Tar and Feathering? Changing a Famous Juniper…

No matter how assured you are, changing the design of a famous tree is done with a deep intake of breath. One takes precautions. Like boarding up windows and doors, in premonition of a rowdy gang of tree maniacs in green cloaks with picks and axes and rolls of wire for who knows what horrible use, in the street outside your house. And you imagine thinking, as you stand quietly looking out at growing chaos and red torch fire, with chants like ‘Let’s redesign HIM!’, that a bonsai-free life in Acapulco sounds nice. But at this point it’s too late. The deed is done. My only advantage is that few of you know where I live…

Many of you may remember this Foemina juniper from old photos of California bonsai shows, or even last year’s Bonsai Statements magazine. It has a thirty-year history as a bonsai, created in California by the eminent Shig Miya from an air layer. Mr. Miya grafted the only branch at the top of the tree.

Deciding on this aesthetic shift for Mr. Miya’s tree was derived from a simple conversation about its possibilities with my client, who had purchased the tree several years ago. We were both eager to try a new form. My client is very interested in preserving old bonsai created in the States, but he also likes adding new twists to old things. I think bonsai develop an indefinable flavor when they’ve been worked on by multiple artists.

I am not a proponent of keeping bonsai as they are, indefinitely, in perpetuity, as a form or creative idea that was locked into place by the first artist. Bonsai are BONSAI precisely because many people, hopefully, lend their artistic stamp to it, and the bonsai change and morph over the decades. This is what makes a bonsai different from a novel or a painting. I know this is an issue of some contention particularly in public bonsai collections, where, understandably, there is an effort to retain bonsai looking like they did when donated. This presents great difficulties, however. It seems to me that if a bonsai were, to use an extreme example, to lose an important branch, then to have it remain locked in its old form even though visual balance has been lost would be to allow it to devolve into bad bonsai. And bonsai change without asking for our approval, too.

I think the only rule is to be continually seeking to find balance within the tree, within the design. And everyone’s sense of balance will be, naturally, a bit different.

The Foemina juniper on the Sept/Oct 2010 cover of Bonsai Statements.

Photo of the Foemina juniper from a show a few years ago, in the original design.

Current design, fall 2011. The lower right jin may be shortened in the future. My feeling was the apex should be lower than the top of the trunk, and that the cascading branch was too long. I hoped these changes would highlight the massive, straight trunk. And I wanted to see more integration of foliage and trunk, so that it appeared more as one unit. It needs perhaps a bit more growth to complete that last goal. Please comment freely and honestly!


  1. Kristian says:

    Awesome, I love the opening paragraph!!! I also think you made a great improvement with the tree!

  2. Wood says:

    Sir Hawthorne, 100% better! It was completely disjointed before and now there is a feeling of cohesion. Good job to both of you! Shorter jin.

  3. -Mark says:

    I was cracking up with the “gang of tree maniacs in green cloaks”.


  4. John Denny says:

    Much improved integration and unity. A more timeless and classic look which I think is appropriate for a “famous” tree. Agree with GW on the jin.

  5. Janet Roth says:

    “This is what makes bonsai different from a novel or a painting. ” Exactly! As the old expression puts it: the only finished bonsai is a dead one.

    Just batten down the hatches and ignore ’em.

    Oh – and the shorter apex and hanging branch are both much more pleasing to my eyes 🙂

  6. Brian VF says:

    MUCH IMPROVED!!! I bet you could get away with shortening it by even one more pad without any protesters occupying the nursery with signs and little bottles of lime sulfur…

  7. Scott Tice says:

    HUGE improvement! Bravo!

  8. Marc says:

    It is interesting that this Bonsai although unique, presented a immature appearance for so long.The new image is much more powerful and has an appropriate maturity that it lacked sorely. The Tree looks so much more comfortable now that is allowed to look its age. It had been pleading for help but no one listened. You came with courage and saved the day!

  9. Graham says:

    Hi Michael,
    So as I read your post I kept thinking about the process of any tree (any orgamism really)….each goes through the aging process and the typical changes within that process…. the evolution of age, juvenile, teenager, adult, middle age, old age then vintage and finally death…..so then I studied the second photo without cheating and going to the last one or reading comments from others (very hard to do but discipline won out 🙂
    As you know I’ve worked in the forests for almost 4 decades so hundreds of images of old growth and ancient trees (especially yellow and red cedar giants) flashed through my brian and the image just didn’t ift, the long weeping branch really stuck out…way too long and the total foliage mass was way to juvenile (and too much in total mass) for a tree of such vintage. Also the focal point was the foliage and not the massive trunk which portrays the shadows of a once very large and massive giant. Congratulations and I’m sure your client is very happy.
    Cheers Graham

  10. Agreed. The old design is very much an abstraction that, although compelling, is difficult to reconcile with how a tree grows. If an environment was so harsh as to kill off most of a large, mature conifer, how on earth would it achieve such delicacy toward the in the bottom half of the live branch? And subject to the weather that would truncate such a large trunk, the canopy should show stress too (compactness, growing in the shadow of the dead apex. A much better design now!

  11. xwires says:

    Hear, hear! Change, particularly in established collections, can present some great opportunities. Thanks!

  12. anijhuis says:

    What I love the most on this tree is how the upper branches seem to hug the trunk – by changing the design you created a metaphor for me – Hanging On!

