Finding a Happy Medium

Raise the head, close the eyes, breathe in, and test the air.
Feel the sun come out from behind a cloud, the breeze gives a kiss on the forehead, a caress through the hair.
Let the breath out, loud in the ears.
The sun heats the breast, almost too hot on the black t-shirt.
Open the eyes and look down at the tree. The bonsai. Dwarf tree, twisted.
Old as sin, seemingly, but young as the spring grass after a rain. Verdant, gnarled, ancient, new.
The sun flashes off the glazed ceramic vessel wherein the tree lives.
A hand falls over the scissors, curling into the handle.
Grasp, test, the feel in the hand, the cool steel, and the wrought shape compels a few practice snips.
Raise them towards the tree.
And begin.

Podocarpus macrophyllus. Often called “Buddhist pine” bit it’s not a pine. According to Wikipedia, it’s considered a conifer (though the fruit, from which the name is derived, literally podo-“toe”, and carpus-“fruit”, is not in a traditional cone-like structure like a pine cone but is still considered a cone. Morphology is a dying way to classify plants and I would bet money that the Podocarpaceae family will be removed from the conifer classification (which isn’t even a scientific classification), along with Ginko and yew. It’s a gymnosperm, which means “naked seed”, which further means, a seed that’s not encased inside a fruit. Or something like that. I digress though, a Podocarpus neither grows nor acts like a conifer. You can literally trunk chop them and they will bud from the chop. But that’s just my ranting. I don’t really have a say as I’m not a botanist.)

In Japan, where it’s considered somewhat sacred, they call it “Kusamaki” or “クサマキ” or “Inumaki” “犬槇”.

Which sounds like a sushi roll to me……mmmmmmnnnn….sushi sounds good about now.

On the top left, my favorite roll, tekkamaki, or a tuna roll, from my favorite place, Lai Lai’s

Maki means “roll” in sushi lingo. But, as I learned in the book “The Story of Sushi, an unlikely saga of raw fish and rice” by Trevor Courson, many words used in specialized disciplines in Japan have their own meanings and uses. For example, if we are talking sushi, “sake” is the word for salmon. But it’s also an alcoholic beverage made from fermenting rice, also called “rice wine”, which isn’t accurate either. One day I’ll figure out why they are the same word. The emphasis is on the first syllable for the fish and the last for the drink. I think. SAH-Keh and sah-KEH. And why aren’t they spelled the way they sound?

On a side note (to my side note, or a more bonsai specific one I guess) not all words we use for bonsai terms are the same in each Japanese nursery. I’ve been told by a reliable apprentice, who is from the West, that “nebari”, the word we use for the root spread on our trees, wasn’t used in his nursery. Go figure, right (if you put “nebari” into Google translate you get “stickiness”, meaning viscosity or how sticky something is. Further, there is no “r” sound in Japanese). It’s almost like we English speakers had to give formalized jargon to make us sound smarter. I like the English word for the root spread “buttress”. But I like big butts and I cannot lie……yes, that whole rant was just to tell that joke…..

Sorry…..Back to our tree! I’ve been seeing some browning branches within the structure these last few months, so, this morning, I decided to investigate.

It wasn’t as bad as I thought. Mostly inside branches are severely shaded out by the dense canopy. Podocarpus, though being a full-sized tree in nature, are most often used in landscape applications as hedges (they are ignominiously used to hide air conditioning units in la Florida quite a bit) because they can be sheared into a dense hedge. They’re used as living fences for this reason too.

This makes for good bonsai as, unlike conifers, you can simply hedge-prune them into a canopy. Now, notwithstanding this technique is effective, I tend to prefer selective wiring and judicious pruning for getting the same full-canopy effect. Topiary or hedge pruning does cause inner branch dieback.

To get light into the inner branching, we, regardless of it being not a pine, can use pine techniques on them. One technique is cutting the leaves (or needles, though, to beat a dead horse, they aren’t needles, but leaves) in half.

Therefore, I’ll do this first. It’s kinda like defoliating a ficus or deciduous tree

My procedure is easy. Pull the leaves up…

And cut them in half.

Like so:

On the stronger growing branches, I’ll cut the growing tips as well.

The apical part of the tree is usually denser and has stronger growth because the tree wants to be a tree, which means it wants to be 100 feet tall. Similar to a pine tree. This is referred to as “apical dominance” because it sounds exactly like it is. The top growth will take precedence, causing lower growth to stagnate or die.

