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Review: Pines: Bonsai Today's Master Series

 Book of the MonthPines:  Bonsai Today’s Master Series


This book report will also act as “Tree of the Month” as it covers the care needed for White and Black Pines in some depth.  My copy of Pines is the second printing of the first edition, which has a 2005 copyright.  We waited several months from the date of order to receive it.  It features currently living artists:  Masahiko Kimura, Kinio Kobayashi, Tomio Yamada, Takashita Yosiaki, Susuno Sudo, Mikio Oshima, Oishi Kasan, Kusida Matsuo, Wayne Schoech and Michael Persiano.  The last two are editors of Bonsai Today.  Persiano is famous for his Superthrive feeding program. 

The structure of the text is two-fold.  First, White Pines make up the first 100 pages and then Black Pines are the focus of the remaining 76 pages.  Under each of these two sections there are 9 and 8 chapters respectively that cover similar topics related to each of these two types of pine.  However, the topics are not identical.  They do reference each other.  In the White Pine section differences to Black Pine care is called out, as is White Pine care in the Black Pine section.  White Pines are also referred to as 5 needle pines and Black Pines, two-needle.  (Note - Mugo and Scotts Pines are two needle pines.) 

There are photos at the beginning of the White Pine section of 12 varieties of White Pines.  In the Black Pine section 9 varieties of Black Pine are listed without photos.  It is noted that neither list is complete.  I spent some time with the White Pine photos trying to determine if one of them matched a tree I have in my collection.  I’m still unsure if there was an exact match.  Eastern White Pines native to the US are Pinus Strobus; Japanese White Pines are Pinus parvifolia.  There are 9 White Pine subspecies and reportedly 150 cultivars of Japanese White Pine.  The 12 photos presented are the more common cultivars used in bonsai. 

The needles of White Pines are semi-rigid and stay on the tree for 2-3 years.  In bonsai culture the 1”-2” needles are reduced to 1”.  In contrast, two-needle pines have longer needles (2.5” – 4.5”) that can reduce to 1-1.5” in bonsai culture.  Both White and Black Pines are hardy to central Ohio.  Frequently White Pines used for bonsai are grafted to Black Pine roots.  Both groups want full sun and have similar pests and diseases, such as root rot and saw flies; which have hit trees in my collection.  Black Pines are more salt tolerant than White.  Soil for each is comprised of equal parts; Turface, haydite, bark, course sand (chicken grit) and a teaspoon of mychorrizae per gallon of soil mix. 

The book notes that Black Pines are more forgiving than White Pines and that you cannot use Black Pine pinching techniques on White Pines.  On White Pines you need to leave 4-6 clusters of needles on each shoot or the branch will die.  With White Pines needle plucking (done late summer/early fall) to remove old needles can tear the bark, so cutting and leaving 1/16” stubs is an alternative.  White Pine buds are smaller than Black Pines, so you may want to use tweezers when removing unwanted buds – done mid fall. 

Most bonsai problems involve watering, often affected by growing location.  Using a chopstick to check moisture levels before watering is recommended.  For winter protection the recommendation is to mulch up to the first branch.  While Black Pines can grow further south where there is no hard freezing, White Pines need at least 8 weeks of real dormancy.  The freeze-thaw of early winter or early spring can cause root damage as can no drainage or drying out.  In the ground White Pines can survive to -24, but in a pot, -2.  Above 36, photosynthesis occurs (This is why late fall application of poo balls or slow release fertilizer is useful for your conifers, while your deciduous trees can do without as you place your trees into winter storage.  I began doing this 3 years ago and my conifers are much healthier in the spring.)  Air circulation is needed to prevent fungal diseases. (Which is why I use burlap around my storage areas and not plastic.)

The organization of Pines and the photo or drawing documentation on the various topics presented makes writing this report difficult.  For the full benefit I strongly recommend actually reading this book.  Topics such as “Energy Balancing” and “Candle Management” are examples.  In this chapter it says that areas that need growth on a White Pine may need to remain untouched for up to 3 years.  However, areas of strong growth on both White and Black Pines need up to 3/4ths of the candle removed before the candle opens (Remember to leave 4-6 bundles of needles on a White Pine.)  Most pruning activities occur in spring, but you can wire (not prune) in late fall and winter. 

