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There are many varieties of White Pine but all have one thing in common: the white central or stomatic band down the length of the leaf (or needle).
The popular White Pine bonsai come from either China, Japan or elsewhere in the Pacific Asian Rim area. They are generally styled very simply with a twist or two onto the trunk and are invariably grafted onto the stronger Black Pine base. Some varieties have very dense needle growth while others have very short needle clusters. However all are Pinus Parviflora with many various cultivars that include Kokono and Brevifolia. The difference between White Pine and other pine species is that the White Pine has a cluster of five needles around each bud. The Scots, Red and Black Pines have needle clusters of two, and some varieties have clusters of three.
Its natural growth habit is low and spreading, while as a bonsai it can be any shape with the common style being pyramid form with the branches in clearly defined steps up to the apex or tip of the tree.
As this is the first article I shall explain the reason for a bonsai's high cost and leave you to form your own opinion as to the meaning of 'value for money'.
White Pines are imported in vast numbers to the UK and other countries. The estimated worldwide trade of pine tree bonsai is one million per year so it is easy to understand that the methods used to produce such numbers produce results leaving much to be desired in a tree. Dealers buy these trees by the container and unless they have the means (or indeed the time) to hand pick each one that they import, it is unlikely that the bonsai pine you see on the shelf for sale is of good quality. This is not to say that a bit of time spent on the bonsai 'starter' will not result in the tree eventually becoming a nice specimen, it is just that the sheer work that this entails may mean a few years of effort before it really becomes a 'bonsai'.
What you have to remember is that the tree is bought from a grower at a very low cost , and he is literally mass producing Pine (or indeed other bonsai); the grower may receive, for example, £3. The wholesaler will then put their mark-up at 100% and the same tree becomes £6. He sells it to a distributor or wholesaler in the various countries that import the tree and they then put on their mark-up to cover the cost of three things: the import charges (clearing customs and freight), the purchase cost and the eventual retail cost. This mark-up would then make the tree £18. If he then sells the tree as a distributor to the small shop or to other retailers, the final tree will cost you up to, and in many cases over, £36; depending on the mark-up that the individual retailer puts on the tree. However, the problem is not whether the tree is worth £36, it is whether a tree costing £3 initially is ever going to be of high quality. The answer is quite clear; after all, why should a mass-producing grower spend valuable time producing individual quality when that tree is only going to sell for £3? What you pay at the end of the day is £36 for a £3 tree. This is really no one's fault as everyone has to make a profit along the way. Incidentally, this is not even a large mark-up when you consider that these profits have to cover any trees that die when held by the dealers along the way. Profit is based not so much on what they sell but on what they do not sell.
What to look for
The first thing to look for when buying bonsai is that all the stock throughout the shop is be looking fresh. In the case of White Pine, are the needles healthy and 'crisp green' or are they brown tinged and looking a bit sorry for themselves? Are all the trees on show in clean pots, or are they in dirty, unkempt containers? Is the soil damp or very dry? If the soil is damp, check the needles are not brown from over watering. If the soil is very dry, look closely at the needles and twigs to see if they are dried up and wrinkled, a sign of dehydration. Don't buy a pine that has deep wire marks or where the wire left on is biting into the bark. In addition:
Buy from a specialist supplier and not from a car boot sale (they may well be stolen).
Ask questions: what conditions must the tree have; what aftercare does it require and what guarantees does the seller give if the tree dies within the first few months? (Get this written down just before you agree to purchase the bonsai).
What after sales service does the supplier offer (repotting, winter care, holiday care etc.)?
Will the seller give a discount for cash?! (Please get a receipt as proof of purchase in all cases this is very important).
Check that the soil is not clay mud. Professional growers would have removed this soil and replaced it with soil more suited to western conditions, i.e. healthy!
