If you have additional recommendations for replacing Japanese Black Pine, please email the species’ Latin name, your location, and a photo (300dpi) to info@najga.org.

by Edzard Teubert
Owner of Fuzei + Tree

Above: Figure 1

5 needles to rule the mountain tops*, 
3 needles for dominion of the valleys… 
2 needles for governing shores of foam and flotsam…
And Nature (or pruning tools) to Rule them all…

Apology is proffered for the Tolkien-esque wordplay, yet the numbers ring true, both as our function as gardeners whose job is transporting people into the realm of ‘the other place’, and, based on the known growing elevation for pine in Japan as well as the world… This illustrates that, how we choose our needle number and shape our pine is the measure of success. 

Yet, we well know that one cannot make a silk-purse of a sows ear. And, this silk purse depends on ‘Right Pine, Right Place’. 

To achieve success for our gardens, we employ hardwired existing references with which to see the landscapes we create in our minds-eye. Trees set a staged backdrop; occasionally becoming key players, however, they need to establish, inform, and tell us of Time, Place, as well as, set a ‘Level of Difficulty for Survival’.

If the implied landscape is in Japan, at the top of a mountain amidst pinnacle and scree, the 5 needle White Pine is the perfect and natural subject for communicating that landscape vignette. (*And in America, add the unexpected, the single leaf Pinyon pine, P. monophylla.)

For the midlands at the base of mountains that intersect with the higher plateau atop of river valleys, in Japan, the Red Pine, is more suitable. 

And for Pine to communicate ‘sea shores and up into the coastal plains’ where the salt spray forms and effects the shape, the Black Pine is your best selection. 

But, if we are not in Japan, and the climate is not suitable, is there a replacement for these Pine?

Unfortunately, there is no replacement for Japanese Black Pine. 

However, in America, Europe, globally, we copy the shape anyway. Meanwhile, in Japan, almost every tree has a replacement species, but with kuromatsu, what is that species? To pose the confounding question, when crossing growing zones, which pine would replace Japanese Black Pine? 

Below: Figure 2 (Photo by John W. Bennett)

Perhaps to rephrase and ease the problem, which pine could be referenced as a Japanese Black Pine? And comparatively for example, which references should be left to the feminine red pine of the ‘satoyama’ village/mountain intersection? Or the crisp edges of mountainous white pine?

Pinus thunbergii, synonymously P. thunbergiana, JBP, kuromatsu, and various other user names, and specifically not Pinus nigra, despite the ‘nigra = black’ in the name, does not make the European Black Pine, a Japanese Black Pine. JBP, kuromatsu, are unlike other pine in both physiology and referenced use.

Relegated mostly to warm balmy shorelines, the uses of kuromatsu are limited to poetic evocations of ‘yugen’ involving longing ‘over the sea’, loneliness with ‘sabi’, long life, with the fleeting ‘Zen of a life fulfilled accepting death’ and quintessentially the everlasting survival hallmark of samurai. The most recognized use as perceived by westerners is as accompaniment for inland samurai homes as location markers, way-finding, often with the attending air-sensitive feminine red-pine counterpart while signifying the owner as ‘being visually present’. The equivalence in Europe would be ‘flying one’s crest’ when at home, or the flag in America.

The uses, based on ‘pruning look-alikes’ can of course be duplicated to a degree. However, because Japanese Black Pine is unique horticulturally, and differs in technical management the objectives most often preclude easy copying onto other pines. 

Below: Figure 3

Most significantly P. thunbergii have adapted to being needle stripped by typhoons, with additional adaptation of benefitting from the fertilizing effects of sandy seashore living combining the salt spray of their southern origins. Specifically, the survival mechanism of the kuromatsu is to be an aggressive resilient weed tree that has abundant water available. Comparatively other pine are minimal water xerophytes with alternative water acquisition. 

Kuromatsu, like all pine, are auto-cannibals. Pine, consume themselves. 

Several years prior to publishing their studies in 2000 (Proe, et al.), various researchers tracked isotopes through pine to determine where and when nutrients were collected and transported. Of the valuable key factors to pine, one finding found that nutrients never return to the roots as happens in deciduous trees during dormancy.

