Japanese Black Pine Information – Growing Japanese Black Pine Trees


By: Jackie Carroll

Japanese black pine is ideal for coastal landscapes where it grows to heights of 20 feet (6 m.). When grown further inland, it can reach the remarkable height of 100 feet (30 m.). Read on to find out more about this big, beautiful tree.

What is a Japanese Black Pine?

Introduced from Japan, Japanese black pine trees (Pinus thunbergii) tolerate sandy, salty soil and salt spray much better than native species. This makes it a valuable asset to coastal landscapes. If you’re growing it in an inland setting, give it lots of room because it grows much larger. The average height of a mature tree is about 60 feet (18 m.), but can grow up to 100 feet (30 m.) tall in the ideal setting.

One of the first things you’ll notice about this tree is the white terminal buds that contrast beautiful with the thick masses of dark green needles. The needles are typically about 4.5 inches (11.5 cm.) long and bundled in pairs. The tree grows into a conical shape that is tight and neat while the tree is young but becomes loose and more irregular with age.

Japanese Black Pine Planting Information

Japanese black pine care is easy. Make sure you have an open site with lots of sunlight. The branches can spread as much as 25 feet (63.5 cm.), so give it lots of room.

You won’t have any trouble establishing a balled and burlapped tree in an inland site with good soil, but when planting on a sand dune, buy container-grown saplings. Dig the hole two to three times wider than the container and mix the sand with lots of peat moss to fill in around the roots. Sand drains very quickly, but the peat moss will help it hold water.

Water weekly in the absence of rain until the tree is established and growing on its own. Once established, the tree is drought tolerant.

Although the tree adapts to most soil types, it will need a dose of fertilizer every year or two in poor soils. If you don’t have access to a fertilizer designed for pine trees, any complete and balanced fertilizer will do. Follow the package instructions, determining the amount of fertilizer by the size of the tree. Protect the tree from strong winds for the first two years.

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Care Instructions - Pine (Japanese Black)


Japanese black pine (Pinus thunbergiana) is a medium sized, irregularly pyramidal tree that makes a strikingly beautiful bonsai. Its stiff dark green needles (3"-5" long) occur in pairs. The Black Pine’s large, grayish-white terminal buds help distinguish it from other pines. The Japanese Black Pine is much sought after in bonsai and takes many years to achieve the look of a superior specimen bonsai. This Black Pine is a hardy tree that likes to be kept outdoors in the sun.


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Fall Care for Japanese Black Pine

When Katsuoki Kawahara, was asked how long it takes to produce a pine tree that appears to be 100 years old, he replied,”One hundred years!”

So many needles, so little time!

It is true, training pines takes many years to learn, and many more to produce a beautiful tree. However, there are techniques for maintaining pines for Japanese-style gardens to help them appear more graceful and mature. Here are a few basics to start:

Balance: As a pine tree ages, interior and low branches die off from lack of light and energy. Removing needles can reveal the graceful limbs and trunk of the tree and allow light and air to penetrate to the center of the tree and lower branches. Although this may remove up to 75% of food-producing leaf surface, light is able to reach 100% of the remaining foliage, providing even food production and energy throughout the tree. As a result, the tree is able to maintain interior and lower branch health.

The strongest growing parts of a pine are usually the top-most sections receiving the most light. By removing more foliage from these sections and leaving more healthy foliage in areas where more energy is desired, you can direct growth energy where it is needed most.

When: Remove old pine needles in fall, when days and nights start getting cooler and sun on newly exposed branches will be minimum. In southern Texas, we start in mid November and continue through December if needed. Spreading tarps on the ground below and over other plants makes cleanup very easy. Begin at the top of the tree and work down, removing fallen needles as you go.

Prune broken, rubbing or damaged branches as you work. Remove all pine cones as well. Grab all the needles and pull back using the thumbs to “rub” them off at the branch. We will discuss branch selection later in this article.

In Kyoto, Japanese Black pine after removing all but 13 pairs of needles.

