It is not necessarily one of the common trees for bonsai culture. Nevertheless, it is perhaps precisely this circumstance that tempts the experienced hobby gardener to choose the Peruvian pepper tree, to shape it according to the old, Far Eastern garden art. In the wild, the evergreen tree reaches a height of more than 10 meters. In the regions of Central Europe, however, it is rarely found in gardens and parks because the Peruvian pepper tree does not tolerate frost. What makes it so interesting for bonsai art is its aesthetic habit with elegant, drooping branches densely covered with pinnate, shiny green leaves and decorative, delicate pink fruits that taste slightly like pepper.
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Care as bonsai
If you don’t want to wait too long when cultivating seeds, you can buy Schinus molle that are already grown and about 2 years old at a reasonable price in specialist shops. The tree is then a maximum of 20 cm high, so that the bonsai gardener can use his creative design wishes without restrictions and set the individual course for the future. The following basic care instructions should be observed:
- Sunny to semi-shady location.
- Water regularly by thumb test.
- Only use room-warm water.
- Only use rainwater or decalcified tap water.
- Irrigation water directly from the tap leads to oversalting.
- Water bonsai as needed and not on a schedule.
- Absolutely avoid waterlogging.
- Drain excess water immediately.
What is simply done with the water hose for the trees in the garden requires a certain amount of sensitivity when caring for a Peruvian pepper tree as a bonsai. Watering is an essential part of bonsai art and ideally mimics natural rain. Therefore, a sharp jet of water in this case is unacceptable. Rather, the bonsai receives its dose of water using a shower head or is sprayed, which most closely resembles the natural process. Since the plant is in a deliberately flat bowl with a correspondingly small volume of substrate, the correct dosage of water cannot be expressly mentioned enough. If the Schinus molle gets too much of a good thing, putrefaction sets in. If it is too dry, the delicate hair roots will inevitably die.
In its native South America, the Peruvian pepper tree pulls the nutrients it needs from the soil. The additional administration of fertilizer is usually unnecessary there. As a bonsai, the situation is completely different, because the volume of the potting soil is simply too small to adequately nourish the small tree. In addition, a bonsai – in contrast to a tree in the garden – cannot spread its roots in the small pot in order to go in search of new food. As a result, the bonsai is fertilized every 2 to 4 weeks during the growth phase from April to October. During the dormant period in winter, the application of fertilizer is reduced to a rhythm of 8 weeks. The fertilizer should contain the following components:
- Nitrogen for leaf and shoot growth.
- phosphate for strong roots.
- Potassium for healthy leaves and beautiful fruits.
Special bonsai fertilizers in liquid form, sticks or pellets are available from specialist retailers. However, the ratio of the three main nutrients does not always remain the same, but is adjusted to the growth period:
- the proportion of nitrogen is greater in spring
- a balanced relationship exists in summer
- in autumn the supply of potassium is increased
- in winter the supply of nitrogen is reduced
If the goal of care is to get a Peruvian pepper tree as a bonsai with particularly green and shiny leaves, some iron fertilizer is also given. The dosage of fertilizer requires just as much sensitivity as the addition of water. Over-fertilization can happen quickly and result in disease of the Schinus molle. Experts therefore recommend using organic fertilizers, because in this case the risk of overdosing is comparatively low.
cutting and shaping
Proper watering and fertilizing plays a major role in maintenance; However, the Peruvian pepper tree only becomes a bonsai through skillful pruning. Due to the unusual habit with the curved hanging branches, some experience in bonsai art is required to achieve the desired appearance. The following principles should be given full attention and concentration:
Choosing the right time
The Schinus molle is a living organism that is injured by every single cut. If the plant is just in the sap, reaching for the cutting tool can mean the premature death of the bonsai due to bleeding. The best time for pruning is therefore towards the end of the growth pause in March and April.
Observe design rules
Traditional Japanese bonsai art adheres strictly to fixed design rules. For the Peruvian pepper tree, among the more than 30 stylistic forms, it is important to use the most lifelike one, such as bankan (curved trunk), fukinagashi (windswept form) or kengai (cascade form). The Hokidachi (broom shape) comes very close to the natural shape of the Schinus molle, because the branches thrive at about the same height and spread out evenly below the rounded crown. However, the Hokidachi style is one of the very few symmetrical forms celebrated in bonsai art. Asymmetrical shapes predominate because they symbolize freedom, tension and liveliness. This includes that the branches are not evenly distributed on the trunk or that the mini tree is not planted in the middle of the pot.
