More on differences among Itoigawa, Kishu, and Shimpaku junipers

This is one topic that really intrigues me. Shimpaku has become a favorite bonsai subject, and as I work more with the different varieties, I’ll continue to share the subtle differences.

From macro to micro, here is a little more about each of these three varieties.

My Itoigawa, from Evergreen Gardenworks, and the source of all the Itoigawa material shown.


This is a shimpaku, also from Evergreen Gardenworks, similar in size to the Itoigawa at about 16″.


Finally, the Kishu, which is young, in the ground (left) and growing on. These came from Miniature Plant Kingdom.


Here are some photos of shoots of each variety. For consistency and clarity throughout this post, each shoot will appear in alphabetical order, from left to right…Itoigawa, Kishu, Shimpaku.





These all display mature foliage. Itoigawa is much lighter, brighter green in color. The texture is very fine, and the structure is open, and fanlike. Here is another shoot from the same plant:


The Kishu is brighter than the shimpaku, but the foliage is much tighter, and more succulent than Itoigawa. Many say that the foliage of kishu “balls up”, and in Japan, it’s presently less in favor than Itoigawa. The branches are stout, and the wood seems stiffer than Itoigawa. Here is a photo of a shoot:


And here is a shot from a shimpaku. Interestingly, it seems to be “balling up” like a kishu. Brent sold it to me as shimpaku, so I’m sticking with it. The foliage is a bit ropier in shape, bluer in color, and the texture is somewhere between Itoigawa and kishu.


Now, a look at some individual shoots. Itoigawa foliage reverts from mature to juvenile in response to hard pruning. Looking closely at the foliage structure, it appears that it all starts the same way, but that juvenile foliage extends points from each scale, mature foliage does not exhibit the extension growth, so it appears smoother, and also brighter. The left shoot shows juvenile foliage growing from a mature shoot. The right shoot shows mature foliage extending out from a juvenile shoot. See the difference?


I have yet to get juvenile foliage to grow from one of my kishus, but this juniper from Brussel’s is labeled as kishu, and is full of juvenile foliage. I’m not convinced its kishu.


And here is a photo showing a juvenile shimpaku shoot growing out mature foliage, the blue color of the juvenile foliage is much more apparent in this shimpaku.


Now, some close ups of the “runners” each produces, again, left to right, Itoigawa, Kishu, and Shimpaku:



So, here is a test for you. What kind of juniper is this one?


Shimpaku Workshop Tree

I got this shimpaku for Christmas in 2008. It came from Brent at Evergreen.

Since I hadn’t spent much time with junipers, I decided to let it grow for a year, and get to know the tree.  Here is what it looked like after the ’09 growing season:

Ultimately, it went to a Kathy Shaner workshop in March ’10, to learn a little about their training in the process.  Here is a shot from the workshop:

Here is a photo toward the end of the 2010 growing season:

It looked pretty rough, and I didn’t really know where it was going.  Finally, using this photograph, I came up with a virtual concept of what it could become:

Recently, I had an opportunity to take this tree to another workshop with Kathy and we continued the work. Here is a quick update of what we did:

1. Checked to see if any wood was added around the ovals we carved last spring.
2. Widened some ovals and opened up a few new ones to start to establish some interesting live veins.
3. Removed most of the wires.
4. Removed some of the upper branches that were wired, carved, and shaped for later creating jin.
5. Pulled down the lower-left branch, splitting it so we can get good movement.
6. Thinned out the growth to allow light for some shoots that can become branches.

This year, it was slip-potted into a larger container, and the name of the game is to push growth. It is very different to work on a tree over time and not have it look presentable.

One great point Kathy made was that, over time, trees sustain trauma, maybe something major every 20 or 50 years; a lightening strike, snow/wind damage, a large branch falling out of the top. We simulate this on an accelerated timeline every year or two in bonsai work. What makes a tree interesting isn’t this trauma itself, but rather how the tree responds to the trauma.

So, those carved ovals visible in this tree aren’t the design goal, they are the simulated trauma. The design will be predicated on how the tree responds to these (and future) wounds. The response should be interesting, layered depths of dead wood, and dynamic, winding live veins climbing up the tree.

Here is a shot from today, after thinning out some of the runners.  The movement of the trunk is really becoming nice, and the profile is starting to take shape.

A photo of the trunk:

More deadwood is incorporated into the design, as the live portions are being chased back closer to the trunk.  I suspect some of the ovals will be connected over the next few years, creating a sinewy live vein, and some interesting layers of shari.

Itoigawa Juniper: work in progress

With quite a few new projects underway, and winter work still a couple months away, several of the next few posts, like the spruce, will be bonsai “cliffhangers”.  Other upcoming work will include a Japanese Black Pine that has been chronicled over the past 5 seasons, revisits of a Zelkova and Beech shared on BonsaiNut, and maybe some more technical notes on cultivating black pines for bonsai.

This is an Itoigawa juniper, also from Evergreen Gardenworks.  Botanically it’s Juniperus chinensis, but Itoigawa juniper (named for the region it was originally found), is quite different than the Shimpaku juniper.  Foliage is bright, light green and is smaller in scale than Shimpaku juniper.  As shown in the photos, it also has a stronger tendency to revert to juvenile foliage after heavy pruning.  The bark is also lighter, and a little paler than shimpaku.

For years I had an aversion to junipers.  This is probably due to my earlier experiences with Procumbens (everyone’s first bonsai), and Virginiana (collected Red Cedars).  Both of these junipers were prickly and didn’t seem to do much, if watched on a day-to-day basis.   It took about 10 years to get back around to junipers, first with shimpaku, and a couple years later, with this Itoigawa.

The foliage is delightful, and the bright color really draws attention to itself.  Here is a shot of the Itoigawa as purchased.  It’s in a 1-gallon can, that Brent said it’s been in for 15 years.  A point-in-case for not repotting too often…but we’ll tackle that another time.  At his suggestion, I shifted it to a slightly larger pot; which was too shallow, so I built it up with some plastic mesh.

Here is a shot after making some very decisive cuts and wiring this spring.

And here is a shot of the tree as it filled out over the course of the summer.  It was fed very heavily and responded impressively well to the hard pruning with surprising growth.

Finally, here is a photo of it after thinning it out, removing unnecessary growth, pruning it back a little, and redirecting some of the new growth with wire.

Next spring, root work will start in earnest.  Since it’s been in the 1-gallon can for so long, I spent part of this season aerating the root mass and incorporating aggregate into the holes in an attempt to loosen it up a bit.    Ideally, I’ll be able to reduce the bottom of the root ball and maintain some of the new side growth, and fit it comfortably in this “Keizan” pot.  It’s from the Tokoname region and is over 40 years old.  While the tree may not exactly be ready for a pot with this much age, it will grow into itself over the next several seasons.

Finally, although it’s no longer hosted on the original website, here is some additional reading about the history of Shimpaku junipers, their rise in popularity as collected species, along with some early specimens, and some descriptions of regional variations.  It’s well worth the read.

Thanks for reading!  Please feel free to leave a comment.