Make sure that you have read about or listened carefully to the requirements of the new addition to the family. Some general points: keep the Pine out of extreme weather conditions - wind, rain, sun and centrally heated homes. Most trees die within a few weeks if they are not kept correctly and yet the trees really require very little in the way of molly coddling. Keep the tree in a slightly shaded place and spray lightly every day for the first two weeks. Do not feed immediately but wait until the tree has settled down. The problem with immediate feeding is that the tree may have been repotted recently and the roots freshly cut; if you feed too quickly you may harm the roots. Find out when the tree has last been repotted and explain why you need this information. If you cannot be certain then it is best to withhold from feeding for about six weeks.After a couple of weeks give the tree about four hours sun per day but still find a place away from high winds. If you get or buy a tree in the winter, do not bring the bonsai into a centrally heated house as this will both aggravate the normal growing period of the tree, exhausting it and drying up the needles.
Pines need semi-dry conditions in the winter and the soil kept slightly damp in the growing season. Pine bonsai do not like very wet conditions. Only spray the needles from summer to early autumn but in both the morning and late evening. See seasonal care, soil and feeding points. To reduce needles on established trees, start to withhold water as the buds develop. This makes the needles smaller. When the buds have set and the needles open, resume normal watering. Please note: this is not appropriate for young trees.
Pests and diseases
Aphids, angelgids, mealy bug, red spider mite, and lopho (pine needle cast known as lophodermium pinastre) are all potential villains. (These will be explained in more detail in future articles). If pests arrive, treat with systemic. Lopho is a fungus and is treated with a copper fungicide at a weekly dose for five or six weeks. Please note: when using any fungicide on a pine, do not allow the fungicide to get onto the soil, cover the soil with a polysheet or plastic bag and then a towel. Fungicide will damage the beneficial mycelium fungus that helps the pine roots to grow. Lopho is identified by lateral yellow stripes on the needle. Angelgids look like a woolly fluff between the needles. Systemic will kill the animal but use a concentrated hose spray to wash away the fluff.
Always use bought fertilisers at half strength. Young trees: In the spring feed with a high nitrogen fertiliser; in summer, with a balanced fertiliser; and in early autumn, with a low nitrogen fertiliser. Feed every three weeks at the beginning of the season and every four weeks by early summer through to the end of autumn. See seasonal care. Established trees: Using fertilisers at full strength is particularly dangerous here as the roots are very tender and they may suffer from being fed. You do not want lush juvenile growth, so feed until early summer with low nitrogen fertiliser. Feed balanced feed in summer feed and in autumn with low nitrogen again. Only feed mature trees approximately every five weeks.
Prune the old needles at the rear of each bud needle cluster every three years. Leave only two or three buds at each tip depending on the health of the tree. If you wish to develop young inner buds along the branch then prune out some, if not all, the leading tips that aren't required. Start cutting candles (buds) from the top of the tree by half to two thirds and each week work your way down until you reach the bottom layer of branches. The strongest bud at the top of the tree will grow. Do not do all the buds up and down the tree at the same time as this will exhaust the tree. Every three years it is better to pull the soft new needles out from the sheath and this forces the tree to create shorter needles the following year.
A free draining soil is important for all pines and should be 5 parts of grit of 2/3mm to 3 parts organic such as a mixture of peat, leaf mould or even composted bark. Speak to the seller of the bonsai or to other growers in your area and they will advise you on the best solid for your climate. Trees in hotter climates may need a little more organic to retain moisture than trees from colder or wetter climates.
Pines like some shade for part of the day in the summer and kept in as light an area free from winter climatic problems during the cold months. Full sun will make the tree more yellow in most cases, while full shade (not advised) will force the glaucus, blue-green colour to come out. Blend the light requirements and you will have a healthy tree. RepottingI usually repot every three years for young trees and every five years for mature trees. Use a rust, brown, grey or deep blue pot for pines. I prefer the matt dark brown pots by English potters such as Gordon Duffett or Derek Aspinal. Japanese imported pots are also nice, though expensive, but larger bonsai nurseries such as Herons and Greenwood have a very good variety of stock at all times.
İCraig Coussins 1995