Another finding found that pine, (and anecdotally through historic cultivation) are thought of ‘in thirds’, basitonic, mesotonic, and apical areas, following the early cultivation practice when wild pine were brought from distances and cultivation was learned enroute. And now in practice, we ‘balance growth’ between these 3 layers, and leverage specific planned imbalances to gain our artistic growing results. 

The isotope studies found that nutrients migrate through anchorage roots that are a mycorrhizae signaled and translated process, taken upwards in cyclic mass into the lower third of the tree in year 1 or ‘cycle 1’. Year 2, these nutrients are transported from basitonic storage, as a nutrient mass upwards into mesotonic layer 2 and apical layer 3, that corresponds to following cyclic years 2 and 3. By being transported upwards, creating vacuum, the vascular draw/pressure replenishes the transported nutrients into the base, or basitonic layer. What this means, is that if the lower third basitonic region of the branches of a pine is removed, then the nutrients for year 2 are not available, and subsequently year 3 is shorted. Or aborted to die-off, as pine is pre-dominantly basitonic in growth habit. If year 3 is short nutrients for bud production, the pine may be mortally shorted enough nutrients, because any new buds, would syphon off nutrients to feed the next new buds. A cycle of atrophy emerges.

As a consequence, the by-word developed, “what you do to a pine will show up in 3 years”. Or, in the case of JBP, shows up in 3 cycles, as JBP, can have as many as 9 – 11 cycle years in one human year (Louisiana). Management needs to think ahead and plan for year 4, or cycle 4.

In pine, a small percentage of the annual cyclic nutrients transport beyond the basitonic layer, and in JBP, in greater quantity than other pine allowing more nutrients upward mobility for immediate use to the upper third. This uptake is combined with a faster (think anti-drought) recharge of vascular pressure into the upper portions of the tree. Remarkably, this unique trait of pine nutrient mobility allows the tree to function for up to 8 years as a completely deciduous tree. (In USDA grow Zone 3) Simultaneously, this vascular trait reduces the sustainability of JBP, however, does allow aestival dormancy to be a trigger to use as a technical tool to create imbalance.

What makes JBP ultimately unique is the physiological detail of loosening their needle sheathes approximately 210 days, or 42 seasons, after the beginning of spring in Japan’s 72 season year. There is even a byword for the 210-day mnemonic, ‘nihyakutouka’, translated roughly as, “the 210th day after the start of spring, people should be aware of typhoons at this time”. This seasonal count becomes important, when a replacement tree originates in a ‘growing season’ such as Zone 3, when a 1/72nd season is reduced to 2.5 days, with a growing season of only 105 or less frost-free days. For success, and our beneficial exploitation, other pine species need to develop other strategies for survival far beyond the weedy technical attributes of JBP. (Above: Figure 4)

Uniquely, no other pine loosens their needle sheathes in preparation to be appreciatively wind-whipped and forcefully pruned by the wind. There is no replacement pine for the natural shape this natural pruning creates, unless the idea of natural pruning can be carried forward as ‘Nature’ as compared to ‘pruned by the idea and hand of man’.

This means, that the shape of Black Pine is unique and we are constantly trying to emulate the idea of pruning with nature, and not against nature. Less work, is better than more work. This results in 3 distinct pruning methods. Shin, gyō, and . Man, the sliding scale between, and nature. Man <-gyō-> Nature. Pine, and tree design, the garden itself, fits seamlessly between Man and Nature. 

Besides the implied timing strategies required by designing the trees growth, parallel differences exist in pine species for ‘shin, gyō , sō’ as applied by the 3 techniques of saving the strongest bud, the middle vigor buds, or using the weakest bud, as techniques in the primary distinctions of creating a result or style for a tree. Choosing which of the 3 techniques to shape the tree with for the very first cut, establishes the ‘resulting style’ of the tree. Once a tree is cut for a formal ‘style’, that tree cannot return to an informal natural ‘style’. 

Below: Figure 5

Subsequent techniques of candling, partial tip candling for ‘nibamme’ -double budding, or limited ‘de-candling’ as ‘sukashi’ -a thinning technique for promoting growth as a technical factor, as compared to de-candling as a ‘re-budding mechanism’ to reduce vigor for smaller candles as a technique in bonsai (–bonsai techniques are applied differently in niwaki)

In addition to these horticultural ‘primary techniques driving style’ there are related design insights and understandings that determine uses, such as the perception of locale: seaside or home, the multiple mnemonic references that varied shapes carry forward, all of which pre-determine the results of styling Japanese black pine. 

