The Magic of Pines Part I

by Bernard Coetzee

The fascinating aspiration of having a perfect pine bonsai tree will never fade from the thoughts and dreams of bonsai growers worldwide. A pine tree represents Bonsai in its almost perfect form and it is traditionally known as the original form of Japanese bonsai. Moyogi or informal upright, a free form design, is still often referred to as the Pine Tree design.

In South Africa, although the quest for pine as bonsai material is still as intense as ever, there will always remain a majority of growers too hesitant to take the plunge into the realm of pines as bonsai material. Yet they all know deep down that no bonsai collection will ever be complete without the Pine and its powerful influence. I became interested, hell no, fascinated with pine material for bonsai as far back as 1967 or 68, which as you might guess if you're old enough, coincided with the arrival in Cape Town of Peter Hattingh. Peter, originally form Durban, had also lived and worked in Japan for more than year, at once became the resident Bonsai Master in Cape Town. It was he who, himself still unashamedly learning in the process, set alight the spark of true bonsai art not only in Cape Town but in the whole of South Africa.

Because of his horticultural background, he started us on propagating new material not only from cuttings but also from seed. When he left Cape Town, this sadly after only about two years, I found myself the proud owner of a batch of black pine seedlings. All of these pines still exist, some very much better than others. They will always be the reminder of our entrance into the realm of pine bonsai.

In those early days design was virtually achieved by hit and miss methods and was certainly not as evolved as we know it today. This was because of a lack of contact with more experienced growers from other parts of the world. The so-called "styles" of bonsai was the only way we knew of growing or designing our trees. Little did we realize then that this concept of designing trees into bonsai would literally hold us back to such an extent that instead of becoming a leading nation (and we were at that stage) in the world of bonsai we slipped into a state of mediocrity.

However, let me not dwell on this subject, but tum our attention to the development of pines and more specifically the Japanese black pine. Then, because of my absolute ignorance as to how pines should be trained, I realized that I would have to search for a starting point. The more I read, however, the less inspired I became, because everything written about pines only started when they were already well developed, about 10 to 15 years old. Then I remembered a discussion on bonsai in general that I'd had with a Mr Matsuda who had come to South Africa around 1968 to study succulents. When we were introduced to him we had no idea that he was also a bonsai expert. His father and grandfather before him ran a bonsai nursery and specialized in mame bonsai. He introduced me to pine seed culture and how it should be handled; he also inspired me to delve deeper into the fascinating cultivation of pine bonsai.

The pine seeds sent by Mr Matsuda were planted in the spring of 1974. Unfortunately pots he had sent at the same time arrived in a thousand small pieces. I had made a special trip to the Grabouw state nursery to find out how to plant the seeds. All 15 came up strong and healthy. This was probably because I had followed their instructions to the letter. I soaked them in a bowl of water for 48 hours (you discard the ones that float, hooray there were none) then they were subjected to a month of stratification (seeds planted in a layer of growing medium and covered until the second or third set of true leaves appear) after which they were planted out in seed trays in rows 50mm apart and 50mm between seedlings.

Planting times can differ quite considerably depending on where in the country you live; here in the Cape late winter would be more or less the best time for planting. The soil I used was the same as for my mame or shohin, but with a good portion of pine leaf mould added. In those early days I sterilized all my sand, soil and leaf mould out of fear more than anything else and I do not suggest that you do this because the pine mycorrhiza in the compost might also be destroyed.

After the seeds were covered the trays were put in a sunny spot to germinate. The seed trays should be kept out of the rain so that the moisture content of the soil and the anti-fungus programme can be better monitored. The fungicide should be applied at weekly intervals until the plants are out of danger. This will prevent wilting (damping off) of the plants and ensure strong vigorous growth.

Once the seedlings had become established and were growing strongly they were uprooted and the entire root section was removed. This was done at a point just below the soil level. The plant was then treated as a cutting and replanted in tray with river sand. It is not necessary to use hormone powder, but you can and will get good results. I've always had at least a 90% success rate this way. I have also found that pine seedlings handled this way develop a more aggressive growing habit. Their surface root structure becomes a simple matter from then on, provided that the correct routine for yearly repotting was adhered to.

In bringing pines along from seedlings, a well-monitored potting and designing programme should be followed. This method is important in developing both the root and foliage structure of the young pine. It will also ensure a more rapid growing and healthier tree.

When a haphazard repotting programme is adopted, those early important growing years can be lost in the development of your young pines. You see, the need to grow foliage should be considered as important as root growth and vice versa. However, it is far more beneficial for the tree to do only one of these functions at a time. Therefore, foliage pruning should be alternated with root pruning on a yearly basis. One year attend to the foliage and the next year to the rootage, thus you allow for a compounding of the growth pattern in both rootage and foliage, balancing each other as they progress.

The above will be followed by further articles with information on spring and summer pruning and designing strategies for pines.


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Flapping away in autumn rain

Last old slow heron. ~ Anon

Random Bonsai Tip

Wiring is probably the most commongly used technique for shaping trunk and branches, but it can also be used for thickening the trunk or branches