A simple test to evaluate the integration of foliage and deadwood

When I see trees with prominent deadwood, I take note of where the foliage sits in relation to it.

Over the years I’ve found that I prefer designs that make it impossible to separate the foliage from the deadwood with a straight line.

What might this look like? Here’s an example from the 2016 Kokufu exhibit.


Shimpaku with prominent deadwood

Although the foliage is well-arranged, the key features are the jin and shari near the base of the trunk.

We can see the same phenomenon on pines too.

Black pineBlack pine

Japanese black pine with deadwood along the trunk

When I see trees styled in this fashion, I immediately look for ways to bend or grow new branches to interrupt the pattern. On the juniper below, for example, I think about what it might look like if a branch poked out from behind the right side of the trunk.



Sometimes the split between foliage and deadwood occurs naturally.

On the needle juniper below, the lower branches have (presumably) died off leaving only branches that emerge close to the apex. Even bending these branches significantly results in a design where all of the foliage appears on the top half of the tree and the best deadwood features are on the lower half.

Needle juniperNeedle juniper

Needle juniper with great deadwood

Instead of lowering the branches further, one option to connect the foliage with the deadwood would be to open more of a window to the upper part of the trunk through pruning or wiring.

Here are two different examples of this approach.


Shimpaku with deadwood in the foreground


Shimpaku with deadwood visible between the branches

In some designs, the foliage is all on one side of the tree – usually the upper half – but the line separating the two halves follows an interesting contour.


Shimpaku juniper with dense foliage above curving deadwood

Other trees feature deadwood above and below the foliage but convey a separation between the living portion of the tree and the scaffold that supports it.


Shimpaku juniper

What I enjoy about seeing whether or not a tree passes “the test” is that it’s not a yes-no question as much as it’s a way to get me thinking about how a given tree works and how it makes me feel.

Do you have similar ways of evaluating – or designing – bonsai? If so, feel free to let us know in the comments below.

Pre-Bonsai Sale This Weekend

An assortment of pines, azaleas, and sekka hinoki, among other species, will be available this Friday, Saturday, and Sunday (11/13-15) at Encinal Nursery in Alameda, California.

Most trees will be in the 15 to 150 dollar range with a few specimen trees mixed in. Feel free to call or write ahead of time with any questions (see contact info at bottom of page).

Pines, hinoki, azaleaPines, hinoki, azalea

Clockwise from top-left: black pine, sekka hinoki, black pine,
satsuki azalea “Kegon”

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