Welcome to the Saruyama Blog, intermittent and generally off topic. Occasionally you might see some trees...and weird ones at that.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014


It seems as though the website is in order and we are all go. There were some teething problems, the site was down for a few days and lots of stuff needed redoing but it should look reet proper now...across all formats, devices and all that jazz. If you notice anything awry then please let me know.

It seems as though website renewal must be in the air, either that or summer is a slack time for bonsai professionals because those crazy hill dwellers over at Bonsai Mirai have only gone and launched the first wave of their website. go over and have a look... BONSAI MIRAI

They have introduced a searchable database with their trees, and believe me, there are some incredible plans in the pipeline, so sign up for their newsletter and watch as Ryan and Chelsea shake up things on a whole new level. Go find the pictures from when the property was first purchased...and see how much blood sweat and tears have gone into the nursery. Mirai screen shot

Words do not do them justice, so go and have a look at the site and get a feel of what they are trying to achieve.

On another note, I have been having some family time of late, which has been nice, also been pottering around in the garden a little as well as a trip to Poland where I continued to work on some of my long term projects with Mariusz at Ibuki. I half wrote a massive sleep deprived post on "Breaking the bronco" whilst drifting in and out of conciousness due to some great herbal sleeping pills. I will reinvestigate that at some point.

I never promise anything but the online shop should be finished shortly. Hopefully at the end of the week.

If anyone has any suggestions for improvements on the website, things you want to see then please let me know.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Early autumn, fungal issues and what to watch out for

So I am finally starting to get settled into the new website and find my way around. There have been a few issues but it seems to be heading in the right direction. The shop will be opened for business shortly, within the next few days. I have shown a few people some items and they have said it looks good. I doubt anything will sell because it might be a bit "how much for that dirty old pot!" and such like, but it is time to start making space at Saruyama towers so I can fill it up with more stuff. In fact I just purchased a rather nice maple and I now have to start looking into the planning permission and health and safety regs for building double-decker benches. It was however, too good an opportunity to miss out. As part of my Japanese training which now seems oh so long ago, I was introduced to the idea of seasonality in bonsai display, bonsai cultivation and cuisine. Unless you are a farmer or a keen gardener as a child then nowadays we kind of grow up thinking that tomatoes grow all year round, cucumbers are an acceptable addition to Christmas dinner and the only season you are worried about is the start of the football
.Saruyama bonsai spidey sense Developing as a bonsai practitioner, I started to attune my spidey senses to weather, climate and any little seasonal changes. Growing up in the UK you kind of know naturally when it is going to rain just by the feeling you get in your bones as you stare up at the sky or peer from the window of a morning, but there is more to climate than just rain, just as there is more to climate change than global warming (love that argument that climate change doesn't exist because our winters are still cold). Cast your mind back and remember the winter and early spring we had in Europe...(apologies to the rest of the world)...it seems as if the seasons are shifting up the calendar. It would appear as though we are on the verge of autumn. A few things have made me think this recently...the incredibly red berries on my hawthorns, the slight chill to the air of an evening and the morning and as I was driving to a clients on Friday morning, I looked up to see saruyama bonsai autumnal geese
  Obviously this isn't the photograph that I took as I drove up the M1, but I saw some geese on their way some where and it was just another nail in the coffin of summer. Another sign which made me ever so slightly wish I was back in Japan (although it is still incredibly hot there 34 degrees) was the misty moon the other night which along with the migrating geese, is a very typical autumnal image used in bonsai display

. saruyama bonsai misty moon
Again, not my picture, but it is kind of what I saw. the harvest moon is a bit early, we are a month away yet, but it was definitely feeling autumnal the other night. Such images are often used in Japanese bonsai display in October/November when the trees are starting to turn colour. autumn blog pics 4

 I got this image from the Capital Bonsai blog, read it for more autumnal excellence and a full explanation of this scroll

autumn blog pics 3
This image comes from the 2012 International stone symposium at which Mr. Morimae did a seminar on mainly suiseki display. He actually painted the scroll himself, a classic oboro zuki (hazy moon)

autumn blog pics 11

Like this rainy image...

autumn blog pics 9
And there you go, yet another bonsai display with a misty moon, not taken at the Chiefs, I got this from google. Nice pine, shame about the suiseki though..

