The Re-styling of John Naka’s California Juniper Bonsai

By George Haas

Bonsai Garden at Lake Merritt (BGLM) Item #146 California Juniper
Juniperus californica

Date of acquisition: 1999

Height: 45 inches

Style: Informal upright style

Donated by John Naka

History: This tree was collected in 1989 from the northwest end of the California Mojave Desert referred to as the Sand Canyon.

Mojave Desert: The arid region located in southeastern California with portions in Nevada, Arizona, and Utah. The environment has little or no rain, too dry or barren to support much vegetation and hot climate. The climate experiences extreme variations in daily temperatures, frequent winter frosts and averages annual precipitation of two to six inches (50 to 150 mm). The Mojave has mountain-and-basin topography, and sparse vegetation which includes California juniper (Juniperus californica), creosote bush (Larrea tridentata), Joshua tree (Yucca brevifolia), burroweed (Isocoma tenuisecta), and occasional cacti (mostly species of Cholla). Named after the Mojave people. The Mojave Desert occupies more than 25,000 square miles (65,000 square km).
[Source: Britannica]

John Naka is referred to as the father of North American bonsai for his efforts to promote the living art of bonsai throughout the U.S. He was present and spoke at the grand opening of the Bonsai Garden at Lake Merritt in Oakland, California, on November 6, 1999. Naka collected some extraordinary California junipers from the Mojave Desert for bonsai.

From time to time, all legacy bonsai trees such as this John Naka California juniper must undergo re-styling as they continue to grow and increase in foliage mass. BGLM volunteers Samuel Tan and Addison Galambos undertake the task of re-styling this iconic bonsai. It will take several days to clean, prune, wire, and shape the large California juniper.

Figure 1 John Naka California juniper before re-styling (2023).
Figure 2 Samuel Tan and Addison Galambos undertake the task of re-styling the California juniper (January 2024).

The tree’s life vein is cleaned to distinguish it from the deadwood. Bending old, large tree branches downward create an aging impression. The bending requires special bonsai artistry and techniques with the carving out the branch, wrapping raffia and copper wire around the branch and then applying downward moving pressure to position the branch just right. It will take time for the branch to set and become semi-permanent. Guy wires are also used to bring down smaller branches. Thick four gauge copper wire is used on interior branches. The pot is placed on wooden blocks to change the overall angle of the bonsai design during repotting. Lastly, smaller gauge copper wires are used to complete the detailed wiring of branch pads.

Figure 3 Cleaning by removing old wire and thinning foliage.
Figure 4 Cleaning and thinning foliage.
Figure 5 Use of guy wire holding branch downward.
Figure 6 Use of raffia for bending thick branches.
Figure 7 Use of heavy gauge copper wire for bending branches.
Figure 8 Stripping bark off of branch to create aging deadwood, referred to as Jin in Japanese.
Figure 9 Cleaning life vein in contrast to deadwood.
Figure 10 John Naka California juniper after re-styling (January 2024).

Transplanting a 1,500 Year Old California Juniper Bonsai

Transplanting a 1,500 Year Old California Juniper Bonsai 

By George Haas 

On December 31, 2023, the task of transplanting a 1,500 plus year old California juniper bonsai was undertaken by Peter Tea, a notable bonsai professional, at the Golden State Bonsai Federation’s Bonsai Garden at Lake Merritt, in Oakland, California. 

The California juniper was collected in the 1990’s from the Sand Canyon in the high Mojave Desert located in southern California. The tree was donated by Oliver Kilroy. 

Yamadori” means in Japanese “collected from the wild”. The tree’s first transplanting was soon after being dug up and placed in a large, growing box for three to five years. This period would allow the tree to recover and to grow feeder roots radiating from the trunk, just below the soil surface. When the tree is healthy, foliage is bushy and branch runners appear, can it be fitted to an unglazed, clay bonsai pot. In this case, a very large, rectangle pot. 

All bonsais require re-potting from time to time. A general rule for a large bonsai tree would be five to seven years due to the following factors: 

  • Age of the tree 
  • Size of the tree and pot 
  • Breakdown of the soil or compacted soil 
  • Root growth or root bound 
  • Water flow decreases 

The last time this California juniper was re-potted was more than 20 years ago. 

Due to the age of the tree and length of time since its last transplanting, Peter was requested to undertake the task. Peter was assisted by his apprentice Eli Iristree, long time client Max Vally and garden volunteer Michal Tiede. 

