The Island of Misfit Trees

Diamonds in the very rough . . .

Colin Fraser Purcell


The following is a post I wrote back in early 2015 on a bonsai forum. It's about the fun and excitement of searching landscape nurseries and garden centers for what I now like to call "accidental prebonsai." I have since come to appreciate the work and talent that goes into intentionally growing high quality prebonsai material, but something about this still rings true for me, and I know it will for lots of new bonsai hobbyists too, so I thought I'd share here:

"The other day I was prowling a local nursery when I stumbled upon their Island of Misfit Trees. They all seem to have one. You know the kind of spot I mean -- an over-shaded or under-watered corner of the property where a ragtag bunch of plants -- broken, browning, or otherwise unfit for fine gardens -- are tossed together over the years. Some of them die, some escape into the ground and run wild, and some live out a scraggly pot-bound retirement, mostly out of view of discerning customers. To me, this is the best part of the nursery; it is where Diamonds in the very-rough are to be found. Trunks thickened by escaped roots, low branching caused by broken off tops, and faded labels that lead to prices like " I don' know, how about $10" . . . Sure, there are no easy masterpieces here. Anything rescued from the Island of Misfit Trees will probably require drastic chops or severe bends, air layers or ground layes, years to untangle a root brick, and acts of tree brutality that would make the cashier refuse to sell to you, even if the tree is doomed otherwise. But there is potential, and there is excitement in finding and exploiting it. So, is it just me, or is this a real phenomenon? Do some of you also instinctively seek out these forgotten trees? Does anyone have misfit finds so beautiful now that they wouldn't be let back on the island by their former compatriots? Clearly I have bonsai on the brain this morning, and I may have had too much coffee, but it's fun to wax poetic about a hobby that so captures my attention and imagination. Happy Hunting!"