I’ve found that mature red and black pines can sometimes be hard to tell apart. Leaf character and bark can vary wildly from specimen to specimen and many trees exhibit qualities associated with both varieties. Younger trees, however, are generally easy to distinguish. The black pines I’ve grown typically have straight, sturdy needles while the red pines frequently have needles that are less sturdy and less straight.
1-1/2 year old black pine and red pine
The young black pines in my garden typically have darker green foliage than the young red pines, though I often see the opposite in older specimens.
2-1/2 year old black pine and red pine
Needle growth often appears more compact in black pines than in red pines.
3-1/2 year-old black pine and red pine
Much of this difference disappears when the trees are decandled, but when left alone, the varieties can often be distinguished by silhouette alone.
Black and red pines
One of the best ways to distinguish the varieties is to check bud color. Red pine buds are typically red.
Red pine buds
Black pine buds are, counterintuitively, white.
Black pine buds
When developing bonsai from scratch – from seed or from very young stock – the first order of business is creating the trunk. This is easier said than done. Some of the very first curves are set when the tree is still young. For black and red pine, I’ve been applying the first wires at around 3 or 4 years old (see “Wiring 3 year-old black pines”). When wiring such young trees, I tend to use larger gauge wire as it doesn’t cut into the bark as quickly as thin gauge wire. Given enough time, however, the wire will cut in. And as young pines can grow quickly, care is required to ensure the wire doesn’t stay on too long.
How much is too much? I left the wire on the young pine below on a bit longer than I wanted. The wire had been in place for around 5 months.
Wire cutting into the bark
A bit of cutting in is good as it helps set branches, but at some point too much cutting in can kill branches, or at least make them unsuitable for bonsai. Smaller scars don’t cause problems as they typically disappear as the trunk thickens.
Scars left by leaving the wire on too long
I have a number of pines around the same age.
4-year-old black pine
The wire here is cutting in but not too much.
Wire cutting in
Removing the wire at this stage is easy. Here’s the trunk after removing the wire.
After removing the wire
Ready for more fertilizer and a return to the bench
When applying or removing bonsai wire, it’s important to apply (or remove) the wire with one hand and secure it with the other. This is especially true when the wire cuts in deeply. If not removed with care, the wire can tear through young bark and open large wounds.
Another 4-year-old pine
Both the trunk and the first branch have been wired
I usually secure the wire with my left hand and wind or unwind it with my right. Below, I’m securing the wire with my left hand so my right can unwind the wire about 180 degrees. At that point I’ll lower my left hand and secure a bend closer to the soil. From that position I can unwind the wire another 90-180 degrees. I continue re-securing the wire bend by bend until I reach the soil line and the wire comes free.
Securing the wire
After removing the wire, I reapply fertilizer and return the trees to the bench. I’ll work on them next in fall or winter.
Flat of young pines
A number of my 4-year-old pines were a bit larger and are already growing in colanders.
4-year-old pine in colander
I followed the same process for these trees.
Wire – copper in this case – beginning to cut in
After removing the wire
This one tree had been wired with copper as I worked on it just before my last trip to Japan. Once in Japan, I saw examples of trees developed the same way with aluminum wire. It’s a cheaper material with a larger diameter making it just perfect for the job.
Ready for the bench
Once that tree was done, I worked my way through the rest of the pines on the bench, removing all of the wires that were cutting in. When the wires weren’t cutting in, I left them in place. I’ll check these trees again next month and hold off on removing the wire until it’s begun to cut in.
I started my first batch of black pine bonsai from seed over 20 years ago. Most of these trees have been developed using the seedling-cutting technique. This year, I’m foregoing the technique and letting the seedlings grow freely for a change.
Black pine seedling – July 2014
Striking cuttings from seedlings can simplify the process of producing even root growth. This year I’m aiming to produce trees with uneven root growth. The idea is that natural root growth guided by selective pruning during repotting can also produce great surface roots. As I’ve often worked with seedling-cuttings, I’m looking forward to learning what differences, if any, working with non-seedling cuttings entails.
Black pine seedlings
The inspiration for letting the young trees grow freely this year? My visit to Miyakonojou this past winter. During this visit, I found evidence that great trees can be produced without the technique. I’ll let you know how it goes!
Have you ever found yourself unsure about a young tree’s future? Me too. As young pines transition from trunk development to branch development, the main focus is on slowing the tree down and increasing branch density. I begin this process by decandling the tree and removing extraneous branches. I don’t need a final plan at this point, but the more I know about the tree’s future, the better.
10-year-old black pine – before decandling
After removing the spring growth
Next, I thinned out branches where three or more emerged from the same spot and shortened those that extended beyond the tree’s basic outline.
After removing unnecessary branches
As the foliage was still fairly dense in some areas, I removed extra needles to allow more light and air to reach the tree’s interior.
After removing needles where the foliage was dense
I left the long branch on top as I haven’t completely decided what I want to do with the trunk. I’ll revisit the decision this fall.
I followed the same process of removing spring growth and thinning unnecessary branches on a number of 10-year-old trees.
Black pine – before
After decandling and cutback
One of the more fun trees from this batch was created by letting the roots grow through course rocks for several years (See “Repotting 1 year-old black pines” for details). Here’s the tree before decandling and cutback.
10-year-old exposed root black pine
After cutback – front #1
The other side of the tree could also provide a compelling front.
I’ll select one of these fronts or the other when I repot the tree this winter.