This unassuming dwarf quince can steal your heart. There are many who have gone to Japan for the spectacular pines, junipers, and maples, only to discover the quiet but memorable Chojubai. Those ‘many’ included a few friends of mine, and myself. This post is a little longer than most because Chojubai is so little known in the West, and, frankly, I think it deserves better. Also, waiting for you at at the end of this long post is a question…
Chaenomeles japonica ‘Chojubai’ is a cultivar of the comparatively coarse Japanese flowering quince. Few plants for bonsai can match its contrasting qualities: Idiosyncratic, craggy branching and twigging, with rough older bark, adorned almost contradictorily with glowing ruby flowers. They flower mostly when out of leaf, in winter, so they lend a feeling of glowing life to the bonsai yard when all else is dull. The details are small, with glossy leaves about 1/2″ long and flowers under 1″ wide. There are several flower variations including white and red, although almost all Chojubai used for bonsai are red-flowered because that variety has the finest twigging.
The history of this tree in Japan is interesting… At first, Chojubai appeared commonly as a small accent plant in the Kokufu show forty years ago, as an unramified twig or two. Only rarely was it seen as a primary tree in the medium size category, and never in the large size. It was a second tier tree. Then something shifted. Around 1990 we began to see large size Chojubai in the Japanese shows. These were trees about 1-1.5 feet tall and twice as wide, multiple-trunked and highly ramified. Occasionally single-trunked trees, which are rare, were seen. In Kokufu book 80, about six years ago, two Chojubai won Kokufu prizes. Two years later in book 82 another won. Chojubai had come of age.
Chojubai’s ease of ramification is enhanced with training, creating dense forms of intense complexity. Most unique to the Chojubai is the natural eccentricity and unexpected angles and directions in the branching, which are usually encouraged as they represent the special flavor of this variety. If this were a plant trained by music, that music would be jazz.
If you have a Chojubai, you’re lucky. Keep it moist. But plant in deeper containers to prevent soggy situations. If you have a young plant, put it in a big training pot with large size soil mix for a few years, so you have some energy to manipulate. Keep in the sun. Use a pesticide when shoots are elongating to control aphids. Wire main branches and shoots from the base for multiple trunks, and cut and grow following that. This is not so much to create branch taper, as there will be little of that, but for the short, zigzagging and erratic branching that is only created by many years of scissor work. Cut back in June to one to three internodes only on refined trees, leave extensions on younger plants to develop trunk. Always immediately remove shoots that come from the base that you are not intending to use as trunks—they will weaken the older areas. There’s more to it, but that will get you started.
After all those words and photos, there’s no hiding that I’m totally besotted with Chojubai. Ah well. Another personal secret offered to the globe. But I have a wondering curiosity if these images stirred—if any photograph CAN stir—the endearments that Chojubai have raised in myself and others lucky enough to have seen them in person. I imagine many of you have never seen Chojubai before. What do you think? Something you’d like to see more of?