This unassuming dwarf quince is a plant that can steal your heart. There are many who have gone to Japan for the spectacular pines, junipers, and maples and had the surprise of discovering Japanese flowering quince ‘Chojubai’. And that’s probably because we don’t have much of it in the West, and that being for the most part young and ignored. Yet we may take inspiration from overseas: Masterpieces of idiosyncratic, craggy branching and twigging, adorned almost contradictorily with glowing ruby flowers.
It seems the Japanese themselves took a while to really see this plant, too. Historically Chojubai appeared commonly as a small accent plant in the Kokufu show forty years ago, as an unramified twig or two. Only rarely was it seen as a primary tree in the medium size category, and never in the large size. It was a second tier tree. Then something shifted. Around 1990 we began to see large size Chojubai in the Japanese shows. These were trees about 1-1.5 feet tall and twice as wide, multiple-trunked and highly ramified. Occasionally single-trunked trees, which are rare, were seen. In Kokufu book 80, about six years ago, two Chojubai won Kokufu prizes. Two years later in book 82 another won. Chojubai had come of age.
Like many trees before, including our standby the juniper which was once not too highly considered, there was a shift in attitude toward Chojubai. It began to be taken seriously, and so technique was applied to it to foresee a new future. And then everything in bonsai—or art for that matter—seems to pass through a period of absurdity, where the material is pushed to limits of control, and then eventually relaxing from that extreme place. Conifers wired to within microns of position… the grafted pancake nebaris of maples looking like tree jokes…but eventually it dials down a bit to some sanity over the material and the technique, and to the willingness of artists to allow for what the tree brings to the table. In the case of Chojubai, perfect dome trimming seems to limit the expression of the innate character of the plant—which would be the eccentricity and unexpected angles and directions in the branching. If this were a plant trained by music, that music would be jazz.
For those who would grow Chojubai, keep it moist. Plant in deeper containers to hold more water. Keep in the sun. Use a pesticide when shoots are elongating to control aphids. Wire main branches and shoots from the base for multiple trunks, and cut and grow following that. This is not so much to create branch taper, as there will be little of that, but for the short, zigzagging and erratic branching that is only created by many years of scissor work. Leave one to three internodes only. Always immediately remove shoots that come from the base that you are not intending to use as trunks—they will weaken the older areas.
If you have a Chojubai, you have one of the rare shrubs that can live more than 100 years and only gets better and better. If you like something, become a connoisseur of it! With attention and focus, even the lowliest plant can become elegant and distinguished.