The Trident Maple Hustle!

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been working on a lot of, “developing Trident Maples.”  These developing Trident Maples have good size trunks, so now it’s time to develop the main and some secondary branch structures.  The great thing about all these Trident’s that I’ve been working on is that they are all Root over rock Trident Maples.  I’d have to admit that lifting them wasn’t too fun but each of them are truly amazing trees and I’m glad that I’m playing a part in their development.   Here at Aichi-en, Japanese Black Pines are the front runner in quantity, but the Trident Maples are a close second.  This works out great for me because Trident Maples are my second most favorite tree to work on.  As you can see from the picture above, there is some serious ramification being developed here. But how do we get to that point?  In this post, I’m going to talk about some basic concepts as to how Trident Maples grow and develop, a couple of branch selection scenarios and some before and afters shots of what I did to the overall tree.  I took a lot of pictures for this post so it’s a longer one.  It’s actually the longest post to date.  I thought about making it a two parter but tomorrow is my day off after two weeks of nonstop work and I think I’m going to lay off the computer for the day.  Here we go!

Why Trident Maples?

Trident Maples are native to China so it makes sense that they are used for Bonsai.  Their leaves vary in sizes but can always be trained to become smaller if necessary.  They grow fast, wounds heal quickly, buds back easily and can be developed into highly ramified trees faster then most other deciduous trees.  As the tree gets older, the trunk and branches will develop muscular lumps and start shedding thin pieces of bark to reveal a beautiful patchwork of orange and grey hues.  They are one of the most common deciduous trees used in Bonsai here in Japan.

Here is an example of the trunk developing a muscular feel and some bark that has been peeled off.

Growth characteristics

Trident Maples have two buds that are opposite one another at a single node.  The following bud set will rotate about 90 degrees and so forth.  If you were looking a a branch, you will see that one on set, the bud will point up and down and the following set, the buds will point left and right.  These points are the only areas that will grow a branch.  The spaces in between the buds (internode) will never produce a branch.  That’s why you always hear people talking about short internodes.

Here’s a close up shot of the buds when the leaves are removed.  Normally I will cut the leaves off instead of pull them off in the Summer.  If you pull the leaves in the summer, sometimes it will pull the bud off the branch.  I pulled the leaves off on this picture to show the bud more clearly.  When you remove the leave and the new bud starts to push, the new leaves will be smaller.  Not important on these trees at the moment but useful when the tree is more refined.

This is what might happen if you pull the leaves in the Summer.  Note that the bud is gone.  If you pull the bud off, don’t expect a branch to grow there.  That is why on some old branches, just because you see a node doesn’t mean anything will back bud there.

If you didn’t already know, this is why the tree is called a Trident Maple.  They have three lobs on the leaf.

Let’s get to work!

My task for these trees were to defoliate the tree, cut off unnecessary branches and wire the remaining branches.  We didn’t do this work to all the Root over rock Tridents here in the yard because they’re all in various stages.  The ones that still need to get bigger or develop thicker branches are being let go and allowed to grow for another year or more.

Aluminum wire should be used when wiring Deciduous trees.  Since aluminum is softer and more flexible then copper, we have to use a much thicker wire to bend maple branches.  When selecting aluminum wire sizes for a specific branch, it needs to be almost equal in size to the branch you want to bend.

This branch is about 2mm thick so I used a 2mm thick aluminum wire.  Note that the wire goes around the buds and not on top of them.  If you lay wire right on a bud, it’s going to have a difficult time to grow or might die off due to pressure from the wire.

Here is one of the first ones I worked on.  You can see that the roots are very established on the rock.  Now it’s time to work on the branches.

This is after I cut off all the leaves.  Next, I started to cut the unwanted branches.

This knuckle where many branches are growing out is not a desirable characteristic on any tree.  Sometimes you can cut away some of the branches and keep two but in this case, I cut the whole knuckle off and will use either a new branch or another branch in that same area instead.

Here is the knuckle cut off.  I actually cut it off to the following node point.  I’m hoping that a new bud will develop and I can make a new branch in this area.  After the cut, I sealed it with cut paste.

Here’s another senario of branches that I cut.  On this branch, you can see it was cut before and two buds grew branches going up and one going out.

