Bonsai Appreciation: Japanese Black Pine

It’s early autumn here in Japan.  This means it is the start of show season.  There will be plenty of show coverage going around the internet so I thought I’d take a moment to talk about some basic bonsai appreciation.

Aichien has a lot of Japanese Black Pines in the informal upright style and right now we are doing maintenance work on many of them.  Recently I had one in the workshop and got the idea to do this article so I grabbed the camera and took a few shots.  Often times black pines look like a massive green lump on top of a trunk and can easily be overlooked, especially if there is an attention grabbing juniper near them or a colorful fruiting/flowering deciduous tree in the area.  Black pine appreciation is a bit more subtle.  However, if we know a few key things to look for it can make viewing informal upright black pines a lot more fun.  For now we will just focus on the tree.  Later we can get into pot appreciation and display.  Lets get into it!

our subject, just after pulling the old needles.

our subject, just after pulling the old needles.

So here is the tree we will be checking out.  With the old needles removed it is easy to see the structure of this tree.  At first glance we can take in the full composition.  Pretty nice right?  The proportions are on point.  The height to width ratio is in good balance, the taper from base to apex is a smooth transition and the tree good trunk movement with a nice directional flow moving from lower left to upper right.  Additionally the branch placement is ideal with branches alternating from left to right on the outside of each new trunk bend starting from the bottom branch.  So these are some of the surface things that we can usually notice right away.  Lets take a close look and catch a glimpse of the finer details.

Nice nebari and trunk base.

Nice nebari and trunk base.

Starting from the bottom we can see that this tree has developed very nice surface roots, nebari.  The lower section of the trunk is really nice as well and gives us a good idea of just how old this tree is.  Thick bark is the key factor when it comes to evidence of age.  It takes a long time for a tree to develop bark like this and there is no way to fake it.  Another thing that is nice to note is the direction of the deep fissures in the bark.  It is flowing in the same direction as the trunk in a fairly straight line.  This is not always the case with bark.  Often times the fissures can develop in more of a scattered way and occasionally even work against the design of the tree.

Thick main branch!

Thick main branch!

Making our way up the trunk we come to the main branch.  It is large and has accumulated a lot of bark.  This is arguably the most important branch on the tree.  A thick main branch is usually necessary for a nice pine.  With out this element the rest of the composition would look weak and unstable.  When setting up the initial structure of a tree it takes a lot of time and patience to develop such a large main branch.  It is very common to see pines that got rushed out of the developmental phase and into the refinement phase, leaving them with a main branch that is almost the same thickness as the higher branches.  Had the grower held out just a little bit longer these tree would have had so much more to offer in their later years.  Fortunately, our subject tree was given the time it needed to properly develop.

refinement, ramification and bark.

refinement, ramification and bark.

Moving up higher into the tree we can see that the branches are well ramified and even the smallest branches have started to accumulate a nice layer of bark.  This is evidence of a tree that has been grown very slowly.  If a tree is grown to fast it will develop thick branches that have much less taper to them.  A slowly grown tree will display branches that gradually taper from thick to thin moving from the trunk to the foliage.  All of this adds to the overall quality of the tree.

interesting bark formation.

interesting bark formation.

In one particular area of the trunk the bends have caused the bark to develop in a very unusual and interesting way.  This is the type of thing that I really like to see with pines.  It’s almost like a finger print.  No two trees will ever do this in an identical way.

So now you know a few things to look for when admiring informal upright pines.  Many of these things will cross over into other species as well.  The basic concept is this: look for a tree with good structure and good evidence of age.  Old trees that have been grown slowly are usually much nicer than young trees that have been grown quickly.  Often times an old, slowly grown tree with structural imperfections will be much more desirable than a quickly grown young tree that fits the mold for a perfectly structured tree.

The next time you are viewing bonsai, especially a pine, take your time and try to look for some of these things we just covered.  Take note of the variations from tree to tree.  Try to appreciate them all for the state they are currently in and where they will be in the future.  It all helps to make bonsai more enjoyable!

That’s all for now.   Thanks for reading.

Tree The People also has an Instagram account that gets updated regularly.  Photo blogging is fun, quick and easy. So I use it to supplement the articles on this site.  http://instagram.com/treethepeople

until next time…

Danny