A Review of Japanese Boxwood as Bonsai-

In 2003 International Bonsai published an article I had written, on the eve of going to Japan to study as an apprentice. It was about boxwood. While in Japan I didn’t touch a single boxwood.

While that may not exactly sell this post, I did want to review the boxwood featured in that article after long years of being more excited about other things. What follows are a few photos of the tree back when it was a proto-bonsai, the tree’s defoliation this summer, reworking it after regrowth, and where the design is now.

1996 photo of the Japanese boxwood in International Bonsai magazine, from a hedge plant.

This photo was actually taken in 2003, not 1996. But as you can tell from the final photo down below, I didn’t do any of the ‘future possibilities’ mentioned above.

This is the boxwood after 14 years showing significant improvement in all areas (cough.) Notice the large leaves that grew in the springtime. The good vigor however does allow for what we are about to do…

…the intrepid Collin journeying through the leaves of the boxwood with a scissors, otherwise known as cutting them all off. It was a long afternoon.

View of the Edward Scissorhands event close up.

View from the top of a branch following defoliation. Cutting leaves off is recommended; pulling them can also pull off the bud. Most of these shoots were then shortened.

And after defoliation, from the front, showing areas we didn’t defoliate to allow for strength and length, particularly for the young branch in the middle. Along with getting smaller leaves from regrowth, defoliation allows one to see the structure of a tree that one never sees…being a broadleaf evergreen.

And after the new flush of leaves came out, summer 2017. Defoliation creates regrowth with smaller leaves. This photo is after minimal wiring and pad cleanup. There is a scale shift from the earlier, un-defoliated 2017 photos, and the structure of the tree comes out a bit better than the earlier attempt 14 years ago as a well-manicured foliage ‘mop.’ Which was fine for dusting or generally shrubbery use in Monty Python movies, but less good for bonsai.

As this is a claimed review, I have been impressed with the ability of Japanese boxwood to take a lot of unskilled mistakes and laugh them off, similar to the way we recommend juniper for newcomers to bonsai. I would say boxwood is also in that easy to care for group. And by using the defoliation technique, Japanese boxwood leaves can be scaled down. Granted, it lacks a host of wabi-sabi qualities some prefer in their choice of species, but I must say after years of weird mishaps and weather and unmentionables, it is clear that Japanese boxwood are about the toughest things on the planet. After Armageddon, assume cockroaches, viruses, and boxwood. The world will still have nice hedges. Which is strangely comforting.

A couple of other notes: Boxwood does not increase in girth in a pot by any discernible amount in 10 years. For those who have the original article, I no longer leave the long shoot with two leaves at the end but rather cut back to bare buds further down the shoot, which allows the tree to ramify from closer inside. I’ve found that it’s not necessary to leave leaves on each shoot. 

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  1. Germán ARTAGAVEYTIA says:

    It is a great specie for Bonsai, indeed. Your patience and master knowledge do have a great impact when coming to these kind of trees. Being fm Spain, may I dare to tell, defolilation works great on olive trees, at basically same approach and findings you are advising here on the boswood. We do it even 2 times a year whenever needed; any time is ok but avoid doing it on late summer (aug).
    I am always up to your posts and articles and enjoy very much looking at the works you share here. It is a true gift for modest enthusiast like me. Thanks for your generosity and your love to Bonsai.
    GAVEYT, Valencia, Spain.

    • crataegus says:

      Hello from across the waters-
      You likely have a longer growing season than I do, we’ve done the defoliation only once a year. July is good here. Olive is a good subject for this, yes-

  2. Otto Schall says:

    Michael, I presume they are easy to train, and given some of their physical attributes, e.g., small leaves, typically good branching profile, early bark formation, as well as being cold/heat hardy and fast growers….heck, they would seem to be the perfect material for bonsai.

    I kept a boxwood years ago (nursery bought), when I started doing bonsai, which, unintentionally, by sheer ignorance on my part should have died many times over. The most extreme was being exposed at a low temperature of -11F for 4-5 days. And most of it survived and flourish the following year!


  3. Felix Laughlin says:

    Michael, very helpful post about a species we should better appreciate. Can you add more about exactly when the defoliation was done? All the best. Felix

    • crataegus says:

      When they grow out in the spring it’s best to let them restore their resources for a month before defoliating. Mine are done growing in mid-May, so mid-June is optimal defoliation time. They do take a while to regrow, unlike a trident which can be flushed after two weeks. A boxwood will take a month before even small shoots are pushing. So doing it late in the summer is dangerous.

  4. Paul Parisi says:

    “rather cut back to bare buds further down the shoot”
    When is the best time of year for this procedure.

    • crataegus says:

      Here in the Pacific Northwest June would be the best month. Boxwood are relatively easy going plants, so this can be pushed around a bit, but avoid late summer defoliation. The trees take a while to push new growth again. Also be sure not to overwater after defoliating.

  5. the Knights Who Say NIH would be appeased with such a shrubbery though…

  6. Bill D says:

    How long did the boxwood take to new leaves flush out. from the time you defoliated.

  7. David Wheeler says:

    Excellent information for those of us who may enjoy finding those ‘lucky candidates’ for some joint experiences….. always great to get your e-mails Dave

    On Fri, Sep 1, 2017 at 3:05 AM, Michael Hagedorn wrote:

    > crataegus posted: “In 2003 International Bonsai published an article I had > written, on the eve of going to Japan to study as an apprentice. It was > about boxwood. While in Japan I didn’t touch a single boxwood. While that > may not exactly sell this post, I did want to revi” >

  8. Matt says:

    Good Boxwoods remind me of the old oak trees in my back yard when I was a kid. I’ve never seen one fully defoliated all at the same time. I’ve only dared partial defoliation. In what month was the defoliation done?


  9. nintaibonsai says:

    Great article! In order to expand a little bit on defoliation, may I suggest this, also, great post:


  10. Bill says:

    Whar is the best way to increase the girth of a boxwood?

  11. Josu says:

    In Europe, an imported pest from Asia is exterminating boxwood populations.
    It is a moth (Cydalima perspectalis), which has no natural enemies in Europe.
    Unfortunately, in a short time we will only have the cockroaches left.



  12. Rick Brown says:

    A few years ago I collected 8 boxwoods from an old hedge, they have great trunks and I’m starting to see some real potential. I’ve looked on line for some design guidance, or inspiration trees, but so far was unimpressed. This is one of the better ones I’ve seen and really appreciate the post.
    PS: I sold two of them this year and will probably sell a few more, there are too many of them for me to give them the attention they deserve. My plan is to keep the best 2-4 trees and sell the rest. Besides it provides money to buy other trees!

  13. Daniel Dolan says:

    Michael: Thanks for this article on Boxwood…..could you comment on whether or not it is permissible to defoliate a Boxwood tree each year? I somewhat recall reading in multiple “Bonsai Books” that certain species of trees should be given a rest every other year?
    Thank you.

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