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A visit to Chikugo-En and the Elusive Kiyozuro

Gary Ishii’s Chikugo-en nursery is in Gardena, CA. He and his late father, Mas were featured in Bonsai Today #75 for their skilled grafting of Itoigawa and Kishu onto San Jose and Prostrata junipers. The large cascade juniper in the article is still prominently displayed, perfectly-manicured, in the front of the nursery.

When I arrived, he was on a ladder performing ‘mikiri’ (summer candle-cutting) on the entrance’s iconic Black Pine. He later showed me a photo of the tree when his father planted it 30 years ago, when the trunk was the size of a “half-dollar piece”:

Readers of this site are familiar with this series of posts that discuss characteristics of different types of Shimpaku junipers. They are always the most-frequently visited posts in the short history of this site.

During my research for those posts, I stumbled on another type of Shimpaku, ‘Kiyoruzo’. When it appears in searches, this elusive strain is always linked back to origins at Chikugo-En, and really nowhere else, that I have found. So when our family was on vacation in LA in late July, I had the opportunity to visit the nursery and began my hunt for the Kiyozuro Shimpaku.

Here are a few photos from yelp to give an idea of the nursery.

They do not allow photography inside the nursery, but Gary was very friendly, patient, and helpful. The nursery is compact, and packed with well-grown, and well-groomed trees; with the large majority comprised of junipers, olives, and black pines. Many of which were not for sale, or priced to not sell. He was rightly attached to several of the trees I inquired about, and we had light-hearted discussion about many of them.

But the search was on for this Kiyozuro. Gary did say it was becoming difficult to distinguish them from Itoigawa, as he had sold or lost track of most of them. From initial observation, the foliage was denser than Itoigawa, finer in texture, possibly “droopier”, and slightly lighter/paler in color. I also couldn’t find any juvenile foliage on them, which may prove to be the winning differentiator between it and Itoigawa. This will be a trait to watch.

I hadn’t come to the nursery planning to spend much on a tree, but had hoped to pick up a smaller Kiyozuro to grow out. However, he really only showed my 2 that were definitely Kiyozuro; a semi-cascade that he had plans for, and the one I ultimately paid an absolute fool’s ransom to acquire. he told me it was grafted to San Jose 20-25 years ago and showed me the graft union, which you can see is at the first bend just above the soil line. The San Jose bark is warty and darker and paler than the Kiyozuro, which appears to have a redder bark color than Itoigawa, closer in color to Shimpaku.

When I took it to the counter, Gary’s mother(?) immediately recognized it, and called it by name. This was impressive, since, save for the repotting date, it was unmarked!

Here is a shot I was permitted to take in the nursery of the Kiyozuro I bought. Gary’s daughter(?) was kind enough to set up a quick backdrop for the photos:

I was torn, because I’m not at all enamored with the trunk of this tree, or the price, but since I really wanted the cultivar, I went for it; and rationalized that I could layer off the top and make cuttings to do some dollar-cost averaging over time.

By contrast, here is an Itoigawa which was priced 10% less, with a larger and better-shaped trunk. I did carry it around for a while until I convinced myself I would be disappointed later if I didn’t end up with the Kiyozuru cultivar I went after from the beginning. An unsolicited peek into my psyche…my poor wife…who wisely chose to not join me on this little excursion.

While showing him photos of some of my trees, he made me go back to this Itoigawa, and told me he started this one! He also told me he buries the trunk up to that first curve until it roots, and that provides a better flared base. Walking through the nursery, it was clear he had done that. Hmmm….that solves several problems…I’ll return to that nugget later, no doubt.

Here are a few other Kiyozuru from the internet, all tracing back to Chikugo-en; 2 from BonsaiNut:

One from a vendor:

And one more Gary offered me back in 2014. Wish I would have jumped on this one back then!

And finally, a few shots of the Itoigawa (right) next to the Kiyozuru (left):

I’ll continue to evaluate this kiyozuro and update over time, along with some better comparison shots. It was dark last night when the tree finally arrived.

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One Comment Post a comment
  1. ron heinen #

    Damn, great article!

    August 13, 2019

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