An Informal Upright Japanese Black Pine


A three-point Japanese Black Pine display at the LSBF show.

This Japanese black pine (JBP) won the best conifer award in the April 2014 Lone Star State Bonsai Federation (LSBF) show in Houston. Winning the award was a pleasant surprise since I did not expect it; the tree looked somewhat sparse during the show compared to how it looked in the following photo taken on June 27.

JBP june

JBP in June 27, 2014

After the award announcement, some people told me it was the nebari that captured their attentions; the roots spread out nicely and radially outwards all around the base of the trunk which tapered gradually upwards into an informal upright style tree. The needles, though not that full during early spring, were short and even in all the branches. The height of this JBP is 28 inches from the nebari.

JBP nebari moss
JBP nebari

I obtained this tree from the Brussel’s Bonsai Nursery when my wife and I attended their 2011 Rendezvous. Besides seeing world class masters at work and enjoying the friendly gathering, looking for trees to bring home is on the top of things to do at the Rendezvous.

On the last day of the convention, we walked around the nursery one last time before driving home and saw this JBP. We were attracted by its nebari and the flaky bark, however, the tree had lost a back branch at the back of the first right branch, and the needles were very long.  Nevertheless, the nebari was too good to pass up this tree. Seeing that I really like the tree, my wife bought it for my Father’s day, birthday and Christmas presents, all rolled into one.

Since our zone 9 weather is very hot and this JBP was in a shallow pot, I over-potted it in a larger pot filled with expanded shales to prevent heat damage to the roots.

IMG_0411 jbp

June, 2011. Just obtained the tree from Brussel’s Nursery, it was over potted in a larger pot filled with expanded shales.

In the first summer, I decandled only about 1/3 of the branches that had stronger needles, and allowed the weaker branches to grow stronger. The next spring, the tree was repotted into a deeper pot with 50% akadama and 50% expanded shale. After two seasons of decandling and carrying out routine fall and spring maintenances, some branches had back budded and the needles reduced nicely to lengths suitable for a tree of this size. The branches were also wired for the show.

For summer decandling, I used the 10-10-10 method and did it over a 20-day period, starting with the weakest candles, progressing to the medium strength candles 10 days later, and finally the strongest candles after another 10 days to complete the process; this allowed me to have a better control of the decandling process. We also have a long growing season in the south, I started decandling on the third week of July and finished removed the strongest candles around the first week of August. The timing for summer decandling depends very much on where one lives and individual care routine. About 90-100 days of new needle growth is sufficient for our zone.


The tree after two years of decandling and maintenance.

The JBP would have remained in this deeper pot for better growth, but to show the tree in the convention, I repotted it into a shallower pot to balance the overall proportion between the tree and pot.

In our zone, JBP comes out from its dormancy in early February. The roots had developed a lot of mycorrhizae. I saved the cut-roots, chopped them into small pieces and put them back with the new growing medium. It is always a good idea to make sure the pot is level when repotting a larger tree instead of just eye balling it. This will prevent surprises when the potted tree is placed on a level table. It is important not to completely bare the JBP roots during repotting, a sufficient amount of old soil must be left during repotting or the tree might die.


Removed the tree from the old pot.


Mycorhizae among the roots.


Chopped the trimmed roots containing mychorhizae and put them back among the new soil.


Level the pot, both sideways and from front to back.


Add new 50/50 akadama and pumice to the old soil.

This time I used pumice instead of expanded shale for the mix since I have half a bag of medium size pumice left unused. The new pot is a lot shallower, pumice would likely retain moisture better than expanded shale. Note the wedge on the right foot of the pot for levelling.

In just under three years, the needles of this JBP had reduced nicely, there were some back buddings in the branches, weaker branches had grown stronger and there were new growths. Though still a long way to go, I decided to put it in the LSBF show hosted by our club. The tree was displayed with a scroll painting to the right and a dry waterfall suiseki as a three-element display. The scene in this scroll painting was “Li Bai meditating in front of a waterfall”. Li Bai was a famous Chinese poet from the 7th century Tang dynasty. The black dry waterfall stone, a “karatake” stone, is a Laibing River Chinese viewing stone. It was meant to compliment the scroll painting’s waterfall but I think it would be better without it. Just the JBP and the scroll painting would suffice.

Winning the best conifer award was a big surprise since there were other beautiful conifers in the show such as the Hinoki Cypress by Sylvia Smith of Dallas. It was a joy to see a vigorous growing Hinoki Cypress since we cannot grow it in our region although Dallas is only 250 miles northwest of us. Her cypress did win the “Peoples’ Choice” award. Congratulations to Silvia!


“Peoples’ Choice Award”, a Hinoki Cypress by Sylvia Smith of Dallas.

Despite the flawed branches, buying this tree based on the beautiful nebari was a correct decision; branch and style development can come later.  For the next few years, I want to develop new branches to fill up the big gap left by the dead back branch at the lower right, develop more inner branches for the tree to look fuller.  With the current somewhat conical apex, this tree does not look mature enough.  I need to bring down the branches, remove some apical branches and develop a rounder apex to give the tree a more mature look.

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