The Ubiquitous Mugho Pine by Vance Wood

The The Ubiquitous Mugho Pine
by Vance Wood, Four Seasons Bonsai Club of Michigan

Of all the trees that can be grown as bonsai, the Mugho pine is still one of the least respected. This may be because it is so common in the nursery trade, no self-respecting bonsai grower would consider the tree worth the effort. Then there are the reports that the tree is difficult to cultivate and hard to transplant. Whatever the reason, the Mugho Pine is not commonly grown by those who are considered masters of bonsai. Many have one or two but seldom are they shown at exhibits or conventions. The tree is not taken seriously within the bonsai community; instead it is more of a novelty than a specimen. However; anyone who decides to try the Mugho, and treats it properly, will be rewarded with a bonsai that is at least as beautiful as the Black Pine and almost as lovely as the White.

When I first started growing bonsai, I desperately wanted a Japanese White Pine. Availability, cost, and the difficulties of cultivation hampered my desires then, as they do now.

I instead opted for the affordable, and often cheap, Mugho Pine. This of course was before I was aware that no one of any stature in the bonsai community would even touch this tree. One tree evolved into many. My experiments with them have made the Mugho a tree of choice and not a tree of convenience. I discovered that the tree was capable of enduring the kind of treatment that would kill most other pine trees. The best part was finding that the tree’s response was remarkable and that the finished product was in appearance much like the Japanese White Pine I had so coveted.

Today, because of an assortment of fine publications, books, touring international Japanese Masters and domestic experts, (who could be considered Masters in their own right), we have at our fingertips a mountain of excellent information from which to draw concerning the cultivation of two-needle pines. The Mugho Pine having two needles would be one. We concentrate on this information to such a degree; we often forget how things are learned. We tend to depend on existing information and avoid blazing our own trails. When this literature lets us down, we assume it cannot be done at all. Our thinking becomes almost dogmatic in believing that if the methods originating in Japan do not work then nothing will work. With Mughos this is incorrect.

It is widely taught today that there are two major categories for pine cultivation: two-needle pine culture and five-needle pine culture. To a degree this is true, but there are some major differences between the Mugho Pine and the Japanese Black Pine; (the model for all theory and practice surrounding two-needle pine cultivation). The Mugho Pine is a two-needle pine and can be treated like any other two-needle pine with some major exceptions.


This statement pretty much defines itself and is a fairly accurate portrayal of what the current literature forwards as factual. It is, however, only partially true. You can treat all two-needle pines in this manner but the end result will not bring the result the literature seems to indicate it will on all two-needle pines, and the Mugho is one of the major exceptions. In return I have found that there are some things I can do with a Mugho pine that will not return the same result on other two-needle pines.


This seems to be the major difference between the classic two-needle model and the real live Mugho pine. The Japanese Black Pine and its closest counterpart in North America, the Ponderosa Pine, need to be kept dry, first to control the length of the needles and second, their roots will rot if overwatered. The Mugho Pine, on the other hand, is capable of surviving mild drought conditions but it will not prosper and if kept bone dry, as some are prone to do, there is the risk of losing the tree. The Mugho’s needles are kept short by the way the tree is pinched – and not by withholding water. It is surprising to me that there are people that think keeping a tree on what amounts to the verge of stress is the way to keep the needles short. True, this will work but there is a better way. They seem to like a lot of water but must have excellent drainage so that they do not sit in soggy soil. I have found a method of pinching, coupled with an abundance of water that makes the needles take on the appearance achieved with the Japanese White Pine.


It is possible to transplant the Mugho in the early spring along with a host of other two-needle pines, but in fact, I have had more difficulty with this tree when transplanted and root pruned in the spring. I don’t consider myself a master horticulturist, most of what I have learned has been through a seat-of-the-pants experience and personal observation. I do believe there are fundamental differences between the Black Pine and the Mugho in the way they grow and respond that indicates the individual tree’s differing patterns of growth, differences that to me seem significant.

It seems that the Black Pine is more dominant in its above ground response whereas the Mugho is more dominant in its root response. This would account for the Mugho’s ability to tolerate more water than the Black Pine and in this case be more agreeable to transplanting later in the season than the standard literature suggests. This would also account for the rapid and vigorous response obtained with Japanese Black Pines in response to the pruning and pinching described in the literature whereas the Mugho does not respond in the same manner. My theory also suggests that this trait, if correct, accounts for the necessity of transplanting the Black Pine only in the spring when its overall growth pattern is producing the majority of its new root growth.