sauyama bonsai display
Apologies for the poor photoshoppery but why does everyone feel the need to put three items in a display? These Japanese don't know anything, or maybe I just prefer to be lonely. Anyway, what does all this mean for our trees? This late summer, early autumn period is very important for lots of reasons. Trees start to think about the upcoming winter, next year and make preparations. We will see a final growth spurt which may manifest itself as another flush of extensions on Junipers, bud setting on pines or thickening in deciduous trees. It is important to fertilise appropriately, so keep up with fertiliser, especially a high P-K fertiliser (organic naturally). In addition to this, seaweed extract is advisable for all those micro nutrients and growth hormones that will strengthen cell walls and assist the tree do all sorts of stuff that trees need to do. I will be selling an incredible brand of this shortly. It has revolutionised my garden (well made it much greener) but that is by the by. Other things that you need to think about are wires digging into to branches as they thicken, especially deciduous and Scots Pine. Many people transplant pines in the Autumn, I rarely do this but I have seen it done successfully.

white pine If your White Pines are starting to look like this...with the orange needle casing starting to fall off then now is the best time to start pruning back. Cut back the strongest buds when you have other secondary shoots behind them. In certain cases on very strong trees you can remove the entire bud, kind of like candle cutting on black pines and it will stimulate new buds further back in. I would not advise this until you have experience of what can and can't be cut or you will end up with a lot of blind shoots next year. I will go into more detail in another post sometime this week weather permitting so wait for that. One of my biggest concerns this year has been the proliferation of fungal problems on trees, in particular junipers. I was having a conversation with the owner of a reputable bonsai nursery about the increase in fungal infections. Tips dying off, branches dying and in some cases entire trees just collapsing in the blink of an eye. Look for browning growth tips, yellowing foliage, anything out of the ordinary and then look closely at the dead foliage. Can you see black spots? chances are it is some kind of fungus and do some more research. Books are good...but the internet can be useful. What can be done to prevent this? Good hygienic practices and preventative spraying of fungicides is always a good idea. Good hygiene is basically cleaning any dead branches as soon as they die, allowing good airflow around the tree and also sterilizing tools as you work on different trees to stop cross contamination. Understanding how and when fungal spores form and distribute will help you to stop infections spreading. Sadly one way they are spread is by the wind and so that is hard to prevent, but rain and water on the foliage can be controlled.


 Preventative spraying should be done on a regular basis at various times of the year. Now and spring in particular. It is important to have a few different chemicals in your armoury and vary them up on a cyclical basis. Spraying chemicals is a very dangerous process and this should be covered in more detail somewhere else but it isn't yet..so the short version.
  • Use a mask, use a good sprayer, use gloves and goggles and a waterproof rain coat.
  • Don't drink the stuff, breathe it in or spray it on anything other than your trees.
  • Avoid any other living things, especially fish. Spray early morning or in the evening to avoid bees and prolong the life of photosensitive chemicals.
  • Don't do it on a windy day or a completely still day.
  • Use measuring instruments and calculate the correct concentration. Double and triple check.
  • Mix thoroughly. Some chemicals, especially daconil, are much heavier than water and have relatively poor solubility. They will sink to the bottom of your sprayer and the last quarter of a tank will come out like rancid milk. (You learn that from experience don't you mike)
A lot of people will say you should be organic and think of the environment and I agree entirely on an agricultural level....but not on my trees. No way. Minimise environmental and human damage as much as possible, but there is yet to be as effective an alternative. I would recommend these items and chemicals to be used with great care. Clicking on the links will take you to amazon uk or .com, if you buy anything I will earn like 0.02% so it will be some kind of payback for the two hours it has taken for me to give you this free information ;) All items are recommended/used at Saruyama. The sprayer might be too big for most people, but go for a good brand rather than a cheap and cheerful one.
For UK visitors...
For US visitors...
I will say again. Please do be careful if and when you use any of the above chemicals. They are highly toxic and should be handled and used with great care. Think of the environment.
That said, I don't want to sound as though I am the harbinger of doom and gloom, I hope we have a month of summer left, especially as we are spanking the Indians in the cricket but I have one eye on the weather forecast and one eye on the sky every morning.

