March 30, 2023

The Unsung Merits of Phoenix Graft/Tanuki Bonsai - A Japanese Larch Example.

             Tanuki, also known as Phoenix Graft, gets a bad wrap in bonsai. Although this technique to make a young tree appear older by planting it alongside the deadwood of another tree is commonly considered "cheating" and looked down upon in some bonsai circles, it can produce beautiful and convincing bonsai. The accusation of cheating comes about as this process accelerates the appearance of age, however, even so, Tanuki is not instant bonsai. As I'll discuss next week in greater depth on the principles behind the successful execution of this technique, there is no substitute for the compelling quality of "age as bonsai" even in the case of phoenix grafted trees. So if we accept that tanuki still requires sound bonsai practice over a period of years and an artistic eye to make them well, what other merits are there to this style? One unsung merit is that tanuki hinges on respect for the deadwood. Bonsai artists are often enamored with beautiful pieces of deadwood which are often included within our living trees or within our bonsai displays as slab/"jita" or in our bonsai stands/formal displays. The act of selecting a piece of deadwood that is attractive enough to be worth preserving alongside a living tree for a phoenix graft is an extension of our innate deadwood appreciation. Additional beneficial qualities of tanuki/phoenix graft bonsai when using a dead tree which we used to work on is it can teach humility and remind us of the lessons we have learned in our bonsai journey. In my case, this Japanese Larch is one of the few trees I got from my teacher Dan Robinson which I brought with me to Ohio when I moved across the country. I worked on this tree for about 5 years before it passed away due to my own underestimation of Ohio winters. Even experienced bonsai artists lose trees - there's always more to learn. So out of respect for the tree, I resurrected it. Also out of humility, it will be a living reminder for me to prepare rigorous winter protection in Ohio even for cold-hardy trees. Read on to see the progression this tree has taken with me from raw stock to its most recent tanuki styling.


  1. The Unsung Merits of Phoenix Graft/Tanuki Bonsai - A Japanese Larch Example. (this time)
    1. RIP Larch - Progression Over the Years (2018-2022)
    2. Rising from the Ashes - Phoenix Graft/Tanuki Time (2023)
  2. Essential Principles for Convincing Tanuki/Phoenix Graft Bonsai (next time)
  3. Announcements
    1. I officially applied with the state of Ohio to start a nursery. Contact me to enroll in my first workshop on Tanuki! See details here. The dates planned are 4/1/23 and 4/23/23 from 12pm-3pm. Contact me if you would like to request an additional date.
    2. 4/15/23 - 2nd Annual Invasive Honeysuckle Wild Bonsai Dig with CBS and Columbus Recreation & Parks @ Castro Park. This is a free event. Sign up here.
    3. 4/16/223 - Columbus Bonsai Society Meeting - I will be presenting on the ins and outs of digging Yardadori/Yamadori/Wild Bonsai. All are welcome. See event details at
    4. Seeds are available here.
Tanuki Japanese larch, 1st year in training. 2023.

I. RIP Larch - Progression Over the Years

A. Origin and First Styling (2018)

            I first acquired this tree back in 2017 or 2018 when I was still volunteering at Dan Robinson's Elandan Gardens in Bremerton, WA. As I had been helping out there a while at that point, Dan gifted me this neglected Japanese Larch. He said a fellow had started it as a seedling in the 1980s and somehow it ended up in his garden. It was a bit smaller than Dan's usual fare so it sat for several years without much attention as Dan's time was focused on other projects. Once I acquired it, it had a full but unstyled canopy. I brought it to a Puget Sound Bonsai Association Bring Your Own Tree meeting where a fellow Dan Robinson student, Hansy, happened to be in attendance and helped me talk through the wiring ideas for the tree. This was in my early days when I was new to wiring trees. Hansy now has his own business in Silverdale, WA breeding koi fish, teaching bonsai, landscaping, and pruning landscape trees. You can contact him here if you're interested. 

            You can see the before and after in a few shots below. We settled on a more dynamic slanted style instead of the informal upright it was currently in. This gave us more surface area to make use of the canopy it already had. Also, being students of Dan Robinson, we had to make the branching more gnarly throughout! Gnarly is interesting and can be one sign of an ancient, battered tree.

2018. Raw and unwired with a full canopy that extends far from the trunk.

2018. Post-prune and first wiring.

B. First Repot

            In 2020 (right before the pandemic!), I repotted the tree into its first bonsai pot with Chris from the PSBA. At the time, we were trying to kickstart more study groups there but I heard since then that the PSBA is getting much more into study groups this year. If you're near Seattle, definitely check them out here! Anyways, this tree went into a custom-fit Sam Miller pot which I commissioned from him for this tree.

2020. Before repot.

2020. After repot.

C. Carving, Maintaining, and Refining Branching (2020-2022)

            In the late summer of 2020, I tried not to work on my trees much to allow them to acclimate from the move from Washington to Ohio, but I made an exception for this one as it seemed healthy. I brought it to a "Bring Your Own Tree" session by Rob Hoffman at Yume-en Bonsai in Marysville, Ohio (contact him here to stop by his nursery or find out about his latest workshops). This was the first time I met Rob actually. There I did a light cutback of the elongated branches, wired them, and carved the bark off the deadwood "jin" at the top of the tree to better preserve the wood underneath. The bark would trap moisture and lead to rot in the deadwood if you do not remove it. I also made a first draft of carving the deadwood to add some interesting hollows, but I didn't have the best bits for this so it was difficult to shape the hollows.

