Recently I have been working on a number of junipers across Europe and also on a few of my own. This is not an uncommon thing as somewhere across the globe at any given moment, there is a bonsai enthusiast working on and more than likely ruining a juniper, this is what we bonsai enthusiasts do for fun. What has become apparent over the last five or six years of globle trotting professional life is that the majority of people seem to treat all junipers the same no matter what species or foliage variety they are. They all just become junipers and are worked in the same way, Sabina, Rocky Mountain and Itoigawa alike.
Across Europe we have a number of different native junipers but let us take the lowly Sabina as the example here. Much mailgned as a species, they have, as a species an undeserved reputation for being difficult to work on, or they get too leggy or they do this or they do that and they should be abandoned as bonsai material.
Across America, they have a number of different native junipers but let us take the Rocky Mountain Juniper as the example here. Much mailgned as a species, they have, as a species an undeserved reputation for being difficult to work on, or they get too leggy or they do this or they do that and they should be abandoned as bonsai material.
Across Japan they had effectively one species of juniper which covered the islands, but with such dramatic difference in foliage characteristics they could almost be considered as different species. Going back over a hundred years ago when the fad for yamadori really kicked off, a wide range of trees were collected across the lands, each with different growth habits and different trunk characteristics, depending on where it came from. Most of us know the words Itoigawa, Kishu and maybe Tohoku but how many know about all the sub varieties and slightly different strains? Itoigawa is just the name of the place where Junipers from that area were sold and although they all had much finer and tighter foliage than other areas, there was still a variance across the trees. Some types grew quickly and had many long thin branches whereas others tended to have short, highly ramified branches and form into clumps. This difference is due to in part to environmental response but also genetic variations, which happen not just across continents but also within populations. On the same mountain side you can find two trees next to each other with different characteristics. However both were given the name Itoigawa but the way in which they are best worked upon is very different.
All classed as Itoigawa trees, all slightly different growth habits…can you tell the difference? Does it really matter?
Many of the collected trees were impossible to compact because they either had leggy branches or they had a poor foliage type. Some trees have a tendency to flower heavily or not at all, some may have limp foliage which leads to a prostate form and others may just have extremely coarse foliage on a small trunked tree. This fundamental natural deviation led the Japanese to graft usable foliage on to the trunks of unusable trees. Out of a hundred collected trees, maybe less than half actually needed grafting, maybe more it is difficult to say now. What is obvious is that through a survivial of the fittest process a few strains of highly efficient and attactive foliage began to develop, replacing all the flowering or leggy, prostrate foliage types and standardising the idea of what Juniperus Chinensis foliage is to the modern bonsai world. We jumped into this hundred year plus process in the last thirty years and we only see the end results.
Many trees that are imported and worked upon by enthusiasts have been container or field grown by a mass producing bonsai farmer and come ultimately from the same parent tree. They chose the foliage type with the best characteristics for creating shohin or dense foliage pads with minimal work and then made thousands upon thousands of cuttings which eventually became the Juniper on your bench which has been selectively bred. This is genetic engineering in action people.
The point I am making is that Japan has been through their period of selective breeding and coming to terms with changing the foliage where necessary on collected species where the foliage proved unsuitable for bonsai. One of my favourite words in Japanese is used to describe this process….衣替え or koromo-gae which means the changing of the wardrobe depending on the season. Around April and October, Lady Saruyama does her koromo-gae and I…well there is no need as dirty jeans, blue hoodies and polo shirts are always in fashion.
Anyway I digress…
So where is this heading…towards the fact that what is good for Itoigawa is not good for Phoenicia. What is done to Kishu should not be done to Sabina. What is accepted practice on a field grown chinensis is almost certain death for a collected Rocky Mountain Juniper. It is also towards the point that not everything that comes out of the mountains is going to be suitable as is for becoming a bonsai. A sabina I have been working on in Poland for several years is showing this to be true. It has a foliage type which is limp and without any serious lignification in the tertiary branches. Limp and lifeless it needs support through wiring to stand up and point to the sun. On top of that it flowers pretty well every year which results in growing tips that cease growing, causing leggy growth with no internal foliage.