Friday, 1 August 2014

As you may or may not have noticed, there has been a new and improved website update. I have, with some professional help, been working on this intermittently for what seems like half a year.  The google blogger blog will remain as is and I will post the same content on there for a while but start to move across any subscriptions to here. I will put email sign up thing on in due course.

The transfer of the old blog to the new wordpressery has resulted in some weird photo stuff going on there so my apologies. For the old blog go to http://saruyama-bonsai.blogspot.co.uk/

There will be shop bit opening up once I get around to photographing all the stuff I want to sell...which isn't much lets face it. Also there is a portfolio of a few of the trees I have worked on. There will be some ironing out of creases in the next few days but any problems with the site viewing on different systems, recommendations etc. etc.   please email me

Onwards and indeed upwards


Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Another trip back...

After the self inflicted trials and tribulations of Florida at the BSF convention, which went very well, I find myself back in Japan for a short trip. For some reason, perhaps its the combination of great people, sun and alcohol, I always enjoy my visits to florida. My demo tree was a great buttonwood, literati style. As always no pics. No decent ones anyway. What a terrible bonsai artist I am to not do that. I ended up buying it in the auction because I liked it so much and well it was ridiculously cheap. The one thing about conventions I dislike is the auctioning off of material after the demos, they never go for anything near their true worth and so I didnt want to let this get away. I set myself a limit and the tree came in spot on. Many people thought I would be taking it home with me, but apart from the illegality of it all, buttonwoods like heat and sunshine. Two things that the UK tends to lack. Instead it now has a home at my good friend Michael Fedducia's bonsai nursery in Plant City. He will look after it and do what is necessary. I will visit when I am there next and maybe one day put it in a show when I am judging and win first prize.

The throbbing crowd before my second demo. It soon filled up mind.

The exhibition itself was very pleasing to see...it showed off a lot of styles of bonsai from traditional Japanese, to American and Chinese penjing influenced. Even had a bit of asobi kokoro in there too. Here are some pics.

Both the above trees are in very nice pots by Japanese potter Shuzan. I was pretty impressed to see them. Without wishing to sound boastful, to the untrained eye, they may not look anything different, but looking at the tsuchi me or the clay quality/consistency, it becomes apparent. Nice patina and well matched to the trees...and before you ask, no I did not sell them.
Although I wish I had done...mmmm.
Brazillian Rain tree forest, winner of best big tree, great story behind it we later heard.

A very well thought out display showing a cow chilling under a big spreading oak tree image. Attention to detail was great. Deservedly won the best display.

This display featuring a little figurine flying a kite next to a windswept tree was evidence of the asobi kokoro that can be all do often missing from the uptight and rule obssessed world we live in. If all tres were like this it would be kitsch and ridiculous, but every now and again, it is necessary to have an amuse bouche to refresh the soul.

After a short trip at home including a seriously jet lagged appearance at Sutton Club, it was to Japan to tie up some business from February and also look for some new stuff. Plenty of pot orders which are as yet unfulfilled but have managed to find some trees for clients that will be shipped in the winter/next spring.

Akiyama and I drove for over 2000km and visited a lot of places. One thing that became apparent is a lack of good trees and stuff to buy. Akiyama has been disappointed as have I too a certain extent. I have made a few purchases including a yamadori kifu sized juniper which is very raw. It will stay at Akiyamas for two years while it grows out (again, they tend to do that better in Japan) while it gets its plant passport and then I will import it in the future...unless I make it here and enter it into Kokufu for somebody.

Either way it was a great tree to find and Akiyama would have snapped it up if I didn't.

The trip was planned to coincide with an auction down in Kumamoto. As always, there was fun and games and I managed to pick up some cheap pots. One of the brokers brought a lot of clients stuff which was on a no reserve type deal, so went to the highest bidder. There were a few chuhin and larger nakawatari chinese pots that I bought for much less than I thought, so expect to see those for sale at some point on my soon to be redone website. The guy in the white T-shirt in the foreground is the recently returned Moriyama-kun, son of Mr. Moriyama (unsurprisingly) and he has just finished his apprenticeship under Mr. Kimura. Ryan Neil was his senpai for a number of years and talks fondly of him (on the whole). He was busy wiring away when we got there, and there were a number of trees in the nursery which had his touch on them. I hope in the future he will become well known, but he is a shy kid so who knows.

