‘This Is The Tree I’ve Had The Longest’

Anyone with a bonsai garden can point to that one tree that predates all others. For me, it’s a juniper. And that’s the tree that I wish to share today.

The history of this one is memorable for me, collecting it as an Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana) on the rocky shores of a lake near Bloomington, Indiana. I was pretty young. Likely in sneakers. And low on collecting experience. 

Some may note the odd ‘collected it as’ sentence in the last paragraph. Most things remain what we collect them as, and arguably the lower half of the trunk is still Red Cedar. The top half became a different species in 2002 when I was studying with Boon Manakitivipart. He offered some Kishu juniper (a variety of Shimpaku) for the graft, and after the scion took and grew for a year I cut off all the spiky Red Cedar growth. Only one scion was used.

It was a young tree when I collected it, maybe about 5 years old, and the trunk was tiny, about 1/4″ / 0.64cm. Now it’s 1″ / 2.5cm. It’s still a slender tree, but it’s been in a small pot for 30 years, almost all its life.

For years it sat on the bench, mostly ignored. About 5 years ago I brought it into the studio, being a bit embarrassed to have a tree that long with so little to show for it. The current style is due to the intervening years of adding a little information here and there, now and then. Piecemeal and additive is an interesting way to build character in a bonsai. One can work a long time without choosing a front, for one thing. Just adding information. Eventually one view wins out.

The majority of the trunk line was created by wiring, I think the slow bend in the first two inches is all that remains of the original shape. But feeling that the trunk was rather boring, we also created shari. It’s been an example tree for students in how to create a spiraling shari line. Nearly every year since the shari has been widened a bit. Or, plural, THEY are widened a bit. There is a shari on one side, and if you turn it 180 degrees there’s another shari. They revolve around one another like a double helix.

Though it may not be the greatest tree in the yard, the tree we’ve had longest pays its rent with a story, and that story often is a link to our fond beginnings. I’m trying to make sneakers central to this story…

Not my first tree, but the tree I’ve had longest. Not surprisingly perhaps, it’s a juniper. This is a grafted tree, ‘Kishu’ Shimpaku scion on Eastern Red Cedar collected stock. Students created the shari, also wiring the branches over the years, definitely a group effort. 12″ tall, in one of my old wood fired pots.

This shari was created over successive years. We widened it several times, and you can see the new xylem revealed when stripped of phloem, cambium, and bark—the xylem becoming a roll of deadwood. Eventually, with a bit of patience and building information in layers, creating rather believable, old-looking shari is possible. Incidentally near the top of this photo is where the graft was. There’s no obvious bulge or other indication of a transition from Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana) to Kishu Shimpaku (Juniperus chinensis ‘Kishu’).

November 2020 Bulletin Board:


  • If you’ve time Nov. 14-15, please join us for our last Fall Seasonal-lite session! The Fall Seasonal-lite course focuses on conifer and deciduous fall techniques, 4 design traps to avoid, Suzuki’s 2 design questions, fine tuning foliage pad organization, winter care, among other topics in an interactive Zoom platform using photos and videos. To learn more see Fall Seasonal-lite
  • Buy a copy of my latest book Bonsai Heresy direct from the distributor, Stone Lantern! And, if you’ve a bonsai club interested in saving money, Wayne Schoech of Stone Lantern told me there’s a good discount if you buy a box of them. Ask for details at contact@stonelantern.com


  1. Melvin Zamis says:

    Good morning Michael I’m as much in love with slender elegant trees as I am with robust hunky trees and that love has been encouraged by your influence. Thank you. And yes I still have my first collected tree. Melvin

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. Mark says:

    This is not a bonsai. It’s a (wired) stick in a pot.

    • David says:

      Hi Mark,

      I do thank him for his will to share and for offering everyone something to enjoy, or even the opportunity to constructively disagree.

  3. Peter Brolese says:

    Hi Michael, I like your statement, “Piecemeal and additive is an interesting way to build character in a bonsai”. It makes me think that every bonsai is not the result of specific roadmap.

  4. Steven says:

    Dear Michael, thanks for your wisdom about bonsai and particular on these junipers. I am trying to make something from a juniper communis Arnoldi. Why are there so few common juniper bonsai? Here in the Netherlands I can’t find a plausible answer back. Keep up spreading the bonsai love! Regards Steven

    • crataegus says:

      Hello Steven, Although I can’t speak for your local situation, many find the maintenance of the needle junipers enough trouble to avoid them. The Japanese Needle Juniper, for instance, is one of the most work-intensive plants we grow for bonsai, and Common Juniper is similar. Also communis is touchy as junipers go; they don’t like collecting and repotting must be done with more delicacy than other junipers. In North America we have very few communis that have successfully made the transition to bonsai, and some wild collectors just ignore it for that reason. Why it is so touchy I do not know, there are several theories but establishing it can be challenging.

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