By being more aggressive cutting the stronger growing branches, and less harsh pruning the weaker ones, we balance the….no, not energy as is often stated, but the hormones, mostly the main growth hormone called auxin. (I break down all the hormonal interaction in the article I use some fancy words to justify my defoliation habit, go figure. in case you’re interested. I was very interested, so I wrote a whole article on it). Why do I insist on saying hormones and not energy? Because hormones are what causes growth, not energy. Energy allows for continued growth, but you can over prune a tree and it’ll die, because it runs out of energy, because the hormones keep pushing new growth.

I’ll also use the opportunity to edit out excess branching, prune for taper and movement, etc. all the things I talk about when refining an established tree.

Example: there are three branches, I cut to two…

And further, cut those two down for better back budding.

Like so:

I repotted this tree this year in late winter/early spring. When I do this, I usually let the tree grow unchecked for the duration of the growing season (allowing for the tree to store energy). The most I did was prune off the fastest-growing branches to keep the canopy tight (basically, hedge pruning). After all, there is a place for that technique).

But now it’s time to get selective.

Hey, look at that, we can see the deadwood again!

All done, and, damn, I made a mess.

It may seem that autumn, or fall, isn’t the best time to do this heavy thinning, but, in Florida, this is a prime time to do this work on this kind of tree. I’ve talked about why people hate us lonely Florida growers before, and one reason is we have, in the Fall months, what we call, “Second Spring”.

Jim Smith (grandfather of tropical bonsai in the USA) coined the term. The day temps are in the 70’s and 80’s F (21-26c), nighttime temps are in the 50’s to ’60s (10-15c) and, importantly for growth, it’s not raining as much in the afternoon and evenings.

Plants grow at night (a tree creates sugars, photosynthesis, and transpires, using co2, sunshine, and water to make carbohydrates, (sugars), releasing oxygen in the process. At night, a plant uses oxygen to burn those sugars, called respiration, releasing co2. Much like how we use sugars. The catch is that in photosynthesis, the co2 is brought in through the leaves. In respiration, oxygen is absorbed through the roots. If the roots are saturated by water, like an evening rainstorm or watering your trees too late in the day, your trees won’t grow as fast. One reason not to water late in the day. The other is a fungus, but that’s another article. My Florida readers will chime at this point in and say, “so why do my trees grow so much in the summer rainy seasons, Mr. Smartypants?” Easy, it gets hot enough for our plants to dry out by evening, as we have afternoon rains).

Anywho, we can now see our tree, almost denuded.

Now I’ll use a brush to clean up the deadwood and bark a bit.

Get rid of the moss growing up the trunk.

Now would be a good time to apply lime sulfur, but I’m not in the mood for it. Lime sulfur has quite the aroma. But I might quote Gurney Halleck, from Dune at this point:


“What has mood to do with it? You fight when the necessity arises—no matter the mood! Mood’s a thing for cattle or making love or playing the baliset. It’s not for fighting.”

Dune, Frank Herbert

And since the tree is in a growing phase, I’ll eschew wiring (I love it when I get the chance to use “eschew” in a sentence).

We don’t want wire marks, after all.

I was called out in the last post, in the comments, about wire marks on the branches. I could go back and forth in the comment section, but it’s easier to answer it here. When developing main branches, it’s best to allow the wire to cut in a little. The two words to notice are “developing” and “a little”. Those main branches will thicken enough that the wire marks will grow out. I’ve done it and seen them go away. But, you don’t keep branches with excessive wire marks anyway. Usually, in an initial styling, the branches you have to use either thicken enough to erase the wire marks, or another branch grows in a place that’s better for the design, so you can cut off the offending branch. It’s a matter of time. The tree will mature and your wire marks will go away or you cut them out. If they persist, you can sand them off. That’s another post too.

Here’s the tree, pruned, partially defoliated, weeded, fertilized, etc.

And, to give you an idea of the development, here’s the tree from several years ago:

It looks like I wired it at that time. I believe the picture was after I let it grow freely for a few years to recover from when it was on display at the 3 months long Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival at Disney World.

Each time you work a tree, it should show progress. I let it rest in between major work, as I did this year, or as I did after the Epcot show. Your trees will appreciate it and grow better for it.

Before this session:

And after:

Maybe I’ll find a better pot next year, though I recently saw this one for sale online for around $800. I say a better pot because I bought it for less than $100 about ten years ago…..such is life, I suppose.


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