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The Trident Maple Project and Summer Maple Work

The Trident Maple Project and Summer Maple Work

After a long day of De-candling and pulling needles, it was good to get back to the leafy trees.  The hours after dinner are considered my free time and I took that opportunity to revisit this Trident Maple Project!  Normally, I would have gotten to work on this tree earlier but I decided to allow some branches to extend to strengthen the tree.  After all, I did cut off a bunch of branches and repotted it a little late in the season.  If you would like to read about the cut back and repotting of this tree last April, you can visit that post by clicking here.  The early Summer evenings are cool now and it is a good time to get some work done.  I grabbed my camera and got right to it.  In this post, I am going to share how I defoliated, cut back and wired this Trident Maple.  I will also talk more in-depth about the concept of defoliation and have some pictures as to how we do it here at Aichien.  Lets have a look at the tree!

The photo above shows a long shoot that has grown from the bottom branch.  Normally, when a branch is allowed to run, they get stronger and thicker.  In this case, the internode started to get longer and leaves start to get bigger.

So the tree has grown quite a bit of foliage since  mid April.  The first thing I did was examine the tree and check the overall health.  Things we look for is overall growth and vigor.  Depending on the health and strength of the tree will determine is we should proceed with a specific technique.  If the tree isn’t doing very well, then we would split off from normal routine work and move into health rebuilding mode.  Overall, this tree is growing well and is healthy.

Here is an example of a healthy but slower growing branch.  Internodes are short but do you see that as the branch elongated, the leaves grew bigger then the first pair?

My Goals at This Time

My goals for this tree at this point is to defoliate all the leaves and cut back any branches that are either too long, too strong, or un-needed.  I also plan on wiring branches to space them apart more evenly to allow for better branch development.  A couple of extra curves here and there couldn’t hurt either.  I pulled out my nice sharp scissors and got right to work.  Here are some of the things I did.

This is another example of a vigorous branch.  The branch was allowed to extend so it got very strong.

Here is the same branch cut back and defoliated.  I cut the branch back to one set of new buds (one node).  This will force the buds to grow two new shoots, hence giving me some division in the branch structure.

Here is that same branch zoomed in.  If you look at the photo carefully, you will notice that the entire branch (old and new wood) is one long branch with many buds along it.  Why not cut back more and get the branch division back further in the tree?  Well, that is a great question!  Right now, the tree already has many other branches that are at good lengths.  If I cut this branch back deep into the tree, the old buds will bud out, but they will then be shaded by the other branches and leaves above.  This could potentially cause the bud to weaken and not extend, or even die off.  If I was to cut this branch back hard, I would need to cut the others as well to give all the buds enough light to grow.  In this case, I cut the branch back to one new node to force the branch to back bud on the new and old buds.  The leaves from the old buds, though shaded will still have a strong pull from the terminal end, keeping the branch strong and alive.  Once the interior buds start to strength and extend, I will then cut back to them.

What? Not all cuts on a tree are final???  Well… yeah…

Here is an example of a weaker branch that slightly elongated.  The internodes are even shorter.  These leaves and extension still needs to be cut.

Here’s the same branch cut back to one new set of buds.

Branches like this represents the weakest parts of the tree.  The buds only grew a set of leaves and didn’t elongate.

These leaves too were cut.  This is an example of stressing an area of the tree and forcing new growth.  If these leaves are left alone, they could just sit there till the end of the growing season.  By slightly stressing it, we could potentially force the new growth to push new leaves and elongate.  The tricky part is figuring out where the line between good stress and bad stress is.  Since the tree overall is growing well and these leaves are on the exterior and upper portion of the tree, I decided to go for it.  If I felt the area was too weak, I’d leave it alone and not defoliate the leaves.

Since I’m cutting back and defoliating this tree, it doesn’t mean I become a zombie and just cut everything.  Unlike zombies, we have brains whereas zombies just want to eat our brains…  SINCE, this is a zombie free blog, we use our brains and adjust our technique as the tree requires.  There is one branch on this tree that needs to thicken.  Cutting is the last thing we want to do to that branch.  We need to allow this branch to grow freely and continue to thicken.  Here is a nifty technique we use to force the branch to elongate more aggressively.  The photo above is an example of a branch that we need to elongate and thicken.