It was a learning experience as well for both of us. Akiyama was giving a lot of thought to business operations and nursery size so he compared nurseries and the way they worked. There is always some new technique or nugget of knowledge to gain. One thing I realised yet again is that all the healthiest trees and those which looked the best were one which were repotted infrequently and when they were, the core root ball was left relatively untouched. Over the last few years I have been repotting less, often due to inability to get it done, but I have noticed an increase in health.

A white pine, 20 odd years in the same pot and soil. "It is still geowing well so I didnt see the point...now I can't get it out of the pot!" joked Miyao-san, the owner of the garden.

The central root ball is left relatively untouched. As long as water can penetrate and the tree is healthy, leave it alone.

Miyao-san was also the dude who put funnels/radio antenna on his trees to collect water for the pots of the whips that are being used for approach grafting.

Didn't get much chance of sight seeing, but what is new there...this was the view from a service area near Miyajima, Hiroshima. Some of the drive was breathtaking, especially the Shin Meishin expressway which I drove because Akiyama hates the heights. It winds itself through the mountains sometimes several hundred feet above ground level. No pictures except for this...a very confused car navi

I will spread out the tree porn pictures over the next few posts...but here are some

Ok. Thats yer lot for now...

























Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Books and learning....

On my recent trip to the United States I made some trees and did some demonstrations and all that. Here are some of those trees in case you don't stalk me on social media.

A limber pine done by Akiyama and myself (Mainly Akiyama). We considered buying it between us and then entering it into a major show one day...however seeing as there is a big possibility I would be the judge and also we have nowhere to keep it, we decided against it. It was a shockingly good piece of material. I went all a bit hipster instagramtastic on the filter there. Makes things look that little bit more wabi-sabi.

We got through a few trees at Natures Way during our two days there. Perhaps we did too much. We did lots more but I am not here to blow my own trumpet. Lets leave that kind of activity to the FBM* crowd.

What I am here to do is that unpleasant thing and talk about important things rather than show pictures of overly wired badly styled trees that all look the same and get lots of attention. (Can you tell I have spent the last week with Akiyama talking about what makes good bonsai and a good bonsai professional, mainly from the exasperated point of view that FBM's seem to be directing the dialogue on what is quality or true and what is not?)

What I am here to do is point out the fact that I did some book learning. Flicking through a lot of old books at Nature's Way, I learnt some ground breaking stuff...made me realise what an absolute gamble it is when you pick up a book. For instance, I learned from some random book that...

That for me was an eye opening piece of information as I had been going around telling people for the last ten years that the root system on a bonsai was the foundation for a strong, healthy, well ramified and generally lovely looking tree. Turns out I was wrong. Apparently the roots don't matter that much.

*** in case you don't realise, I am making fun of this nonsense that was published ****

After having a chuckle at how little they knew back then, for the book was published in the 80's, I picked up a book entitled "American Bonsai" published in the sixties, I forget the author, which is a crime I know. I didnt take a picture of the cover. I will admit, I opened it expecting to have regressed even further back in time. As it happened, I should have had a plate, with a knife and fork, ready to eat my words...

The section on soils just amazed me. Why hadn't I read this before? Why hadn't this knowledge been repeated in other books? Who stopped this important and essential information from being disseminated? This knowledge is lacking in most people's understanding in the 2010's and this dude was talking about it 50 years ago. 50 years. Things have advanced a little, but not that much. The soil mix bit with peat moss can be ignored but otherwise, this is essential reading. By breaking copyright laws I hope I don't upset anyone, and if Bill Valavanis could tell us what/who the title/author is, that would be great...but as a starter to soil science for bonsai, you can't get much better than this


There is absolutely no excuse for not knowing this stuff now, it was knowledge around in English fifty years ago. Next time you have a workshop or watch a demonstration with a FBM then ask them about the three forces acting on water in the soil. Next time your teacher uses Akadama straight from the bag without sifting it ask them why. "Because it doesn't make a difference" is not an answer that should be accepted.

Apologies for the rant but this is fundamental knowledge that should be understood and practiced. Sometimes it is better to get off the unedited and irresponsible internet and get back to more traditional ways of learning. Even better, get off the internet and work on trees, it is so much more enjoyable.


* In case you didn't figure it out, FBM = Facebook bonsai master...and yes, I have started posting pictures there. In order to change society, you must first be part of it. It won't last though...