Where: In Japan and other places were this pine thrives, and on a mature tree in sections of strong growth, we would leave at least 12 or 13 pairs of needles on each shoot. Areas of medium strength or areas where you wish to channel more energy can keep most or all of this years needles. Weaker areas and areas needing the most energy may need to keep all healthy needles. In areas where this pine does not grow so vigorously, leave more pairs accordingly. If in doubt, err on the cautious side.

On smaller or stressed trees, leave all the current year’s needles in strong areas, and leave second year healthy needles as well on weaker growth areas. Do not disturb the small buds along and in the old needles as these will be valuable in next years development.

Cleaning Up: After “needling” the entire tree, the shape of branches and trunk can be more easily seen. Remove upward growing shoots except those needed for your training strategy, and leave side and down facing shoots. Whenever there is an upper branch shading a lower branch, one must be removed or redirected so that the other will not be shaded out.

Branch Selection: The results of the Spring “candling” should be evident the following Fall. As the weather cools, it is time to select the new branching that will produce next year’s growth. Carefully consider the ultimate shape and size you have decided on before removing any branching. Remember that upper branches may eventually shade out branching directly below.

If side branching is desired, choose these shoots first. Then select what will become the terminals that produce candles in the spring. Look for right angles between branches of similar length. Select two for lateral and horizontal branching, and select three for apex and crown growth. Remember that the branching should become shorter closer to the ends of the branches and top of the tree.


Pinus thunbergii / Japanese black pine

subgenus Pinus, section, Pinus, subsection Pinus. This is one of the “classic” old-world, 2-needled, hard pines.

Pehr Thunberg

Pinus thunbergii, as described in 1867 by Filippo Parlatore (1816–1877), in Prodromus Systematis Naturalis Regni Vegetabilis 16(2), is commonly known as Japanese black pine as well as クロマツ, 黒松 (kuro-matsu) in the Japanese language, 곰 솔 (gomsol) in Korean, and ( 黑松 (hēisōng) in Chinese . The species name honors Pehr Thunberg (1743 - 1835), a Swedish botanist and student of Linnaeus who traveled in Japan and included the species in the first botanical flora of Japan that he wrote, incorrectly referring to it as Scots pine.

Ethnobotany. Historically, this has been one of the most important species used in Japanese architecture. The principal structural woods in most surviving structures of the Muromachi period (14th to 16th centuries) and the Edo period (1603 to 1867) are Pinus densiflora and P. thunbergii, although surviving structures also contain a great deal of Chamaecyparis obtusa.

Today it is widely used as an ornamental, and requisite of Japanese gardens, where it provides structural and symbolic counterpoint to the red pine P. densiflora.

artwork by Siebold & Zuccarini

Description. Japanese black pine is an evergreen, coniferous species of tree that grows to mature heights of 125 feet (40 m) tall, with a trunk up to 40 to 80 inches (1 - 2 m) in diameter, measured at breast height, often seen divided in the wide, dense, dome-shaped or flattened crown.

  • Bark is dark gray or purple-gray in color, scaly, and longitudinally fissured.
  • Branches are light brown in color with many bracts, thereafter becoming glabrous, and often ridged.
  • Shoots, when young, are covered with a dense whitish tomentum that is highly distinctive among pines.
  • Foliar buds are white in color, slightly resinous, measuring 0.6 to 0.8 inch (1.5 - 2 cm) long, with an ovoid shape and pointed tips.
  • Needles are borne 2 per fascicle, each measuring 2.8 to 4.8 inches (7 - 12 cm) long by 0.028 to 0.048 inch (0.7 - 1.2 mm) thick, with acute tips, dark green color and a scabrous texture with minute marginal teeth often growing twisted, persisting 3 to 4 years on the tree.
  • Pollen cones are borne densely crowded, measuring 0.4 to 0.52 inch (10 - 13 mm) long and yellowish brown in color.
  • Seed cones have a short-pedunculate, conically-ovoid shape, measuring 1.6 to 2.8 inches (4 - 7 cm) long, and 1.4 to 2.6 inches (3.5 - 6.5 cm) wide, colored buff to brown-gray, opening in late winter. They may be borne signally, paired or (in selected cultivars where the pollen cones are replaced by seed cones) very numerous (20 or more) to a shoot.
  • Cone scales are numerous, measuring 0.72 to 1.12 inches (18 - 28 mm) long by 0.32 to 0.48 inch (8 - 12 mm) wide, with a cuneate shape. Apophyses are flattened, with a transversely rhomboidal outline. Umbos have a short-mucronate shape, colored pale brown to buff. The scale stem is colored dark purple-brown to blackish above and pale-brown below opening to 60-80° wide.
  • Seeds are dark brown to black in color, measuring 0.24 inch (6 mm) long, with an articulate 0.48 to 0.64 inch (12 - 16 mm) long wing

