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Growing and Caring for Bonsai Trees

Growing and Caring for Bonsai Trees

The Incredible Art of Tanuki Bonsai 狸 or たぬき

Tanuki Bonsai - The art of Tanuki Bonsai explained

The validity of creating a single bonsai from two separate sources of plant material (one of which has been long dead) has often been a matter of considerable debate within the western bonsai community. Such creations are referred to by the Japanese as “tanuki” bonsai and by many Westerners as “phoenix grafts.” In other words, when a living bonsai tree is joined with an interesting piece of deadwood to form a driftwood-style (sharamiki) bonsai, it is known as tanuki.

Regardless of their name, the process in their creation is basically the same. A large and interesting piece of dead wood is used as the centerpiece in the planting. A die grinder or dremel tool is fitted with a router bit and used to inscribe a groove in the deadwood and then a young leggy plant (most often a juniper) is nailed, screwed or otherwise affixed in the groove.

With the passage of time the young plant grows into the groove, the screws are removed and the composite creation, which is then shaped using traditional bonsai techniques, begins to take on the appearance of an ancient tree similar to many of the California and Colorado junipers we see collected from the American desert southwest. The deadwood and the living tree are usually not of the same species, but they will eventually look like one organism, at least to the untrained eye.

The Japanese Viewpoint

Tanuki Sake
Classical Tanuki Sake Set
In the hands of a skilled bonsai artist the finished creation can be spectacular, but is it “valid” bonsai? Many Westerners, including this author, say “yes,” but among the Japanese the question is mute. Understanding how such creations got their name may help the reader to understand the Japanese viewpoint on the matter.

The word tanuki translates from Japanese as “badger,” 狸 or たぬき, an animal which is regarded in the west as particularly vicious and aggressive. However, in Japan badgers are regarded as sneaky tricksters. A popular Japanese folk story tells of a tanuki who dresses up as a Buddhist priest and visits each house in the village tricking the residents into giving him free food and money. In another more x rated version the tanuki visits a “house of ill repute.” 

One can well imagine what he convinces the residents to provide. With this kind of a history it’s easy to understand how the word “tanuki” has come to mean “something that is not what it appears to be.”

This is not to say the Japanese never make tanuki bonsai… they do. They regard it as a fun and enjoyable diversion, but not to be considered in the same category as regular bonsai. You will not see tanuki displayed in professional shows in Japan because in the last analysis, they do not regard tanuki bonsai as valid. Like the tanuki of fable, such bonsai are not what they appear to be. They are in fact as Donald Trump would say, a fake!


A Western Approach

But are they fake? Perhaps it is a question of viewpoint. The term “phoenix graft” was first coined by noted bonsai artist Dan Robinson. His garden in Bremerton, Washington is a spectacular collection of collected and classically designed bonsai, but also includes an impressive collection of tanuki or as Jerry would say… phoenix grafts. Like the phoenix bird of classical Greek mythology, rising reborn and more glorious than ever from the ashes of its own funeral pyre, the phoenix bonsai uses long dead ancient wood and young new plant material to create a new artistic vision greater than the sum of its parts.

If, like a painter or sculptor our objective is to create a work of art which evokes an emotional or intellectual reaction from the viewer, then perhaps this type of bonsai is as valid as any other. We must ask ourselves a question. Do we honor our teachers by bringing new insights and new approaches to the art or do we simply pollute and debase it? It is a debate which will continue in the western bonsai community for many years to come.

It is not our purpose here to offer a solution to such a debate, but rather to simply present the mechanics and techniques for creating a tanuki bonsai. Whether you choose to display the finished creation at a bonsai exhibit is a matter for you to decide. Call it what you will, but always remember the words of another great artist. “A rose, by any other name, would smell as sweet.”

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Selection of Deadwood

Classical piece of deadwood before bleaching
Classical piece of deadwood before bleaching
By virtue of the fact that deadwood is being used in its construction, a tanuki bonsai is a temporary creation at best. Whether “temporary” translates at 2, 22 or 202 years will depend largely on the kind of wood you choose for its creation. Water is the enemy. Any deadwood that is in constant contact with moisture is eventually going to rot and require repair or replacement. Therefore, not all deadwood will work, no matter how interesting its shape. It needs to be dense and very hard. The piece used in this article is a juniper snag collected from the western desert, very old and hard enough to pound nails with.

The upper portions of the deadwood which do not come into contact with the soil mass will weather fine, but those portions which extend into the soil mass are in contact with moisture will rot quickly if they are not dense enough. Some people like to paint the deadwood with a wood preservative to ward off the effects of moisture. This can be a good idea. There are many varieties available in the marketplace. However, you should take care that the chemical will not leach into the soil and damage the live tree planted next to it.

