A visit to the GSBF Bonsai Garden at Lake Merritt this spring will reveal an intriguing bonsai technique – paper-wrapped bonsai wire. I learned about the technique from the garden’s curator, Kathy Shaner, not long after she completed her apprenticeship to Yasuo Mitsuya in Toyohashi, Japan. Copper wire is more commonly used on conifers than it is on deciduous trees as copper can stain the trunks and branches of deciduous trees. The primary alternative to copper bonsai wire is aluminum. While aluminum doesn’t stain trunks or branches, it doesn’t hold as well as copper. The solution – paper-wrapped bonsai wire!
Hawthorn bonsai with paper-wrapped copper wire
Working with paper-wrapped wire isn’t bad – the trick is getting the paper on the wire. It takes a bit of practice. The paper is rolled onto a single section of wire at a time. The result is a funny looking tree – and if all goes well, there will be no scars.
Hawthorn – wiring detail
The garden does a good job of providing information about the care and maintenance of the collection. The paper-covered wire treatment elicited its own note:
What’s with the white stuff?
What you are looking at is wire that has been covered with paper. The wire is to shape the tree. The paper wrap is to protect the delicate bark from the wire. Most trees do not need to have the wire covered, as their bark is not as susceptible to wire marks. We will monitor the growth of the tree, and when the wire just starts to cut into the bark, we will remove it. If the branch does not stay where we placed it after putting on the paper wrapped wire, we will repeat the wiring. Normally one season of growth is sufficient for the branch to stay in place after the wire is removed.
Pomegranate with paper-wrapped wire, bamboo sections and irrigation lines
Pomegranate – wiring detail
The Garden at Lake Merritt’s website contains a lot of information about the trees in the collection. The weeping flowering cherry below, the site notes, is known as “shidare-higan-sakura in Japanese, or Prunus subhirtella.” It was donated by Pete and Amy Sugawara and was started some time around 1980.
Weeping flowering cherry, ‘Benihoshi’
I don’t know where one can find the paper used for this technique – which is fine, for the moment, as I have a lot of pines to wire.
Last weekend I had the opportunity to attend a Bay Island Bonsai workshop run by Daisaku Nomoto. I selected a tree I’ve been working on for the past 15 years – a hinoki. The tree improves every year, but slowly, as hinokis are notoriously slow growing. A year and a half ago, Boon and I performed some heavy bending to get the main branches closer to where we wanted them. This year the work really paid off. Here are some before and after pictures:
Front – before
Front – after
Right – before
Right – after
Left side – before
Left side – after
Back – before
Back – after
The biggest change came when Nomoto removed the first cluster of branches on the left. We discussed this ahead of the workshop and I assented to the cutting. Here’s the branch as it appeared before the workshop with guy wires holding it in place.
Before – guy-wires are doing most of the work
There were two good reasons for removing these branches. First, they blocked the view of the trunk. Second, by replacing branches that grew low on the trunk with branches that emerged higher up, we could bend these branches at a steeper angle. The idea is that older branches tend to hang lower than younger branches.
Removing the branches – stubs will be used for jins
Nomoto removed enough foliage to make a hinoki fan.
Minor cutback and wiring filled the rest of the day. Nomoto moved between workshop participants, cutting, wiring, and offering advice as appropriate. When he got back to me, he typically set a few branches and told me to continue wiring.
Nomoto setting a branch – note use of pliers
Nomoto applying wire
I occasionally looked up from my work to see what else was going on in the workshop. At one point, Nomoto was performing heavy bending with rebar. With a branch in one hand and pliers in another, he kept the rebar in place with his knee.
Heavy bending – prostrata juniper
Fortunately for me, the hinoki needed far less dramatic work, like the plucking of unnecessary foliage.
After setting a branch, Nomoto took care to remove any downward growing foliage. This creates well-defined pads and reveals the age of the tree by exposing the branches that comprise the pads.
Hinoki branch pad
As is often the case in re-stylings, the trick is getting the apex right. While the current silhouette is close to where I want it, some shoots weren’t long enough to fill in where I need them. It’s easy to see this from above.
Seen from above – after re-styling
I’m really happy with the way the tree turned out. For one, it finally approximates the design I had in mind for it 15 years ago. Even better, I now have a tree I can show in Bay Island Bonsai’s upcoming exhibit next January.
Happy with the results – excess foliage cover the turntable
Now 15 years in, I feel like I’m half-way there, and it’s a great feeling.
One of the first trees to catch my attention at Midori’s 40th annual show was a California Juniper, juniperus californica, that belongs to Peter Tea. The tree is beautiful and well deserved recognition as Best in Show.
