Reworking An Old, Decapitated Azalea

The thing with azaleas is they can lose their heads. The tops often die off after prolonged stress.

A few years ago the garden received several old Satsuki azaleas in this predicament. I admit to enjoying these puzzles. What do you do with them?

Often there’s a lot of interesting structure left in these old imported Satsuki. Sometimes good lower trunks. Nebari. Maybe a few useable lower branches.

The Satsuki featured in this recovery attempt is the ‘Yamato’ cultivar. We put it in a box for a few years to recover vigor, and then it became a head-scratching project for a Seasonal class.

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Here’s our Satsuki ‘Yamato’ in 2017, after several years of growth in a box. The top of the trunk had died off before it entered the garden, originally twice as high. The questions to my Seasonal students were, ‘Is there still a bonsai in there?’ and if so, ‘How to we restyle it?’

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Defoliating and pruning back in June to see what we had.

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I’d like to believe this was an animated discussion of possible fronts… Each chopstick in the soil represents a Seasonal student’s idea for the new front.

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The old trunk being cut off halfway up the tree. The new trunkline used a lower branch (to the right) to complete its meandering path.

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After severing the trunk. The dark area in the middle of the cut was rotted all the way down to the base.

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Almost the new front…which is just to the left. Brushes clean the bark to wrap up the reworking in June 2017. We put the azalea in the greenhouse and then we waited. In a few weeks it had flushed with new shoots.

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Here’s the Satsuki four years later, in September 2021. 19″ / 48cm high. It’s still a bit scruffy, this isn’t show shape by a long shot, but our new trunkline is visible and branch placement is roughed out. The new fast taper, with a thick base and a thinner upper trunk indicated a shorter, broader tree. The old nebari has a sizable hole in it, which is mirrored by a similar hole up above…

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…a hole in the rotted core where the original trunk arose. A tree frog took up residence in there for a time. Given the spider webs, it’s now gone.

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A close up of the base. Trunk is 4″ wide, 5″ near the base.

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Here’s the upper part of the trunkline, which has fattened up somewhat. This Satsuki azalea has plenty of old-tree issues, for sure, and we’ll keep working on it. One thing that needs work is the branches. The branches are still young and look out of place on the old trunk, needing pruning for taper in the next few years—letting branches grow for caliper, then pruning them back to thinner side branches. Once these branches have this forced taper, they will begin to look older.

September 2021 Bulletin Board:

If you’re going to the U.S. National Bonsai Exhibition this weekend, look for our entry in the Kusamono Display:

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This was put together in the spring of 2020. We found a small charred log in an area where a forest fire had passed through. Then we planted Pacific Northwest natives on it to simulate a nurse log. Young forest plants, including the Western Hemlocks featured here, often get their start in the nutrient-rich trunks of downed trees. It was a hopeful thought of regeneration in a difficult year.

7 Comments

  1. RAY NORRIS says:

    Very interesting work, new life for an old tree

    Sent from my iPhone

  2. Peter Brolese says:

    Hi Michael, that day was a wonderful learning experience. Now if only I could have good ideas without a mentor looking over my shoulder.

  3. A wonderful post, Michael, and such an amazing transformation…

  4. Vanaja says:

    All the best for the convention. The Kusamono is lovely.
    The azalea transformation looks great..

  5. John Schmied says:

    Nice work on your teams part in restoring this satsuki Michael! It shows how resilient these trees can be …and how to rework them once they begin to suffer from old age syndrome.

  6. Jeremiah Lee says:

    Hi Michael, Huge fan of all your work! Great use of the material above! On the most recent podcast, you discussed using Citric Acid over Other types. I have a Dosatron/Fertilizer Injector and have been using a variety of acids as I didn’t think it mattered, but now I’m thinking I should stick with Citric. Is there a specific product that you recommend? Do you use a liquid or a solid/granular acid? Do you use a stick or large spoon to stir the acid into the water? Thank you!

    • crataegus says:

      Hi Jeremiah, for most things it probably doesn’t matter. We found a couple things in our yard that got chlorine burn from hydrochloric / muriatic acid, and that stopped on using acetic. Horticulturists recommend acetic. We just use vinegar. A quick stir and you’re done. The Dosatrons are great, we got one a couple years back and love it. Very dependable.

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