Did it have to be another juniper?

Stop me if you’ve heard this one…..two junipers walk into a bar, one says to the bartender, hey I’ll have a jin…..

We have before us two varieties of juniper. Both do quite well in Florida, the one on the left is a parsonii and the other is procumbens nana.

Before I get the question, no, they don’t get an appreciable dormancy period in Orlando. Even the shimpaku we grow don’t. And they live long, even happy lives, here in sunny Florida. That should throw some wrenches in some people’s juniper bonsai world view now, dontcha think? Don’t get me wrong, there are some junipers that don’t like Florida, like the California juniper (because it’s too wet here) or the Rocky Mountain juniper (too wet, not enough elevation, and too hot I’m guessing), but we can grow junipers all the way down into Miami. Really, I wouldn’t lie about this (I may lie about some things, but that’s just to get a laugh usually, like the pigeon poop fertilizer post a few years ago….).

The two juniper we have here are, above, a parson’s juniper and below, the ubiquitous Japanese Garden juniper. Let’s start with it. This tree belongs to a client, Janice, who is really a bougie fan. She bought the tree for the pot, believe it or not. It’s my job to make her see the tree for a good bonsai.

I had styled it around Christmas time and she grew a little more fond of it then. But, now, she isn’t fond of it at all. Let’s see what a new pot will do for it.

Wow, looks better already! Let’s discuss the “Japanese Garden juniper” as I repot, shall we?

The botanical name of the plant is juniperus procumbens “nana”. Sometimes you see it as “green mound” as well. It is a dwarf of a tree that is (here’s the controversy on it….typical in the bonsai world) called, unsurprisingly, juniperus procumbens. The controversy is, first, where it’s native to (either the mountains of the Kyūshū region of southern Japan or the southern coastal and island regions of Japan and Asia). Second, whether it is a real native tree and not a cultivar that was introduced. And third, whether it’s its own species or a variety of juniperus chinensis. Told you it was controversial. I’m just gonna call it P. Nana.

This next pic is my hand. My hand is two things: first, it is going to be the tool of choice today for the repot. Second? It’s the last thing you see if I slap you upside the head for choosing the wrong sex for your baby chicken…….

So yeah, really, just my hand.

I gently massage the old soil out of the roots (you could consider this an initial potting really, there was only bonsai soil as a top dressing, the rest was regular potting soil).

The question that is on the minds of all those who’ve read that junipers die without the best soil, the only soil for a tree in a bonsai pot, bonsai soil (or substrate if you’re inclined to be that cool kid in the convo and be on fleek).

The tree was in a pretty big and deep pot, and, if you’ve read my posts before, you’ll know that, the deeper the pot, the better the drainage. And it’s drainage that is important for junipers. They like to be on the drier side (or, more specifically, since I am going to stop trying to anthropomorphize plants, they’re more adapted to dryer climes).

But today I’m putting the tree into a drastically smaller and shallow pot (the new pot fits into the old pot), so we need proper bonsai soil (see the last post) for this tree. And of course it’s going to be my signature SuperMix© I’m using. You can trust me because I’ve won a Major Award.

Below, you’ll notice that I did not bareroot the tree. My technique in an initial repot is to gently massage a trees roots, removing much of the old nursery soil, but not all. I am a big proponent of protecting the microbial elements (such as beneficial fungus like mycorrhizae) in the pot. If we bareroot and wash out all the old soil, the fauna population has to recover and, especially with conifers, those microorganisms are often the only way a plant can uptake water or nutrients from the soil. But what about all that crappy soil and drainage? I do the initial clean out above, making sure that I clean out totally underneath the trunk (that’s why you see the new soil mounded so much in the pic with the trophy) and wiggle the tree down on top of the new soil. Then I tie the tree in (below)

And make sure to gently add new soil from the top, chopsticking it between the roots. I also very rarely cut roots on a juniper, instead just raking it out and fitting it into the new pot.

By putting new soil on top and gently pushing it between the roots, that new soil is replacing the old soil, pushing it to the bottom on the sides. When the next repot comes, we will have achieved 100% bonsai soil, if we follow the same repot regimen.

I like to add some of this product, for the micro-organisms it adds to the mix.

And that’s it today for our stoic little P Nana.

It looks like it’s dancing there. I need to do some carving and reworking of those jins, the bottom left was there when Janice got it and I added the one on the right. But, as John Naka taught, one insult at a time.

Ultimately I’d like to see the tree taller (it has all kinds of character, a good root spread, a thick trunk, mature branches. But it lacks the element of height. It looks like a mushroom).

