Creating ramification on shishigashira maple

It’s over a month into spring and deciduous work has been well underway. Generally speaking, there are some common goals in the scissor techniques we apply during spring.

1) Balance: In short this means to strengthen weak areas while controlling strong regions of the tree

  • Most deciduous trees are apically stronger as a whole and naturally, with each individual shoot. Meaning that if left unchecked a tree will progressively grow taller and wider. While a perfectly good trait towards creating a big canopy with large photosynthetic surface area, it is not conducive towards making good deciduous bonsai
  • This is why we pinch new central spring shoots on maples, preventing the branch from elongating and allowing food to be allocated to weaker lateral buds and branching

2) Sunlight: Although this can be considered apart of balance it’s important enough to be overstated

  • A vigorous deciduous tree in spring will quickly produce a lush outer canopy. The thick dense canopy might be beautiful to look at and tempting to keep but come by winter when the clothes come off those initial joys may turn into regret
  • A key feature of nice deciduous bonsai is fine branching. To maintain fine branching as a tree constantly grows we need fine branching to cut back to. Those small weak interior branches will help make a tree more full or may replace a main branch that has gotten too thick.
  • If the outer canopy is completely shaded interior growth dies and we have nothing to cut back to as the tree gets coarser and bigger

With these two principles in mind lets look at our sample case:

Spring foliage on shishigashira

I know you’re saying get with it already, but to really understand what we’re doing we need to think about shishigashira’s growth characteristic and shoot anatomy.

Shishigashira are characterized by dense foliage, small internodes, and curled leaves. The important parts are the first 2. It’s common to see shishi with dense pom pom like foliage mass at the end of a branch. This is due to the incredibly small internodes and close proximity of the leaves. Inspecting the spring growth brings insight to the reasoning.

Case 1:

Here is a typical shoot on a shishigashira 

Case 2:

Strong shoots on a shishigashira

A typical spring maple shoot has 2 “susoba” or budless leaves, followed by a small extension, symmetrical pair of leaves, then lastly a strong central shoot that will keep extended if left unpinched. For Japanese maples we typically pinch or cut the central shoot, then after the leaves harden we cut one leaf off the pair and the remaining leaf in half (to allow light into inner canopy). Any susoba present are typically cut as well.

Shishigashira differs from most a. palmatum varieties in that they do not produce a strong central shoot. Interestingly under close inspection I realized that many of the shishigashira shoots do not even have susoba. Looking at case 1, this means at the first set of leaves do have basal buds and that tiny nub in the middle is the central shoot produced by the tree. If we were to treat it as we do standard japanese maple it means cutting that central shoot and one leaf off the pair. (the leaves don’t need to be cut in half as they don’t shade much light)

Don’t cut like this!

If we did this we would end up with a tiny tiny, almost non existent internode. Too small in fact. Because of this natural growth characteristic we actually need to work against it to encourage the tree to extend and produce longer internodes and ultimately branching! Otherwise we’re left with long branches with dense pom pom foliage tufts at the end. So to counteract this we cut off the leaves from the first pair entirely, followed by one leaf off the central pair.

First pair cut entirely, one leaf of central pair cut.
One leaf after work

Shishigashira can still produce long shoots on strong regions of the tree. In those areas we can cut back as we typically do with standard acer palmatum.

Although this shoot does not have susoba we can treat the pair of leaves as so. First pair cut, central shoot cut, and one leaf off second pair removed.

One leaf should be remaining

For some final thoughts, I would think that this technique could be applied to kotohime japanese maple which also produces naturally very small internodes.

On another note, I will also be in the states the first 2 weeks of June to see family. If you’re in California and you want to talk bonsai or hang out let me know! Thanks for the read.



11 thoughts on “Creating ramification on shishigashira maple”

  1. Hi Julian,
    quite informative. Would you recommend this for the tight leaf growth on Koto hime also?
    Thank you,
    John Romano
    shohin bonsai

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi John,

      I can’t speak from experience but I can speculate. If there are shoots with very stunted small central extensions I think it would be safe to employ. But scissor work like this only improves upon existing branching. From what I’ve seen with kotohime bud and shoot thinning may be a stronger means of producing good branching. If you remove any unnecessary branching, buds, and/or shoots, naturally more energy will feed into the remaining growth allowing them to elongate and develop more.


  2. Hi Julian….just strolling through and reading your blog. Thanks for the info. Keep up the great work! I’ll see you in Japan next time instead of L.A. lol
    Best. Peace.


  3. Julian, thanks again for this info, I will put it to use this weekend. Last year I bought a Lion’s head maple from Costco that has outstanding potential. It is currently six feet tall but with outstanding lower branches. So far, I’ve been successful in taking cutting and unsuccessful in air-layering. I’m going to try the air layers again this year and then cut it down in a year or two. By then You’ll be finished with your training and, if you’re in CA, perhaps I’ll be able to have you tutor me and work with me on my trees.

    Hope that you have a great time visiting family in June.



    1. Hi Jeff,

      Shishi definitely make great bonsai. I know others have had success with air layers so keep at it. Thank you for the kind words!



  4. I could not understand all the fuss about this cultivar when we grew it. We grew landscape stock, not bonsai stock. Sadly, I would guess that those who acquired them got them merely for bragging rights, without actually doing anything artistic with them.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi, is this technique for well developed or in refinement ? Or do you do the same in early stage? I got two in early development, nebari, trunk and trying to set first branches structure but I find it difficult to wire, buds/ shots are particularly messy and unpredictable, case1 shoots on the trunk seems pretty useless, case 2 shoots doesn’t seems to ramified easily and tend to dry out also cuts doesn’t heal easily etc.. On top of all that there is not much information, probably this is the best article I have found about shishigashira, others said to treat it as any other Japanese maple which in my opinion is much more difficult and frustrating. Please write more about this species.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Paolo,

      This technique is for trees in refinement or specifically how to create fine branch ramification. During early development you are just looking to set your structure–you’ll want to do shoot selection to force the tree to direct energy to the intended primary branches. After you have beyond the tertiary branch structure you can consider the techniques mentioned in the article.


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