Fall cleanup (and unexpected show-prep) on a twisty Itoigawa

I did some work in February, and let it mostly grow wild into October. So we start here:

The tree is one-dimensional, and has a few long branches extending on the back side, and a bald spot in the back left.

Below, my hand is covering the back left branch that needs to be shortened, and the bald spot is visible above my hand:

And the back right branch (this right side is the stronger side, and it’s pretty dense):

It does look ok from the front. However, you can’t limit the viewing angle in a show…

First, cleanup undersides and prune it back a bit. Here is that back left branch, removed:

First phase done:

Next, cleaning up the loose bark with a knife and scrubbed up with a toothbrush:

Soil surface mossed, and pot oiled with baby oil:

Finally, a coat of diluted lime sulfur on the deadwood:


Still Changing Clothes, RMJ to Itoigawa

Over four years ago, I started grafting Itoigawa cuttings into this collected RMJ. Since the first attempt failed, I have been very reluctant to cut the roots, even though I suspect the grafts have taken by now. I have girdled 75% of the scion, and by next March, I will take the plunge.

March 2015:

June 2019:

Meanwhile, since I don’t have a real clear idea of the final styling of the tree, I decided to practice applying another approach graft to provide the option of keeping the left trunk. Originally, my plan was to Jin it.

This spot will be easy to access, and shouldn’t be too visible from either side:

Quick groove with a rotary bit:

Scuff up the scion, and set it in the groove. This time, I was able to set it deeper than the first graft:

Wrap the graft with Parafilm:

From the front:

I reduced the RMJ foliage just a little to get the Itoigawa exposed to sunlight.

Here is a shot from the front:

The first graft has grown well since it was applied 4 years ago:

Since I still don’t quite know how it will finish, I decided to Jin some branches I know 8 won’t be using, and reduce some of the original foliage in hope of keeping the Itoigawa foliage strong.

My Buddy Dave stopped by shortly after this work was done in late June and suggested I add another approach graft point on the upper branch, as the attachment point was a bit sketchy. Good idea, the whip was long enough:

when grafting old junipers, finding the live vein is important. I scratched spot I wanted to graft first, and it didn’t appear to be alive:

So I began scraping off the flaky bark until the live vein was apparent. look at the photo above and notice the live vein is running along the left side of the branch. It will be plump, brighter red/purple in color, and the dead wood around it is usually sunken. Here is a shot that shows the living vein, notice the red/purple look, contrasting with the dead wood above. Also, note how the green cambium flowed with sap just seconds after carving the groove:

That’s the spot!


Next, I’m continuing to weaken the roots on the Itoigawa, by reducing the trunk, and I also decided to remove the pot to allow the roots to start withering.

Done for now.

A month later, the color of the Itoigawa is concerning. The bottom graft is clearly struggling.

Next spring, I’ll finish the separation, repot into a smaller pot, and hopefully begin styling some of the Itoigawa branches.

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.