Japanese Flowering Plum Basics

First off, I apologize for the last email blast about Mr. Tanaka’s work.  I accidentally hit the publish key.  Sorry about the inconvenience.  The good news is that you now know there’s going to be a post about that very soon. ;o)

Flowering Plum Basics

The wait is over! Last year, I’ve gotten many request to write a post about Japanese Flowering Plum and here it is!  What better time to talk about them then when they are blooming here in Japan.  For this post, I’m going to keep things simple and talk general care and growth habits.  I’ve also gone around the yard and took photos of the different styles of flower they produce and will share them with you as well.  Since I plan on being in Japan for many more years to come, I will continue to post more about Flowering Plum as I work with them more and more.

Why Do We Like Flowering Plum So Much?

The first answer people would normally give is because of the flowers.  I would have to agree that the flowers can be very pretty and plum is one of the few trees that bloom in the Winter.  Though we all do like the flowers, they do have other characteristics that we can enjoy as well.  Old plum trees tend to have deadwood or hollowed trunks.  The bark on the trunks also can get thick and crackly.  Seeing the old ones bloom in Winter gives a sense of conflict and harmony at the same time.  At first glance, it’s somewhat strange that a old partially dead rugged tree is producing such delicate looking flowers.  As you look deeper into the tree, you start to realize how even a rough looking tree can be so beautiful as well.  At least, that’s how I feel about them…

Here is an example of the dead wood and rough bark a Flowering Plum can produce.  The reason why old plum trees tend to have dead wood or hollowed trunks is because they can be very susceptible to fungus attacks.  Once fungus kills off a section of the tree, the wood starts to dry and rots very easily.  This is so much the case that if a plum tree trunk is whole, many will see them as a young tree.

Basic Growth Patterns

Before we start developing Flowering Plum, we have to understand their growth characteristics.  Once we understand it, we can then come up with a stradegy to work with them and create great Bonsai.

During the Spring, leaf buds start to push and produce leaves while the terminal leaf bud will start to elongate and extend the branch.  Some of the leaf buds down the branch will start to elongate and produce branches as well but usually not as aggressive as the terminal end.  At the beginning of Summer, the leaves will have hardened off and the tree stops growing.  In the Fall, the tree starts growing again but at a much slower rate than the Spring.  During the Fall, the leaves will play a big part in producing flower buds, leaf buds or both on each node of the branch.  Once Winter arrives, the leaves will start to drop off leaving behind leaf and flower buds.  During Winter, the flower buds will start to grow and bloom whereas the leaf buds will sit till the following Spring to grow new leaves and branches.

*Note: Flower buds will only grow on that year’s new growth.  The tree normally doesn’t back bud on old wood.*

Lets Talk Flowers

Before I get into the flower portion of the tree, there are some terminology that are important to know.  This way, I can refer to specific parts of the flower and you’ll know what I’m talking about.  Plus, it probably doesn’t hurt to know a bit of plant biology while we’re at it.  Check out the picture below:

This picture is courtesy of Wikipedia.com

As you may already know, there are many different types of flowers that a Flowering Plum can produce. There are two basic categories when it comes to the flowers.  There are ones that have only five pedals and those that have more then five pedals creating more of a ruffled look.  Some flowers are natural and some are hybrids.  Here are some photos of the different flowers we have at Aichi-en.

*Tip: When cutting branches off, if the inside of the branch is red, then the flower will be red.  If the inside of the branch is green, then the flowers can be any color.*

This flower really caught my eye!  Nice clean multiple pedals.  Very pretty.  The filament is white on this one.  Usually, they tend to have a tint of the pedals color.

Here is an example of the five pedal flowers.  Simply beautiful!

Here is an example of a white flower with five pedals.  I have found that the sepal of a white flower can either be red or green.  In Japan, the most popular flowers are the white five pedal flowers known as Yabai, or the deep red five pedal flowers known as Hibai.

Here is a pink flower.  The pedals on this one is a bit more wavy as well.

Here’s a strange mix of colors!  Half is pink and half is white!

Here is a shot of the tree with the different colors.  The flowers are either all white, all pink, or half pink and half white.

Mr. Tanaka pointed this one out and said that it’s a rare flower variety.  The pedals are very small and the filaments are the dominating part of the flower.  He added that these varieties are much weaker then the other Flowering Plums.

I Have a Flowering Plum But it Doesn’t Flower. Why?

Flowering Plum will not flower because of two reasons.  Either the tree is too weak or the tree is too young.  The first part is easily fixed by better care and growing techniques, which includes good soil, good water and food.  Most of the time though a Flowering Plum doesn’t bloom because the tree itself is too young.