Deadwood Types

The six deadwood types;

  • Jin
  • Uro
  • Shari
  • Sharamiki
  • Sabamiki
  • Tanuki


A jin made from the leader is known as a top jin. Making a top jin can be a way for the grower to create a shorter bonsai and/or enhance the tapering of the bonsai. It is also important to keep in mind that when the leader is removed, the resources of the plant will be distributes to the remaining branches, making them grow more rapidly than before and with more vigor. It can also help the trunk grow thicker more rapidly. Another situation when the grower may opt for a top jin is when a bonsai has two leaders and that is becoming aesthetically unpleasing. By turning one of the leaders into a top jin, a better balance can be achieved.

On branches, the jin technique makes it possible for the bonsai grower to remove unwanted branches while simultaneously making the bonsai look older. It is up to the grower to decide how long the remaining deadwood (jin) will be. In some cases, it is kept very short, as if the branch had been naturally broken off near the trunk. In other cases, a longer jin is left. An aesthetically pleasing shape may be bent or carved into the jin.

Jins are typically created on coniferous bonsai. On decidious and broad-leaf species, a jin can look unatural, since jins on such species are very rare in the wild. When such a tree is injured, it is more common for the branch to rot and fall off the tree, leaving an indentation where the branch used to be. When a bonsai grower tries to copy this, it is called uro. 

As mentioned above, the uro is a technique typically employed on deciduous and broad-leaf bonsai plants. In the wild, a severely damaged branch on such a tree is likely to fall off, leaving a small indentation. Over time, new growth will form there, but the healing will not be without a scar – a small hollow will be clearly visible. When bonsai growers try to mimic this on their tree, its called uro. The grower uses a tool to make a small, irregularly-shaped wound in the trunk.

An uro is often made when the grower wants to remove a branch and is afraid of ending up with an ugly wound if the tree is left to heal on its own. The branch is removed, and an uro is created, giving the grower more control over the end result.

Exposing deadwood on the main trunk of a bonsai is called shari. It can appear naturally or be created by the bonsai grower. The typical created shari is a shallow wound that runs vertically along the front of the trunk, or near the front of the trunk, exposing deadwood. (Creating one at the back of the trunk would not make much sense, unless it is an unusual bonsai that is intended for being seen from all angles.) In nature, shari is usually formed by a lightning strike or after a falling branch has ripped bark from the trunk below.

When a bonsai is said to be in the sharamiki style, it means that it has a lot of dead trunk, and possibly also dead branches near the dead trunk area. In Japanese, sharamiki means driftwood, and the term is an allusion to the silvery and weathered look of the deadwood on the bonsai, reminding the viewer of bleached and worn driftwood stranded on a beach.

It is important to still have living bark connecting the roots with the live branches of the bonsai, otherwise those branches will die. The contrast between death and signs of life creates an interesting tension in the bonsai for the viewer. It is quite common for Sharamiki bonsai trees to not follow the conventional bonsai styles. Some bonsai growers carve the dead wood to make it look more weather-beaten.

In Japanese, the word sabamiki means split trunk or hollowed trunk. In nature, this type of severe trunk damage can for instance be the result of a lightning strike. When a bonsai grower wish to resemble this effect, they remove the bark from the trunk before drilling or carving out the exposed wood to produce a wound. It is important that there is still enough bark connecting the roots of the tree with the living parts, since parts that lose their connection to the roots will die. Sabamiki is usually placed part-way up the trunk or at the base of the trunk. When created at the base of the trunk, the wound is typically very wide at the bottom and then tapers upwards.

Tanuki is also the Japanese name for the Japanese raccoon dog (Nyctereutes procyonoides viverrinus). In Japanese folklore, this animal is a master of disguise and shape-shifting, and also both mischievous, funloving and irreverent. It is easy to see how tanuki was chose as a name for this type of mix-and-match bonsai technique, which some purists doesn’t acknowledge as “real bonsai”.

The deadwood in a tanuki bonsai is often utilized to give the appearance of a weathered tree trunk. A groove or channel is carved out, and the living tree is fixed within using write, nails, screws or clamps. The living tree of choice is something that is vigorous and flexible enough to endure the process, such as young juniper. Over time, it will grow into the channel in the deadwood, and the securing can be removed.

The making of a jin is a bonsai deadwood technique employed on branches or on the top of the trunk. (Within bonsai culture, the top of the trunk is called “the leader”.) When the bonsai grower creates a jin, it is necessary for him or her to completely remove the bark from the start point of choice to the end of the branch or leader. Without the bark, the wood dies and dries out, forming the jin.Jins, both branch jins and top jins, are often created to make the tree look older, and also make it appear as if it had to struggle and go through tough periods earlier in its life. In the wild, jins would be formed by factors such as lightning strikes and storms.

