The Brazilian rain tree was first created as bonsai in the U.S. from seed grown by the late Jim Moody of Jupiter, Florida.
The seeds were brought to him in 1978 by his sister-in-law. She was a nurse at the American Embassy in Brazil. When Jim saw what a beautiful tree developed from his seeds, he also began propagating it from cuttings. For many years no one knew the scientific name and it was called by many names. It was often called the "mystery tree." The most recent botanical moniker is Chloroleucon tortum.
Jim is shown here telling a group about how he kept his bonsai in shape. By his own admission, Jim was not a “traditionalist.” He shaped the tree "his way." Jim's way was perfect to display the amazing trunk.
Jim told me many years ago: “It wasn't long before my tree had such a beautiful flat and twisting trunk that I decided to develop all the stock in our nursery from cuttings off that particular tree.”
Jim Moody passed away in 2003 and his grandson Alan Carver carries on the tradition of growing bonsai of the raintree. It has become a tropical bonsai favorite around the world.
In tropical regions of the world many legumes are used as bonsai subjects. With approximately 12,000 species available, there are a myriad to choose from.
Although many of the leaves in this ‘pea’ family are often large, they appear small because the leaflets, in most cases, are tiny in comparison.
Chloroleucon tortum, sometimes still referred to as Pithecellobium tortum is the legume commonly known as Brazilian rain tree (aka raintree). Like most of its relatives this tree has compound leaves, hard wood and is spiny ... very spiny.
The flower is a creamy white, mimosa-like puff, not particularly showy, but fragrant.
(Because they are fast growing, we often prune the buds before the flowers appear.) Therefore, many rain trees do not bloom as bonsai.
You can see the long sharp thorns in this photo.
In its homeland of Brazil, the Brazilian rain tree grows along the coast of Rio de Janeiro and “snakes” low across the sand.
Many are old and gnarled from the heat of the sand, lack of nutrients and the sea breeze. Once they were collected for bonsai. Today these natives are on the Critically Endangered list.
Outside of Brazil, this tree is most commonly styled as an upright bonsai. The bark is very smooth, light in color and exfoliates. What makes it a unique bonsai is the trunk's tendency to twist, flatten or become fluted or occasionally even triangular in shape.
If your tree never develops these odd characteristics (and sometimes they don't) the smooth, muscular trunk is still quite handsome.
This plant is easily propagated from cuttings, seeds and air layers. Once the initial trunk and branch shape is established, clip-and-grow is the best way to develop a Brazilian raintree.
The alternate, compound leaves of the somewhat zigzag branches are perfect for styling by directional pruning techniques. Wiring is difficult because the green branches grow so quickly, the wire may cut in. And then, there are the thorns to be concerned with.
The only other “fault” is the tree sometimes has reverse taper at the base of the trunk. Look carefully before you purchase.
Frequent trimming of new growth during the growing season will encourage the density of canopy that represents an old tree. During the spring and summer (at least) weekly pruning is a must!
Although they grow in the full sun in nature, Brazilian rain tree bonsai seem to appreciate some shade during hottest days of tropical summers (in bonsai containers.)
Outside the tropics, give them very bright light year round and protect them from frosts and freezes. Keep them evenly moist and trim frequently.
On a trip to Montreal (for a demonstration and several workshops,) ... the most requested subject for the workshops was Brazilian Rain Tree.
"Not to do" Note: The mature wood is very hard, never force a tool to cut, use a small saw when necessary. Do not cut too close to the trunk as there is often dieback. Never use a concave cutter on this tree.