P. monticola Meets Matt Reel

Posted by on Nov 9, 2015 | 10 Comments
P. monticola Meets Matt Reel

Pinus monticola, or Western White Pine, is native to the Sierra Nevada mountains, Cascade Range and the Pacific Northwest. The tree has a typical slender white-pine family needle with a somewhat more muted coloration than many of the striped white-pine family members. The needles are beautifully soft and seem to end up anywhere from 1- to 2-inches in length under bonsai care. As with other white pines, less water and fertilizer, particularly in spring and early summer, leads to shorter needles. However, I always hesitate to starve a tree, either of water or fertilizer since I’d rather have a healthier tree with long needles than a sick one with short needles.

Apart from the needles, I think that the smell of working with a P. monticola is one of my favorite things. While a nice Ponderosa can smell like vanilla-pineapple, P. monticola has a bit spicier character to the pitch that is oddly pleasant.

I had the pleasure once again of hosting Matt Reel this past weekend for a series of workshop with the Bonsai Society of San Francisco, and we took a day to work on this tree and one other pine. See the index on this site for some of Matt’s other visits.

The tree before we started working on it.   It had taken the last three years to get it to optimal health in preparation for this work.

The tree before we started working on it. It had taken the last three years to get it to optimal health in preparation for this work.

I purchased this tree at least seven years ago from John Boyce who told me that it had been collected in Oregon and brought to the Bay Area over 30 years ago. With such a long history of living in San Francisco and Berkeley I was relatively confident that the tree would have no problems with the climate, particularly the need for a more-significant winter dormancy than we are able to provide here in the mild coastal part of NorCal.

Matt and I discussed the need to emphasize the movement of the tree either to the left or right; with five trunks radiating outward in all directions, the tree seemed to be going in every direction all at once. The largest of the secondary trunks on the left and slightly farther from the center than the other trees gave us the opportunity to enhance either direction. If the movement was to be to the left then the major secondary trunk would have more emphasis; if to the right, then this trunk would be reduced and the crown brought to the right.

The left trunk had a major branch junction near the top, with the larger portion going backward and continuing leftward. I had been reducing this portion for a few years, and Matt decided immediately that it should be eliminated to simplify the tree and reduce the size compared to the primary tree in the center.

Matt uses a saw to remove the large back portion of the left trunk.

Matt uses a saw to remove the large back portion of the left trunk.

Next we turned our attention to the main trunk. There is some slight movement there, but more movement would provide a better match to the other trunks in the composition and enhance the flow of the tree to the right, which we had by this time decided was better than to the left. Matt decided to use a small saw cut in two places to allow for easier bending. This tree is quite flexible in the smaller branches but the main trunk was stiff enough that it would take many years for it to set in place without this technique. He used a saw to cut about 30% of the way through the trunk, then bent the trunk in the direction of the cut to compress the two sides together. The bend closes the space left by the saw. While the cut is visible, I was impressed that after bending, without prior knowledge that it had been done I would not have been able to pick out the location.

The lower saw cut on the left side of the trunk allows the middle section to be bent to the left.   The pad and wire above are an anchor point for a guy wire  - to be added to pull the trunk over.

The lower saw cut on the left side of the trunk allows the middle section to be bent to the left. The pad and wire above are an anchor point for a guy wire – to be added to pull the trunk over.

With the middle section of the trunk guyed to the left and the bottom held in place by a wedge between the trunks, Matt placed a piece of rebar vertically in the center of the composition to allow the top of the main trunk to be pulled back to the right. This also conveniently provided an anchor point for some other guy wires that we added later.

The base of the rebar is set in the soil, between a large root.   Then the bottom is attached to the trunk using a rubber pad and copper wire to provide a secure anchor for pulling the top to the right.

The base of the rebar is set in the soil, next to a large root. Then the lower section is attached to the trunk using a rubber pad and copper wire to provide a secure anchor for pulling the top to the right.

Matt makes the second saw cut, on the upper right side of the trunk to allow the top to bend to the right more easily.

Matt makes the second saw cut, on the upper right side of the trunk to allow the top to bend to the right more easily.

The order of the work is important for setting the overall composition. Since in a multi-trunk composition all the smaller trunks relate first to the main trunk and then to the other trunks, nothing else can be set into final position until the primary trunk is finished. Matt set the upper trunk section of the primary trunk using a guy wire to the rebar. However, prior to bending the major branching on the primary trunk Matt set the branching on the left-most secondary trunk to make space for bending the upper branches down.

Matt sets the branching on the left trunk to make way for bending the primary trunk branching down.

Matt sets the branching on the left trunk to make way for bending the primary trunk branching down.