natural range of Pinus thunbergii

Distribution. This species is native to Japan — Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu islands and South Korea. It is the dominant pine from the coast to about 3,300 feet (1,000 m) elevation, where the climate is warm, temperate (with little or no frost) and moist. These regions would have had a predominantly deciduous angiosperm forest cover, with conifers mixed in especially on poor, water-logged soils and on dry slopes and mountain ridges.

Hardy to USDA Zone 6 — cold hardiness limit between -10° and 0°F (-23.2° and -17.8°C).

Attribution from: Aljos Farjon 1984. Pines: drawings and descriptions of the genus Pinus ©1984, Brill & Backhuys, Leiden, The Netherlands.


Thunderhead Japanese Black Pine

A large, wide-spreading evergreen shrub with very deep green needles and attractive white new growth in spring a good character plant for larger gardens, will eventually grow quite large so leave adequate room.

Summer Foliage Color: dark green

Minimum Sunlight: full sun

Maximum Sunlight: full sun

Thunderhead Japanese Black Pine has dark green foliage. The needles remain dark green throughout the winter. Neither the flowers nor the fruit are ornamentally significant.

Thunderhead Japanese Black Pine is a dense multi-stemmed evergreen shrub with a more or less rounded form. Its average texture blends into the landscape, but can be balanced by one or two finer or coarser trees or shrubs for an effective composition. This shrub will require occasional maintenance and upkeep. When pruning is necessary, it is recommended to only trim back the new growth of the current season, other than to remove any dieback. Gardeners should be aware of the following characteristic(s) that may warrant special consideration Disease Thunderhead Japanese Black Pine is recommended for the following landscape applications Accent Hedges/Screening General Garden Use

Thunderhead Japanese Black Pine will grow to be about 10 feet tall at maturity, with a spread of 15 feet. It tends to fill out right to the ground and therefore doesn't necessarily require facer plants in front, and is suitable for planting under power lines. It grows at a slow rate, and under ideal conditions can be expected to live for 80 years or more. This shrub should only be grown in full sunlight. It prefers dry to average moisture levels with very well-drained soil, and will often die in standing water. It is not particular as to soil type or pH, and is able to handle environmental salt. It is highly tolerant of urban pollution and will even thrive in inner city environments. This is a selected variety of a species not originally from North America.


So Much Information – Where Should I Begin?

So, what if I’m somewhat new to bonsai and I think I have a tree that could benefit from decandling but I don’t know where to begin? Easy – keep it simple. If you’re having trouble finding a starting point and there are no decandling pros in the area, try the following:

  • Remove all new shoots on June 15
  • Don’t leave stubs
  • Leave no more than 10 pairs of needles per branch

That’s it – for now. By taking a simple approach, you can learn how your tree responds to the decandling and you can begin making adjustments the following year. Is the summer growth too weak? Try feeding more, decandling earlier, or waiting until the tree is healthier before decandling again. Is the summer growth too strong? Try decandling later or removing more needles. Is the summer growth unbalanced? Feel free to experiment with the various techniques for controlling vigor.

Unhappy or completely surprised by the results? Take heart – many pines respond unpredictably to the first few decandlings. Red and black pines often settle into a pattern with 3-5 years.

Black pine on display at the 2011 Gomangoku exhibit

Still have questions? Ask away below or check in at the forum and we’ll see what we can do to help.

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