- branches crossing each other
- Remove one from branches that grow parallel to each other
- Twigs growing from the underside of a branch
- Twigs and branches that grow towards the sky
- Branches located in the lower part of the trunk
- Branches growing opposite each other with the trunk in the middle
- Twigs and branches growing in a U-shape
- Treat all interfaces immediately with wound closure agent
The absolute no-go when designing a branch is a missing top. If this is removed by cutting too eagerly, a bonsai in keeping with the style is no longer possible. Experts therefore advise first covering a branch or twig that is to be removed with a piece of paper in order to be able to assess the visual effect. Anyone who cannot decide on a design principle should consult a specialist.
However, the basics of bonsai design are not limited to branches and twigs. The roots are also included. Since the Peruvian pepper tree is a shallow root, there is no need to remove the taproot, as is often the case with other tree species. Nevertheless, the roots are pruned in such a way that they adapt to the shell and root as evenly as possible.
In addition to the basic cut, which focuses on the design of branches, twigs and roots, the experienced bonsai gardener carries out a regular leaf cut. The aim of this measure is to gradually reduce the size of the leaves, because in their original form they are up to 27 cm long.
When the first leaves have matured, which is between the end of May and the end of June, the largest ones are cut off. The petiole remains on the tree when a bud can be seen, otherwise the budding could be disturbed. The stem will later fall off by itself. After about 4 weeks, the Peruvian pepper tree sprout again, but then with smaller leaves.
Since leaf pruning is a strain on the bonsai, it is not carried out every year, and during this phase it is watered less and not fertilized. In addition, it must not be exposed to direct sunlight. However, it must not be placed in the shade, because the sun-hungry tree could then wilt, i.e. develop thin, weak shoots in search of more light.
The advanced gardening enthusiast who engages in bonsai knows that pruning alone is not enough to achieve the intriguing shapes. The Schinus molle is forced into the desired shape as gently as possible using the wire technique:
- The trunk, branches and twigs must still be flexible.
- Copper wire or aluminum wire work best.
- The wire thickness is 1/3 of the branch.
- Wrap the wire around the branch or trunk at a 45° angle.
- If necessary, wrap the second wire parallel to the first.
- The best time is early spring.
- The wire must not cut into the bark.
- Do not damage buds and leaves.
- Winding direction always from the thick to the thin end.
- Wire stays on the tree for a maximum of 3 to 4 weeks.
- Do not unwind the wire, but nip it off with the pliers.
In the rarest of cases, the desired shape of the Peruvian pepper tree is achieved with a single wire. It may be necessary to wire the Schinus molle again and again over a period of several years.
As the small tree slowly gets older, the trunk, branches and twigs are sometimes no longer flexible enough to be shaped with wires. In this case, bonsai artists practice the technique of stretching. Following the principles of rope and lifting techniques, a certain amount of traction is applied to the trunk, branches and twigs to cause them to grow in the desired direction.
A tension cord is fixed to the branch, which is fastened either to the edge of the bowl or to a wooden board underneath using staples. In order to be able to pull the Schinus molle flexibly, there is a loop in the middle of the tension cord through which you can insert a small wooden or iron rod as a lever. Depending on how hard this lever is turned, the pulling force will affect the bonsai. Since the risk of injury for the Peruvian pepper tree is just as great with this procedure as for the bonsai enthusiast, a lot of tact and extreme caution are required so that the process can be successfully completed over the months and years.
Every 2 to 3 years it is necessary to repot the Peruvian pepper tree when cultivating it as a bonsai:
- Repot in March or April
- Younger trees get a slightly larger bonsai pot
- Lift the Schinus molle out of the shell
- Carefully loosen the root ball
- Shorten roots by about 1/3 to get a compact ball
- Treat interfaces with charcoal ash to prevent fungal attack
- spread a thin drainage of sand or seramis in the new shell
- Spread a piece of bonsai netting over it
- A thin layer of bonsai soil follows
- Position the Peruvian pepper tree in the bowl
- distribute the rest of the substrate around it
- Finally water well
- Do not fertilize for the next 4 to 6 weeks
On this occasion, you can additionally fasten the bonsai with wire through the water drainage holes, if it does not have a secure footing and you are striving for one of the diagonally aligned design principles.