What we do is cut of all the leave long the branch and only leave the leaves at the terminal end.  By doing this, it will actually force the branch to elongate faster.  Why is that you say?  Basically, we removed the food competition on this branch.  All the energy and food is going to go directly to the terminal end instead and force it to grow faster.  There will be photos of the long branch I kept, further in the post.

Haha!  Anyways…

Here is an example off an area where I need a longer branch.

Since I want the branches on this area to extend, I would keep more than just one node.  In this case I kept two.  BUT!

BUT! look at how long that internode is???  Though I want more length, the internode is just too long so I’m forced to cut back to one node instead.  As the pair of buds grow and elongate during the Summer, hopefully I’ll  get a pair of short internode branches to fill in the length I need.

Here is another example of a branch length I need.  The internode is short and useable.  In this case, I kept two pairs.  So why not just cut back to one node and get the desired branch length with two branches instead, like the last example?  You are asking some really good questions!  The reason is about taper and the ideal branch structure.  Internodes on naturally growing trees get shorter as you move away from the trunk.  The branches also get finer and finer as they grow away from the trunk.  In this example, the branch that the new branch is growing from is thick.  It would look strange to have short internodes and fine branching so soon coming from a thick branch.  On the last example, the branches has already developed some taper.  Though I needed some length, it was okay to achieve it with multiple small branches instead.

Tricky huh?  Lots to think about when cutting.

To quote Mr. Tanaka: “If you want to make great Bonsai, you always have to be thinking.”  I guess Aichien is a no zombie zone as well.

Here is an example of a long internode growing right out of the bud.  If I was to keep one node, the branch would already be too long.  That’s no good as well.

In this case, I cut off the first node and left a stub.  This will cause the original bud to send out a second set of leaves.  Perhaps this second set will give us more desirable internode lengths.  *There is some caution in doing this though*.  When the second set comes out from the original bud, that area will start to swell slightly.  Performing this technique should only be done once to limit the swelling.  If it’s done too many times, the area will swell into a knuckle.  Usually, hobbyist that cut back or pinch incorrectly will create those swelled areas all over the tree.  Once the knuckle starts to develop, they are difficult to impossible to fix, and usually need to be cut off.

Here is an example of developing taper on the branches.  This branch pictured is long and has no taper.  The end of the branch(blurry part) was cut in the past and two new buds started to grow.  I was hesitant to cut this branch initially in April because tree was somewhat weak.  Now that I know the branch is strong, I can go ahead and cut it back harder.

Here is the same branch cut back.  Once the back buds leaf out and elongate, I can use them to develop better tapering branches. Of course I applied cut paste to the cut.

Speaking of cuts and cut paste.  Here’s a shot of a cut I made last April.

I peeled away the rubbery cut paste and found that the wound as completely callused up.  That was fast!  As the callus starts to harden, it will start to blend in with the branch.    The cut paste I used must have really sealed the wound well because the callus was surprisingly soft, and light-colored.  I believe that the callus grew fast because it didn’t have to worry about drying out and exposure to the elements.  What do you think?

Callus on Trident Maples can be fairly thick and looking at the callus now, I wish I had made the original cut deeper.  I may have lucked out though because older Trident Maples tend to have a more muscular feeling on the trunk and bulges here and there are normal.  Perhaps this callus can be used as a feature as opposed to a fault.  I guess only time will tell.

Once I finished cutting, I cleaned off the moss to find nice new tender roots growing on the soil surface.  I guess nobody ever said Trident Maples grew slow.  I was careful not to disturb these new roots because they can break apart easily.

Here is the tree after the light cut back and defoliation.  I mainly defoliated the exterior leaves of the tree.  Leaves growing on the inside were not cut and now can become stronger from the extra sunlight available.  These interior buds will be future branches used to make this tree fuller.  The branch on the right is the one I’m trying to thicken.


I’m not going to get too deep into how I wired this tree, but here are some basic things to know about wiring deciduous trees.

