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The Pine

Text, sketches and photos by Morten Albek, Denmark
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Pinus is the Latin name, and Matsu is the Japanese name for one of the most beloved species for bonsai, the Pine tree.

Pines are undoable powerful, and aesthetic a very valuable tree. At the same time the Pine is also one of the most difficult specimens to succeed as a bonsai.

Even though the Pine, Matsu, is dry tolerant and copes with both heavy freezing temperatures and hot summers, it is still not one of the easiest bonsais to keep.

Pines seems to be developed to deal with the local environment they have settled in, and are therefore not easy to move to another region without being very careful.

Pines demand a lot of knowledge about techniques to be used. Furthermore the biological needs of the Pine tree must be understood in order to fully deal with this specimen, and getting the reward of this wonderful tree.

In the sections on this website, I have tried to cover a good deal of the needed information. My hope is to give an overview that can be understood to better succeed with pines as Bonsai.

I will constantly add new information to this section a long the way.

If you want to know about the pine tree - go to the pine tree!

Good luck with your Pine.

Needle plucking

One of the most important operations in order to keep Pines well trained is the needle plucking of last yearís growth.

The methods described here are for the two needle pines, and can not be used on the five needles Pine (Pinus parviflora i.e.), and the two needle Pine; the native Japanese Black Pine (Pinus thunbergii).

Old needles should be removed in order to give light and air to the inner branches, in order to let new buds develop. Old needles are the two year old needles from previous growth. On newer collected trees, also older needles than the two year old needles should be removed.

The timing of plucking the old needles:
Black Pines:
Removing old needles in autumn. Thinning out new needles from March to November.
All other Pines: Old needles are removed in autumn.

The arrow points out the area that has been plucked, while the right side still remains.

Black pine and Five needle Pines

Old green needles are cut about one millimetre above the sheet where the needles have their base. If removed by plucking, the sleeping bud will be removed and their will be no new growth.

Summer plucking

By plucking the last years needles in summer, new light will reach the inner parts of the branches. Therefore summer plucking is a good method to thin heavy growth that prevents light and air reaching the inner branches and the weaker growing parts.

This method will not give the same amount of new budding back on the branches, but it is necessary to make a base to succeed doing this the next season.

This method is also fine if it isnít necessary to provoke new growth back on the branches.

Four needles are left to support the weak shot by keeping sap flow in this area.

Autumn plucking

As a principle the needle plucking can be done in early spring, but the winter will have a good strengthening effect on the new buds that will be developed after the plucking. Therefore it is better to pluck the needles during early autumn, in order to develop stronger buds.

Relating to the stronger autumn root growth, this will also help more buds to develop.

First pluck the old needles from last years growth, and then thin the new needles 6-10 needles are left at each branch.

Leave less needles in the stronger areas, and more needles at the weaker parts.

The effect achieved

The purpose of the needle plucking of fold needles and some of this years growth, are that a lot of new buds will arrive from now on and to winter time.

The technique of plucking

Use your fingers to gently break and pull of the needles, one by one. With this method the sleeping bud that is placed at the bottom of the sheet, between the needle pair, will awake and grow. This sleeping bud will have shorter needles and shorter internodes that are acquired for a dense grow.

If both needles are pulled of in one go, it is very likely that the sleeping bud will be pulled of as well.

Are you insecure about what is the old and the new needles, it is possible to feel it with your fingers. The old needles are harder and darker green, compared to the new still softer needles of this yearís growth.

The newest needles also sit looser, and are far easier to pull of, where the old needles needs more force.


There are two goals to achieve by pruning. The first one is part of the overall styling of the tree.

The second is with the aim of developing a closer ramification by pruning back the branches. Here the goal by the pruning, is to develop new branches, which forms clusters of 6 to 10 needles at the end of every branch.

Leave growing needles to improve the likelihood of a new bud formation on the old wood, and formation of new side branching. When the end of the branch is cut bask to to or four needle pairs, it will help the remaining needles to develop into new side branches.

The new pine buds customarily grows in clusters around the needle sheath covers. Do take great care not to damage these sheaths.

Pruning Time

In general it is time to prune when your tree is in slow growth during autumn and winter. This will prevent sap loss, which is stressing the tree.

If you prune back shoots in order to develop new buds, this should be done in summer.

Pruning during early autumn will though give the Pine a chance to set.

When pruning it is wise to leave a small stump that will dry out during the next months.

