Saturday, 3 November 2012

Dispelling the myths Part 2

So here we are again with some more bonsai myths.
3. There seem to be several trees in particular which consistently attract misinformation (waffle).
The Larch is such a tree. Many people promote the Karamatsu or Japanese Larch Larix kaempferi as being a better species for bonsai than the European Larch Larix decidua.
So lets look at the facts. The Japanese Larch is a very fast growing species. This is why we grow it commercially for timber. The European Larch is too slow growing to be commercially viable. Because it is so rapid growing, two things make it unsuitable for long term bonsai cultivation. Firstly as with any species growing so fast, the wood is soft and any deadwood areas created will rot fast even when treated. OK so lets say we grow Larch without creating jin, shari or uro, then what. Well due to this species' rapid growth trait it obviously affects long term use for bonsai because in a matter of decades the ramification of the branches cannot be maintained. At some point the delicate branches in the crown will be just as thick and heavy as the first lower branches on the tree. Yes we can thin out and replace thickening branches with thinner ones to try to maintain taper but this strategy can only go so far. Invariably the trees branches will become totally out of proportion giving us a really ugly tree. Plus of course the Jap. Larch is also short lived.
I have hundreds of Japanese bonsai books, but I only have one black and white photo showing a Japanese Larch bonsai in Japan. That is because they understand it is only suitable for short term bonsai cultivation. It is not a species that can be handed down from generation to generation.
Try spraying them with water during the growing season and your Larch will have growth extensions like palm leaves, again showing it's rapid growth. (Actually scrap that idea as it will ruin your trees growth that year).

However Japanese Larch is a great species for people to learn bonsai cultivation and styling techniques and their spring green colour lights up any collection. But unlike their slow growing European cousin, they should be viewed as short term projects. And before you ask, yes I sell both species and occasionally hybrids of the two. So I am not trying to put you off buying or collecting Japanese Larch, I merely want to arm you with the facts. So enjoy your Karamatsu while you can, it is a great species. But just like dogs, they are not here for long enough.

4. The Japanese Black Pine is one of the classic species of Japanese bonsai and is viewed as the king of pines. About ten years ago various people were saying that Black Pine were no good for growing in the UK. Someone had started off this rumour and slowly it spread.
Now it seems that again a person or persons are telling people that Japanese Black Pine are not suitable for growing in the UK. Well, of the three Japanese Pine species; Black Pine Pinus thunbergii, Red Pine Pinus densiflora, and White Pine Pinus pentaphyla. The Black Pine is by far the easiest and most accommodating for UK cultivation.
This is probably in part due to the fact it is not a high mountain species and as such likes lots of water and feed in the growing season, unlike the White and Red pines where water control is very important as they do not tolerate having wet feet. It also back buds very easily and it is possible to more than double the amount of foliage on the Black Pine in one season if you know the correct techniques for the UK. Notice I said UK not Japan. Remember due to our lack of long, warm growing seasons and without decent humidity not all Japanese techniques work here and some give slow results. So all these people who start a sentence with "oh but in Japan they do this......", remember this is not Japan. We can learn a lot from the Japanese, both horticultural and technical. But remember keep an open mind. Many people go to Japan to study and return home and traumatise trees. The smart ones adapt their techniques to suit their own growing conditions as they gain more experience.
The last words Hotsumi Terakawa said to me before I left his home was "if you decide to have a nursery, to be a successful nurseryman, you must adapt your horticulture to suit your own climate just as I have had to living in Holland".

5. The Spruce's use as a great subject for bonsai are often questioned. I am referring here to Picea abies. Many people siting that the Spruce drops branches and in particular the branches in the crown when wired.
This only comes about when the trees habits are not understood. So it is all about doing your homework and learning about the requirements of different species. Spruce are not pines! Not all Spruce species are the same, just as pines are different and junipers are different. You would not treat a Rigida like an Itoigawa just because it's a juniper. The main problem with Spruce occurs when people insist on tying them in knots, zig zagging branches and more importantly re orientating the natural crown. This Spruce, do not like. So if this is you and you have had problems with Spruce, now you know why. You can only work with your tree if you understand it's requirements and of course it's limitations.
As another example of understanding a trees requirements, Hemlock do not like their roots being pruned hard. So it's always a gentle prune with them. Heavy pruning can give a very weak or dead tree. Often the latter. Cedrus are very similar.

6. Now two classics carried over from the sixties and still being passed on today.
Spraying maples on a sunny day will not lead to leaf scorch. The water droplets do not act like magnifying glasses and burn the leaves. I can't even believe this one got started. Did they stop teaching physics in the 50's?

Wet raffia shrinks as it dries! Really!
We do not wet raffia so that as it dries it tightens onto the branch. I think people were mixing this up from watching too many cowboy films. Where the hero was tied down by the Indians with soaked buffalo hide which slowly dried in the sun and as it shrank, it cut into the hero.
No we soak the raffia to give it greater tensile strength, that's it. However as a consequence of wetting, it is also easier to handle so this is good if you are not experienced in it's use for heavy branch bending. But most important is that raffia must be applied very tight and not just lazily wrapped around a branch otherwise you may as well not apply it.
I was once made to walk around a show with soaked raffia wrapped round my thumb to prove that as the day went on, it would not constrict and cut off my thumb. It didn't thank goodness but I was sweating all day. Thank God I only wrapped my thumb!



  1. Ok, so Larch are short lived, but then, aren't we? They are great to work with and good results happen quickly. Don't forget Steve, I'm still looking for a suitable biggish cascade Larch. Keep this blog going mate,genuine stuff, cheers