Aluminum wire

Normally deciduous and broad leaf evergreens are wired with aluminum wire.  Reason being is that the wire is soft and the thickness of the wire helps in distributing the pressure of the wire along the surface of the branch.  Deciduous and board leaf evergreens tend to have thin bark so excessive pressure will damage the branch.  Also, since Aluminum wire is soft, the wire size used to bend a branch typically needs to be a 1 to 1 ratio.  If the branch thickness is 2mm, then the wire will needs to be about 2mm as well.

Here is an example of aluminum wire on a branch.  The spiral of the wire in this example is a bit on the shallow side.  Normally about 45 degrees for the spiral is good for deciduous trees.  Also note that the wire isn’t sitting on top of any of the buds.  Not only does the wiring need to be consistent and clean, it should avoid smashing buds or leaves.  Branches on deciduous and broad leaf evergreens tend to be stiff compared to conifers so bending can be tricky.  The important thing to do is to have the wire on the outside of the bend to support it.

Sorry for the blurry picture but here is an example of the branch breaking when there is no wire support on the outside of the bend (we’ve all done it).  Sometimes all it takes for the branch to break is to bend it slightly off the support of the wire.  Though new Trident Maple branches can be flexible, the older ones can be more difficult to bend.  Branches on flowering plums are known to break easily if the bends aren’t supported by the wire.

Here is the tree after I wired some of the branches.  I wired the branches that were either too close to each other or needed movement.  When adding movement to a branch, I made sure to bend them up, down, left, right and everything in between.  The tree still has a ways to go but we’re getting there!

Summer Heat

I re-applied sphagnum moss on the soil surface and put the tree back in its spot. There is no need to protect the tree at this point because the Summer hasn’t gotten very hot just yet.  If I worked on this tree at the peak of Summer, then I would keep it under shade cloth till the temperature started to fall.  Normally, Trident maples can handle a lot of sun and heat.  We have Trident Maples in Bonsai pots that sit out in the full Summer sun with no problems at all.  The temps in Nagoya during August (hottest month) can reach 104F (40C) with humidity in the 70-80 percent range.  The difference is that those out in the hard sun is still in development and tend not to have soft thin ramified branches.  All the really refined trees are under 50 percent shade cloth during the Summer.  Hopefully in the future, This tree will be good enough to put under shade cloth. ;o)  The work for this tree is now finished.  I’ll revisit this tree again the next time I work on it.

Bonsai Techniques

When studying Bonsai, the most important lesson to learn is when and when not to use a particular technique.  Many times, people will talk about different types of bonsai techniques but forget to mention when it’s actually appropriate to use them.  This causes a lot of confusion and undesirable effects to ones trees and often leaves people feeling disappointed.

Some of the most basic concepts in Bonsai can be extremely complex with multiple variables.  To quote Boon Mankitivipart, “Basic doesn’t mean easy.”  Just because someone pinches or defoliates a Trident Maples doesn’t mean the tree is actually getting any better.

There are three things we need to consider before we use a Bonsai technique:

1. How?

2. Why?

3. When?

If we can reasonably answer these three questions, then we can proceed with the work.  If we can’t, then we have to find out either through experimentation or advice from a credible source such as a Bonsai professional.

Defoliating Trident Maples

Has anybody realized that in this post so far, I’ve yet to mention why I defoliated this tree?  Well, the reasons are much more than, “because it’s a maple.”  Lets talk more about the technique of defoliating and come up with some reasonable explanations of how, why and when we do it.

How? – 

Defoliating is the removal of foliage from a tree.  Using scissors to cut the leafs off is preferred over pulling because pulling can potentially rip small branches off, which is the opposite of ramifying the branches…

Here is a large Trident Maple now that I defoliated at the beginning of May.  The tree has completely leafed out in about one month.

Here is the tree after defoliation in June (second defoliation this year).

Why? –

There are several reasons for defoliating a Trident Maple:

1. Back Budding – after defoliating, a lot of sunlight reaches the interior of the tree and helps promote back budding or strengthening of weak interior branches.

2. Branch Ramification – Though defoliating a Trident Maple doesn’t cause the branches to ramify, the cutting back or pinching of new shoots associated with defoliating creates ramification.