Next! A parsons juniper. Let’s quickly go over the etymology of it, just for fun (I am a word man, better than a bird man).

In the trade, they call this tree juniperus chinensis “parsonii”. But, if’n you dig deeper, you begin to uncover a deeper story. The accepted name is now juniperus davurica expansa “parsonii”. It was introduced into the USA from a NY nursery in 1862 by, predictably, Parson’s Nursery. The mistake in its name comes from that nursery, but they got the plant from Japan, so the mistake is weird. Why not call it japonica?

Anyway, it’s a tree that grows well into zone 11, and as high as zone 5 (USDA), perfectly suited for Florida.

This tree was collected by Kathrin, in Sarasota, one amongst about 5 I believe.

I told her I’d be honored to style it for her. And even use some copper, just to show off.

What’s funny is I’ve heard, recently, someone describing aluminum wire as being sissy wire. I’ve always found that using properly annealed copper, like these rolls, was easier to put on a tree as it is softer than the equivalent sized aluminum (for holding strength).

But before wire, we need to clean the trunk. Now, my friends, this is one technique that is often misunderstood. Both the how and the why.

I’ll go over the how first. The goal of the cleaning is to remove the scaly bark and get down to the underlying red. First thing you can do is to use a knife or pick to flake off those scales.

The next step, after manual bark removal, is to use a soft brass brush (not nylon or stainless steel, which are too soft and too stiff respectively). The goal is to brush away the brown outer bark and get to that red. But don’t go too far, if you see white or a tan color you’ve gone too far. Like below.

You can see the brown, red and white/tan layers.

This juniper has very prominent sap lines.

You don’t get that often on a smaller tree like this. What that tells me about this tree is that it’s been taken care of well; one of the goals of brushing is to expose and, believe it or not, stimulate them.

The stronger the sap line, naturally, the stronger the tree. By removing the top layer of bark, the juniper will replace it by growing more. The more bark growth, the more prominent the sap lines become. Kathrin has been taking care of this juniper very well.

Above, you can see the root at the end of the sap line. On most junipers, you can trace the sap line from the root to the foliage. This makes them predictable when pruning; often, if you kill a branch on top, it kills the sap line to the root. I say often, the younger the tree the less often this happens. A good example is below. You can see how below that dead branch is a furrow between the more prominent sap lines. It’s only certain conifers that do this, most plants can readjust the sap line horizontally and re bud at the cut.

The aesthetic reason for cleaning the bark like this is to give us a nice red/purple color to contrast with any dead wood and the green foliage.

It’s a funny thing but there is often both an aesthetic reason for using a bonsai technique and a horticultural one. Interesting how that works (it’s almost as if nature is trying to train us into cultivating things). I’d recommend a book called:

The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan

Its a book about that very thing, the idea that plants are using us to help propagate, take care of and cultivate them. Its a fascinating hypothesis, especially with some of these bonsai trees that have been in cultivation two and three times their natural lifespans.

Back to our parsonii, it’s time for wiring.

I said that copper wire, if properly annealed, is easier to apply than aluminum (if you factor the size needed to hold a branch in place, example: a 12 gauge copper wire holds the same as a 5-6 mm aluminum wire. But it’s as soft (like butta!) as 3 mm wire). Now, shhhhh, don’t tell anyone but, the next time you see a newly returned western apprentice give a demo where there’s only aluminum available, they look a bit awkward using it. They’re just not used to it.

The difficulty with copper is in repositioning it after you’ve applied and moved the branches. Copper gets stiffer the more it’s moved. So there are some techniques you need to know when using it. One good tip that’s easy to remember, as you apply the wire, is to bend the branch where you need it, as you wrap the wire around it, so that you get a little more working movement out of the copper before it stiffens up.

But this is a juniper post, not a wiring post, so here’re the after pics.

I didn’t do too much pruning, the tree was mostly in shape, but I’ll touch it up a bit. First, the pruning strategy is different with a juniper than with other trees (the example above about killing the sap line is one example), but if you understand the physiology a bit, you’ll kill less.

It has been said that the strength of a juniper is in the foliage. Conversely, the roots are weak (hence the gentleness needed when repotting them) and what that means is that many hormones needed for vigorous growth are hard to replace if we prune incorrectly (many hormones are synthesized in the roots, auxin being one of them). And without those hormones….. wait, let me talk a little about plants and why they do what they do.

