Whimsical Ponderosa Pine Styling-

Ponderosa is a controversial North American tree. Mostly the debates swirl around the long needles, and their size being a problem with bonsai. I’m of two minds with this. For one, Ponderosa ramifies rather well over time, and needle length comes down pretty good. My misgivings are that for very small trees, ponderosa foliage doesn’t seem well suited. But, for a modest sized tree and larger, we have a really rough and rugged, really quite exciting, pine character. It’s almost the ultimate pine, in terms of wild ‘piney’ feeling.

This ponderosa is modest in size, 26″. That’s enough size to get beyond the long needles, and then it’s also a bunjin, which is one of the best applications for the species. Needle size will also go down a lot over time.

Before I bought the tree, it had been left to grow for some years without any kind of management. Ponderosa will quickly revert to a strong primary bud and weaken anything on the interior when this happens. A few of the branches were really weak. But there were also small buds everywhere, waiting to push.

And that’s the background for this tree… I’ll fill in how we reset the energy and the styling in the photos:


The tree as purchased. Been in a pot a long time. Strong exterior shoots, weak interior…the usual pine issues when left fallow for a while.


One of the intriguing parts of this tree, a burly base that looks as if it’s coiling to spring off the pot.


The inclination and front that had the most promise.


After branch and shoot removal, and trimming needles in stronger areas.


Bobby and I were working on this ponderosa while Seasonal students had their own project. Here we took a break to discuss what the heck we were doing with this pine, and why. What THEY were doing will be featured in next week’s post—the styling of a limber pine.


I need a haircut. One of my favorite T-shirts, underneath all the little blue yaks are words that run ‘yak yak yak yak yak yak…’


Bobby removing the annoying long jin.


Our final tree. Might go on an interesting piece of rock this coming spring. What I like about this tree is how the trunk meanders all over the place to end at a relatively unlikely location. Leaning tree. Pines are the great individualists of the bonsai world. One of the big decisions of the styling was leaving that low left branch, which in usual bunjin styling would be removed. That would have made a much simpler, easier to appreciate tree. But leaving it adds a lot of tension, counter-pull, and character, which is a pine feeling. It’s tempting to make our collected trees too vanilla and easy on the eyes. They lose a lot of their soul if we do.

🤞Sign up for the blog!

We don’t spam! Read more in our privacy policy


  1. Ray says:

    Great job, beautiful ponderosa pine

  2. backcountrydan says:

    Great job, Love it! But what is the small branch at the bottom creating an enclosed triangle with the left branch? A back branch?

  3. bonsai eejit says:

    Reblogged this on Bonsai Eejit.

  4. Todd says:

    “It’s tempting to make our collected trees too vanilla and easy on the eyes. They lose a lot of their soul if we do.”


  5. backcountrydan says:

    Never mind.. I see what’s happening. It throws me off in the picture, but I’m sure in person it’s great. 🙂

  6. endsurg says:

    Yes, I’m glad you brought up the concept of “soul” of the tree. Robert Stevens in one of his books talks about that. I tend to agree with you about “robbing the soul” by making it too bonsai looking. When I go into nature, I never see the kinds of trees that we praise to highly. These Ko
    kofu trees almost border on airbrushing models to looks “just right”. I’m conflicted about this myself. The conflict is between keeping the wildness of the tree with making it beautiful.

    • crataegus says:

      It’s a great conversation to have. I’m not exactly torn over the issue as much as I can see both sides. There are some trees that seem well suited to one approach and not the other, and that’s the kind of thing I teach my students. For years I’ve been moving away from the airbrushed (love that word) look. But having done a lot of that in the past, I actually think the aesthetics of soft work without losing structure is more difficult. But more beautiful.

  7. Rod Murray says:

    Really like the pine, but I really liked the Jin could of been shorten a bit not removed. For me a bit too much negative space. Maybe bend the apex down????

    Cheers Rod

    • crataegus says:

      There’s a VERY short stub still there, I don’t like much of any jin on a very interesting, thin trunk. Line is paramount on a tree like this ponderosa, and jin, unless it’s very interesting, detracts. So that was the reason for my decision to remove the jin, almost entirely…

  8. rondavis says:

    Great post, Michael, and well-said. I agree with the ‘soul saving’ comments. But, about labels…Could you say something about why this tree is considered a bunjin rather than an informal upright? Because the apex is not over the base? Not enough taper? Just curious about what makes a bunjin. And is ‘bujnin’ the same as ‘literati’? Back to beginners mind. Thanks.

    • crataegus says:

      Bunjin can actually be a number of different ‘styles’. It’s an application of a feeling. But, in general, this is not a bullseye bunjin. The base is too strong. Most bunjin have almost no taper. Yes, the two words are synonymous.

  9. Arleigh Berg says:

    To me this exemplifies one of the best parts of bonsai – the pure shapes of the silhouette. I could sit and stare at the final image’s shape for a long time. The trunk’s organic zig-zag against the light colored background is a wonderful study on positive/negative.

    A great design inspiration for me, as a neophyte bonsai artist and huge ponderosa fan.

    • crataegus says:

      As my apprentice Bobby pointed out, it’s actually a poor photo that does not show off the push and pull of the trunk from back to front. So this is actually a much more dynamic tree than the last image shows. There’s one earlier shot, I think the one with me standing next to it, where there are some shadows that hint at the whole movement of the trunk. Need better lighting!

  10. Ronald Scarborough says:

    Novice here. I can see why the pot is propped up to give the tree a better angle but why isn’t that taken care of in repotting the tree?

    • crataegus says:

      Sure, the props are temporary. The tree was just styled a couple of weeks ago, but repotting time is not until spring. So out on the bench the pot sits flat again for easy watering. The tree won’t grow again until next year, so there’s no worry about foliage growing in a bizarre orientation before then. Sometime in Feb/Mar the tree will be repotted at the angle it was photographed at.

  11. Rod Murray says:

    Tend to agree with you; reason- went to a bonsai nursery on Saturday and guess what saw a jbp almost like this one. Keeping mind my comment on the Jin, decided that a Jin would be unnecessary , as you said it doesn’t fit
    Cheers Rod

  12. coolpines says:

    Reblogged this on Black Hills Bonsai and commented:
    I really like this pine — with deference on the issue of the removed jin, this tree exhibits artistic mastery of the yamadori pine! Nice work!

Leave a Reply