Predominantly, there cannot be enough stress placed on being results oriented, understanding that all results are in response to horticulture, planned horticulture, and the need for healthy manageable pine, rather than practiced by rote, or the need to copy ‘because that is the technique’, rather, there is a need to ‘follow the tree’. As can be imagined, problems arise, when other pine species are substituted and technically treated as though they are the weedy rampant kuromatsu P. thunbergii.

To answer the question of which pine to use as a replacement amounts to whether it can be maintained – if not, then to replace it, with what? – and by asking, “which idea, which symbol or representation, are you following for your client, or yourself?” Followed by, “which management method can the client afford or I afford/manage?”, “and, in 10 years?”, as Masa Mizuno and Dennis Makishima always prompted. The ‘style’ desired, determines the management method, that determines cost, driving tree selection.

Black pine, in one reasoned opinion, are only useful for accommodating the idea of the samurai’s longevity and use of poetic wordplay, not only from being battered by the winds of fate, but also from the unique reference to a short life fully fulfilled daily by the tortoise carapace bark plates. As a result, Japanese black pine and camellia go well together, often combined over water purification basins. 

That said, which of these following perceptions or purposes fulfills your wish to grow the Japanese Black pine? Does the pine really need to be a JBP? These questions may end up determining a preferred alternative, even as a management alternative to the heavy maintenance required for a respectable specimen. (Above: Figure 6)

  1. Is it because the pine is Japanese and Korean? (This would be odd as Japanese have chosen replacement species for different grow zones for millennia)
  2. Perhaps the association to samurai and the long-life mnemonic? 
  3. Perhaps the tortoise aspect of the trunk, where-in the branches are merely there to keep the trunk alive? 
  4. Perhaps, the ease of maintenance brought on by the unique characteristic of wind pruning and the weed-like growth habit and vigor? 
  5. Or is the desire, the combined associated reference of the visual end result: isolated pads of needles that evoke a sense of the mystery of the orient? 

These are all good reasons, and if people consider the tortoise shaped bark plates, the closest synonym to the bark is Pinus ponderosa, a 2 and sometimes mixed 3 needle pine. Or the European Black pine, Pinus nigra. As pine easily cross-pollinate, there is more validity to following the similar growth habit than there is to following the species name. A denser foliage for the formal shin representation, and a sparser habit for the natural  representations.

Above: Figure 7

Most often the ‘isolated pad’ shape is the most common reason for selecting a JBP, and most often forgotten is that the shape is dictated by the unique needle removal system provided by nature. However, needle stripping, the technique of thinning by needle stripping, a part of ‘momiage’, needle stripping is permanently damaging to other pine species. As a result, needle stripping sets other species back, retarding growth opportunities, because, each needle is a reservoir of nutrients, waiting to be utilized by the pine to grow new buds. Once these needles are removed and a year of representation is also taken away, the tree may begin to decline, creating disappointment or confusion for the successful annual design. Performed multiple times, the result is likely fatal for pine. 

As a result of a loss of the needles representing growing years, a technical detail is noted – to only apply needle stripping (as a standard technique) to Pinus thunbergiana/thunbergii. 

An alternate method follows for normal pine technique: 

  1. To replace the stripping technique used in momiage, the needles are cut in the area of thinning designated for new bud development. 
  2. The needle length remaining, varies with the vigor or weakness of the tree, for the desired vigor in 3-5 years, or the tree species typology of growth. With the caveat that different lengths of needle determine the time and quantity of assimilated nutrients back into the pine.
  3. If the new buds are not intended to grow from – for example- the bottom of a branch in specific areas, then these under branch needles can be stripped and the sheathes damaged to obviate new bud formation. 

For example:

If under-branch buds are not used, then the ‘use is formal’, and if the under-branch buds are used, the natural ‘informal’ form creates descending branches attributed to age and dynastic continuity.