In this instances, I cut the branch growing up and kept the lower branch.  When that would heals, it will become around and give the branch an interesting curve on it.  For the most part though, I normally cut the lower branches off and bend the top one down.  This usually gives the tree a more natural curve to the branch.  I’ll get into more details of why I decided to cut the top branch off later in the post.

Selecting which branch to remove and keep can be tricky because there are so many variables to think off.  When cutting, you always have to ask yourself these questions.  Is the branch too thin or too thick for the section of the tree I’m working on?  Are there multiple branches growing from one point?  Is the internode in this area too long for the section of the tree I’m working on?  Is there taper in the branches?

I mostly was cutting branches that were point down, cutting thick branches back to use more smaller branches to develop better taper and cleaning out areas on the trunk that were too crowded with branches.  Take what you can from this post now and in the future when I work on more Trident maples and run into more specific concepts and points, I’ll share them with you.  Cutting deciduous trees is difficult and cannot be learned in just one sitting, so I don’t expect anybody to learn it all in just one post.  ;o)

Here is the tree after I cut and wired it.  The lower right branch needs to get thicker so I wired it and didn’t cut the tip off.  The tree itself isn’t much to look at at this point.  The important part is that I wired and put some bends on branches so when they thicken in the future, they will look natural and beautiful.  This isn’t the first time the tree has been cut and it won’t be the last.  Branches that are kept this time around might be cut off in the future in favor of a new or better branch.  It’s a process, so I didn’t get too picky on every single branch.  At this point, it’s all about developing the core of the tree.


Here’s another Trident I worked on.  Try to focus on this tree and not the cool little Shimpaku in the background.

This is after I pulled of the leaves.

Here’s the tree after I cut and wired it.  Once again, the lower branches have to get thicker.  The top of this tree still needs to be developed so it looks a bit flat at the moment.  Again, it’s a process.


This one was heavy… which brings up a good point.  All the stones that are used for these are extremely dense and hard.  As the roots cling to the rock, it exerts a tremendous amount of pressure on the rock.  If the rock is soft, it will start to crack and piece may break off.

Same tree minus the leaves

This tree had an interesting problem.  There is a huge knuckle on the left  side of the tree.  There is also a branch that grew straight up from a lower branch and started to mend and connect with this knuckle because it has been in contact with it for so long.  What to do?

Now it’s gone!  I pretty much cut the whole thing off.  The left over scar is about two inches wide but will heal over quickly.  I’d say in one year, the scar will be completely covered.

Here is the tree after more cutting and wiring.  In the future, this tree will need some branches grafted to that big empty area in the middle left.


This one is even heavier then the last!

Here is the tree without the leaves.  This is a great example of deciduous trees looking good when they have leaves and the truth coming out when the leaves are gone.  Deciduous trees should look good with and without leaves.

The tree got shorter!  I decided that the tree was too tall and that the top actually started to get bigger then the bottom.  I’m going to grow a new top for this one.  I didn’t get a chance to wire this one because I was called to work on something else.  Mr. Tanaka’s helper who is also named Mr. Tanaka wired it and finished it for me.  That was nice of him!  Who would have thought there’d be more then one Tanaka in Japan…


With the leaves.

Without the leaves.

I had a little bit more fun with this tree.  The lower left branch was bend straight down.  I’m going to grow this one out and make something out of the ordinary.  I’ll explain at the end of the post


This is the last Trident I worked on.

Here is the tree without the leaves.  I haven’t wired this one yet because I stopped to write this post.  :-p

The count?

Here is a shot of some of the Tridents I worked on.  I’d say I worked on about 10 of them in the past 2 weeks.  They ranged from medium to large sizes.

The goal

What was the goal of all this work?  Other then give me a great deal of practice…

Here is an example of a more finished tree.  I asked Mr. Tanaka how long this tree took to make.  This is what he told me.  The trunk took 20 years to create and the branch structure another 20 years.  His grandfather made the trunk and his father made the branches.  It took a long time!  But there is good news.  Mr. Tanaka added this.  If he was to make one today and gave it the maximum amount of attention, it would take him about 15 years from a baby tree to a fully refined tree.  Since there are so many of these trees here, they didn’t always get the full attention they needed so it makes sense that it took longer to create.  Mr. Tanaka then said that it’ll take 15 years from a, “skilled professional.”  He said people who lack the skills needed to create these trees can spend a lifetime and not get this kind of result.  Knowledge and technique is truly the key!