Edit **** So I was being a little bit over enthusiastic on the dates....turns out I was like 20 years off...but that still means that goddamn it I was mostly right. Thank you Bill and Frank Kelly. As Morrissey once sand..."There is always someone, somewhere, with a big nose who knows, and trips you up and laughs when you fall". ****

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Organic pest removal...

A no nonsense post for once. No jokes. No messing. Just solid information. A break from the norm for once.

Assuming you are not liking me on faceache or following me on instaspam then this will be new. If you are appreciating my attempts to be social and media friendly then apologies for the repetition. The new presence of said social media sites is to attempt to make myself more visible because according to my PR people, that is what I should be doing.

After a few demos and workshops at Nature's Way Nursery near Harrisburg in PA, Akiyama and I have arrived for some work at a large collection nearby. At this time of year many trees have lots of lovely long shoots which are soft and tender. These are juicy and easy to eat for many sucking insects such as aphids. Symptoms of aphids can be the presence of little green insects known as aphids on the soft tender growth. They crap everwhere which makes things greasy and shiny. The growth may also be deformed and less vigorous, mainly because those little suckers are taking away valuable nutrients. Another tell tale sign is the presence of ants running around your trees. They farm the aphids, looking after them and offering protection, moving them to fresh pastures all for a small cut of their honeydew takings. In effect ants are insect pimps and the aphids be their bitches who better have their money.

If you are faced with this problem and are either organically minded or know how easy it is to damage tender growth with incorrect use of pesticides or chemicals that are too strong, especially on chojubai who drop their leaves easily; then how, other than squishing them one by one, can they be removed? Easy.

Now you can see from the power of the water jet (for that is all it is people) that this will damage weaker varieties or possibly knock wired branches out of shape, so adjust the power accordingly. Blast those suckers off into hyperspace. If any ants turn up to protect their bitches, gun them down too like the weak ass pimps they are. Make sure you get the shoots from all angles, not just above. Check out the 360 degree death jet in the video.

It is incredibly effective. Physically removing all of them and washing their crap off the leaves at the same time.

That said however there will always be one or two that escape the blast and manage to stay on there. They can reproduce very quickly and one female can have thousands upon thousands of babies, spreading like a plague across your trees. Get on top of it quickly. After the tree dries out completely, later that day when the sun starts to set, mix up some insecticidal soap and weak contact killer pesticide such as Pyrethrin and spray the new growth. One area to be especially careful of with trees from the rose family such as Chojubai which send out soft tender sucker gowth on the inside of trees is the soft tender sucker growth on the inside. Not only will these be covered in aphids but they will also take away energy from the growth on old branches, so make sure you check inside.

Whenever handling chemicals be careful not to inhale, breathe or get covered in pesicides and wash your hands thoroughly afterwards. Whenever handling aphids, be careful not to upset their ants.


Tuesday, 29 April 2014

A massive barrel of laughs from the past...

I have been raking through my old hard drives looking for pictures and stuff for the website renewal that I gave up on and asked someone else to do, and I found this file.  I wrote it in November 2007.  Thankfully I never published it anywhere (I don't think).  I think I must have been a bit miserable at the time.

The Beauty of Solitude

If one were to ask most Western Bonsai enthusiasts to name the top three Japanese professionals then the chances are they would name Kunio Kobayashi, Masahiko Kimura and Shinji Suzuki. All three have similar things in common, multiple award winners, superb technicians and visionary artists. Another less obvious bond links these three contemporary greats together; suffering. Each man has gone through painful difficulties in their personal lives, some are well known and publicized, others not so. This is not the place to discuss the detail of their sufferance but it gives us an insight into the Bonsai aesthetic and what makes their trees stand out from the crowd. All three are first generation Bonsai artists, self made men, driven by a burning passion inside which is fuelled by pain, deprivation and in many ways loneliness.

Asking the question “Where do we draw the line between a tree in a pot and a bonsai?”, leads us into a discourse regarding, beauty, aesthetics and the very nature of life itself. Traditional Western aesthetics could be described as the combination of many to create an exquisite whole, layer upon layer of oil paint on a canvas, a vase full of blooms creating a medley of colour and fragrance. It draws us in, inviting us to be part of the landscape, making us feel warm and alive. Diametrically opposed to this is one aspect of the Japanese aesthetic and one which is of absolute importance in creating meaningful bonsai. We must remove all that is unnecessary, stripping away layer after layer until we are left with the essence of the subject. A single flower in a vase, a seventeen syllable poem or a simple cup of tea. Unlike Western gardening, Bonsai comes not from what we add, but what is taken away.

