While this species is not exactly easy to find outside of Japan, let alone as bonsai, the techniques presented here with some minor tweaks work for many deciduous tree species. Stewartia monadelpha, aka Himeshara, is also just plain cool so here goes….. One day I hope this species is as commonly available as a trident maples one day. In the meantime, it can’t hurt to be exposed to the rationale behind styling of himeshara and the growth habits of the species. As with many species of tree used for bonsai, the techniques I present here are not “the only game in town”. This is what we do at Kouka-en, and have done so for multiple decades.
A few quick things to consider about Stewartia monadelpha are that the species prefers evenly moist and cool soil conditions. We cover all our trees with chopped sphagnum moss whether just repotted or not. This species does not like to dry out and prefers some shade during the most intense parts of the summer. Himeshara also has an extremely strong vertical growth habit. Even branches guy wired or wired down regularly will inevitably lift back up. Older branches form a sort of shoulder at the trunk union which is something to consider when working for a good tapering trunk.
This work was carried after the chaos of red and black pine and a welcome break from being cross-eyed all day pulling needles. Here is the tree before work commenced.
This particular tree is one of a batch of Stewartia monadelpha bonsai grown from pencil-sized seedlings at Kouka-en.
A term I’m going to use often is “susoba“. Susoba are the leaves at the base of a stem or new flush of growth that do not have a latent bud beneath the petiole. Susoba comes from the words suso (meaning “cuff” like on your pants) and the word ha (meaining leaf). The first step in the maintenance and styling of this tree was susoba removal and new shoot shortening (known as metsumi in Japanese). These tasks were carried out together, but any areas that were not as full had only the susoba pulled.
This sequence below shows the susoba removal and shortening process:
This act of removing unnecessary foliage and shortening new growth really opens up the canopy for better light penetration to interior buds and shoots. Also a hell of a lot easier to wire too. Full defoliation of himeshara is possible, but doing so at the beginning of summer can be risky as the new foliage can easily fry or be attacked by fungal infection. This process can cause some terminal buds to initiate shortly afterwards and these shoots will be extra sensitive to fungal attack or sun-scald much like trident or Japanese maples (which is a bit confusing……). Acer palmatum is much easier to understand. Latin names baby!
Before susoba removal and metsumi
As you can see, the difference is huge. This process obviously decreases the photosynthetic potential of the tree, but this tree is being maintained; not being “built”.
If I wanted to increase the size of this tree, completely different training processes would be used. Last year, only minor tweaks were done and a few wires are still on the tree.
Here is a before and after view of a lower branch to show from a different angle.
Then it was time to fully style the tree using aluminum wire (the bark is super soft) and copper for the guy wires; aluminum tends to stretch when tension is applied and a much thinner gauge of copper will do the same work and be less eye-catching. Using a black Sharpie marker or lime sulphur will also hide guy wires even better. The Sharpie trick is 100% American innovation : ).
As mentioned before, the natural habit of Stewartia monadelpha is strongly vertical. Wounds heal quickly and when a branch is removed properly, leave almost no trace of a scar.
A branch cut last year to prevent further inverse taper. A branch used to be on the other side as well, but removal of both at once is a bad idea.
Keeping this fact in mind while styling means branches should emerge upwards then drop back downwards as if the weight over years of growth has made them set more parallel to the ground. Himeshara has an alternate leaf habit, so rhythmic movement not just front to back, but also up and down is important. The good news is, an older tree (this one has been here for about 40 years) have their branch structure basically set, but need to be moved back to a desirable position. My focus was the secondary branches, tertiary branches, and filling out the areas where branches had been removed.
Wiring is done to space branches out, prevent shading of underlying branches, increase chances of adventitious bud formation inside the canopy, and create aesthetically pleasing lines for appreciation during the time when the tree is leaf-less. The final reason is the most important for display purposes but bonsai are not one-shot deals. The best bonsai in the world have been re-styled, undergone drastic changes, suffered losses to disease and insects (humans too), etc. etc. Truly inspirational bonsai have been cared for by attentive owners for a very long time with yearly maintenance practices.
Area before wiring.
This is about half-way up the tree. After wiring but before bending.
After bending the main branch into position.
Final placement including fine branching on secondary and tertiary shoots. The change is impressive. Notice there is a gradual taper to the outer silhouette as your eye progresses up the tree. This will be more give the bonsai a soft, natural feeling when the leaves drop.
With a single main branch, I have filled a great deal of negative space and the main branch has not moved at all. The real trick is making sure the tree looks good naked. I guess that’s what we are all after right? : ). A branch removed the year before just above this point has left a gap. See if you can spot how I fix this issue in the final product photos……
To bring out the color of the bark, we use a fabric glove. A toothbrush and water works too.
Left side after styling was complete.
Apex close-up. I used the top-secret "take vertical branch and flop forward" maneuver. Future new shoots will pop and round out the apex. Nothing I can do at this point but wait.
So, the positives on this tree are excellent nebari, almost perfect taper, good health, and strong presence. The flaws would be it lacks a little bit of ramification in some areas and the obvious new scar visible from the front. We grow our himeshara for optimum branch placement, taper, and nebari. This requires even more time to create. Careful attention to detail throughout the years of training has produced this result. Here are a few Stewartia monadelpha from the Kokufu show and vendor area this year:
This one actually came from Kouka-en, but was sold to another pro then the next day had a new owner..... I really wanted this Prunus mume bad.
A baby off to a pretty good start, but the healed over wounds should have been gauged deeper to account for the heavy callus formation.
Nice tree, but half-way up the first major chop is still evident and the branches lack taper. Excellent ramification.
Informal upright with a "rushed" apex.
- This is a Stewartia monadelpha at the Kokufu-ten exhibited by Shinji Suzuki. It’s a big-un. I think it may have eaten an apprentice or two. At a minimum, it strained some backs.
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