Container Selection

Tanuki bonsai are not instant bonsai. You will be working with relatively young plant material which needs time to grow. Assume that you are a good three to five years away from being able to display the tree in an exhibition. Initially, you should select an oversized container. Eventually you will transfer the planting to a container suitable for showing. For now, something as simple as a large plastic bus pan or a wooden growing box will serve you well. Lots of room for root growth will also translate as lots of top growth. We selected an oversized mica training pot.

to bleach wood
Bonsai lime sulfur to bleach deadwood
Plant Selection

Junipers are most often the plant material of choice for making a tanuki bonsai. This stems from the fact that most ancient trees with this much dead wood usually fall into the evergreen class. More often than not, they are junipers, but pines, yews, firs, and hemlocks might also be fair game. Remember the objective is to create something which looks like it could have been dug out of the landscape… not created for Disneyworld

Be guided more by the mechanical considerations. Fairly young, spindly plant material is required with a trunk diameter not much larger than your index finger. The material selected should be very flexible and willing to put up with having holes drilled through its trunk and getting banged a scuffed about during the creative process. Junipers and pines are very flexible and put up with this kind of treatment.

If you select azalea you will discover that the trunk and branches snap easily and that its delicate bark cannot withstand the bruising it will receive. At least for your first attempt, try to keep your problems to a minimum. In this instance we have selected a Shimpaku juniper. Bonsai lime sulfur is used to bleach deadwood --> click here for more details

Assembly Protocol

What follows is a step by step guide to creating a tanuki bonsai. Complete these steps exactly in the order listed. Artistic considerations are not the focus of this article, only the mechanical steps necessary to complete the planting. The traditional practices of asymmetrical balance and proper triangulation of the finished planting are the same as they would be for any bonsai. How you position the deadwood, where you cut the router groove and how you position the trunk and branches should be based on solid principles of bonsai design. On a separate note, it is easy to see how tanuki was chose as a name for this type of mix-and-match bonsai technique, which some purists doesn’t acknowledge as “real bonsai”. There are many bonsai shows where tanuki is not allowed.

Interesting Books on Bonsai can be found here:

The Complete Book of Bonsai --> I've been into bonsai for 25 years and this is the basic Bible for beginner and intermediate bonsai enthusiasts. It has an excellent section on techniques, including pruning, wiring and whatnot, and it has a large species-specific tree guide. If you're into bonsai and want only one book, this is it.

Indoor Bonsai The Great Selection --> Creating beautiful, healthy bonsai is a wonderful skill that anyone can learn, with a little time, patience, and this all-inclusive manual. With color photos and drawings to illustrate the points, it introduces all the cultivation techniques; offers expert advice on location, soil types, watering, and pest control; and provides intricate instruction on training the bonsai--including pruning, wiring and stretching it.

The Secret Techniques of Bonsai --> In The Secret Techniques of Bonsai, the author of the groundbreaking Bonsai With American Trees teams up with his son to offer not only the basics for creating perfect bonsai, but also secret techniques they’ve developed over years of careful work and observation.

Bonsai Survival Manual --> Problem solving when your Bonsai get sick. Expand your gardening repertoire as you create a captivating and exquisite miniature world. In this introductory guide, Colin Lewis covers everything you need to know to design, grow, and successfully maintain attractive bonsai.

Bonsai and the art of Penjing --> Bonsai & Penjing, Ambassadors of Beauty and Peace describes how Chinese penjing and North American bonsai were later added to the Museum, making its collection the most comprehensive in the world. Stories of individual trees and forest plantings are featured, as are the roles played by the skilled and talented creators of these living art forms people such as John Naka, Saburo Kato, Yuji Yoshimura, Harry Hirao, and Dr. Yee-Sun Wu.

Bonsai with Japanese Maples --> With their delicate foliage, seasonal color changes, and intricate pattern of branching, Japanese maples are among the most popular and suitable plants for bonsai design. In this long-awaited book, internationally renowned expert Peter Adams discusses both the specific horticultural needs of Japanese maples as bonsai subjects and illustrates proven techniques for creating and maintaining beautiful specimens.

The Modern Bonsai Practice --> The most current, useful information on growing Bonsai. Fresh, practical, definitive, comprehensive reference guide to the finest art of horticulture: growing miniature trees. Common sense bonsai answers separating myth from fact with depth and detail. Appropriate for both bonsai hobbyists and experienced practitioners.

More Bonsai articles can be found here:

Please click here for more information on --> Chinese Penjing Bonsai
Please click here for more information on --> The Origins of Bonsai
Please click here for more information on --> The Art of Saikei Bonsai
Please click here for more information on --> How to Water a Bonsai
Please click here for more information on --> Bonsai Healing Methods

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