Late summer 2020. Before work.

2020. This brush wheel is my preferred bit for removing dead bark with my die grinder. It is a bit bulky though so it's not great for branches or tight spaces.

2020. You can see the deadwood extended far beyond where the dead branch was as part of the trunk was dead too. I carved away bark until I saw the white moist layer of live cambium and there I stopped. A callous later developed there.

2020. You can see some new hollows added here. I used a drill bit to accomplish this which is not ideal because it's tough to turn the circle shape into something more uneven and natural looking, but it got the process started in the places I wanted them.

Late summer 2020. Front after work.

2020. Lower jin carved. I also thought this was an artsy shot for some reason.

            In the late summer of 2021, I again did light pruning and wiring. One thing I am appreciating here in the picture is that it appears like the top branch is the most vigorous and the lower branch, especially at the end, is less so, therefore I would do more pruning on the top and less on the bottom to balance the energy. Also, it may have been worth giving the tree a break for a year to allow it to build more vigor. Who knows if that could have helped it with its winter troubles a few months later.

Late summer 2021. Before cleanup.

2020. Rear view, still before cleanup.

Late summer 2021. Front after cleanup.

2021. Rear after cleanup.

Another random shot I thought was nice.

            In the spring of 2022, I brought the tree to a Will Baddeley carving workshop. My objective was to learn how Will does his deadwood texturing technique in which he emphasizes the grain of the wood via fine lines (see more of his work here). This is quite different from the deadwood carving style of my teacher, Dan Robinson, but both have their merits as artistic styles. Anyways, on the health of the tree front, this tree only had 1 branch showing bud movement at this time. I was worriedly watching it over the next several months to see if it would open elsewhere.

Spring 2022. Front before carving. 

2022. Front before carving, closeup.

Spring 2022. Rear before carving.

Spring 2022. Rear before carving, closeup.

Spring 2022. Rear after carving closeup with more texturing per Will's assistance and instructions.

Spring 2022. Front after carving.

Spring 2022. Front after carving closeup.

Spring 2022. Rear after carving.

Spring 2022. Final rear after carving closeup.

D. Cause of Death :(

            Don't underestimate winter! Moving from the mild weather of Seattle to Ohio, I didn't have a proper appreciation for the vulnerability that bonsai trees in pots had to winter weather, and therefore the importance of winter protection for your whole collection. At the time I figured trees like the larch which survive on the mountaintops should have no problem with the winter cold and therefore needed no winter protection, but after the winter of 2021-2022, I will not make this mistake again. This tree only budded out on one branch the following spring but did not make it through the summer. Another two large trees of mine died back significantly that winter which I believe was due mainly to me not providing adequate root protection, but at least those may be salvageable if they continue to recover. Michael Hagedorn has a great table in his book Bonsai Heresy which shows that roots (such as those in a bonsai pot that are exposed to cold) are much more likely to die from temperatures than the branches of trees. Therefore, this year I laid a much more extensive bed of leaves down and all did well except for a few years which got windburn from our extreme cold back in December. Next year I'll continue to make improvements on that winter protection front.

II. Rising from the Ashes - Phoenix Graft/Tanuki Time

            Out of lemons, lemonade. Luckily, around the same time as I got the large larch, I started several Japanese larch seedlings. Many I sold before leaving Seattle, but one which I kept was a straight whip that I hadn't styled or up-potted too much which left it small and straight - perfect for a tanuki/phoenix graft!

Dead tree with Japanese Larch whip. Their size seems like a good match.

This Kintsugi pot I did seems appropriate for tanuki. A repaired pot with a repaired tree.

No wire holes so we had to get creative for the tie-downs.


Tie-down wire solution.

Bada bing bada boom.

Time to remove the bark with the wire wheel once again - this time on the whole tree.

In progress.

We just about got it all. By the end of summer, the cream-colored newly exposed deadwood will photobleach by the sun and also will become gray in color.

Another view of the deadwood.

This tree naturally had many branches all terminating from the same area of the trunk. I figured to make the tanuki blend in better, I should place the tree to intermingle with these branches and have its branches emerge around the same spot of the trunk.

The whip's nebari was pretty one-sided which turned out to be convenient to get a tight fit against the deadwood.

You can see the whip would stick out a bit if I only planted it against the deadwood. Therefore, I lined it up and outlined a groove to carve in the wood.

I secured the tree at one spot at a time. It needed to be twisted slightly by the time it got to the top so the branches would end up where I wanted. Eventually, larch get thick bark so any wire marks won't show in the long run.

2023. After potting the tree. I view this as the front so we can show off the live vein and have it seem realistic, but that as well as the planting angle is subject to change. This is very much a first draft in need of development.

2023 after wiring. I wanted the apex to mimic the movement of the dead jin.

            Now we let the tree rest. I will protect it from the sun and frost for the rest of spring, remove the wire once it bites (probably in summer), and begin fertilizing it in summer. I will otherwise let it grow ragged for the next 1-2 years to recover from all this. Next year, I'll remove the wires securing the whip to the trunk and replace them with a few small screws which hopefully the tree will eventually callous over to hide. That is the next step.

1 comment:

  1. Really interesting thanks for posting this. Info.