In Japan, most Flowering Plums are grafted early on in life.  Since people want the flowers, they would take a branch that is know to flower from another tree and graft it to a young root stock.  This way, the tree will immediately start blooming.  Unlike other flowering trees that may take 1-15 years before they bloom, Flowering Plum is much more unpredictable.  So far, it seems that a tree will start to bloom somewhere between 20 year and 100+ years!  I know this to be true because we have a Flowering plum that was grown from seed in the yard that is over 100 years old and one of the lower branches still won’t bloom.  This unpredictability is the reason why people tend to graft instead.

Here is a trick if you want to know if your Flowering Plum will bloom in the Winter.  During the growing season where there are leaves on the tree.  Rub a leaf and feel the texture.  If the leaf is smooth, that means that branch is going to bloom.  If the leaf is rough, that means no blooms on that branch.

Flowering Plum Bonsai Work

Here are some of the different things that are done to Flowering Plum during the year:

After the tree finishes blooming (Spring), the branches can be cut back.  This is also the time to repot the tree if needed.  Flowering Plum likes a lot of water so be sure to use a soil mix that holds a lot of water.  Here at Aichien, we use 70-80 percent Akadama in the soil mix for Plums.

After the leaves harden off in May, the tree can be cut back again if needed.

May is the time when the tree can be wired as well.  Aluminum wire is normally used to wire ume but I’ve seen people use copper as well.  Flowering Plum branches can be very brittle so be careful when bending them.  The branch almost gives you no warning before they break.

The leaves can be defoliated after they have hardened of (May) as well.  This technique is used to force the tree to produce more leaf buds, thus producing more branches.  The downside is that there won’t be as many flower blooms in the Winter.

During the Fall and Winter, there isn’t much work on the tree other then spraying pesticides, watering and feeding the tree.

Usually when professionals spray fungicide/pesticides on a Flowering Plum, they don’t hold back.  Flowering Plums tend to get drenched during spraying.  This goes to show how easy they can be attacked by fungus/insects.

The Tricky Part About Cutting Back

Unlike other deciduous trees, you cannot cut back a Flowering Plum and expect it to back bud.  The tree will rarely backbud on old wood.  When cutting back, it’s all about cutting back to a leaf bud.  If you cut back to a point on the branch where there are no leaf buds, the entire branch will die off.

Fancy huh? ;o) Here is an example of a branch that has leaf buds on two of three nodes.  See how the first and second leaf buds are starting to elongate and grow.  Notice how there is no bud on the third node?  This node only had a flower bud during the Winter.  If a leaf bud didn’t already form on that third node, it almost never will.  If the cut was in between the second and third node, the branch will die back to the last branch intersection or leaf bud.

Here is another example of flower buds and leaf buds.  At any particular node, there can either be a leaf bud, 1-3 flower buds, or both.  This example shows that bud and leaf buds can grow anywhere on the new branch.

Here is another example of two new branches that grew from one point and their first nodes.  The first node on the right branch has a leaf bud whereas the first node of the left branch doesn’t. Either that bud was knocked off or it never developed.

As you can see from the three examples above, it is very important that we recognize what a leaf bud is before pruning our Flowering Plums.  Always cut back to a leaf bud. We will normally cut back to at least two leaf buds but depending on the circumstances, we may cut back to just one leaf bud.

After cutting the tree back, it’s always a good idea to seal the cuts with cut paste.  This will help keep the tree safe from fungus attacks.  If you plan on cutting multiple trees, be sure to clean your tools with alcohol to prevent the spread of disease from one tree to the next.

Air Layering 

Air layering a Flowering Plum is almost impossible.  These trees will not air layer very easily.  It’s easier to approach graft roots instead.

Grafting

Since Flowering Plum doesn’t normally back bud, they tend to get leggy after many years of growth.  That is where grafting comes to play.  When a Flowering Plum get’s too leggy, people will cut the new growth off the tree and graft it into the old wood.  The best time to graft is in February or September (Early Spring or early Fall).

Here is a Flowering Plum that was grafted last February.  The grafts are regular side grafts.  This technique is used with many other trees in Bonsai.

You can see the leaf bud on the grafted branch is now starting to push new growth.  That’s a good sign that the graft is going to take.  The scion used should have 1 or 2 leaf buds.

Two Flowering Plum Examples From Kokufu-Ten

There ya go!  Some basic Flower Plum information to get you started.  As the year progresses and I take more photographs, I’ll write more post that focuses on the shapes, styles and pot selections for Flowering Plums.  I hope this helps you have a better understanding of plum basics and gives you an idea of when different types of work can be done to them at different times of years.  More to come in the future!