I transplant Mughos on a regular basis throughout the entire summer, up to and including September. I have been known to do some very extreme root work on Mugho Pines through July and August, the hottest months of the year where I live, a time the literature says you should never repot a two-needle pine. It would seem from my observations that the Black Pine concentrates the majority of its growing resources on the upper portion of the tree while the Mugho Pine focuses more on the roots and buds after the initial spring growth. Therefore it is possible to transplant the Mugho all summer long because the tree is not so genetically geared toward producing a lot of above ground growth as is the Black Pine. The tendency toward foundational growth seems to give the Mugho the ability to endure having the roots disturbed at a time the same process on a Black Pine would severely damage or kill the tree.

The Never Do’s of Two-Needle Pines

The literature is quite explicit about what should never be done with a two-needle pine. At the top of this list is wiring and repotting at the same time. Growers new to bonsai are not aware of the amount of stress wiring can put on a tree. The fact is wiring puts a great deal of stress and trauma on the cambium layer, which transmits the water and nutrients up and down the tree. It is believed that wiring and root pruning together at the same time can kill a tree. In relation to the Black Pine this is probably a good rule to follow. With the Mugho Pine, I have found that this is not a fatal error with the possible exception of very old and collected trees. It is also taught that you never do drastic pruning and wiring at the same time for the same reasons, though I see this one violated all of the time, (especially by me). In fact, I do all of the above all summer long and all at the same time, a practice most experts would consider the kiss of death to any tree involved.

When I first started doing demonstrations for clubs and organizations, I would use Mughos from my inventory of “material in waiting”. I have always held in contempt the “traveling minstrel show” mentality where some club member’s tree is destroyed for the sake of a demonstration. I believe that if a tree is going to be ruined or destroyed, it should at least belong to the destroyer and not be the property of some unsuspecting club member. Most of the time these events take place during the summer months. These programs usually imply, if not demand, that the demonstrator comes as close as possible to creating the instant bonsai. This in turn usually means doing things to a tree that good sense or knowledge of fundamental practices suggests that you should not do. I quickly began to notice that the trees I did this with not only survived but also seemed to prosper through the process. This I know for a fact because I have been able to witness the recovery of many of these trees. I also know that their recovery in most cases did not involve any kind of extreme care and attention.

I now believe that not only is this method of working on a Mugho Pine possible, the results seem to indicate that it is favorable. Do I suggest that everyone do it this way? No! I do suggest that it be tried, because it opens up avenues for spreading out the work that normally would be carried out in the early spring, to include the entire summer period, (leaving the spring window for the more critical plants). Anyone with more than a few trees knows how hectic the early spring can become and how easy it is to miss an opportunity, or just plain put it off for another year.

Pinching and Pruning

I have saved this subject for last because not only is it the most complicated, but also the most misunderstood. Pinching is the process of controlling the growth and the length of the needles. The main focus is to develop and or control, the concepts of design and style established by pruning and wiring. There are fundamentally three different ways pinching can be approached, depending on what needs to be accomplished, and three different levels of development they are assigned to:

  • The first would be to stimulate back budding on newly styled trees.
  • The second, to develop ramification of small branches.
  • The third, to maintain and refine a finished and near finished bonsai, and shorten the length of needles, making the growth more compact and mature looking. It is in this area where the Mugho really shines if the work is done correctly.

Too often I see beginners trying to accomplish the end without understanding the beginning. With all of the publications available concerning the development and pinching of two-needle pines, beginners are often left confused about what they should be doing and when. Consequently many are practicing needle reduction techniques on trees that should be encouraged to back bud. Seldom, if ever, is the point made that needle reduction principles are reserved for the finished and near finished tree. The fact is, if you have a “just starting out stage Mugho Pine” and you practice all of the needle removal and needle reduction techniques described in many publications you will have a Mugho Pine that will never be a bonsai.

This year in Detroit, this issue, along with another innovation known as the Bonsai Training Planter, will be highlighted in two workshops I am honored to be able to present at the MABA 2000 Convention.

It has been the goal of the MABA 2000 committee to provide a real educational value for all who attend this event and not just another “pricey” tree to take home – and watch it die.

See you in Detroit!

Vance Wood
(a.k.a. The Mugho Man)