The tree and its root ball had to be gently removed from its current pot. It took everyone’s effort to lift the tree out of the pot. The tree was removed to the workshop area where work would begin on the root ball. Root pruning is necessary to clean up dead roots and shape the root ball to fit into its new pot. An unglazed, oval brown in color clay pot was chosen. The new pot is smaller in size and so careful shaping of the root ball was required. 

Fitting the tree to its new pot requires a trained eye. Peter would look for equal distance and balance, making sure the right angle and/or levelness were obtained in settling the root ball into the pot. Next, comes the wire tie down of the root ball and tree. This step is required of all bonsai trees so that there is no movement to disturb the growth of fine roots. Movement can damage the fine roots causing root rot. 

New bonsai soil mix is then added to the re-potted tree. Peter uses a measured mixture of medium size pumice and Akadama pre-mix from Japan. The pre-mix is part Akadama, pumice and lava rock. Here they work to fill all the air pockets that surround the root ball. They moved the bonsai tree back to its bench to complete the work. Only when satisfied that no air pockets remain, Peter will water thoroughly. 

Water is important to a healthy bonsai tree. Watering a newly transplanted bonsai tree is critical. Water must soak into the freshly added soil mix and drench the root ball and roots. Peter takes pride in using the water hose to water down the newly completed transplanting of this old, California juniper. The tree will be monitored for weeks to ensure nothing went wrong. From all appearances, the California juniper looks great in its new pot.

Front view, before repotting

Front view, after repotting

Mammoth Auction & Sale

The Mammoth Auction & Sale is scheduled for February 17 and 18, 2024. This event is the major annual fundraiser for the Bonsai Garden at Lake Merritt, a world class museum of fine bonsai. All proceeds go towards the annual costs of operations.

Please consider being a volunteer during the two-day event. An easy way to sign up is by using Sign Up Genius online app Bonsai Garden at Lake Merritt: BGLM Mammoth Auction & Sale 2024 ( Or contact George Haas at and request a volunteer role.

Live auction preview 12:00 p.m. Saturday, February 17.

Live auction starts at 1:00 p.m. Saturday, February 17.

Vendor sales starts at 9:00 a.m. Sunday, February 18.

Bargain sales starts at 10:00 a.m. Sunday, February 18.

The First 25 Years of the Bonsai Garden at Lake Merritt

On November 6, 2024, the Golden State Bonsai Federation’s Bonsai Garden at Lake Merritt, in Oakland, California, will be celebrating its first 25 years. It was as early as 1974, when the concept for the bonsai garden came about during a conversation between Toicho Domoto and Bill Hashimoto, two notable Japanese American bonsai pioneers. They were interested in preserving bonsai produced in northern California. They understood bonsai required a permanent place to continue to thrive. They asked themselves what will happen when we can no longer care for and maintain our bonsai trees? The answer to their question was and is the Bonsai Garden at Lake Merritt.

On April 5, 1997, an official groundbreaking ceremony was held at the site located within the Gardens at Lake Merritt. Construction took more than two years. Support for the bonsai and suiseki display garden came from individuals and bonsai clubs throughout the State of California. Hundreds of volunteers and donors were responsible for making the concept into a reality.

BGLM opened its gates to the public on November 6, 1999, by hosting a grand opening celebration of bonsai and suiseki, held on site at the Gardens of Lake Merritt and Lakeside Park Garden Center. Dennis Makishima was master of ceremonies for the grand opening, including then Mayor Jerry Brown, John Naka who talked at length, Harry Hirao, Yasuo Mitsuya of Japan, recreation and parks Officials, and many more. In addition to the ribbon cutting, there was a lively celebration inside the Lakeside Park Garden Center; well attended, Japanese Taiko drum music, donated sake keg, etc.

Since the gates were opened to the public, the collection has dramatically grown in size. The most significant historic and legacy trees include the historic Daimyo Oak (Tree #115) brought to the U.S. during President Abraham Lincoln’s administration in the 1860’s, the 500 year old Japanese Black Pine (Tree #262) donated by Mas Imazumi, and featured at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco, and legacy trees by famous bonsai pioneer artists; Harry Hirao, Jimmy Inadomi and John Naka just to name a few.

A group of dedicated volunteers is working to publish a book which captures the history of the garden thus far.

The book, which working title is “The First 25 Years of the Bonsai Garden at Lake Merritt”, will present the very best bonsai trees in the collection and to celebrate the many donors, supporters and volunteers who have contributed to the evolution of what is now a museum quality bonsai and suiseki garden.

Pre-sales for the book will start in mid-April, with a publication date scheduled for November 2024.