Refining A Japanese Maple Bonsai By Transplanting

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September 2018

Joe Noga has been growing and training his Shishigashira Japanese maple, Acer palmatum ‘Shishigashira,’ for over 35 years. This dwarf cultivar of Japanese maple has been selected and appreciated in Japan for over 300 years. It is commonly trained for bonsai in Japan and is generally easy to air layer to produce a bonsai. The lovely dark green leaves are interesting and curled, which is not a good characteristic for bonsai because when reduce in size they become deformed and do not look like maple leaves. They are however, slow and compact growing and quite popular for bonsai training.

Joe grew his Shishigashira Japanese maple bonsai in Rochester, New York for decades before moving his large and excellent bonsai collection to Winterville, of Carolina, nine years ago. In Rochester, his maple bonsai thrived in a full sun exposure all day long, while in North Carolina shade must be provided to avoid leaf burn by early summer.

He wanted to display his bonsai in the 2018 6thUS National Bonsai Exhibition which was held in September 2018. Usually by September most of the dark green lustrous foliage would be burned and unsuitable for display. I suggested Joe bring it to Rochester in May to display in the Upstate New York Bonsai Exhibition & Sale then leave it with me where I would care for it and keep it in the full sun for the summer and prepare it for the US National Bonsai Exhibition.


During the five months under my care I had the opportunity carefully study the design of the Shishigashira Japanese maple bonsai. Although the root display was impressive a slight rotation would improve the total aesthetic impact of the bonsai, showing a wider surface root display. Like many fine bonsai masterpieces this bonsai can be displayed from two sides. The surface roots, trunk design and branching can be appreciated from both the front and back views. This comes in handy for display, and a bonsai with left to right, or right to left eye movement is necessary for the designated show area.

Joe and I discussed rotating the front to refine the design and decided to transplant the bonsai the next time I visited to help him with his bonsai collection. Today, February 27, 2019 we had the opportunity and made time to transplant his Shishigashira Japanese maple.


After removing the bonsai from the container, the pot was cleaned, wired and prepared for receiving the tree after root pruning. A nifty inexpensive hose nozzle (under $5) from Lowes, which produces a powerful strong spray, was used to remove old soil after trimming back the long fibrous root system. Joe washed the roots, picked away soil, trimmed fine roots and repeated the process several times until the root mass was ready for potting.




Considerable time was taken to carefully reposition the bonsai in the container making certain that the trunk, branches and surface root display looked good from both sides. The two side views were important to provide an upward trunk with slight lean towards the front.


Two side views

Finally, the tree was set into the container and then bottom, main and top soil was added. The tree was securely tied into the container with sissy wire and the entire root mass was carefully firmed with bamboo chopsticks which are flexible and safe, unlike metal chopsticks.







IMG_2975.jpgFinally, small pieces of chopped long-fibered sphagnum moss was carefully applied to the entire soil surface. The moss should be fine and pressed flat on top of the soil surface. Often people use the long-fibered sphagnum moss like “mulch” and loosely apply it making it easy to be dislodged, quick to dry out and more importantly look messy. The compact moss layer helps to retain some moisture, avoid soil erosion and keeps soil from splashing on the trunk making it dirty. Like everything worthwhile, applying a compact and neat proper layer of long-fibered sphagnum moss takes time and practice.

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December 2015



February 27, 2019– one view



February 27, 2019– another view

The Shishigashira Japanese maple was then thoroughly watered, until clear water ran from the drainage holes and the bonsai was protected from wind and frost. The refinement change is quite subtle, unnoticeable by most people, but Joe and I can see the improvement. We celebrated with a sushi dinner.



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