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?


Much ado about Shimpaku…and Itoigawa and Kishu Juniper

These three popular regional varieties of Juniperus chinensis are discussed often, but rarely are their features compared.  A few good articles exist that describe them, including Brent’s site, as well as this archived history of the shimpaku (although neither site shows a photo of Kishu).  Here are some observations and comparisons of each.  As always, please feel free to share your experiences as well!

First, it’s easiest to begin by looking at all three varieties.  From left to right: Itoigawa, Kishu, and Shimpaku.

Itoigawa, Kishu, Shimpaku

The Itoigawa and Shimpaku came from Brent Walston, and the Kishu came from Miniature Plant Kingdom, via Plant City Bonsai, so their provenance is documented and trusted.

First, the Itoigawa.  This variety was discovered later than Shimpaku, and was responsible for the appearance of the dramatic, carved deadwood look on collected junipers.  Itoigawa was named for the city where they were discovered; at modern-day Niigata, which is on the west coast, nearly due West of Fukushima.  The bark of Itoigawa has less of a red hue than Shimpaku.  The foliage is very bright sea-green in color.  It is naturally less compact by comparison, reverts to juvenile foliage after heavy pruning, which is slightly bluer, but still soft.  The mature scales are the smallest of the three and can become dense with regular pinching.  Shoots are finest in texture of the three, yet it grows faster than shimpaku.

Itoigawa foliage

Kishu was also named for the city nearest their discovery.  Kishu is at the Southwest corner of the mainland.  Kishu is also bright green, similar to the Itoigawa, but the foliage is very dense, compact, and “stout”.  Comparing Shimpaku to Kishu is like comparing the species Japanese Black Pine to a Yatsabusa black pine.  Kishu is often used for grafting to replace other juniper foliage because it does have desirable traits; dense, thick growth and bright green color.  Foliage seems to grow in thick tufts along the branches. Bark is reddish in color, similar to Shimpaku.

Kishu foliage

The Shimpaku was discovered on the Ishizuchi mountain range on the Northern part of Shikoku island, which is south of the mainland.  Shimpaku was originally collected from the mountains and enjoyed as bonsai with little to no training or styling.  Slender trunks were appreciated.  “In “Bonsai Gahou (Magazine)” No. 5 (September 1907 issue), there is a discussion of the origin of Shimpaku bonsai. It says that in 1889 a bonsai lover, Rokurou Ohta, obtained a juniper bonsai that reminded its admirers of a famous painting of “Kanzankokai” (an old Japanese cypress in the winter mountain). The rumor spread among the traders that “this is the authentic (=shin), oak (=paku).” Thus, the juniper was named “Shinpaku.” (Accounting for the conventions of Japanese word combination, it becomes “Shimpaku.”) This word was not known in either the Chinese or Japanese language and so the name “Shimpaku” was conceived within the world of bonsai as a new variety of junipers.” 1.

Shimpaku foliage is rope-like in texture, blue-green in color, and very soft.  Even the juvenile foliage is soft.  Shimpaku will “revert” to juvenile foliage around areas of heavy pruning.  Bark on Shimpaku is a reddish brown color, and the foliage becomes fairly dense in time.

Shimpaku foliage

Here is a photo of all three shoots together for comparison; still from left to right: Itoigawa, Kishu, and Shimpaku.

Hopefully this adds some clarity to the three varieties…or at least doesn’t add any contradictory information!


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.