Consider the literati style of tree, the most distilled form of this concept in bonsai. The name, bunjin, is taken from the literati class of scholars, painters and poets; many of whom led ascetic lifestyles and underwent self inflicted hardships. Inspiration for their work came from their suffering; Nanga pictures were often melancholic and yearned for life outside of the restrictive Shogunate which controlled Japan at the time. They expressed the essence of the severe side of nature rather than depicting nature in a realist sense. The ideal image of a literati style tree can be found in the paintings of Ike no Taiga and Yosa Buson who were inspired by the poetry of Matsuo Basho, arguably the father of modern haiku and throughout whose canon of work runs a deep theme of loneliness and isolation; on the passing of the cherry blossoms and upon departure on a pilgrimage he wrote,

“With spring leaving
The birds cry out regret, the fish
Have tears in their eyes.”

The ideal literati tree should create a feeling of solitude in the viewer. Rather than being welcomed into the image and feeling warm, it should make us feel cold and hungry, just as the tree feels, having grown in a harsh environment battling against the elements and deprived of fertile soil. It should not make us unhappy or uncomfortable, solitude should not be confused with such negative feelings; solitude, a personal choice as opposed to the imposition of loneliness is, by implication incredibly liberating. It is an escape from the ties that bind and the pressures that restrict. When viewing the perfect tree we stand alone, like the bunjin centuries before us, on a distant mountainside, far from the madding crowd, free from society and most importantly free from ego.

The last statement implies a high level of empathetic understanding in the viewer; without a personal appreciation of suffering it is almost impossible to transpose oneself to the same place that the artist seeks to represent. In classical terms this is pathos at its most intense level, by observing a tree which appears to have existed on the knife edge between life and death we are made aware of the transience of nature and the fragility of life. Only those who have a personal relationship with death can truly appreciate life, without knowledge of the dark there is no light. A key theme of bonsai is the cyclical relationship between life and death, rebirth and regrowth, one which recurs throughout Japanese aesthetics and philosophy, particularly in one area which the West has an unhealthy obsession with, the Samurai. In focusing upon the supposed fierce loyalty and barbarity of the warrior class we fail to appreciate that many had a serene acceptance of the ephemeral nature of the universe, an understanding of the profundity of life and conversely, the inevitability of death.

Acceptance of sadness is an alien concept in modern society where we are told it is our inalienable right to pursue happiness; sadness does not sell yet it pervades our culture and provides a driving force for many artists in other fields. Composer Benjamin Britten puts it perfectly, “It is cruel, you know, that music should be so beautiful. It has the beauty of loneliness and pain: of strength and freedom. The beauty of disappointment and never-satisfied love. The cruel beauty of nature and the everlasting beauty of monotony”

Many Bonsai artists both in Japan and the West, including myself, struggle to identify this concept in their creations because of our difficulty in accepting death and the surrendering the self. Only through introspection on the nature of life and a move away from reason and the head can we truly move to a new level of Bonsai, particularly in the logic obsessed West. The question we must ask ourselves is how can reflect our experience and understanding of death in the unique living art form of Bonsai?

Thank god I have cheered up a little bit since then. Still it is all true...

Saturday, 19 April 2014

A change of clothes or a change of tack?

Recently I have been working on a number of junipers across Europe and also on a few of my own. This is not an uncommon thing as somewhere across the globe at any given moment, there is a bonsai enthusiast working on and more than likely ruining a juniper, this is what we bonsai enthusiasts do for fun. What has become apparent over the last five or six years of globle trotting professional life is that the majority of people seem to treat all junipers the same no matter what species or foliage variety they are. They all just become junipers and are worked in the same way, Sabina, Rocky Mountain and Itoigawa alike.

Across Europe we have a number of different native junipers but let us take the lowly Sabina as the example here. Much mailgned as a species, they have, as a species an undeserved reputation for being difficult to work on, or they get too leggy or they do this or they do that and they should be abandoned as bonsai material.