Never cut behind the needles, because this will cause the branch to die.

Short internodes

The first two or three internodes of a released bud achieved through pruning, will develop to be shorter than internodes of the rest of the expanding shoot. Pinching back to one or two buds will keep the short internodes sections, and discarding the strong shoots which have long internodes. This is important to the area of the outer portions of the branch.

Like the branches on the trunk itself, the outer branches should bear needles and nodes close together in order to make a natural appearance, and a firm tight silhouette.

The length of the internodes is also influenced by the weather and growth of the tree. Trees in good growth form longer internodes, as well as heavily fertilized trees in the spring, or Pines pruned during winter. Pines that are fertilized and pruned in early summer, not in spring, will also form shorter internodes.

Two and Five Needle Pine Differences, and Balancing Growth

To develop new branches and new buds on Pines is one of the difficulties with this specimen.

And it can be a bit complicated to get an overall view of the many different techniques acquired to succeed with the Pine.

I will try to setup some guidelines that hopefully will help to understand this.


Balancing the vigour between weak and stronger areas in the tree is also to be aware of. Pinching and pruning shall be done with awareness of balancing the weaker branches against the stronger growing ones. The same is the case with weak and strong candles.

Only do this on healthy trees. Week trees should be left to grow and gain vigour.

Pines have the strongest growth on the top, and on the tip of the branches. Lower branches and inner shoots are the weakest.

Therefore it is necessary to keep balance between the stronger parts and the weaker ones, by pinching and pruning harder on the strong parts, to make the weaker parts gain strength.

With this work the focus in on keeping the balance between week and strong areas. This will also influence on how many new buds will emerge i.e., but here the focus is on the balance of growth:

1) Start pinching the undesired weak buds.

2) Approximately one week later pinch the undesired strong ones.

3) Then selectively remove buds in the weak areas, leaving only the biggest and strongest.

4) At last, in the strongest areas you have to leave the weak buds and remove the biggest and strongest.

!!! Five needle Pines are treated opposite.

Strong candles versus week candles

The difficulty to understand in this part is the rule about letting the stronger candles grows when you pinch the weakest first! This is though to keep needles short, and it will have no effect to the overall balance if pinching is performed during a tree weeks period.

Get to know your Pine

One has to have good knowledge about the tree and its growth to fully understand this. If you carefully observe your tree throughout the seasons you will be well aware of the balance between strong and week areas, and thereby be able to correct any unbalanced growth.

Always prune in order to let the sun reach the inner branches, in order to develop new buds from where new branches can grow. This will secure the possibility to develop and keep your Pine in the desired shape.

Two and five needle Pine Differences

It is important to know that there are some differences between Pine species.

1) There is the common two needle Pine that includes Pinus sylvestris, P. thunbergii (Japanese Black Pine), P. mugo i.e. All known by setting two needles from the same point.

Two-needle Pine

2) The five needle Pines sets five needles in the same cluster. This is Pinus parviflora (White Pine) and variants.

Five-needle Pine with five needles from the same sheet.

3) A special Pine is the three needles Pine, and this one is treated as the two needles Pine.

It is very important to differ between the two- and three needle Pines, and the five needles Pine. They need to be treated differently in order to succeed.

Furthermore it is necessary to be aware of the timing of pinching new candles. The Pine reacts differently whether the new candles are pinched early, late or not at all. Also the time of year the tasks are fore filled will influence on the Pines reaction and behaviour.

A thumbs rule is that in general it is best to keep the trees at the dryer side in the period where candles are unfolding and hardens.

Factors that will influence on both two needles, and five needles Pine

Wind and weather in general, will affect the techniques used on Pines. And the different species will react different on this outer coming influence.

But the main thing to be concerned about is the timing of pinching relating to the development of the candles. This will affect how good the effect of pinching will be, and what result will follow.


As a principle the strongest candles needs to be removed, in order to develop the weaker ones. Else the weak branches will die back over time.

The weaker candles therefore only have to be pinched a third, or not all, depending on their vigour. The strong candles have to be pruned to thirds or are removed entirely.

Divide the process in three steps, with approximately a weeks pause between the pinching.

When new buds later on the season sprouts from the base of pinching or behind, the same principle is to be used in keeping balance between strong and weak points.

The candles of tree different Pine species at the same time of year, in the end of April.