Here’s another tree that was created here in Aichi-en.

The interesting and strange

Here is a Trident Maple with an unusual branch structure.  This tree was created by Mr. Tanaka’s grandfather.  The entire left side of the tree is made from one large branch that is coming from the top of the tree!  Was it a flaw in development?  One of the things I’ve learned here at Aichi-en is to be unique and different in my work.  Mr. Tanaka says it is important to know how to make a tree look good, but it’s also important to create some unusual pieces too.  Most refined Trident Maples for the most part look very similar.  They have nice trunks and great branch structures.  Once you have a few of them, they may become dull to look at though they are great.  This tree at the end will stand out from the crowd and in the long run will be remembered.

This by no means, is a reason for anybody to forgo the correct development and style of a Trident Maple.  Too often I hear people talking about creating their own style in Bonsai, not because they’re trying to be creative, but because they lack the skills necessary to do it correctly.  A skilled Bonsai artist should be able to do both the classic natural style and the sometimes odd styles.

This is just a part of the overall development of Trident Maples and as I continue to work and study them, I’ll be sure to pass on the info I learn to you readers.  This was a long one.  Are you tired?  I know I am…

Thanks for reading!

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24 thoughts on “The Trident Maple Hustle!

  1. Greg Wentzel says:

    You have a terrific site. Lots of great information here. Could you possibly do an article on soil types? Soil has a huge impact on the tree and does not seem to get enough attention. I personally like crushed lava mixed with fine bark, although each tree has it’s own specific needs.
    Greg Wentzel

  2. Daniel Dolan says:


    You said in your introduction that “for the last couple of weeks”….. Just to confirm….this would be the end of August and the beginning of September.
    Can you tell me what your temperature was there at that time.

    It is getting to be in the low 50’s here in Chicago…its 23 September.

    What are the reasons why you would not do this now? My trees are protected in the winter. Since one of my main reasons to have Tridents in the first place is the fall color, but if this is still an acceptable time to prune the growth which has been extending all summer ….are there any advantages to doing it now rather than in the busy springtime.

    Or is it just too late now?



    • Peter Tea says:

      Hi Daniel,

      Thanks for reading the blog.
      Yes, the tridents that I worked on was at the end of August – beginning of September. At that time the daily high was about 80-90 degrees with humidity.

      Reasons why you should not defoliate your tridents now in the Chicago area is because the trees are going to start changing color soon and if you defoliate it this late, the tree will either not produce any leaves, or produce small leaves that are tender and because of the cold, the leaves will burn. The burned tiny leaves will then drop and you won’t get the Fall color that you want and the tree’s health is decreased. When you defoliate, you want to make sure you have a least a month and a half of warm weather so that the new leaves can come out and harden off. I would think in your area, the last time to defoliate should in mid-end of July. My recommendation would be to not defoliate and wait till next Summer.

      Trident’s should be defoliated during the Summer and not the Spring. If needed, you can do some cutting at that time, to control some long growths. You always want to make sure that you’re defoliating harden off leaves as oppose to new soft leaves. If you don’t allow the leaf to harden off, you will stress the tree too much by cutting. That’s why around May is when the first defoliation begins because the Spring leaves have hardend off by that time.

      The cool thing about defoliating a tree during the summer is that you get to build ramification and the new leaves come out smaller. A little extra bonus is that the leaves will stay on the tree longer into the Fall and the color of the change tends to be more vibrate, specially if it gets cold quickly.

      I hope this helps Daniel and thanks for the question. Take care.

  3. Tung Tran says:

    It will take at least two years for my trees to get to what I’ve learned today. Thank you very much Peter. 😉

  4. Shawn Silbaugh says:

    A wonderful post Peter! It has given me some things to think about with my own tree’s.

  5. Peter Tea says:

    A reader send me an email that I thought would help others so I’m posting it here.

    Reader: …what time of year are you defoliating the tree and doing branch selection? Early summer June?