Across America, they have a number of different native junipers but let us take the Rocky Mountain Juniper as the example here. Much mailgned as a species, they have, as a species an undeserved reputation for being difficult to work on, or they get too leggy or they do this or they do that and they should be abandoned as bonsai material.

Across Japan they had effectively one species of juniper which covered the islands, but with such dramatic difference in foliage characteristics they could almost be considered as different species. Going back over a hundred years ago when the fad for yamadori really kicked off, a wide range of trees were collected across the lands, each with different growth habits and different trunk characteristics, depending on where it came from. Most of us know the words Itoigawa, Kishu and maybe Tohoku but how many know about all the sub varieties and slightly different strains? Itoigawa is just the name of the place where Junipers from that area were sold and although they all had much finer and tighter foliage than other areas, there was still a variance across the trees. Some types grew quickly and had many long thin branches whereas others tended to have short, highly ramified branches and form into clumps. This difference is due to in part to environmental response but also genetic variations, which happen not just across continents but also within populations. On the same mountain side you can find two trees next to each other with different characteristics. However both were given the name Itoigawa but the way in which they are best worked upon is very different.

All classed as Itoigawa trees, all slightly different growth habits...can you tell the difference? Does it really matter?

Many of the collected trees were impossible to compact because they either had leggy branches or they had a poor foliage type. Some trees have a tendency to flower heavily or not at all, some may have limp foliage which leads to a prostate form and others may just have extremely coarse foliage on a small trunked tree. This fundamental natural deviation led the Japanese to graft usable foliage on to the trunks of unusable trees. Out of a hundred collected trees, maybe less than half actually needed grafting, maybe more it is difficult to say now. What is obvious is that through a survivial of the fittest process a few strains of highly efficient and attactive foliage began to develop, replacing all the flowering or leggy, prostrate foliage types and standardising the idea of what Juniperus Chinensis foliage is to the modern bonsai world. We jumped into this hundred year plus process in the last thirty years and we only see the end results.

Many trees that are imported and worked upon by enthusiasts have been container or field grown by a mass producing bonsai farmer and come ultimately from the same parent tree. They chose the foliage type with the best characteristics for creating shohin or dense foliage pads with minimal work and then made thousands upon thousands of cuttings which eventually became the Juniper on your bench which has been selectively bred. This is genetic engineering in action people.

The point I am making is that Japan has been through their period of selective breeding and coming to terms with changing the foliage where necessary on collected species where the foliage proved unsuitable for bonsai. One of my favourite words in Japanese is used to describe this process....衣替え or koromo-gae which means the changing of the wardrobe depending on the season. Around April and October, Lady Saruyama does her koromo-gae and I...well there is no need as dirty jeans, blue hoodies and polo shirts are always in fashion.

Anyway I digress...

So where is this heading...towards the fact that what is good for Itoigawa is not good for Phoenicia. What is done to Kishu should not be done to Sabina. What is accepted practice on a field grown chinensis is almost certain death for a collected Rocky Mountain Juniper. It is also towards the point that not everything that comes out of the mountains is going to be suitable as is for becoming a bonsai. A sabina I have been working on in Poland for several years is showing this to be true. It has a foliage type which is limp and without any serious lignification in the tertiary branches. Limp and lifeless it needs support through wiring to stand up and point to the sun. On top of that it flowers pretty well every year which results in growing tips that cease growing, causing leggy growth with no internal foliage.

This grows alongside another sabina which has a much perkier foliage type, barely flowers at all and after three years of work from freshly collected is possibly another two years away from Noelanders. Both trees get the same conditions, the same care and techniques but one responds well, the other just simply cannot be made into a tree with tight foliage pads.

Looking at these trees can we say that Sabina as a species will never make good bonsai? Nonsense, there are a number of highly refined trees out there with their native natural foliage on, true, relative to the amount collected they don't number in their hundreds but it certainly is possible. As a species, sabina is not worthless, we are simply playing a numbers game, the chances of striking it lucky finding great foliage on a great trunk. A level of understanding is required here that the sabinas from Italy are different from the ones from Spain. The ones in Spain are different depending on where they were collected and even there, two trees next to each other on a mountain have different characteristics, exactly the same as Itoigawa Junipers did up on the mountains.

