Michael Hagedorn

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.