    Answer: You can start defoliating Tridents that are being refined in May. I think you’re in Arizona right? If your summer starts earlier you might be able to do it in April. The best indication is not time, but when the new Spring leaves harden off. Just touch them and they should feel thick and stiff as oppose to delicate and soft. When you defoliate, you can cut off unwanted branches and wire the tree all at once. In your area, you will need to put the tree under shade cloth if you defoliate them. You can put them in a green house too if you have one. If you don’t protect it from the sun, the interior of the tree may burn and the new leaves will burn too. I’d go with at least 50 percent shade cloth. Play around with it a little because too much shade will cause the leaves to get bigger instead of smaller. The next time you can defoliate would be about two months later. This will help build more ramification. In the bay area, we defoliate about twice a year. In the South where it’s humid, the tree can be defoliated three times in the Summer. Since your area is very hot and dry, I would try twice and see what the results are, but I wouldn’t push for a third.

    Thanks for the questions!

  6. Tung Tran says:

    It’s a long post, but still not enough to learn, Peter. What is the best way to develop short internodes? Thanks.

    • Peter Tea says:

      Hi Tung,

      Yes, there is so much information to know about Trident Maples and that’s just one tree! The good part is that what you learn on Trident Maples can be applied to other trees.

      How to get short internodes is a very complex question because there are so many different scenarios. I hope to cover this topic with multiple post to give everybody a better understanding of branch ramification. The most important part is understanding when you need short internodes. Usually when the tree is more developed is when you focus on this.

      Here are some quick general tips:

      Soil- The more wet your soil is, the slower the roots will grow and in turn the slower the branches will grow. Use a medium that holds more water.

      Fertilizing- Holding off the fertilizer in the spring and moderate fertilizing during the Summer and Fall

      Pinching- When the trunk, main and secondary branches are complete it’s time to pinch. As you start to develop the silhouette, any new growth that shoots past the outline of the tree needs to be cut. This should be done in the Spring, Summer and Fall. To get the best ramification, you have to do this almost daily. Today you pinch one runner, tomorrow you pinch another running type of thing. If you let the runner get too long, it’s already too late.

      I hope this helps. Thanks and take care

  7. japanesepots says:

    Mmmm…Kaede…drool(in Homer Simpson voice)
    That “cool little Shimpaku in the background”, isnt that the one that just sold at auction for a stupid low price! Doh!

  8. John says:

    Thank you Peter! You are as skilled and gifted at teaching as you are in bonsai. Thank you for your time and commitment to sharing your experiences.

  9. Peter Tea says:

    This question was posted on my Facebook page, but I thought it’d be more beneficial if I answered it here.

    Question: “Peter, Thanks for another great post. I was wondering what is the best way to develop the roots over a rock? Were they all field grown over rock? Thank again.”

    Answer: The tree are grown in the ground by it self for a couple of years to get some thick roots and girth on the trunk. On the larger trees will start with a trunk that is about 2-3 inches wide. They are then bare rooted in the early Spring and the tap root will be cut. The tree will be placed on the rock and the roots will be tied to the rock with wire. The tree is len re-planted in ground with the rock and tree above the ground level. Next, the tree will have soil mounted all the way up to the base of the tree. This helps the roots that were tied to recover from the stress. In the next two months, the mounted soil will slowly be removed little by little to allow the exposed roots to acclamate to the air. If the soil mount is left on too long, small roots will start to grow out of the tied down roots and the tree will focus on growing the unrestricted roots as opposed to the tied down roots. The mount should be gone by Summer and the tree is allowed to grow freely till the roots get to the desired thickness.

    Thanks for the question Rusty!

  10. bonsaijapan says:

    Great post Peter, Any chance you could share teh feeding regime these trees are on? Are they fed early and heavily or is the fertiliser held off until the first flush of growth hardens off?

    Thanks again for a great post, I am living through your work while i am stuck behind my desk.

    • Peter Tea says:

      Hi BonsaiJapan,

      When developing the trunk or core branch structure, we will feed the tree year round. We do this because we want maximum growth. The fertilizer used should be a more balanced approach. Heavy feeding with high nitrogen will give you strong growth, but the internode will be so long that the branch will become unusable. It’s better to feed well but with something more in the middle to get good strong growth and usable branches in the future. Once we start working on the smaller branches and refining the structure, we will control the feeding. The feeding will begin in May(after the leaves have hardend off) to November. Once the leaves drop, we will remove the fertilizer. The feeding is always moderate for any tree that is in the refined stages. We use organize in the 5-5-5 range. We don’t feed in the Winter.

      Thanks for reading and the comment!