The upper branching of the primary trunk was all a bit too large to easily bend downward. We wired the branching using #8 copper and Matt added a guy wire near the base of each branch to pull them down to the angle needed. In each case we checked for splits as we pulled, and in the case of the upper left branch we stopped a bit short of the final position to allow the tree to recover before bending it down more in the future.

A network of wire and guy wires is used to pull down the major branching on the primary crown.

A network of wire and guy wires is used to pull down the major branching on the primary crown.

Setting the branching on the right side of the primary trunk.

Setting the smaller branching on the right side of the primary trunk.

Matt works on finishing the shaping of the fine branching of the main crown.

Matt works on finishing the shaping of the fine branching of the main crown.

I had spent the day before Matt showed up wiring many of the finer branches on the secondary trunks, which allowed Matt to speed through the process of shaping the three other minor trunks. He set the branching taking care to make the top of each of the secondary trunks a different height from each other. This is particularly important for clumps because it allows the eye to distinguish the different pads and enhances the feeling of rhythm if the composition.

Matt emphasizes in all his work the need for balance and clean lines. When setting branches, the underside of the pad should be straight, without dangling needles to create a feeling of cleanliness. The balance of the pads is perhaps the trickiest part of a bonsai composition, but Matt has years of experience with some of Japan’s best bonsai to rely on when he makes these decisions.

After finishing all the branch setting, Matt cleans the surface of the soil to remove debris.    Cleanliness is important in bonsai, both for aesthetics and the health of the plant.

After finishing all the branch setting, Matt cleans the surface of the soil to remove debris. Cleanliness is important in bonsai, both for aesthetics and the health of the plant.

The back of the tree on the left and a view from the left side on the right

Two shots showing the back and left side of the composition.

The finished front for November 2015.

The finished tree from the front.

November 2015, Before and after work

November 2015, Before and after work

The tree may be as little as 3-5 years away from a show. Each of the crowns needs to fill out and broaden out a bit. Luckily, the tree is already full of back buds so the progress in the next few years should be good.

A big thanks to Matt for some excellent work.

10 Comments

  1. Ray
    November 10, 2015

    Great work Matt , Beautiful tree Eric.

  2. jim gremel
    November 10, 2015

    Great!

  3. Jeremiah lee
    November 10, 2015

    Very Nice!!!

  4. Dan Wiederrecht
    November 10, 2015

    Very nice! It’s awesome to see P. Monticola being used!!

    I was skiing at Heavenly/Lake Tahoe a couple of years ago, and fell in love with the huge Western White Pines. The old Limber’s were great too.

    I’ve been wanting to try Monticola, but haven’t yet. I’d imagine they ought to grow fairly quickly when young, as large as they get?

  5. Dan Wiederrecht
    November 13, 2015

    Oops.. I mentioned limber’s. I meant Lodgepole pines. I did see other 5 needle pines up high, but they may have been White-bark.

    • Eric Schrader
      November 13, 2015

      Dan,

      Thanks for your comments. I’ve seen lodgepole up to about 8000-8500 around Carson Pass in the Sierra. Above that they seem to top out and conditions favor Sierra Juniper, Whitebark Pine and Mountain Hemlock.

      I know I mentioned to you privately that this tree may be a limber pine, but after seeing the Limbers you collected and based on the previous owner telling me it was a Western White I think that it is in fact as he said. The differences are slight. The limber that I got from you has a different shape in the dormant buds. However, since this tree has never made a cone I can’t say for sure.

  6. Stu Garrett
    November 29, 2015

    ….and to add to the discussion, I suspect it is actually a white bark pine (Pinus albicaulis).

    • Eric Schrader
      November 29, 2015

      Hi Stu,

      I’d have to disagree on that one – you can see a few examples of whitebark pine in my recent article “Windswept Whitebarks.” The needles and bark are substantially different than this tree among the specimens I’ve seen in the wild here in California. The needles are fatter and they don’t have a white stripe down them like this tree. The bark also does not create small plates like this tree has, but remains smooth with small pieces flaking off.

      I would invite you to list the features you feel it has in common with P. albicaulis.

  7. Vance Wood
    December 3, 2015

    Very nice work. I used to drool over this species of tree when I was living in the Bay Area. We used to go into the Siskiyou’s to collect before my army days. Can I ask a question? Has anyone done anything with Sugar Pine? Used to drool over them as well.

    • Eric Schrader
      December 3, 2015

      Hi Vance,

      I don’t know of any sugar pines as bonsai. Given the similarity in needle habit to the Western White it seems like a viable possibility. But, I feel like people are just beginning to really consider native pines as possible bonsai subjects. In the SF Bay Area there is still a dominant preference for Japanese species, partly a tradition, partly attributable to know care cycles.