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Bonsai Autopsy, or how to make a $2000 coaster

I bought a 5-needle pine back in ’99 and it died almost immediately; along with several others from that batch of imports. 10 years later, I decided to give it another try. This time, an import that had been in the states for 5-6 years and seemed to be healthy. It’s dead now too, and I won’t be trying another 5-needle pine. But I learned a few things along the way, and I’ll share them here to help spare someone else the cost of my $2500 lessons.

1. Grow what grows in your area. I can’t stress this enough, and I keep teaching myself this the hard way.

2. Always inspect the roots when making a purchase. If you ask and the request is denied, do not buy. I was in this boat and took a gamble without being permitted to see the roots. I wish I would have just moved on.

3. When you find bad soil in the pot, replacing it should become the highest priority in the training plan.

4. If you suspect root-rot, get very curious very quickly.

5. Don’t allow a root ball to freeze solid while the foliage is exposed to direct sunlight. Trees should be in the shade when frozen, or at least allowed to fluctuate as a whole.

So here is a progression that has a happy ending…if you scroll from bottom to top:
As purchased (without inspecting roots) in December ’10:


Looking great after Peter Warren and I (mostly him) wired it in October ’11:


Throughout the warm winter, it stopped taking water. I didn’t get curious enough to pop it out of the pot and see what was happening, instead, I aerated it and added some akadama and lava. Slowly over 2012, branch after branch browned out and died until this was left:


So I finally got curious and pulled the tree out of the pot for a full repot in March ’13. UGH. Not much left.



Combed out, hosed off, and pruned back to remove all the mushiness…and nearly all of the soil. I intended to treat it about like a newly-collected tree; rocky soil, not much extra space, and misted regularly.

And placed under the bench to rest.

Within a month, the apex died. And while the remaining two branches were trying to push growth, I wasn’t hopeful. Finally, in early May, I gave up.


So, it’s not often we get a chance to autopsy a tree like this. The inspection convinced me that root rot was the issue. Clearly, the nursery’s soil is incompatible with my watering and siting. Noted.

I was also curious to see the graft union under that flaky bark. It really wasn’t bad, as 5NP on JBP go:


More interesting was seeing the cross-section at the graft:

From above:

And below the graft, it’s interesting to see the stock wrapping around the scion (darkest core):


In the background, you can see the light-saber we used to make the surgical cross-section cuts…


And, the end result: a $2k coaster. I might preserve it just to ensure I don’t get tempted to try another 5NP in 10 years.


So, by my best count, I counted 47 visible rings. I’d add 3-5 on each end that I couldn’t distinguish because they’re so close together. Peter estimated it to be 50-70 years. Impressive, though I’d rather not have found out this way! Next week, we’ll rejoin the living with some trident maple work.

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Brian, do you think the climate is the problem? How are your winters? I decided not to buy white pine in Japan. Returned them all and changed them for black pine. What a pity! Lesson learned and good I listened to people.

    September 21, 2013
  2. Judy Barto #

    What a beauty, sorry to see the end of that story. Where did you get such a wonderful specimen if you don’t mind telling?

    September 21, 2013
  3. ron heinen #

    🙂 sick & sorry for your loss…..thanks for the lesson.

    September 21, 2013
  4. ron heinen #

    😦 omg…I accidentally put a smiley face..sorry

    September 21, 2013
  5. John Weathers #

    Brian, thanks for your candidness. We all make mistakes with our bonsai, but not many will put it in writing to help others not make similar mistakes.

    September 21, 2013
  6. Feel your pain! My white pines have been struggling this year as well, hopefully I can catch them in time!

    September 23, 2013
  7. Robert Gardner #

    I know that my comments are a little late but just found your $2000.00 coaster story. Three years ago I bought a Japanese White on the internet. It is doing great new growth each year. I did notice that this year the growth was a little slower so Transplanted it into by growing area, man what difference better soil makes. I now have really strong growth good branching and amazing taper. Not quite a $2000.00 experiment but it was enough.
    It is living with all my Ponderosa Black pines, Red pines, Bristlecone and a few spruce all doing great.

    July 21, 2018

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