, while bonsai are still sold by Wal Mart, Target, and traveling bonsai vendors (from Dallas and Denver) on street corners in Albuquerque, there is no remaining nursery that specializes in bonsai in the state.

Albuquerque Bonsai Club

The Albuquerque Bonsai Club (ABC) also remains today as the only club in the state, as Albuquerque is the only real area of bonsai activity in the state. Beginning in 1979, Ben Oki was the first bonsai master invited to conduct a bonsai workshop. Since then, other bonsai masters have presented workshops bonsai culture in Albuquerque. Visiting masters have included John Naka, Chase Rosade, Jim Barrett, Hal Sasaki, Toshio Subaromaru, Mel Ikeda, Ray Nagatoshi, Ernie Kuo, Guy Guidry and others. Just two years ago, we were honored with a day and a half visit by Masahiko Kimura who was traveling back to Japan from a convention in Atlanta, Georgia. Mr. Kimura presented a slide show and discussion on bonsai for ABC members and members of the Japanese-American Club here in Albuquerque. As for events, the ABC generally sponsors two workshops a year when visiting masters are brought into the city, and we invite our non-Albuquerque members from locations as far away as Los Cruces, NM to attend.

New Mexico Species and Climatic Conditions

The state of New Mexico has a wide range of climates, with 6 of the 7 climatic zones of the continental USA found within its borders. The Rocky Mountains extend from the north into the middle of New Mexico, with peaks as high as 14,056 ft. In the northern part of the state, there are extensive forests of fir, various 2- and 5-needle pines (including the pinyon pine which yield “pine nuts”).

Below is a list of species native to the state (those marked with an asterisk are known to be used for bonsai in the ABC):

New Mexico Conifers
Abies concolor (Gord. & Glend.) Lindl. ex Hildebr. White fir
Abies concolor var. concolor (Gord. & Glend.) Lindl. ex Hildebr. White fir
Abies lasiocarpa (Hook.) Nutt. Subalpine fir
Abies lasiocarpa var. arizonica (Merriam) Lemmon corkbark fir
Abies lasiocarpa var. lasiocarpa (Hook.) Nutt. Subalpine fir
Picea engelmannii Parry ex Engelm. Engelmann spruce
*Picea pungens Engelm. Blue spruce
Pinus aristata Engelm. Bristlecone pine
Pinus arizonica Engelm. Arizona pine
Pinus arizonica var. arizonica Engelm. Arizona pine
*Pinus cembroides Zucc. Mexican pinyon
*Pinus edulis Engelm. Two needle pinyon
Pinus edulis var. edulis Engelm. Two needle pinyon
Pinus engelmannii Carr. Apache pine
Pinus flexilis James limber pine
Pinus leiophylla Schiede & Deppe Chihuahuan pine
Pinus leiophylla var. chihuahuana (Engelm.) Shaw Chihuahuan pine
*Pinus ponderosa P.& C. Lawson ponderosa pine
Pinus ponderosa var. scopulorum Engelm. Ponderosa pine
*Pinus strobiformis Engelm. Southwestern white pine
Pseudotsuga menziesii (Mirbel) Franco douglas fir
Pseudotsuga menziesii var. glauca (Beissn.) Franco rocky mountain douglas fir

New Mexico Maples:
*Acer glabrum Torr. Rocky mountain maple
Acer glabrum var. glabrum Torr. Rocky mountain maple
Acer glabrum var. neomexicanum (Greene) Kearney & Peebles NM Maple
Acer grandidentatum Nutt. Bigtooth maple
Acer grandidentatum var. grandidentatum Nutt. Bigtooth maple
*Acer grandidentatum var. sinuosum (Rehd.) Little canyon maple
*Acer negundo L. box elder
Acer negundo var. interius (Britt.) Sarg. Box elder maple
Acer negundo var. texanum Pax ashleaf maple

Much of the Northern part of the state is high plains (~4000-5000 ft) with juniper /pinyon savannah covering it. Over the last two years, large stands of pinyon have been killed by the bark beetle and a continued drought.

There are significant rivers that flow in the state, and through the higher semiarid desert regions — the Rio Grange flows through Albuquerque (which is at an altitude of 5000 ft), and the altitude is comparable to Denver but we are dryer and warmer in the summer. Albuquerque is bordered to the East by the Sandia and Manzano mountain ranges. Here many of the species listed above are native.

Local tree species and shrubs that have the potential of being made into effective, attractive and long-lived bonsai include those described above, as well as common, Rocky Mountain, and Alligator Bark juniper, and native Gambel oaks. Local hackberry, mountain mahogany, and New Mexico privet (foresteria neomexicana) are other native species used for bonsai. Some ABS members have successfully grown several species of sages as bonsai as well.

As for to the maple species that do well in New Mexico, there are the standards of Trident and Japanese maples (if shaded well). Some ABS club members have successfully grown azaleas (but only with significant effort and care), cedars, elms, tamarisks, willows, gingko, etc. Acer ginnala does quite well here without much protection and is often used in landscaping instead of Japanese maples – it also adapts well to bonsai culture here.

Growing Conditions

I will focus on the region surrounding Albuquerque, as this is where the main focus of the bonsai activity is located. To the south, conditions are similar if not identical to Tucson, Arizona. As you travel north, you enter the foothills and mountainous regions similar to Colorado with comparable growing conditions there.

Around Albuquerque, the weather is rather warm in the summer (100F and humidity of 10% or less) — the sun is brutal if your trees are left out without protection — they need to be covered and placed often in semi-shade, especially smaller trees. In the winter, we have seen -10, but normal temperatures are in the teens, with limited snow and much sun. There are usually one or two snowfalls of 6-12 inches in Albuquerque each winter, but in general it’s gone in a day or two. Therefore, for overwintering, traditional cold frames are often used. I also build a berm of straw bales and cover some of my trees which are not located in my greenhouse or cold frame for the winter.

The water is alkaline, averaging in the ph 6.5 range, so blueberries are not a species that do well here!

Bonsai Stock & Collecting

To obtain material from which bonsai can be developed, we have been able to obtain National Forest permits (“wildings”) for some areas, but not near Albuquerque where collecting is restricted. Local nurseries provide some sources of materials, as do conventions and mail order nurseries. In some case, we have had visiting masters bring stock material for workshops which also helps.

New Mexico—The Untapped Source

In my opinion, New Mexico is a source of bonsai material that is still untapped – there are wonderful species of juniper and pine, and a number of maples that adapt well to bonsai culture. I look forward to others also discovering the hospitality and bonsai possibilities in New Mexico in the future.

Roger Case is… (Roger Case Bio Here) Roger has been a member of the Albuquerque Bonsai Club since… Article reprinted here by permission of the Author. It originally appeared  in the North American Bonsai Federation Newsletter #10.