  13. Jeffrey Robson says:

    Heraclitus (535BC – 475BC) the Greek philosopher summed it up, Πάντα ῥεῖ καὶ οὐδὲν μένει. Everything flows, nothing stands still. You were just the catalyst that speeded the process, only with a planned artistic vision not leaving its design change to chance. Bravo!

  14. Chris Botero says:

    Awww, you really screwed the pooch on this one!

    Any reaction? I had to go against the grain for a minute. But seriously, it took some real courage to cut that branch but it was a great decision. The double apex bothered me and it seemed a tree was glued to the side of a big, dead stick. Now they flow together much more naturally, they actually look like a single tree. Great work o-courageous one!

  15. Elliott Farkas says:

    Great Job. And hats off to the original artist who started the process. More people should graft kishu (Im assuming thats what it is) onto foeminas. I love how the jins realy stand out now and add a more dynamic touch by going slightly up while the live branch goes down. Makes you feel like the tree lost those branches a long time ago when they were young and never grew heavy enough to be influenced by gravity.
    I wonder what the next artist many years from now will do to the tree. Any thoughts on what the tree will or should look like in 20 years??

    • crataegus says:

      Mr. Miya grafted from the top of the Foemina onto the bottom using an approach graft. So it is still Foemina. Kishu is a good plant to graft, though. In 20 years… I hope by then the tree will look more integrated, with some detailing from more years of growth. That’s about it. After that it will be up to another artist to play with it!

  16. ang3lfir3 says:

    I am quite delighted to see that you are working on this tree Michael. I am also amused to note that Victrinia and I were talking about this tree a few months ago and both agreed that it needed to have the top lower and the long arm shortened …. which makes seeing that you did both of those things, even that much more delightful. I especially enjoy how you created a much better cohesion in the branch structure. The style of this tree is one I admire dearly as it portrays those truly ancient and gnarly trees we can often find here in the PNW.

    Wonderful to see !!!

    PS. I believe I have an older photo of this tree from the 1974 National Bonsai Convention in Pasadena, however I can’t be sure as it is the background and has a bit more foliage (tho less dense).

    • crataegus says:

      Well I’m glad you saw what I was looking at for changes to this tree… One more tarring avoided! It’s getting it out of the hair, that’s the worst…

  17. Phil Krieg says:

    Excellent choice MIchael. In fact, I would like to see the branch reduced by another third up to the fork…and don’t worry about the pitchforks – they don’t hurt that much!!!

    If you’re ever back in Fort Myers, Florida, we would like to work with youa gain.

    • crataegus says:

      Thanks! I enjoyed my Florida tour so much. I hear Ryan Neil is down there now, and hope you’ve had a chance to see and work with him. Not sure what he’s doing on that trip, but you might look into it. As for the branch, yes I think there are several options. I thought that the length it is at now balances well with the trunk, but then I tend have odd balance because I even walk with a 13.5 degree tilt to the left, which worried my parents greatly until I became an artist and then it all made sense. Not that it does to me, but karma is karma ; )

      • Phil Krieg says:

        I’ll be working with Ryan again during our state convention in the spring…looking forward to it. He really has some interesting stories – I particularly like the one about the Koi pond repairs.
        I think your tilt indicates good Karma…

        And have an excellent 2012!!!

  18. owenbonsai says:

    I feel it is a great improvement and shows the test of time much bettter. The previous design did not accomplish the goal of telling the story of hardship and the like.

    • crataegus says:

      That’s a good point. The trunk is riddled with what looks like carpenter ant galleries, and looks truly antique, and yet the trailing branch and pointy top of the past design both indicated youth.

  19. Michael Jonas says:

    When I took the picture of Shig’s Foemina in the tokonoma, what I was saw a venerable old tree, as many of Shig’s trees are, but the long cascading branch seemed out of proportion to the rest of his design. I am happy that he has allowed this change and the improvement is much more in keeping with an older tree struggling in nature. I wonder what the tree would look like with a little less foliage and a little more emphasis on jin in the descending branches. Good design work.

  20. Michael Jonas says:

    Oh, and of course I just reread the top of the article and noticed that Shig had sold this tree before its change. I wonder how Shig likes the new look.

    • crataegus says:

      Glad you brought this up. Changing the work of the previous artist is always done with a bit of awareness. Certainly it is a part of bonsai, that eventually trees will be passed to others and those others might initiate significant changes. It is not common for artists to consult about this change; the ‘power of decision’ is passed when ownership changes. But still there is an honoring of the past work, and a hope that they would appreciate the changes. I do not know if Mr. Miya has seen this new change, or if so, what he thinks of it. I can only hope it meets with his approval.

  21. Sharon Somerfeld says:

    Shig’s tree had a unique design. The changes make for a well balanced new composition, but now it is not Shig’s. I hope there does not come a time when the Iron Men’s trees will be remembered mainly through photographs.

  22. I think the original tree is absolutely stunning. Nothing personal but I like the original much better “radical and balanced”. I’m curious it something happened to the lower part of the branch or it was thought better to cut it off?

    Great article.

    Thank you!!!

    • crataegus says:

      The decision was aesthetic, nothing was wrong with the branch in terms of strength. There are some more recent posts about this tree, to see what became of it. Thanks for the comment!

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