What do we do then with the trees that have poor foliage? Burn them? Give up on them? Go around saying all sabinas are rubbish because that one is? All swans were white until someone saw a black one.

What to do then? Many people will say "graft Itoigawa!" as if it is the great panacea to every single problem...it's the bonsai version of "put a bird on it". Absolutely there are situations where grafting Itoigawa onto Sabina or phoenicia is a good idea, particularly on poor foliaged small trunked trees destined to become shohin. This is following the fundamental concept of designing bonsai, making the most out of the material in front of you, even if this takes five years longer.

A problem will occur however if we take the same approach across the board for every tree regardless of foliage type as we will end up with a homogenous bonsai world which lacks interest and variation. It will soon get boring with even less breadth of species that is possible to use for bonsai, anyone for sumac, thyme and camelia? It is my suggestion that the "Itoigawa" of Sabinas is found, the "Itoigawa" of Rocky Mountains is found and this is used respectively where poor foliage is holding a fantastic trunk back. Grafting the best genetic variant of the natural foliage onto trunks of the same species. I know there are some people out there who feel the same and are actively doing this because we have discussed it.

[I will just point out that this is in no way a criticism of the recent bonsai focus article featuring Enrico Savini...that was great work over a long time, part of the ongoing western bonsai experiment and I look forward to seeing it in the flesh. It is a comment of the negativity towards collected trees across parts of the western bonsai world and a complete misunderstanding of how to work them successfully]

The other thing this has implications towards is anybody who works a yamadori juniper in the same way as a container grown chinensis deserves everything that results. Excessive pruning of branches down to two per node at the initial styling on species such as Sabina and RMJ will result in a severely weakened tree, the majority of the times fataly so. This should be avoided at all costs. This is a fundamental and basic concept. If anyone has any experience to the opposite I would be glad to see it, but having seen plenty of seriously sketchy looking Sabinas and RMJ's where the crotches have been cleaned out, the multibranch nodes have been thinned down to two and the foliage plucked to an inch of the tip, I won't hold my breath, especially when compared to a considerable number of Sabinas in Spain, Poland, London and elsewhere, RMJ in Portland, Tampa and elsewhere...all which have a full head of hair and are steaming towards the goal of a manageable and solid fundamental branching structure which will improve over time.

Either we learn from the process that other bonsai cultures have been through or we invent a new style...lets say we call it the shaggy sabina style and convince ourselves that it looks awesome and how we meant it all along...I think I might patent that. The SSS, along with the sub division of the SSS, the Leggy Sabina Division or LSD...I think I'm onto something here. Again, I digress...ultimately this issue comes about from the same fundamental problem that the majority of the human race suffers from...the lack of an open mind and the ability to evaluate that which is in front of their eyes rather than fall into the trap of a preconceived or learned response. Education, experience and conscious thought allow us to consider how and why something has come to be. When you think about how much effort has gone into making a masterpiece bonsai, do you seriously think there is an easier road? Akiyama's first prime minister award winner was over twenty five years in the making from collection to show. Some collected trees will go from mountain to exhibition within five years, others will require a longer process, perhaps involving a change of wardrobe. We are atill very much in the infancy of this process and starting out on the path, there is plenty of experimenting to be done. It is a difficult challenge but bonsai is not supposed to be fun and enjoyable...we should look to do things that can't be done. Grow Rosemary bonsai in the UK? Preposterous. Get a Sabina to compact? Ridiculous. Turn a RMJ into a masterpiece...can't be done. Get over it. It can, will and has been done.

A well styled western juniper by Michael Fedducia. Note the foliage mass and comdition of those tips that remains on the tree. In a few years time this tree will have half as many primary branches but five times the foliage density and a very similar overall appearance...go figure how that happens?

A Juniperus Thurifera by Yannick Kiggen from this years Noelanders. Pimp ass antique kodei pot...not that many people noticed. Flowering but still compact.

Another of the boy Yannick's Junipers, this time a common Juniper. I have heard it said that Common Junipers wont make good bonsai, they all die. Apparently this tree didnt get that memo.

Anyway. Point is...was there a point to this other than killing time in a wifi free hotel at two am? Oh yeah. Junipers...they might have the same name, the same overall look, but just like me and every other Yorkshireman relative to Londoners, we might all be Englishmen, but we are all very different. On that regionalist bombshell...onwards and upwards.