Because the aspect of JBP tuned for samurai home locations are a reflection of the samurai in residence, different formalities of ‘vigor’ or other rigid aspects such as foliage pad angles, fullness’s, (line of formal shin & partial informal fullness of gyō respectively) are created in keeping with the professional personality of the resident (as per design need). 

Alternatively, there is a pruning method that uses the weakest bud selection and is never ‘headed’, resulting in the avoidance of blunt rounded ends, as a respect to ‘following the line of continuous (dynastic) growth’ – attributed to the Emperor’s private use, and is the more traditional form for the kuromatsu.

For Japanese black pine alternatives, the considerations are that,

– the pine be 2 or 3 needles, 

– that the tree has dark plate-like bark, 

– that the tree be vigorous, weed-like in growth, 

– and respond with full growth for shin & gyō , rather than sparse growth for  in the case of the ‘sparse continuous growth’ option.

Figure 1: ‘Edzard’s Pine’ NikkaYuko, first cut Edzard, finished by Al White, Masa Mizuno 
Figure 2: Black Pine, seeking attribution,
Figure 3: JBP over water, connecting to beach scenes in Japan – work of Hiro Okusa
Figure 4: Spring 210 day Nihyakutouka pine momiage
Figure 5: Thin pruning is JBP in palace style/ Sō (Shinada)
Figure 6: JBP as crane – Shinada
Figure 7: P. contorta latifolia, Lodgepole, as a JBP 3rd year training, Edzard

We asked the NAJGA community for their recommendations and the likely candidates are:

Replacements for Black Pine, P. thunbergia in Japan, for USDA zone 5 and colder Grow Zones, depend on the purpose and representation of the Black Pine.
In addition, the type of finish needs to be predetermined or followed based on selection and location. Template approach if applied needs to be crossed with developed tree vigour, based on site location, and size of caliper + root.
Shin (Keywords: samurai cut, architectural frame, near view): (n) attributes blunt cut, sheared top, timing of cuts most often poorly executed leading to uptilted formations – improper strongest bud selection, typology often not cold sustainable {old versions + applications differ from modern}): P. ponderosa, P. nigra, P. Mugho rostrata, / uncinata, P. contorta latifolia
Gyō  (Keywords: indistinct, midground, distant, beach) : (n) attributes, rounded cuts, often uptilted, (p) middle buds, greater cold temperature sustainability), P. Ponderosa, P. mugho rostrata / uncinata, P. contorta latifolia, P. sylvestris (small needle ‘French’)
(Keywords: Palace prune / Black Wood): P. contorta latifolia, P. banksiana, P sylvestris* (deep coloured small needle cultivars ~ 1” -> 1.5” needles)                                                                                                                                                                 
                           Other Pine Recommendations   

*Above: Scots Pine 

*Above: Austrian Pine 

Pinus thunbergii, Pinus contorta, Pinus muricata (San Francisco, California)

Standard Black Pines Austrian Pine (Fort Worth, Texas)

Japanese Black Pine, Austrian Pine, Red Pine, Shore Pine, Japanese White Pine (Portland, Oregon)

Japanese Black Pine, Pinus thumbergii “Thunderhead J. Black pine, Pinus densiflora “Tanyosho Pine,” and Pinus sylvestris “Scots Pine” (Fresno, California)

Pinus nigra (Austrian Pine), Pinus sylvestris (Scots Pine), and Pinus parviflora (Japanese White Pine) (Grand Rapids, Michigan)

Pinus sylvestris, Pinus densiflora, Pinus radiata, Pinus muricata, Pinus contorta ‘Contorta,’ Podocarpus gracilior (Oakland, California)

Scots Pine (Pinus sylvestris), Austrian pine (Pinus nigra), and Lacebark pine (Pinus bungeana) (the latter is currently on trial) (Chicago, Illinois) 

Pitch Pine (Pinus rigida): highly variable in its genetic potential of forms. 

Above: Specimen in training, next to gate, in Cape Cod, MA.

Above: Pitch Pine in its native environment: windy site with nutrient-poor sand, Cape Cod, MA. 

Above: Two plants from the same grower, showing the range of growth characteristics from straight-trunked to lots of movement and potential for multiple leaders, in Peru, NY.


If you have additional recommendations for replacing Japanese Black Pine, please email the species’ Latin name, your location, and a photo (300dpi) to info@najga.org.