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Juniper Grove From Leftovers

American Bonsai Society

Juniper Grove From Leftovers

By Randy Davis


Junipers have long been a bonsai staple and are not likely to diminish anytime soon.  The juniper family of trees and shrubs is full of species that we have all seen and used, most notably the Shimpaku (Juniperus chinensis var sargentii ‘Shimpaku’), Japanese garden juniper (Juniperus procumbens ‘nana’),  and varieties of American native trees.  They are all quite nice and will make spectacular bonsai given their ‘beefy’ nature of growth, but they are usually seen as individual bonsai. 

A number of years ago, I was on one of my many plant exploration escapades searching for plant material to propagate I visited a local graveyard.  Yeah, I know, that sounds weird but over the years I have found some pretty interesting species and older cultivars of plants that are no longer available in the commercial industry in places like that.  On that trip I was actually looking for the original tree of a cultivar of American holly (Ilex opaca ‘Chief Paduc’) which I never actually found, by the way, when I did notice an unusual upright juniper that caught my eye.  Upright growing junipers are relatively few in number and this one had multiple trunks coming out of the base and growing tightly together, rather than the more common single trunk.  As you can probably guess, the first thing that popped into my mind was a nice little multi-trunk bonsai.   Luckily for me it was the middle of the winter and the perfect time to take Juniper cuttings. With the permission of the graveyard caretakers, I took a dozen or so cuttings.  The cuttings rooted over the winter and were potted up in the spring and grown for a year or two until they were a gallon-can size.  Over that time, I learned that its actual identity is what is commonly referred to as Irish Juniper (Juniperus communis ‘Hibernica’ or ‘Stricta’ which are the same).  This cultivar was introduced into the United States from Ireland in 1836 and was relatively common in the early nursery trade.  As a species, Juniperus communis is native to the complete northern hemisphere and has the largest range of any member of the juniper family.  Juniperus communis is a variable species that can be found anywhere from a low spreading shrub to tall tree forms. For bonsai in the United States, it is not used nearly as much as it should be even though large specimens are rare unless you happen to live in an area where it can be collected.  Most commercial nurseries that have a good selection of plant material have Juniperus communis if you look for it. The most commonly found cultivars in commercial nurseries today are the upright forms, most notably ‘Gold Coin’ which is identical to ‘Hibernica’ except that it’s new growth is yellow.  I’m sure most of us have been to nurseries and just passed it by because of its small stature, thin branches and rather ordinary appearance. On it’s own, it is certainly not one to inspire one’s bonsai spirit. I was still interested in seeing how it performed and started working with five or six of the gallon cans. As a gallon can specimen, these things at first look like ‘wimpy’ little things.  This is one of those times in bonsai when you think to yourself, ‘What am I wasting my time on this for?’  Be that as it may, I decided that because of the straight trunks  this Juniper it might be fun to try in a very small formal upright design and proceeded to prune out excess branches.  The first task on an ‘upright’ form of juniper is to wire the branches down into more horizontal positions. On smaller stock, the branches are rather small and can be wired with the smallest gauge of wire or even ‘guy wired’ to get them into the desired position.   Another task at this initial training stage is to reduce the floppy, long growth and force new growth back closer into the branch. It is also necessary to remove the growth that is growing downward from the bottom of each branch. Of the trees that I started with, I think I ended up with four or five single-trunk uprights, one double trunk and one that I grew on a rock.  Over the next couple of years these trees were just out on the benches growing out and would be pinched back on a regular basis to thicken up the foliage pads.  I even went so far as to put them into bonsai containers as individual trees. As individual trees, they were only ‘so-so’ and would require another few years to develop into something worthwhile.  I had taken them to a number of bonsai shows where I vended and they always ended up being the leftovers that made the trek back home to their places on the nursery benches.  One winter, I decided that I would make a small forest landscape out of these lonely leftovers.


When you undertake to do a landscape there are some things that one must consider in making a composition that works.  To my mind, the most important thing is that a landscape should tell the viewer a story that is compelling.  The scale of the composition or what some call the ‘distance of view’ is the most important.  A ‘close distance view’ would feel like you are standing right amongst the trees.  The ‘middle distance view’ would be as though you were on one side of a river looking at the forest on the other side.  The ‘far distance view’ is like you are on the top of a ridge looking at a forest across the valley.   The materials that you have on hand, will dictate for the most part which of these views to use.  Leaf size, trunk size, overall tree size, etc. have visual impacts that lend themselves to your selection of the scale.  In this particular case, I had evergreen trees under 12’ high, with small leaves, rather small trunks and with aged-looking bark.  Knowing that these junipers are native to the cooler, higher elevations and often found in rocky, stony locations of the northern hemisphere, I decided that this composition should be a ‘middle view’ with rocks in the composition.


Once the scale was decided, I could begin to prepare individual trees by removing them from their separate containers and spreading out the roots.  Juniperus communis has a relatively small, loosely-formed root system that lends itself to a container that is shallower than what one would use for a deciduous tree with an aggressive root system.  As luck would have it, I had a 14 inch oval container that was one inch deep that would work just fine.  Once you have all the materials ready, placement of the rock and trees should take most of the time.  I tend to start with the rocks myself and will spend quite a while moving them around seeing how they fit with the trees. Once you’re satisfied with your design, it’s time to put everything together, water it in and add some moss for detail.


While the final result here is okay, it’s far better than the individual trees in giving some immediate satisfaction.  It’s kind of like cooking, when you have leftovers it’s a challenge to make something new out of them but satisfying when it works out.   With a few more years of growth and detail work it will be a satisfying forest planting.  Ultimately, the lesson here is to always keep your options open with your trees. Leftovers can be delicious.

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