Big Junipers -Splits, Bends and Grafts

Posted by on Apr 3, 2016 | No Comments
Big Junipers -Splits, Bends and Grafts

I’ve been fortunate to have the chance to study many world-class trees in Japan and the US, giving me the opportunity to think about how they were made. When it comes to making great juniper bonsai out of yamadori material there are a few tricks and complications that can force compromise when you really get into transforming a piece of stock into a bonsai.

With juniper, the lifeline and deadwood are attached, integral. But, one is needed and the other is not. One solution is to split the live wood from the deadwood in key places which makes bending easier, or even possible in many cases.

This great shimpaku in the greenhouse of Masahiko Kimura has everything you want in a bonsai.   What did it take to get the tree to this point?

This great shimpaku in the greenhouse of Masahiko Kimura has everything you want in a bonsai. What did it take to get the tree to this point?

Hidden deep under the canopy, only barely visible to a person looking up and from the side was this visible split and carving.   The tree has obviously been compacted by removal of some of the deadwood to allow for the crown to be brought down.

Hidden deep under the canopy, only barely visible to a person looking up and from the side was this visible split and carving. The tree has obviously been compacted by removal of some of the deadwood to allow for the crown to be brought down.

Also in Mr. Kimura's yard - another split, two perhaps that have aided in bending a large trunk section.  In this case the split is front and center on the tree, not hiding in the canopy.

Also in Mr. Kimura’s yard – another split, two perhaps that have aided in bending a large trunk section. In this case the split is front and center on the tree, not hiding in the canopy.

A much more obviously carved piece of wood, much of the trunk has been removed to execute the desired bend

At the 2016 Kokufu-ten I saw this tree which has a much more obviously carved piece of wood, much of the trunk has been removed to execute the desired bend. There were three places where most of the wood behind the lifeline had been removed on this tree.

A freshly split and bent lifeline.   The lifeline on this particular tree was obviously taking the foliage in the exact wrong direction, so the owner split and bent it.

A freshly split and bent lifeline. The lifeline on this particular tree was obviously taking the foliage in the exact wrong direction, so the owner split and bent it. Comparing the texture in the wood on the left shows that it was split from the top, while the sides of the jin are older and weathered.

Grafting is the obvious alternative to large bends. Rather than move foliage from one place to another you simply add the foliage where you want it and grow it into shape. This also has the advantage of allowing you to change the foliage to the type that grows best in your climate. But, while this may seem like the perfect solution, it is frequently quite limited. When a tree already has a complete and mature crown the prospect of grafting to simply lower the crown a couple inches is absurd, bending is the obvious answer because it maintains the years worth of fine branch growth.

In other cases a tree may have multiple lifelines at the base that split and move into the foliage in challenging ways. Reducing a mass of foliage may lead to a part of the lifeline at the base being killed when it is integral to the design. Splitting and/or grafting can solve this problem. The tree below was grafted along three lifelines, for a tree this size (about 24″ tall) it can take many years for the grafts to grow out to create a canopy that is in scale with the trunk.

A Utah juniper with Kishu grafts.   The grafts change the foliage, reposition it and eventually allow for a compact and desirable crown.   The tradeoff is that it takes many years to create that mature crown.

A Utah juniper with Kishu grafts. The grafts change the foliage, reposition it and eventually allow for a compact and desirable crown. The tradeoff is that it takes many years to create that mature crown.

Bonsai is frequently about compromises. Whether you split a lifeline to move older branching into a better position, or graft foliage back to create a new branch you are moving material toward a better and more refined result. Consider both techniques carefully, and use them to make your trees better.