This branch was cut back last May.  Because of the cut, these two buds pushed new growth.  Today in June, the new leaves were cut off.  A month later, each new branch will push out a pair of new branches.  We went from one branch to two, then to four.  That is how to ramify the exterior branches of the tree.

3. Smaller leaves – New leaves that bud out after defoliation tends to be smaller than the original Spring leaf.  This helps in creating a more proportionate looking tree.

4. Slow and control – Defoliating the tree will slow the growth of the tree and makes it easier to control once ramified.

Basically, we can defoliate the tree if it’s for one or all of the reasons above.

When? – 

Trident Maples can be defoliated during the growing season (late Spring to early Fall).  Usually the first defoliation can be done after the Spring leaves have hardened off.  Depending on the local temps, they can be defoliated 1-4 times during the growing season.  They grow very well in hot and humid weather.  In Nagoya, we can defoliate a Trident Maple up to 4 times.  At the beginning of May, June, July, and September.

“When”, isn’t just about time of year, but the health and developmental stage of the tree itself.  Just because we have a Trident Maple doesn’t mean it needs to be defoliated.  Defoliation is done mainly on more developed bonsai where small foliage and tight branch ramifications are desired.  If the tree isn’t at that point yet, then it really shouldn’t be defoliate.  An example is the long branches I left on my project tree to thicken the main branch.  Of course, if the tree is weak and not pushing new shoots, it’s probably not a good idea to defoliate.  At that point, it’s a matter of nursing the tree back to health (shade, water control, light food).

Hence why this Japanese Maple in the last post was not defoliated.

Defoliating Japanese Maple

When it comes to Japanese Maples, the defoliating process a little different.  Compared to Trident Maples, Japanese Maples respond a bit slower.  Japanese Maples also seem to be much more susceptible to pest problems then Trident Maples as well, so stressing the tree too much during the growing season can make it a target for infestations.  Here is a quick look at the defoliating process of Japanese Maples.  The Why is the same but the How and When is different.  Here is the “How”.

Example of a typical pair of Japanese Maple leaves.  Though the center shoot was cut off, just assume that these two leaves are the terminal ends of the branch.

In May we will remove one of the pairs.  Usually it’s the strongest (larger) of the two.

Another technique that can be use though we don’t do it here is to cut both leaves in half.

Many time on the exterior of the tree, the leaves or branch may be too vigorous.  In those cases, both leaves are removed.

Normally we defoliated Japanese Maples only once a year during May. Trident Maples that were defoliated in May will have fully leafed out by June, whereas Japanese Maples will have just started to push new leaves.  If the tree is young and vigorous, we can defoliate a second time but that would be the last.

Japanese Maples are much more sensitive to the hot Summer sun so we protected them under 50 percent shade cloth during Summer.  Other than that, the basic cut back techniques are similar to those of Trident Maples.  Japanese Maples don’t ramify as easily as Trident Maples so many times, they have a much more open and airy look.  This seems appropriate since the trees have a soft feeling to them.  Tridents on the other hand tend to have a stronger feeling to them so they tend to have many more ramified branches.

This Trident Maple was created at Aichien and sold about 16 years ago.  The tree looks pretty much the same now as it did then.  This tree has won the Kokufu prize and was for sale at the Green Club at this year’s Kokufu Show.  Note the dense branches and muscular feel of the tree.

This Japanese Maple was in the Kokufu Show this year.  I don’t know who owns it but it’s an, “Important Bonsai Masterpiece.”  Note how the tree has a softer feeling and a more open branch structure.


So let review!  Summer is the time to work on deciduous trees, which includes wiring, cutting and defoliate but not always done exactly the same on every tree.  We should take the time to ask ourselves how a technique is performed, why it’s performed, and when.  Though we may understand a technique, lets always keep our eyes and ears open to new ideas and ways of improving them.

Now if you have some Trident or Japanese Maples at home, take a look at them and see if they should be wired, defoliated or cut back.  Give it a try and see what the results are for you.  Doing Bonsai it is much more valuable and fun then reading about it.  Though I do appreciate that you are reading this post.  :o)

Thanks for reading and have some fun creating!

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