Pinus sylvestris
Two needle Pine

Pinus parviflora
Five needle Pine

Pinus mugo
Two needle Pine

Five principles

1) There always has to be no more than two new candles left too form the new growth, after pinching. Remove excessive candles.

2) Always remove the centre candle, in order two let the new growth forming a V-shape.

3) Removing the slowest candles first on two needle Pines, will help keeping the needles the same length. It is opposite when you pinch five needle Pines. 4) The more candles are removed, the more new growth will appear. On older trees that just have to be kept in shape, this should then be partly or totally avoided.

5) Do you have doubts about how to, and when to, it is always advisable to bring your tree to an experienced Pine grower. It is always easier to understand the techniques when they are shown to you on the spot.

Yamadori and aftercare

Pinus sylvestris

Yamadori is the Japanese word for collected plants from nature. The best time for Yamadori is in early spring for deciduous trees, and during autumn or very early spring when the task is to collect most evergreens.

One of the best specimens to collect in the wild is Pines. Especially mountain Pines will show great maturity and strength trough the rough bark on good old specimens.

Yamadori is the way to get high quality trees. It takes a lot of time, but it is worth the entire struggle if you want the best. At the same time one comes in close contact with nature, and it gives me a certain relationship to a tree collected from the wild.

The collected trees from the wild have the maturity that is so valued in bonsai, and Pines from nurseries doesnít process these qualities.

Open minded

When collecting from the wild, it is important to keep your mind open, in order to see the wild tree as it will be after it has been styled years from now. What you should really look for, are the trunk, because the soul of the trunk is showed in this part. Without a powerful trunk, one doesnít get a powerful bonsai.

The formation of the branches is almost without importance, because in many cases it will be possible to style the tree at a later point, by arrangement of the branch structure.

Furthermore Pines have the great advantage that their branches bend easily, if not very old and thick.

On the field it will be possible to make a rough cutting of very long branches, but it should be done with care, and remember to seal any wounds with cutting paste immediately.

The less you cut in field, the better chances it has to survive the removal from its birthplace. In some cases it is necessary to balance the mass of foliage to the volume of the roots, to keep the tree alive.

Rock steady or loose?

Carefully examine if it is possible to remove the tree without risking its life before trying to remove it. It is better to leave a fine specimen at its birthplace rather than destroying it in egoistic eager to remove it.

As a ground rule it is often possible to collect the tree, if you can make it move at its stand ort. If it is standing solid as a rock, the roots will be growing deeper down into spaces in the cliff. You will therefore most possible not get any of the necessary short roots that can sustain the life of the tree, when it in future will have to live in the narrow space of a pot.

This one was not possible to remove without risking its life, so it is still there, enjoying its wild life.


It is important to give the proper aftercare to Pines (and other specimens as well), in order to get them to survive.

The point is to get an unbroken clump of soil and roots when digging. Dig around the tree first, and ensure that there are a good amount of roots in the soil ball digged out. Before lifting the tree, a sheet of clothing is wrapped around the root ball, and tied tightly to hold the clump together. This is in order to secure the roots from breaking when the tree is lifted from the ground.

Add mosses around the root ball, and lower trunk, to keep it moist. Mosses often are found close to Pines in their natural stand ort.

Wooden container

After the collected tree is brought home, plant it in a wooden container, with a very well draining soil. Only remove little of the original soil when replanting, so the new roots just gets in contact with the new soil.

Carefully remove a little of the original soil with a wooden chopstick, but donít cut any roots.

It is important that the roots are as intact as possible when the tree is planted, because the removal and cutting of roots in the field is very stressful, especially for old specimens.

Patience is a must be

When the tree has gained strength again, after one, two or more years, and shows significant signs on strong growth and health, it can be replanted or trained. But not both in the same season! Chose whatís best for the tree, and wait a year to do the next stressful operation. Pines are very sensitive to stress, and every operation, wiring branches, cutting i.e. will stress the tree in different levels. Therefore only do one major operation a year to secure the trees health. Time is also wasted when a tree have to recover from overdone work in the eager of making a shortcut. If you follow the rule of one operation a year, you will achieve results much faster than doing everything in a one time span.

Guy wires

It is important to secure the collected tree properly in the training box in order to protect the roots from breaking. After repotting, the roots will begin new growth again after a while. But new roots are very fragile, and will easily break if they are disturbed. This can happen when the container is moved or wind shakes the tree. Are roots broken at this early stage, where the tree hasnít regained any strength yet it can be catastrophic.

