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!


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.