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).

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