30 Year Juniper Development Story

Most young bonsai plants are put in larger pots or in the ground to bulk them up. This is one example of a tree grown only in a very small pot, for 30 years. We don’t get a large trunk that way, but the gain is in micro-detailing.

The juniper featured here started as an Eastern Red Cedar, Juniperus virginiana. I say ‘started’, as I grafted the young plant with Kishu shimpaku, and after that only the lower half of the trunk was Red Cedar.

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Here’s the first photo I have of the Red Cedar, from about 1993. I collected it in 1991. It looks about 7″ / 18cm tall. Though rather uninspiring then, I think I kept it because it lived. The pots did change over the years, with the pot volume only kept proportional, never oversized, for the next 30 years.

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Here’s the juniper today in 2021, 18″ / 46cm high. It was grafted with Kishu shimpaku in about 2001, when it was about 10 years old. The single graft was placed about halfway up the trunk, with the original Red Cedar foliage cut off a year or two later. Over the last 20 years I’ve put movement into the trunk and branches with wire—piecemeal, over a long period, simply inputting movement, and not planning far ahead for how that movement would ‘work’ in a final design. This year a branch died near the top, and, not to be outdone, I cut off a couple lower ones.

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Here it is after cutting off two lower branches. In the top photo it has an easily recognizable flow, going to the right with that lower right branch that juts out. I had two reasons for cutting that back. One is that shorter branches show off the bunjin’s trunk line, one of its main features.

Also, I wanted to explore a more subtle flow. By shortening that right branch the flow could eventually go left, with more growth and tweaking. Which is less obvious and, I thought, more complex. At the moment it still feels like a right flow, but less blatant.

And (I guess I did have a third reason), removing lower branches has the benefit of more balance with the sparse top. It’s still not balanced enough for show—there’s weakness here and there—but this work is just another step along the road of building information into the tree. It’ll go back on the bench to grow some more.

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The following photos are closeups showing the last few years of shari creation.

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These jins could use some tip work.

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After 30 years of micro-growth, the trunk is now 1 1/4″ / 3.2cm thick, starting from what looks like about 1/8″ / 0.3cm in the first photo.

To try something like this you don’t have to start with anything impressive. I could have built this tree faster had I attended more in the early years. And I suppose I was lucky it was always in a small pot, so it never got away from me. I guess the lesson I’ve taken from experimenting in this other direction is to start with a young plant—a whip, preferably—and to do a little bit, frequently.

Final thought: None of this type of work is new. Shohin makers in Japan do it. Those in Taiwan are rightly famous for creating shari on cutting-grown junipers, often at a large size. Here in the United States the Ishii family in southern California, and Jim Gremel of northern California, have made many shohin and chuhin junipers using this slow, additive process of building information into the trunks and branches of young plants.  

6 Comments

  1. Michael Corbin says:

    Wow Michael thanks for the example of growing trees this way. It is amazing to see what time can do even constrained in a small pot. Andrew and Sergio talked about how Ann Spencer had developed some excellent trees this way in the most recent podcast. It gives hope to some of that material I picked up as a beginner.

  2. schmidtjm50 says:

    Michael, I’m a member of the Milwaukee Bonsai Society so I have a shortened growing season. I have an older Juniperus virginiana that Peter Tea unsuccessfully grafted 10 shimpaku scions on. I was told that this juniper would not accept grafts From your post, I see that this is not true. Perhaps my juniper is too old for grafting. Could that be?? Regards,  Judy SchmidtPresident MidAmerica Bonsai Alliance

    Sent from the all new AOL app for iOS

    • crataegus says:

      Hi Judy, graft failure can happen to any of us. Often visiting artists do their best but the timing might not be optimal. Also, many grafts fail due to aftercare issues and those are many. So, try again! You can graft any age of juniper, and as far as I know, any species. Try during the growing season, usually early, like May for you, and then give the tree light but not too much or the grafts can burn in the sun.

  3. Masaki Shimada says:

    Hi Michael, you know I really like this tree. It spoke to me when I was at your yard as if it was performing a distinctive pose of traditional Japanese dance,”Nihon Buyoo”. Love the bend and twist, and how the branches were positioned and shaped. The forage looks like a lady posing with a traditional folding fan, “Sensu”. I would love to learn how to create a tree like yours.

  4. Stephen Liesen says:

    Time, wire, carving have beautiful results. But time appears to be the real culprit here. If I only had another thirty years. Love this bunjin. Thx.

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