Therefore it is necessary to secure the tree properly in the container. Wires are lead trough holes in the bottom of the container, and fastened to the thicker roots. To further stabilise and secure the tree, it is wise to add guy wires between branches, and the wooden container. After a full growing season the guy wires can be removed, if the tree is showing sign of good growth.

Lead the guy wires trough a plastic tube or alike, in order to protect the branches. (See photo).

Daily aftercare

Normally repotted, stressed or weak trees should be placed in shadow for a month or two, but Pines prefers the sun. If hot weather arrives, it is though advisable to keep semi shade during the hottest ours in the middle of the day.

Use organic fertilizers right from the start in a very mild solution. Mist the needles as often as possible, at least two or tree times a day. The tree will also benefit from a mild solution of a leaf fertilizer.

And most important is to spray the leaves with a vitamin B-fertilizer, to strengthen the tree as much as possible. Several products can be bought at bonsai dealers.


If possible it is recommendable to collect some long fibred moss from the ort where the tree is found. The moss has a very positive effect to the tree, as they provide the tree with hormones and vitamins, if the moss is placed nearby the roots and on top of the soil. At the same time, the moss keeps humidity at the area they covers.

Long fibred moss is used widely when air layering trees, because of their beneficial effects.


It is important to let the tree rest after it is collected. When potted the tree should be left in peace, and only be nursed with watering, misting and fertilizing.

The ground rule is to not at all working at the tree until it has shown significant signs on strong growth. This can take a while, and at least one year. In some cases one may wait fours seasons before any work can be done to the tree.

Especially very old trees needs some time to recover. But it is worth while to wait, in order to not loosing a valuable specimen. The time spend waiting, will easily be earned in by a strong tree, which will be able to tolerate the styling afterwards.

The Pine and Nirvana

To learn from the Pine tree
go to the Pine tree
To learn from the Bamboo
go to the Bamboo

Part of Haiku poem
Matsuo Basho

Pines are undoable one of the most aesthetic valuable species as bonsai objects.

In Japan the Pine also brings up respect and religious stories. In front of some Japanese homes a Pine Is placed with a long branch over the entrance, or along the house.

This symbols a wish of a long life for the guest who visits the house.

A special bonsai style is called "The hand of Buddha."

The myth is that the clouds of needles on the Pine is formed like steps, and these steps leads to Nirvana.

Pine care guide

A pine needs attention in order to succeed the growing of this specimen.

Though Pines are growing in a variety of climates, it is important two understand their needs as bonsais. This is a general description and guideline to take care of the Pines as bonsais. Please remark that attention must be taken into the fact that different species of Pines needs different conditions, according to the climate of the area they are grown in.


Full sun. Lack of light will make the needles extend. Plenty of sun will keep the needles shorter.

Over wintering

Tolerant of low temperatures down to 20 - 30 Celsius or lower, depending on the specimens.

If not snow covered, keep the trees from frosty winds, which will dry them out.


Donít let the Pine be too wet. It is important to let Pines get lightly dry between watering.

In the period when new needles develop it is important to keep the Pine to the dry side, in order to develop shorter needles. Keep the needles from being too wet in this period.

Especially the Japanese Black Pine is very sensitive to wet soil, and easily gets root rod. In general it is extremely important to keep a very well draining soil for Pines that allows the water to sieve right trough the soil when watering. A well draining soil will add gases to the roots, that is especially important for Pines.


In springtime fertilizing starts using a mild solution of 0-10-10 NPK. Until buds begin to develop the strength of fertilizer is increased with a normal fertilizer. I always use organic fertilizing pellets like Biogold for this purpose.

When buds begin to swell, the fertilizing should be stopped immediately, and being withheld until the new needles are fully developed and hardened. This is when the needles are dark green and feels hard. The non fertilizing period will keep the needles shorter. If you need extended growth on a week tree, skip this faze.

After the needle development period, it is time to add fertilizers again.

In midd-autumn until end of autumn, a 0-10-10 NPK fertilizer is used. This will strengthen roots for the winter.


The soil used for Pines has to be very well draining. Constantly wet soil will kill a Pine.

Use a very coarse soil with grit, and Pine-bark added. Pine-bark will help the formation of the helpful fungi called Mykhorriza. The fungi help the Pine getting nutrients and water, and the Pine gives back hormones to the benefit of the fungi.