California juniper – Best in Show, 2009
The juniper first came to my attention a number of years ago in Boon’s backyard. It was planted in a growing pot after being collected in 1992 from the Mojave Desert. While the tree had good potential, I didn’t think much about it until 2000. This was the year of the inaugural Bonsai Intensive held by Boon.
The experience lived up to its name. Michael Hagedorn and I, the only attendees, worked three long days in a chilly workshop on a great variety of trees. By the end of the third day, Michael had cut back, thinned and wired this juniper. While I don’t have a photo from the event, you can see how it looked two years later as exhibited in the 2002 JAL World Bonsai contest on Boon’s website (click on the thumb – it’s the fourth tree from the left).
You’ll notice that the tree is pictured with a different front. I remember weighing the merits of both fronts as part of the intensive. One side had good deadwood but the branches grew in the “wrong” direction. The front selected yielded good deadwood and good branch placement. Several years later the tree was shown with this front at Bay Island Bonsai’s 5th annual exhibit in January, 2004 (see photo).
Often in bonsai there are a number of good styling options available to us. It’s a great dilemma to face because even though a single direction must be chosen for the present, we can always choose to pursue the other direction somewhere down the line.
That’s the case for this juniper. After several more years of branch development, Peter noticed the tree had the potential to look even better from the other side. He made the switch, re-worked all of the branches, and prepared the tree for show. The result is in the photos you see here.
Looking up at the wired branches
It was a treat to see the tree so well-styled with the front we had thought about some 9 years ago. And it’s this forward progress that makes me so optimistic about the future of bonsai. Seeing trees improve like this not only gets me excited to visit as many exhibits as I can manage, but it helps me focus on my own collection as well. The goal, of course, is for my own trees to experience similar improvement.
After bringing the tree home from exhibit, Peter repotted the juniper for further development. As a result I imagine it will look even better the next time it’s shown.
One of our more educational visits came at the garden of Takeo Kawabe. Kawabe was an automotive engineer whose life took a new direction after seeing, for the first time, the trees in Masahiko Kimura’s garden. Kawabe soon left behind his automotive career and began a bonsai apprenticeship with Kimura at the relatively late age (for Japanese apprentices) of nearly 30 years old. You can see him at work on page 6 of The Bonsai Art of Kimura (upper left-hand corner).
Kawabe’s carving and grafting work is impressive. Together, these skills make him an outstanding creator of bonsai from collected material. His garden reflects this. Although a small number of the trees in his garden are ready for show, the vast majority are in various stages of development. He spoke at length about bonsai development, constantly emphasizing the incremental nature of the work. Maybe one year for carving the deadwood on a tree, another for grafting or repotting, and so on. While it’s possible to do all of this work at the same time, the health of the tree should determine how much work is done at any one time and when the work should be done.
Kawabe with a 15yr. old pine bonsai he’s raised from seed.
On the topic of wiring, Kawabe told us there are three reasons for adding wire to a tree: to modify its shape, to cause swelling, and to let light in where it is needed. We are used to wiring trees to get them into shape. We’re typically careful not to let the wires cut into the branches and we remove and replace wire when it gets tight.
This isn’t always the best approach, he told us, when developing trees from scratch. To get a branch to hold its shape, letting the wire cut in and cause swelling can help set a branch more quickly than replacing the wire before it cuts in. The trick is in knowing which branches can benefit from this technique and how much scarring is appropriate for a particular branch.
When existing branches don’t fit into the final design and new buds or grafts are required to improve a tree, wiring can be useful for opening a tree up and letting light into interior spaces where new growth is required.
Recently repotted Itioigawa shimpaku
On the topic of carving Kawabe encouraged us to not be too hasty or zealous with our work. While it can be fun and dramatic to do heavy carving with power tools, it’s not always the best approach. Nature, he said, is the best when it comes to carving. Our work is to accelerate the effect nature has on a tree’s deadwood. The best way for us to do this is to work slowly and carefully, and above all, to work with the grain of the wood.
Detail of shimpaku deadwood after initial carving and sandblasting
Walking around Kawabe’s garden is great because it is like getting a preview to a Kokufu Exhibit that will be held 20 years in the future. It’s an opportunity to see where great trees come from and how it is that they come to get there. It’s the kind of garden that motivates one to find as much good material as possible and start working on it.
Toho shimpaku. This large flame-like tree is another long term project. All of the tree’s foliage will grow from a single grafted branch protruding about midway up from the rear left of the tree.
Kawabe also has a sizable collection of Japanese yew bonsai (Taxus cuspidata) that he is hoping to exhibit at an upcoming local event to be held several years from now. Although most will require significant development before they can be shown, there is great potential.
Deadwood detail, Japanese yew
Deadwood detail, Japanese yew
Deadwood detail, Japanese yew