There are some people out there that just don’t believe in plant hormones. They think that energy causes growth (energy is an incorrect term really, it’s carbohydrate and sugars that should be used when talking about “energy”, but many people need to use words they are comfortable with. Also, since I’m rambling a bit, I am tired of people saying that you need to “feed” plants by fertilizing them. Plants get their “energy” from the sun, through this amazing process called photosynthesis, not from fertilizer, it’s not a “feeding” process, merely a chemical reaction, plants get their energy from photosynthesis. If you’d like, they “feed” themselves. When we fertilize, it’s analogous to vitamins and minerals or steroids. Do you know what happens to a plant that’s “weak” and you fertilize? You often kill it, because the stored carbohydrate isn’t enough to support the artificial stimulation that, say, a high nitrogen fertilizer causes. Sorry. Back to hormones). I say that people don’t believe in hormones because that’s not what they learned. Most of the research on plant hormones has only come out in the last 5-10 years. Previously, scientists (I know, scientists are evil and all that, I understand your Luddite tendencies, but bear with me). If you went to college and got your degree in horticulture within the last 10 years, you may need to go back and get your continuing education credits to stay current (and no, I don’t have a degree in horticulture, but I can read. I have the same attitude that Mark Twain has about “schooling” vs. “learning” though. A man teaches himself, sometimes with the help of a teacher, sometimes in spite of a teacher, but mostly on his own).

Hormones are the origin of all plant processes. Plain, simple, period. “Energy” is used by the plant only when the hormone “tells” the plant to use it. There are triggers from the environment that cause hormones to activate, or stop growth, but it’s hormones or lack of them that “tells” it to do something. And hormones will kill the plant too. Here’s an example: take any deciduous tree, in spring, let it pop new growth, defoliate it a month later, then again a month later, and again. And again. You’ll get all kinds of back-budding and growth. But next year, you may not get a tree that comes out of dormancy. You see, you’ve used up all the “energy” by making the tree keep putting out new growth all year, and it had no time to store it for the winter and then the spring growth. What have you done? You kept stimulating the growth by the manipulation of hormones and used up the carbohydrate.

Hormones are like an inexorable computer program. Once you hit “enter”, the plant goes through with the commands until it can’t go any more. ERROR CODE: death.

What does this have to do with a juniper? It used to be taught that you should pinch the growing tips on a juniper. This weakens the juniper (uses the energy) because it’s continually trying to maintain an equilibrium between growth and energy storage. Unfortunately, no one cares enough about juniper to spend the money on a real study about hormone distribution in the plant’s body (junipers are one of the easiest plants to grow, so who cares, right?) so we only know what works and can only guess what’s happening. But we do know that we need to selectively prune the strongest growth tips, preserving those on the secondary branching on any one particular branch. It’s my guess that we are preserving the auxin (which collects in the growing tips but is synthesized in the, weak on a juniper, roots). This technique also helps to keep the tree reverting to juvenile foliage (that would be the spiky foliage. Adult foliage is the soft, what they call scale, kind). A juniper reverts to spiky foliage when under stress, it opens up to get more sunshine on the surface and to aid in water absorption through the stomata. Stress includes drying out, not enough light, too much pruning, too much nitrogen fertilizer, bugs etc.

If you look closely at Kathrin’s tree, there’s very little juvenile foliage on it. She takes care of it well. She practices overhead watering and occasional foliar fertilizing, it stays in full sun, and the soil dries out before watering. This is crucial on a parsonii juniper because it almost always has a mixture of juvenile and adult foliage, usually half and half. Look again at her juniper. Amazing.

I’m very grateful to be able to work on it. Thank you Kathrin, and thank you Janice. I hope I did a good job on your respective trees.

About adamaskwhy

Visual artist specializing in bonsai, mostly.
This entry was posted in Art, branch placement, Horticulture and growing, philosophical rant, refine, roots, wiring and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Did it have to be another juniper?

  1. Pingback: Did it have to be another juniper? | Adam’s Art and Bonsai Blog – Wolf's Birding and Bonsai Blog

  2. BostonDave says:

    O.k. I’ll be the chump and ask Adam(hey that’s a great name for a blog)? What did the bartender make for the 2 Junipers?
    LOL, hahaha
    Great article, been a fan for a while, 1st comment though, and will say not many explain the veins of junipers. Oopps, I’m mean sap line. Also not many discuss how to know the difference in smaller trees where they are not as pronounce. Bravo! Also the close up clear photos help.
    Big props from Boston!

    Like

  3. Fantastic, What books do you recommend for growing my horticultural knowledge?

    Like

  4. Kathrin Harris says:

    Thank you for the wonderful refinement work on my tree, Adam! The blog was very informative, and the flattery about how I care for this juniper much appreciated 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. imdarreng says:

    Very informative, thanks. Do any other species benefit from cleaning old bark from the trunk to encourage the prominent saplines? I’m thinking yew?

    Like

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