Pine Bonsai tree Care Guide [Varieties, Methods, Updated 2022]

Many tree varieties can be used to create a proper pine bonsai tree.

Pinus is a genus of 120 species or more and is considered classic in Japan. Some families there have maintained them for generations. They provide a great framework for creating beautiful bonsai.

Austrian Pine Bonsai – Image Credit Harvard Arboretum

Pine Bonsai Care Guide

Pine trees can be found around the globe, especially in areas where they can thrive, such as mountainous and arid regions.

Pine leaves are usually found in the form of needles, which are typically formed in bundles of two or five. Pinus species with short needles can be used to make bonsai.

Pro Tip: If you are a beginner planning to create your tree, this may not be your best first choice. They are very slow to respond and take quite a bit of advanced knowledge to succeed in styling.

Position

Provide as much sunshine as possible to pines in the spring, summer, and autumn. Insufficient sunlight can cause a longer needle length and shaded branch dieback. Even though Pines are very hardy in Winter, they should be protected from freezing winds if their roots freeze.

Watering

Pines don’t like constantly wet soil, but it is important to make sure their soil doesn’t dry out completely. The soil medium must be very fast draining. Regular misting is also beneficial for pines.

Pines should be given little water in the spring to reduce their needle length.

Japanese Five-Needle Pine

Fertilizer

Pines should be fed with a low-nitrogen fertilizer once a year in spring. After that, it is best to stop feeding them until the new needles are hardened in late Spring. This is because the needles will become shorter if nutrients are withheld. 

From mid-Autumn onwards, the tree pine bonsai should receive a high-nitrogen feeding every 2-3 weeks.

Pines can still be fed a balanced diet throughout the year by properly pruning. This will result in strong, vigorous growth and a reduced length of needles.

Pruning Pine Bonsai

Avoid reducing the nursery Pine’s top growth by more than 50% during styling. Slowly reduce the height of the trunk and foliage.

For mature pines (40 years old+), the general rule is only to inflict one injury per vegetative period. After repotting, pruning, wiring, or styling, wait for 12 months before proceeding with any more work. Also, a Pine styled in the summer cannot have its spring re-pot.

Young pines, when they are young, will require more work each year to develop. However, it is important to remember that the process should be done slowly. Pruning pine bonsai is an in-depth topic to which we’ve devoted an entire page.

Japanese White Pine (Pinus parviflora)
Japanese White Pine (Pinus parviflora)

Repotting

Pot in the middle of Spring every two to five years, depending on root development. When the Pine is in active growth, repot it. The candles will have gotten longer, and the needles will be visibly held against the candle. Repotting in the summer is much more effective for Mugo pines.

Make sure to use a bonsai soil mix that is very loose-draining. 

Repotting should be done with a small amount of old compost. Remove old, compacted soil manually.

After root pruning, the pine doesn’t need to be pruned. Pines have waxy needles that require very little moisture from their roots. Therefore, reducing transpiration is unnecessary by cutting the above-ground growth. The tree will need more leaves after root pruning to regenerate and repair the rootball. 

The tree will balance the roots and its foliage.

Propogation

To germinate seeds of certain species, you must expose them to frosts in the early spring. Germination can occur quickly if the seed is fresh. Grafting is required to propagate cultivars in the late winter.

Types of Pine Bonsai

Pinus is a genus with approximately 120 trees and shrubs, which can be found worldwide.

Black Pine (Pinus thunbergii)

Black Pine Bonsai

The black pine bonsai,  Pinus thunbergii,  is one of the most popular varieties. I have seen them grow successfully in many areas of the United States, including sub-tropical South Florida. Many other varieties are less adaptable in warm climates.

Mugo Pine (Pinus mugo)

Mugo Pine Bonsai

Whether you are creating your own or buying one with some development and age, consider the climate you live in before you make a choice. Most pines need a period of dormancy. A pine bonsai tree, like most trees, can be created in many different styles.

This plant grows best in full sun and moist, well-drained loam or sandy soils. It is somewhat tolerant of partial shade and clay soils, but it is best to avoid wet or poorly-drained soils. Mugo pine prefers cool summer climates and is generally tolerant of urban conditions. It normally does not produce a tap root and is easy to transplant. Prune annually in late winter to keep its compact size. This shrub or tree is resistant to damage by deer.

North Carolina Extension Gardener Plant ToolBox

Japanese Red Pine (Pinus densiflora)

Japanese Red Pine

The Japanese red pine, Pinus densiflora shown here, is from Japan and is now at home in the National Arboretum, Washington, D.C. There is also a “red pine” native to North America,  Pinus resinosa.  Although both are pines, growth pattern and appearance are nothing alike.

The Urban Forest Ecosystems Institute at Cal Poly has a great gallery of Japanese Red Pines.

