Revisiting A Dead-Topped Azalea-

Several years ago a weak Satsuki ‘Kinsai’ azalea arrived in the garden with a dead crown, dead branches, and shari down two sides—characteristics that suggested a promising juniper rather than an azalea.

After a period of puzzling, we thought a prostrate styling might be a new future for it, and that, with luck, we might even manage to create such a thing. The idea was to use the branches to be the multiple trunks of a new raft style, by laying the trunk down. It was, however, a rather tall tree, so to eventually get this prostrate tree into a reasonable-sized bonsai pot the lower trunk of the original tree and its root mass would need removal. For the time being it was laid down in a long flat to accommodate the long trunk. We had roots to grow first.

Since 2017 tree has grown well, and most importantly, has grown roots were we needed them, along the flanks of the laid down trunk. Over a period of two years we cut a successively deeper wedge into the lower trunk, in preparation to severing it. As the tree recovered its vigor and the shoots grew stronger, more roots initiated from the laid down trunk, and earlier this year the lower half of the trunk was finally completely severed not far from the first branch (now a trunk). 

These photos show were we started with the tree, and were it is now. Hope you enjoy the photo essay-

This Satsuki ‘Kinsai’ azalea had been weak for years, and came into the garden with a dead top and two shari lines with dead branches all along them. Question was: What can we do with this tree? With such large dead areas, a normal azalea styling seemed beyond reach. In March 2017 the tree had regained its vigor and we attempted a restyling.

An azalea that had seen better days—to the left of the chalk line, a wide swath of dead tissue. A shari, to be precise.

The solution we came up with was to cut the tree straight down the deadwood area…

…and lay the more promising half in a flat. This trunk half had several branches that now rose as trunks. The original root mass is to the right, which we buried in pumice and covered with sphagnum moss—just to keep it going for a while.

Tucking sphagnum along the roughed-up cambium line where we hoped roots would initiate. 

And this is the azalea three years later, in November 2020, roughly styled to be a multiple trunked, raft style. The entire original root mass has at this point been severed (though it’s still in the flat), with the new roots supporting the new style—from a taller, tree-like design to a smaller, spreading, shrubby design. It did prove a rather malleable species due to its ability to root anywhere along the trunk.

For more images, please see the first post about this tree, detailing our adventures with a reciprocating saw: How do We Deal with a Dead Topped Azalea?

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  1. Tom Kruegl says:

    Great idea, great work!

  2. Tom Kruegl says:

    Great idea, great technique!

  3. Suji Noran says:

    Michael, thank you for sharing the story of Kinsai. Are you able to share the strategies you used to get the tree to healthy specimen it is today?

    • crataegus says:

      Sure— it grew in pumice for three years in this large flat. And we had it under shade cloth during the summers to avoid cooking the rather tender Satsuki, and kept it moist. Fertilizing was moderate to heavy. We kept more foliage on it, even things we didn’t want, for a couple years to increase its strength. Then this fall we trimmed off any extraneous growth to increase strength in the areas we wanted. So that’s a two step process that seems contradictory but helps ramp up the momentum of the tree if applied in that order. That’s an overview!

  4. There must have been just a twinge of pain when you destroyed that powerful lower trunk and nebari.

  5. David Wheeler says:

    WOW……..the experience to see the potential of a difficult item

  6. RAY NORRIS says:

    Thanks Michael I have Korin azalea that died on one side. This presents and idea for salvation.
    Have you checked to see what roots developed?

    Sent from my iPhone

    • crataegus says:

      Yes we did check before cutting, along the sides of the trunk and also at the cut site. It wasn’t totally uniform but there were enough there to do the final sever.

  7. Wow, Michael !!! That is sheer genius! Truly amazing technique combined with great knowledge! And as always very inspiring stuff that you shared with us all to learn from and most of all to enjoy! Thanks for that and keep up the good work! 👏👏👏
    Cheers, and stay safe!
    Hans van Meer

  8. Chris Dotterer says:

    Thank you for your informative blogs. You inspired me to try this with a gorgeous crabapple with a dead side. What’s the best time of year to do this? Chris

    Christine Dotterer 570-490-1727


    • crataegus says:

      Repotting time seems best. Although for the azalea you could do it in late spring, when the flowers are off. But it’s deep and invasive surgery, so I’d always prefer early spring when we normally repot.

  9. John Schmied says:

    Nicely done Micheal!
    What method did did you check/determine the roots were sufficient in quantity and strength so that it was ok to sever the original root mass

    • crataegus says:

      Hi John,
      We dug around on the sides of the trunk and where we cut it to look for roots. This was a delicate operation as azalea roots are fine and new ones are tender. But we found ‘enough’ there that convinced us that cutting off bottom of it would still support the tree. I think it’s just glancing at the roots and then up at the crown to see how much you need to support. If in doubt…maybe wait another 6 months. Also, I would not do this cut when the tree has high water needs, like late spring or in the middle of the summer.

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