In the White Pine section, it presents chapters on “Tree Position in the Pot” and “Primary Branch Selection”, as are chapters on “Multiple Trunk Trees” and “Rock Plantings.”  Special bending techniques are shown and explained.  Kimura explains that the spacing between primary branches is needed to make a tree appear more mature. You may wire a higher positioned branch to visually become a first branch. 

In the Multiple Trunk Tree chapter, Kimura decided he needed to see what was below the soil first.  Then he styled the primary trunk.  He warns that oversized training pots can result in over-watering, but in the case history presented in the book, was necessary due to beetle damage to the feeder roots.  A bigger pot would allow feeder root development.  He then styled foliage on all trunks based on the flow of the main trunk.  All trunks were arranged based on the main trunk.  Kimura said in studying older masters, crossing trunks are allowable and create a more natural look.

In the chapter on Rock Planting, Mikio Oshima says he waits a year before styling a plant he has placed on a rock.  He notes that bonsai on rocks may not be transplanted for over 20 years.  He likes 1, 3, or 5 trees to create his compositions.  He sprays his newly planted trees on rocks, twice a day to ensure success.  This is not root over rock; these trees are growing in pockets on a larger rock or assemblage of rocks.  When he wires he starts with the 1st and 2nd branches, then in 3 years, the entire tree.  After styling he says wiring every 5 years is enough to maintain White Pines.  He advises dark stones are more natural. 

The Black Pine section devotes a chapter to “Developing Short Needles”, one on “Transplanting” and another on “Pines from Seed.”  In the Transplanting chapter the trick of using a piece of Styrofoam to promote horizontal root development is shown, as is root ball management and nabari development.  (I felt that I have much to learn about these subjects.)  Before cutting roots when transplanting a new tree, expose the roots to see what you are facing.  Use a chopstick, not a metal root hook, unless it can’t be avoided.  Arrange the roots using rocks, bits of chopstick or wood to position the roots to create the best nabari.


When bud pruning Black Pines leave only two side buds; the two strongest buds where growth is weak; the two weakest where growth is strong.  When needle plucking the same is true, fewer needles need to be left where growth is strong, but you may not want to pluck at all where growth is weak or the branch may die.  Start pruning in strong areas first, then work to the weak.  Again some weak areas will need no pruning or 3-4 buds may need to be left.  He says apex pruning may wait until mid winter during the initial styling year, but mid July in later years.  After 2 years, unwanted bud removal may reduce to every 2 or 3 years. 

In the Black Pine section, an entire chapter is devoted to creating a cascade.  Oishi Kasan explains that the trick is the balancing the strength of the apex with the cascade branches.  He says that the cascade branch needs to come horizontally off the trunk and then downward.  Kasan leaves 3 sets of needles in strong area twigs, all in weak areas.  As evidenced by a nine-year case history.

There is also an entire chapter on growing Black Pines from seed.  If you decide to try seeds, Matsuo explains that the best cones develop on the south side of tree; collect only from trees with features that you like.  Collect cones in the fall from the tree, not ones on the ground.  Soak your cones in water that contains a few drops of lime sulfur to open the cones then dry the cones in the sun to free the seed scales from the cone.  Once collected, Matsuo grades the seeds keeping only the larger ones.  He stores the seeds until spring, when he soaks them for 3 days and then plants them in 80% sand, 20% sphagnum.  After the seeds sprout he selects the best seedlings.  When their stems turn purple he cuts them ½” below their first needle tuft.  These tufts are planted and new finer roots develop in 20 – 40 days.  By fall he starts wiring the trunks.  He warns that they will grow rapidly so watch closely.  In 7 years, his seedlings were 1” – 2 1/8” in diameter.

Before the Black Pine Gallery, there is a chapter on “Restyling” with details on how to deal with old rigid branches.  It says that Black Pines can be restyled and transplanted in the same year, but that White Pines need two years.