Of all the propagation techniques available for bonsai, air layering is surely one of the best. There are so many advantages to this practice! The main one is that it can be used on mature trees with large branches, so that your bonsai ends up with a large trunk from the beginning. If you air layer at an angle to the trunk, and/or at a junction with two or more branches, you can make it even wider again. If you select the right position for your air layer, you won’t need the trunk of the eventual bonsai to grow any more than it already has, which gives you a massive head start compared to other techniques.
We had a surplus-to-requirements magenta crabapple on our allotment which I have air-layered over the last two years – in the first year I did 20 air layers and in the second I did 10. Of these around 15 have survived. Some examples are below – the largest one I did was from a main branch and has a 12cm trunk. You can also see one where I did the cut at an angle to change the orientation of the resulting tree, and make the trunk wider.
Another advantage of air layering is that roots form from callus at the edge of the air layer, which thickens the trunk right down at the base and also creates nice radial roots for good nebari (assuming you’ve properly prepared the air layer).
And there’s more! An air layer is as old as it was on the original tree. If it’s old (or large) enough to have mature foliage, flowers and fruit, it will continue to do so once separated. As far as I can see, this is by far the most accelerated technique for creating bonsai with flowers/fruit and thick trunks (as opposed to cuttings, which also retain the age of the source material, but are usually not as wide).
So what is air layering and why does it work?
An air layer involves ringbarking the tree at the place where you want to separate it into two. By wrapping the bare strip of branch in growing medium, roots are encouraged to grow at this point, and after a period of time, the branch can be sawn through and removed – the section above the air layer will have grown its own roots and can be planted out just like any normal tree. It’s called an air layer because the roots are literally being grown in the air.
Below are some images from my crab apple air layer. On the left is the ringbarked section of trunk prior to applying the growing medium. You can see the matt texture of the wood – all the living cambium has been scraped off (I use the blade from a pair of scissors). In the middle is the separated air layer with its plastic wrap on, and the pot still in place around the roots. On the right is an example after it has been separated and the plastic covering removed (an old compost bag). You can see the roots have developed nicely, circling the pot which was being used to hold the growing medium in place (sphagnum moss).
How the heck does this work?
Air layering takes advantage of the ‘plasticity’ of plant cells. The meristems within plants can become all sorts of different cells depending on the hormonal signals they receive. In the case of air layering, the passage of phloem (the liquid which flows from the leaves and carries the sugars which are the products of photosynthesis) is interrupted. This causes the hormone auxin, which is produced by stems and leaves, to accumulate at the site of the cut. And where auxin accumulates, callus material develops, and roots grow.ref
What types of trees and branches work with air layering?
The positioning of an air layer is more important than the size of branch. Personally I think if you are going to the effort of air layering you may as well choose the fattest, chunkiest branch you can. But it’s important to know that some leaves need to remain on the section of tree above the layer, to drive the air layer root growth, and some need to remain elsewhere with an unimpeded path to deliver sugars to the roots of the main tree. In the image above left you can see there is another branch on the lower left of the air layer, which can supply the roots. If one layer is being placed above another, each needs to have their own source of sugars (ie. leaves with a connection to the layer). The year I did 20 air layers on the same tree, I made sure there were enough branches to go around, so each layer as well as the roots would have an energy source.
That’s the sugar supply, but what about water? Water can still flow to all the leaves on the tree via the xylem, as the xylem layers remain in the outermost part of the trunk & branches. These are not removed when the cambium is removed, so they continue to transport water around the tree.
Now – you may have read elsewhere on my site about ring-porous and diffuse-porous trees. Ring-porous trees only use a small range of xylem cells around the outside of the trunk just below the bark – some grow a completely new layer every year before they let their leaves bud out (eg. oak and beech). I have a hunch that it may be harder to air these species as they are reliant on this narrower xylem band which might be damaged by the layering process. There is some evidence that this is the case – one study could not successfully air layer several American oak speciesref and a quick search of bonsai forums suggests similar anecdotal evidence.
It might be important with these trees to create the air layer after they have leafed out, to be sure they have xylem there for water transport before you remove the cambium. And to be extra careful when scraping off the cambium, to avoid removing the water-conducting layer as well. This won’t be relevant for conifers, which are all diffuse porous and should be air-layerable. I have successfully air-layered cypress as well as juniper and you can see both in the image below (cypress in front, juniper behind on the left):
For angiosperms, you can check whether they have diffuse or ring porous xylem on this website. From experience I can tell you that Acer japonicum and Malus air layer relatively easily.
I have found that on an older section of tree (where the cells may be less plastic and less amenable to becoming root cells), you can increase your chances of success by air layering at a junction with a younger branch. Layering at a junction results in a multi-stemmed tree, as well as larger more interesting nebari, but it also seems from the ones I have done that the presence of the younger branch encourages more vigorous roots.
How do you do a successful air layer?
The basic practice for creating an air layer is to remove a strip of bark around the trunk, with the top of the strip aligned to where you want the base of the trunk of your bonsai tree to be. The strip of bark needs to be completely removed – all the way around the tree – and the cambium layer which sits just underneath the bark needs to be scraped off (sometimes this layer is not very visible but once you start scraping, you will see it coming off). In effect this creates a ‘phloem dead zone’ by removing the cells in the tree which transport photosynthates (the sugars produced by photosynthesis). It’s important that there are no stray cambium cells left, and that the gap is wide enough that it cannot be bridged by any callus which grows.
Once this has been done, the cut at the top of the strip needs to be packed with moist growing material and sealed. Many people will use sphagnum moss, but I have also successfully used half-moss/half-soil, and half-coco coir/half-soil, usually in a plastic pot which I have cut to fit the branch. The medium needs to be quite moist, and thickly packed above, below and around the cut. It has been demonstrated that adding IBA (Indole-3-butyric acid also known as auxin – found in rooting gels) can improve root growth speed and quantity.ref
Once you have packed the cut with moist growing medium, it can be sealed in a plastic bag, or in plastic wrap (I also use a plastic pot under this). I have found it best to attempt to seal the wrap as best as possible, as this maintains the moisture within the air layer throughout the entire period. Moisture is critical for root development. Some people advocate leaving a hole for watering, but I think this just risks the layer drying out and is unnecessary extra effort. I use cable ties to secure a plastic bag around the base of the cut (on the bare trunk) and then wrap it several times around the layering medium before securing it around the top, leaving no gaps. If needed you can also tape up any loose edges with duct tape or similar.
It may be possible to do away with the growing medium altogether and to use a strip of aluminium foil instead. One study found that the reason why this exceeded the performance of moss/plastic on air layered radiata pineref was that the moss absorbed some of the auxin, taking it away from the plant and slowing down callus formation
People often ask how long an air layer will take to grow roots, but it’s very hard to answer this question. I would suggest give it a growing season – in the UK that could be creating it in March/April and separating it at the end of August or in September. If you unwrap it and the roots are not developed enough, it can be rewrapped and left for another season.
The obvious downside of using air layering is that it’s a lot more effort than taking a cutting or growing a seed, and you have to have access to good source material. Also that nobody will mind the presence of plastic bags and cable ties in the tree for the growing season! But the effort really is worth it when you consider the quality of material that can be created – here’s one of my favourites from the crab apple batch, only one year after separation:
To see a video of all the layers that succeeded, in their bonsai pots, please check out my Instagram @londonbotanica.