Pinus monticola, or Western White Pine, is native to the Sierra Nevada mountains, Cascade Range and the Pacific Northwest. The tree has a typical slender white-pine family needle with a somewhat more muted coloration than many of the striped white-pine family members. The needles are beautifully soft and seem to end up anywhere from 1- to 2-inches in length under bonsai care. As with other white pines, less water and fertilizer, particularly in spring and early summer, leads to shorter needles. However, I always hesitate to starve a tree, either of water or fertilizer since I’d rather have a healthier tree with long needles than a sick one with short needles.
Apart from the needles, I think that the smell of working with a P. monticola is one of my favorite things. While a nice Ponderosa can smell like vanilla-pineapple, P. monticola has a bit spicier character to the pitch that is oddly pleasant.
I had the pleasure once again of hosting Matt Reel this past weekend for a series of workshop with the Bonsai Society of San Francisco, and we took a day to work on this tree and one other pine. See the index on this site for some of Matt’s other visits.
I purchased this tree at least seven years ago from John Boyce who told me that it had been collected in Oregon and brought to the Bay Area over 30 years ago. With such a long history of living in San Francisco and Berkeley I was relatively confident that the tree would have no problems with the climate, particularly the need for a more-significant winter dormancy than we are able to provide here in the mild coastal part of NorCal.
Matt and I discussed the need to emphasize the movement of the tree either to the left or right; with five trunks radiating outward in all directions, the tree seemed to be going in every direction all at once. The largest of the secondary trunks on the left and slightly farther from the center than the other trees gave us the opportunity to enhance either direction. If the movement was to be to the left then the major secondary trunk would have more emphasis; if to the right, then this trunk would be reduced and the crown brought to the right.
The left trunk had a major branch junction near the top, with the larger portion going backward and continuing leftward. I had been reducing this portion for a few years, and Matt decided immediately that it should be eliminated to simplify the tree and reduce the size compared to the primary tree in the center.
Next we turned our attention to the main trunk. There is some slight movement there, but more movement would provide a better match to the other trunks in the composition and enhance the flow of the tree to the right, which we had by this time decided was better than to the left. Matt decided to use a small saw cut in two places to allow for easier bending. This tree is quite flexible in the smaller branches but the main trunk was stiff enough that it would take many years for it to set in place without this technique. He used a saw to cut about 30% of the way through the trunk, then bent the trunk in the direction of the cut to compress the two sides together. The bend closes the space left by the saw. While the cut is visible, I was impressed that after bending, without prior knowledge that it had been done I would not have been able to pick out the location.
With the middle section of the trunk guyed to the left and the bottom held in place by a wedge between the trunks, Matt placed a piece of rebar vertically in the center of the composition to allow the top of the main trunk to be pulled back to the right. This also conveniently provided an anchor point for some other guy wires that we added later.
The order of the work is important for setting the overall composition. Since in a multi-trunk composition all the smaller trunks relate first to the main trunk and then to the other trunks, nothing else can be set into final position until the primary trunk is finished. Matt set the upper trunk section of the primary trunk using a guy wire to the rebar. However, prior to bending the major branching on the primary trunk Matt set the branching on the left-most secondary trunk to make space for bending the upper branches down.
The upper branching of the primary trunk was all a bit too large to easily bend downward. We wired the branching using #8 copper and Matt added a guy wire near the base of each branch to pull them down to the angle needed. In each case we checked for splits as we pulled, and in the case of the upper left branch we stopped a bit short of the final position to allow the tree to recover before bending it down more in the future.
I had spent the day before Matt showed up wiring many of the finer branches on the secondary trunks, which allowed Matt to speed through the process of shaping the three other minor trunks. He set the branching taking care to make the top of each of the secondary trunks a different height from each other. This is particularly important for clumps because it allows the eye to distinguish the different pads and enhances the feeling of rhythm if the composition.
Matt emphasizes in all his work the need for balance and clean lines. When setting branches, the underside of the pad should be straight, without dangling needles to create a feeling of cleanliness. The balance of the pads is perhaps the trickiest part of a bonsai composition, but Matt has years of experience with some of Japan’s best bonsai to rely on when he makes these decisions.
The tree may be as little as 3-5 years away from a show. Each of the crowns needs to fill out and broaden out a bit. Luckily, the tree is already full of back buds so the progress in the next few years should be good.
A big thanks to Matt for some excellent work.