I hope that you noticed that both Flowering Plum Bonsai examples are in a glazed and clay pot.  Which is correct? or are both correct?  HUM???…  Think about it for a bit…  We’ll talk about that in the future.

Thanks for reading and learning with me!

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20 thoughts on “Japanese Flowering Plum Basics

  1. Dave Duncan says:

    Peter ,been a voyer for a long time,your posts and explaintions are some of the best info on line .You and Jonas have the best Bonsai explaintions and pictures I’ve ever seen.Both of you are great at what you are doing,for that I thank both of you for doing this .
    best regards -Dave Duncan

  2. Vincenbt Chadeau says:

    thats’ awesome and pictures are so good and self explanatory, good job!

  3. Fantastic Peter, thank you! I always learn from and look forward to your posts!

  4. Jeremiah Lee says:

    Question: Do professionals in Japan often purposely kill off sections or the center of the trunk on younger material to make it look old? Or do they just let it naturally occur?

  5. Jay Conor says:

    Peter another wonderful post!
    Could you write a little about fertilizing during the year?
    I normaly fertilize all year until the leaves drop in fall. Like you wrote during summer when they stop growing, even with heavy fertilizing it dosen’t push them to grow, which is a good thing for more developed trees.
    I would love to read what Mr. Tanaka does. Thanks Jay. C…

  6. Thank you for sharing this with us Peter. Plum bonsai has always been one of my favorites–I must have one someday!

  7. Steve Ristau says:

    I now have renewed excitement thinking about the Prunus mume seed I have stratifying in my refrigerator. Thank you Peter!

  8. Sandy Vee says:

    Really like how you can communicate the mechanics of plant care. You have a real gift.

  9. Jeremiah Lee says:

    Fantastic Post, I learned alot!!! Peter you are the man. You have a talent for breaking things down and explaining them so they are simple to understand. Thanks!

  10. Owen Reich says:

    Excellent summary. Apricots are my favorite species for bonsai. Someone earlier mentioned wanting to know the difference between Japanese flowering apricot (Prunus mume) and Japanese Plum (Prunus salicina). Both are actually native to China. Japanese plum (P. salicina) is the purple plum you buy at the grocery store. Both flower early in the year. Japanese people call Prunus mume “plum” when they try to speak to me in English : ). Again, well laid out information. There are a bunch of ume photos on my Facebook page for anyone interested.

  11. Mark Fields says:

    Peter, love your blog posts. It’s great that you offer the readers so much detailed information. Keep up the good work! I look forward to the next one.

  12. Jeff aldridge says:

    Great post and a joy to read! The only thing you did not mention was the unbelievable perfume of ume. Some of mine smell heavenly and others very little but I always spend a lot of time sniffing them. My ume bloom well but always look pretty tired by the mid summer with fading and curling leaves. I thought it was disease but they have flowered for 15 years. I read somewhere that in Japan ume are often hidden at the back of the shelf after flowering. Is that true? Thanks again for this post and all that you share here.

  13. Leon Martin says:

    Thank you so much Peter, several members of the two Bonsai Societies I belong to have tried these plums or apricots. I have 7 young apricots(Japanese) two produced six flowers in my cold cellar this year. The others are outside in their 5 year in the ground. The discription you prepared is excellent, I will share it with the members at the next meeting. Aron discribed all the work you do while he was there in December, it is amazing you have the time and energy to write this detailed blog. We had a very mild winter so all my trees are now looking for spring care, I have to go to my daytime work now later for the Bonsai. Sayonara
    Leon Martin – Canada

  14. cherylas2009 says:

    Peter, my favorite tree. I have three that bloom – one very white, one pink white, and one pink with the five petals. The pink one just bloomed with one bloom this year and has never bloomed before. I think it was telling me it was capable of blooming and just didn’t feel like it before. For readers living in the US midwest, these trees do well in a more temperate climate with winter protection.

  15. Daniel Dolan says:

    Peter:

    On multiple occasions I have attempted to research the difference between Apricot and Plum Bonsai….and Apricot and Plum in general. The unsatisfying and plainly idiotic answers are too many too mention. For example “Wikianwsers” says only….”They are different colors.” Not the the botanically precise response I was hoping for.

    More simply, in Japan…….what is the difference?

    Thank you.

    D/D

  16. Michael Markoff says:

    Awesome presentation, Peter! Where do you get the time to put these together?

  17. Excellent content Peter. Thanks

  18. Julie says:

    Very nice! Wish I hve a flowering plum!
    julie Trigg

  19. Patrick46 says:

    TY Peter, a good and clear explanation. Your posts are always very interesting.

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