Suzuki’s Ume Grafts

Posted by on Mar 4, 2016 | 2 Comments
Suzuki’s Ume Grafts

Perhaps the greatest difference between high-quality bonsai and bonsai that are just potted trees is the correct application of technique in the correct circumstances. It sounds so simple to make a plan and execute it using the best techniques available; but, the difference is all in the details.

While visiting the nursery of Shinji Suzuki in Obuse, Japan, I noted a large number of older Ume (Japanese Flowering Apricot) that were in the greenhouses. The trees had old, rotten trunks like so many ume seen in Kokufu, but these trees were not ready for show. Upon closer inspection it became apparent that the trees were undergoing a remodeling process, most likely to correct branches that had become too long and leggy.

An old Ume trunk in Suzuki's greenhouse.  Salvaging this tree from disrepair would be a fantastically rewarding process.

An old Ume trunk in Suzuki’s greenhouse. Salvaging this tree from disrepair would be a fantastically rewarding process.

This trunk would be worth any amount of time and effort to salvage.

This trunk would be worth any amount of time and effort to salvage.

In my own experience with Ume I’ve become frustrated by the seemingly difficult task of getting good ramification. I’ve had a few discussions on the topic; multiple people had mentioned that grafting the trees was a common practice in Japan. For an excellent overview of Ume see Peter Tea’s 2012 post, “Japanese Flowering Plum Basics.”

Recognizing the difference between the bud types turns out to be the key to cutting back. But hard cutback is seldom productive in my experience as the trees frequently give up on branches that you chose to keep in favor of new buds from strong nodes behind them. To overcome that problem, and also to possibly change flower type, grafting is the logical technique.

Two grafts, top left has failed, bottom right has succeeded and grown out for one year.   Note that the new growth has already been wired and trimmed back.

Two grafts, top left has failed, bottom right has succeeded and grown out for one year. Note that the new growth has already been wired and trimmed back.

Two grafts, both having been grown out and cut back a couple times.  Depending on the vigor of the tree this may be one or two years worth of growth.

Two grafts, both having been grown out and cut back a couple times. Depending on the vigor of the tree this may be one or two years worth of growth.

Another look at a graft union.   The graft appears to have been placed at a cut site where the branch was larger than the graft.

Another look at a graft union. The graft appears to have been placed at a cut site where the branch was larger than the graft.

An older graft, with the tape removed.

Older grafts, with the tape removed. The tree has been cut back to just the grafted branches but long stubs are left.

Peter’s 2012 post mentions that February and September are the best times to graft Ume. Some questions and experimentation remain before the technique will be clear to me. We’re left to discern what the ideal timing of cutback is for the old branches when grafting. From the trees I observed in Suzuki’s nursery it seems that the old branches are cut off within one year of the grafts beginning to grow. This seems logical, since in my own experience the tips buds on ume grow much more quickly than the smaller buds back along the branches.

The most important thing to take away from the observation for many people is that grafting ume is an established technique that should be used to your advantage. Whether you’re trying to improve the position of branches, or change the flower color, don’t hesitate to try some grafts to improve your trees.

2 Comments

  1. jim gremel
    March 5, 2016

    Ume will ramify beautifully if we defoliate once or twice a year. I leave one leaf at the tip of each branch to avoid dieback and remove all other leaves in May or June (providing the new growth was very vigorous).

    I fertilize well & may repeat the process in two or more months. The result is a massive increase in small branches – right away – and more flowers the next year.

    • Eric Schrader
      March 6, 2016

      Thanks Jim. I recall our conversation where you mentioned that defoliation was working well for you. I think I agree now, and plan to try that this year. I should have mentioned that in the post originally.