Slash Pine (Pinus elliottii)

Slash Pine Bonsai

When I moved to Florida, I remember seeing pines everywhere surprised me.  The one shown here is a Pinus elliottii. It’s a Florida native commonly known as the slash pine. While shopping for my nursery,  I came across several thick trunked, topped pines that no landscaper would ever want.  I decided to experiment.

I purchased three and quickly discovered you can not treat them like black pines.  I killed the first two. They do not tolerate root pruning very well! They did not tolerate bare rooting at all!

Fortunately, I left the best for last.  Roots were barely trimmed, and the soil on top was washed off rather than raked. I did not attempt to change the existing soil.  I left the needles long and named it ‘Funky Monkey.’

While slash pine is widely planted, it also occurs naturally in wet flatwoods, swampy areas, and shallow pond edges. Slash is sometimes found growing with loblolly pine (Pinus taeda).

University of Florida – Common Pines of Florida

Japanese White Pine (Pinus parviflora)

Japanese White pine – ‘Uzushio’ (means whirlpool) – resides at the Omiya Bonsai Art Museum in Japan

This is a very popular plant for bonsai. It can be grown in soils with good drainage. This graceful and slow-growing tree is most commonly found on steep slopes or dry, rocky ridges in its native habitat in Japan. 

While the straight species is green, the blue-needled variety is more common in cultivation in the United States. Pinus Parviflora ‘Glauca’ was the name used for blue-needled varieties. However, this name has been dropped, and the accepted nomenclature now is Pinus perviflora Glauca Group to include all blue-needled cultivars.

Further Notes on Pine Bonsai Tree Care

In general, most pines want sun and tolerate a variety of temperatures.  Keep them moist but never allow to stay soaking wet.  (Most instructions read: allow to somewhat dry out between waterings.)

Each type of pine bonsai will require more specific instructions.

You will learn words when caring for many pines: whorls, candles, and branch forks.  If you decide you want to work on a pine bonsai, all of these words will become important.

Remember, your pine will take at least two to three times as long to have a good result as a deciduous tree, and even longer compared to tropical plants.

While you are working on your pine, have other bonsai subjects in your garden to encourage you. For best results, hopefully you will be able to find an experienced teacher.

Pine Bonsai Identification

Identifying pine trees is a complex task. It requires attention to several key characteristics.

The most important feature to look for in pine is its needles. 

Needles

Pay attention to the length of the needles and how many are contained in a fascicle. 

Pine fascicle – Image Credit Virginia Tech

The number of fascicles can vary, so make sure you check multiple fascicles to get a better understanding of the plant. 

The pine branches are usually hidden from the trunk, making the needles difficult to reach from the ground. It is possible to use brown needles if the pine is not in direct contact with the ground. If the needles are not from a pine tree, they can be used from the ground.

Branch Size

Another important characteristic is the size and texture of the bare branches that have lost their needles. Different species of pine twigs can have a wide range in thickness, ranging from thumb-sized to smaller than a pencil. Depending on the persistence and size of the scale leaves, the twig’s surface can be smooth or almost shaggy.

Seed Cones

The identification of pines is also made easier by the strong clues provided by seed cones.  The “prickle” is a pointy, but not quite spine- or thorn-like, armoring the umbo. The exposed area at each end of each scale continues to grow as the seed cone expands. 

The “apophysis” is the larger, diamond-shaped area surrounding the umbo.

Apophysis Diagram – Image Credit Science Direct

It forms in the second year. Identification can be made easier by the shapes of the apophysis, prickle, and umbo. If you are unsure of the tree that produced them, cones placed on the ground can help to identify pines.

Bark

There is a lot of variation in the bark texture and color within each pine species. It is possible to identify pine trees from their bark with experience, but this feature would be difficult for beginners.

Famous Pine Bonsai Tree

Ancient Pine Survivor of Hiroshima – Photo by Chris Tank

Statement from National Bonsai Foundation:

“On the morning of August 6, 1945, all the Yamaki family members were inside their home. The bomb exploded about three kilometers (less than two miles) from the family compound. The blast blew out all the glass windows in the home, and each member of the family was cut from the flying glass fragments. Miraculously, none of them suffered any permanent injury.

“The great old Japanese white pine and a large number of other bonsai were sitting on benches in the garden. Amazingly, none of these bonsai were harmed by the blast either, as the nursery was protected by a tall wall. The bonsai originally came from Miyajima Island which is just south of Hiroshima. Japanese white pine bonsai from Miyajima are considered very valuable because they are so rare.”

Due to the generosity of the Yamaki family, today, the approximately 400-year-old tree is in the National Arboretum, Washington, D.C.

Where to Go From Here

Leave Pine Bonsai Tree information and see more Types of Bonsai Trees

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