The creation and refinement of satsuki azalea bonsai basically put Kouka-en on the bonsai map. Kouka-en means “Light Feeling of Flower Garden”. While we don’t currently have many azaleas now, many of the best satsuki bonsai in the world came through Kouka-en during the “Satsuki Boom”. The only satsuki here now are ones I’ve purchased in order to learn the ins and outs of creation and refinement. Bonsai gardens often evolve with the times (or perish) and this garden now tends to have about half conifers and half deciduous and broadleaf evergreens. I am by no means a satsuki expert. However, I’ve learned a few solid tips and tricks so far that are good to know. On a side note, there are two Kouka-en bonsai gardens in Osaka, Japan. One currently specializes in satsuki azaleas and was highlighted in a World of Bonsai Episode. The Kouka-en I study at is often referred to as Fujikawa Kouka-en. People always ask me about how my satsuki studies are going and finally figured out why.
All techniques presented below are what I learned under the instruction of Minoru Fujikawa, my sensei’s father. He discusses the Satsuki Boom in an interview for the Bonsai Art of Japan Series HERE There are numerous ways to train, create, and style satsuki azaleas. Some of the best satsuki I’ve ever seen were under the care of Joe Harris while I was interning at Iseli Nursery in Boring, Oregon back in 2005. I’m not the only game in town; figured sharing a few super secret ninja tricks would be nice : ).
Last June, all of the satsuki I have were re-potted, defoliated, and wired. Ideally, all flower buds should be removed before defoliation and all the other stressors these plants endured. But, for the sake of instruction and enjoyment of the flowers, I carried out defoliation, branch removal, wiring, and repotting over a few days of work after the blooms faded. When defoliating satsuki, we remove 80-90% of the foliage. This will force the plants to flush again as well as produce adventitious branches everywhere. Leaving a lot of foliage (say half) may not shock the plant into the desired response and you could lose some limbs. Another good way to lose limbs is to leave satsuki fruit to mature. Removal of the forming fruit will prolong the life of your bonsai for sure.
This year, the flower show was even better than last due to increased ramification and healthier plants.
As mentioned, the purpose of this post is to share a few super secret ninja techniques for satsuki azaleas. The first is a technique for slowly bending heavier branches and trunks. There are specialty tools such as jacks and benders commercially available, but this is an old-school way. Basically, you install a piece of rebar as an anchor point and secure it by jamming it into the soil if possible, binding it to the trunk with padding, or both. Make a single wire loop and attach to the rebar. Then take a long piece of wire and fold it in half. Put the U-shaped bend (middle of the wire) around the trunk at the bending point with some cushioning to protect the bark and twist the wire until it’s tight around the trunk. with the remaining wire, bridge the gap between the trunk and the wire loop connected to the rebar. Make another loop forming a “figure 8” shape, then overlap the two loops. Make a “key” out of copper wire like in the center of the photo and twist the two loops together until they start winding onto the “key”. Twist until you get close to the desired bend, then wait a day or two and twist a little more. Using aluminium wire for the loops isn’t as harsh on the tree as copper for small trees. For a bigger satsuki, use heavy copper wire and a better bracing system. I know, it’s vague, but difficult to type instructions for this. Who doesn’t like a challenge? Here is a video showing the technique in action. Satsuki Trunk Bending!
For this post, I also bought a new satsuki to play with that had a basic branch structure laid out, but had almost no fine branching work done.
All Rhododendron species are basal dominant; meaning they have more vigor naturally near the soil level and prefer to produce new shoots over sustaining older apical shoots. This is the case of pretty much everything we call a “shrub” or “bush” with a few exceptions. Apical dominance would be the other type when discussing woody plants. Apically dominant plant examples are trees that prefer to have a central leader like oaks and maples when young. I make mention of this characteristic of satsuki and other Rhododendrons because allowing the lower branches to get too strong or leaving new shoots near the base of a bonsai will weaken the apical branches.
This bonsai was not too pricey mainly because the lower section of trunk did not have good bends and a large old cut mark is still present. The original front became the back for my design. Styling consisted consisted of a mix of shearing, branch removal, and wiring.
The second super secret ninja technique I’m sharing is the use of padding for your wire to protect the fragile bark. Neither of these techniques are new and in fact both are older than me. The lower section of this azalea had everything set pretty well. Th apex however, needed some work. As with any bonsai-related product, labels smothered in kanji characters always make the product work so much better.
Preparing a wire is a matter of tying off one end of your protective paper and then spiral-wrapping it evenly along. Tie off the other end or hold in place as you wire. Receipt paper for a cash register works as do paper towels. This particular product just looked cooler and made me feel special….
Nothing else is different about application or the like; this just gives you a little leeway while the wire does it’s work with a decreased risk of cutting in.
It’s not pretty, but it works. This azalea was wired about three months ago and I let the wire cut in on a few branches. Every branch wired using the padded wire had only minor dents or marks. Many of the others which had the same size wire applied without padding looked bad.
Thanks for reading.