My successful soil mixture that is good for the climate in Northern Europe is:

25% Sphagnum, 25% Pine-bark, and 50% grit.

In warmer climates Akadama are very useful. Akadama is Japanese hard burned clay that can be used where the air humidity is relatively high.

Every experienced bonsai grower will over time develop their own recipes for a successful soil, that should be adapted to climate of the area the trees are living in.


As a ground rule Pines prefer a deep pot.

There should be tree too four years between the repotting of Pines. Young vigorous specimens might be replanted every second year until growth slows down.

The roots of a tree develops slowly the first year after repotting, and root pruning. The second year the roots grows faster, and the third year the root growth is at is strongest. After this year it is advisable to repot and root prune in order to develop new fine roots.

The time schedule of replanting is also taking into account that the soil mixture will be broken down in a time scale of tree or four years, and needs to be renewed.

Always pay attention to the well being of the tree. If it is week or seems to be too slow growing without visible signs on the tree, it nearly always has to do with the health of the roots.

Simply replant the tree immediately, and in the case of root rot it is strongly recommended to plant the tree in pure grit.

It is important only to use dry soil when replanting, in order not to press the soil too tightly when replanting. After replanting is ended, the soil should be watered thoroughly.


The time to prune depends of which kind of Pine that should be pruned. In general it is time to prune when your tree is in slow growth during autumn and winter. This will prevent sap loss, which is stressing the tree.

When pruning it is wise to leave a small stump that will dry out during the next months. This is done to give the tree time to find new ways to lead the sap from the cutting area, and will leave back a natural Jin/ dead branch.

Always use a sealer to cover the wound after pruning, in order too reduce sapflow.


There are two kinds of pinching. New candles are pinched back when they develops during spring or early summer, and old needles are pruned or pinched during summer or autumn. This is one of the more demanding and difficult techniques of growing Pines as bonsais, and a section on this website is dedicated too explain the rules of pinching. A different specimen needs different treatment.


The ideal time to wire Pines is during winter. At this time the branches donít thicken and the new buds are hardened, and are not damaged as easily as during autumn. In autumn the Pine develops new buds that are very fragile, and breaks of by just a small tough.

An alternative time of year to wire is in midd summer, after the new needles are developed. Take care though, that branches is thickening faster, and especially in autumn when root growth are extended. A branch that is expanding will get scars from the wire, and on Pines they might never disappear again.

Candle pinching on two- and five-needle Pines

Pinching two-needle Pines

Pinus sylvestris

Two-needle Pine

1) If a young candle is pinched back to a third or half of its size, about three to five new buds will emerge at the break.

This technique is attended to be used at fully developed Pines, which are in no need of extended growth, but with main focus on keeping the current design.

Is best performed during the months of April, May or June, depending of the specimen.

2) If a one year old branch is pruned where there are one year old needles behind the cut, the branch will develop new needles between the top and the back on the one year old branch. But not on the older part.

Newer cut where there are no needles left on a branch, because it will die immediately.

This technique is performed during May and until August.

3) If the candle is broken of as in example 1), or the branch is cut like in example 2), in between these periods, both results will happen at the same time.

Time: June - July.

4) This method is especially focused on developing new buds back on branches like in example 2).

When the candles have opened, and the needles are fully developed, it is cut of at its base.

In the same growing season new shorter needles will develop, and new buds will sprout back on the branches.

Always start cutting the weak candles, and two weeks later cut the strongest on two-needle Pines. This will develop shorter needles.

Time for this operation is approximately between May and June.

Plucking old needles on Two-needle Pines

The old needles can be removed after the candles have developed fully. The old candles are the ones that have been sitting from last (and older).

The needles are plugged with either your fingers, one at the time. If a needle pair is pulled of in one go, it will damage the sleeping bud at the base. So gently break one needle at the time.

The sleeping bud will then develop during autumn, and new growth back on the branches will be provoked when candles also has been treated as described earlier.

Best time to plug candles is during August until September.

Pinching five-needle Pines

Pinus parviflora

Five-needle Pine with five needles from the same base.

This part will describe the differences in care according to the five-needle Pines compared with the two-needle Pine.

Five-needle Pines are in general treated like two needle Pines, except for these special techniques:

Old needles are not plucked, but are instead cutted with a sharp scissor about one or two millimetres above the base. If pinched the sleeping bud will be damaged.

The old needles can be shortened when the new candles are fully developed.

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