This grows alongside another sabina which has a much perkier foliage type, barely flowers at all and after three years of work from freshly collected is possibly another two years away from Noelanders. Both trees get the same conditions, the same care and techniques but one responds well, the other just simply cannot be made into a tree with tight foliage pads.
Looking at these trees can we say that Sabina as a species will never make good bonsai? Nonsense, there are a number of highly refined trees out there with their native natural foliage on, true, relative to the amount collected they don’t number in their hundreds but it certainly is possible. As a species, sabina is not worthless, we are simply playing a numbers game, the chances of striking it lucky finding great foliage on a great trunk. A level of understanding is required here that the sabinas from Italy are different from the ones from Spain. The ones in Spain are different depending on where they were collected and even there, two trees next to each other on a mountain have different characteristics, exactly the same as Itoigawa Junipers did up on the mountains.
What do we do then with the trees that have poor foliage? Burn them? Give up on them? Go around saying all sabinas are rubbish because that one is? All swans were white until someone saw a black one.
What to do then? Many people will say “graft Itoigawa!” as if it is the great panacea to every single problem…it’s the bonsai version of “put a bird on it”. Absolutely there are situations where grafting Itoigawa onto Sabina or phoenicia is a good idea, particularly on poor foliaged small trunked trees destined to become shohin. This is following the fundamental concept of designing bonsai, making the most out of the material in front of you, even if this takes five years longer.
A problem will occur however if we take the same approach across the board for every tree regardless of foliage type as we will end up with a homogenous bonsai world which lacks interest and variation. It will soon get boring with even less breadth of species that is possible to use for bonsai, anyone for sumac, thyme and camelia? It is my suggestion that the “Itoigawa” of Sabinas is found, the “Itoigawa” of Rocky Mountains is found and this is used respectively where poor foliage is holding a fantastic trunk back. Grafting the best genetic variant of the natural foliage onto trunks of the same species. I know there are some people out there who feel the same and are actively doing this because we have discussed it.
[I will just point out that this is in no way a criticism of the recent bonsai focus article featuring Enrico Savini…that was great work over a long time, part of the ongoing western bonsai experiment and I look forward to seeing it in the flesh. It is a comment of the negativity towards collected trees across parts of the western bonsai world and a complete misunderstanding of how to work them successfully]
The other thing this has implications towards is anybody who works a yamadori juniper in the same way as a container grown chinensis deserves everything that results. Excessive pruning of branches down to two per node at the initial styling on species such as Sabina and RMJ will result in a severely weakened tree, the majority of the times fataly so. This should be avoided at all costs. This is a fundamental and basic concept. If anyone has any experience to the opposite I would be glad to see it, but having seen plenty of seriously sketchy looking Sabinas and RMJ’s where the crotches have been cleaned out, the multibranch nodes have been thinned down to two and the foliage plucked to an inch of the tip, I won’t hold my breath, especially when compared to a considerable number of Sabinas in Spain, Poland, London and elsewhere, RMJ in Portland, Tampa and elsewhere…all which have a full head of hair and are steaming towards the goal of a manageable and solid fundamental branching structure which will improve over time.
Either we learn from the process that other bonsai cultures have been through or we invent a new style…lets say we call it the shaggy sabina style and convince ourselves that it looks awesome and how we meant it all along…I think I might patent that. The SSS, along with the sub division of the SSS, the Leggy Sabina Division or LSD…I think I’m onto something here. Again, I digress…ultimately this issue comes about from the same fundamental problem that the majority of the human race suffers from…the lack of an open mind and the ability to evaluate that which is in front of their eyes rather than fall into the trap of a preconceived or learned response. Education, experience and conscious thought allow us to consider how and why something has come to be. When you think about how much effort has gone into making a masterpiece bonsai, do you seriously think there is an easier road? Akiyama’s first prime minister award winner was over twenty five years in the making from collection to show. Some collected trees will go from mountain to exhibition within five years, others will require a longer process, perhaps involving a change of wardrobe. We are atill very much in the infancy of this process and starting out on the path, there is plenty of experimenting to be done. It is a difficult challenge but bonsai is not supposed to be fun and enjoyable…we should look to do things that can’t be done. Grow Rosemary bonsai in the UK? Preposterous. Get a Sabina to compact? Ridiculous. Turn a RMJ into a masterpiece…can’t be done. Get over it. It can, will and has been done.