  11. Jay Conor says:

    Very good post, thanks. Is this the second time they have been defoliated this year?
    If not why so late in the year? Is it to build strong resources so it buds back harder?
    Like you wrote they are trees in development. I ask because although it may be to late in the season for me in N.J. U.S.A. I could adapt this and not defoliate right when the leaves harden off but wait a bit more to build strength. But I don’t like to assume. Again thanks for taking the time not only to put the info together but also replying to some posts after a long days work. J.C.

    • Peter Tea says:

      Hi Jay,

      This was the first time the tree was defoliated this year. Reason being is that during the earlier months, we were just too busy with other trees (Black Pines) to work on these Tridents. I believe if we would have cut the tree twice in the Summer.

      Usually at the end of August should be the last time to cut the leaves unless you have nice warm humid Summers like we do here in Nagoya. I do believe that if you allow the tree to run during the early summer and then cut the tree back hard, you will get better back budding then cutting the tree earlier. This also depends on how old the branch is too. Older branches tend to bud back at the cut point only whereas younger branches will back bud all over the place when you cut them back hard.

      I talked to Mr. Tanaka and he says that the best time to cut the tree and force the strongest back budding is to cut the tree hard right in the beginning of Spring, when the new buds are starting to push. Don’t do this technique if you repotted the tree in the same year. When the professionals here decide to remake a deciduous tree, they tend to cut off a lot of major branches at that time and new runners will sprout all over the trunk and base of the cut branches.

      I hope this answered your question. Thanks!

  12. I’ve been hacking trees for about 35 years and this year is the first time I have understood what I should have been doing. Thank you Peter and JT. Peter finally pointed me in the right direction (after years of wandering, looking for the light) and JT added the map. My large trunked trident, after about 20 years is still that… a large trunk. Hopefully, I will take this tree with me on the road to being a tree instead of a stump.

    • Peter Tea says:

      Hi Sandy,

      Thanks for the compliment! I’m glad that you’re on your way to creating great trees and that I was able to play a part in it! If there were more artist like JT around helping people, Bonsai would be even bigger in the US.


  13. Jeff Lahr says:

    One of your best posts yet, very informative and clearly illustrated with photos.
    What time of year is best to remove leaves and wire, Peter? Last year I bought a root over rock trident grown on a piece of lava. I suspect that the rock will crack and break soon. Is it possible to replace a broken rock or is the root structure to specific to the first rock?

    I really liked the last example with the large branch creating the canopy.

    • Peter Tea says:

      Hi Jeff,

      Cutting the leaves on the tree depends on what stage the tree is in. I forgot to put this in the post but the only reason we pulled the leaves off on this developing tree is because it makes it easier to wire. Here’s some guidelines you can use:

      Step 1: Developing the trunk – If you just want to get the trunk bigger, let everything run. Once the trunk is a size you want, then focus on the branches. No leaf cutting.

      Step 2: Developing branches – Once the trunk is good to go, you can look at the branch structure and start figuring out what you want to keep and what you want to get rid of. Branches that need to stay thin, they should be cut and defoliated whereas branches that need to get thicker should not be cut and allowed . These are the branches you should try to keep some leaves on. It will grow faster. You can wire the tree at this point too. This is usually done in the Summer months. May-August is a good time to do this. When developing core branches you only cut or defoliate once, maybe twice during the Summer. If you do it in the late Summer when it’s the hottest, be sure to protect the tree under some shade so that the trunk doesn’t get sunburned.

      Step 3: Developing Ramification in the branches – Once the trunk and core branches are finished, then this is where you defoliate the tree many times during the Summer. First defoliation should be in May, then Mid June, and if the tree is growing well, end of July. This will help build density in the branches and smaller leaves. There shouldn’t be much wiring in this point because new small branches at the tip of the tree should be straight. All the curvy branches should have been completed in Step 2.

      How long each step takes will depend on the skill of the individual artist. As for your question about the rock, it’s difficult to say. You might have to remove the lava, find another rock that is similar in shape and force it into the roots. There’s going to be hug gaps here and there. In Japan, they do this and tie wire around the roots to hold it on to the rock. They let the tree’s foliage run and the roots will start to grow into the rock(step 1). They just leave the wire on the roots and let the roots grow over the wire too!

      Anyways, long answer, I hope it helps. Thanks!

  14. aaron says:

    Thank you Peter – what an outstanding post!

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