Exploring the Japanese art form of cloud trees

Exploring the Japanese art form of cloud trees

Cloud trees are amazing sculpture-like trees pruned and formed using an ancient Japanese art form. 

These sculptural trees create a maximum impact in any garden not just Japanese gardens. However Japanese cloud trees are synonymous with Japan and its heritage.  These are statement trees providing focus in the garden.

In Japanese gardens it is not about using masses of planting - more about creating a calm retreat.  The key elements to Japanese gardens include balance, space and nature. 

Cloud trees look stunning planted alongside other Japanese plants including  Camellias, Magnolias, Tree peonies, Bamboos and Japanese Acers.

Many trees can be shaped into garden bonsai cloud shapes and you can give it a go yourself or buy already shaped trees.  Ready shaped cloud trees tend to be expensive because of their age and the work involved in creating these "works of art".

Niwaki is the Japanese method of cloud pruning ie training trees and shrubs into shapes resembling clouds.  Garden bonsai are also shaped trees but tend to be more simplistic but still have elegant shapes.  The garden bonsai are fantastic as a starting point to add structure to the garden.  Garden bonsai are typically 10-15 years of age.

There are many tree varieties which can be shaped into bonsai cloud trees:-

The most popular cloud Trees tends to be the Ilex Crenata (Japanese Holly) cloud trees.  These trees are created over many years (usually 20 years plus) using Japanese Holly which is an evergreen and has small glossy mid to dark green leaf.  Ilex Crenata cloud trees are extremely easy to maintain.

Ilex Crenata grows in any aspect in sheltered or exposed conditions.  It copes with any soil type – chalk, clay, sand and loam and in any PH. It is also a great alternative to Buxus.  However, Ilex Crenata is faster growing and does not suffer from the problems which Buxus has, such as box blight.

Other varieties of cloud tree include Japanese Yew, Pines and Podocapus these varieties are slower growing than Ilex Crenata (Japanese Holly).

Taxus Cuspidata – Japanese Yew, is a Japanese form of yew which is slow growing but easy to maintain.  It is tolerant of shade (even deep) as long as it has sunlight in Spring.  Yews prefer fertile, moist well draining soil and need to be protected from strong drying winds.

The pines can be trickier to look after than other varieties.  The easiest pines to grow as cloud trees are the European grown Pinus cloud trees, such as Pinus Sylvestris or Pinus Nigra.  You can prune these using normal garden secateurs or shears usually done in early summer when new growth is about to emerge.
Pines grow well in open sunny aspects in sheltered or exposed positions – in fertile well drained soil, yet in any PH and any soil.

Podocarpus Macrophylla
Podocarpus grow in any soil conditions in any PH and tolerate sun or shade.  Keep Podocarpus out of cold drying winds. These trees are especially good in pots.

An unusual cloud tree the Podocarpus Macrophylla makes an interesting statement in the garden and has a more tropical and exotic appearance than the other cloud trees with long wide needles. It is known as the Pine of the Buddhists.

Podocarpus can grow fairly successfully indoors in a well lit spot but will dry out without proper humidity like most coniferous plants.  If kept indoors the soil must be kept moist - do not allow to dry out.  The leathery leaves of the Podocarpus will not lose much water from transpiration which makes it essential to avoid overwatering.  There are several easy ways to raise the level of humidity for plants by the process of misting or by using a humidity tray. A humidity tray is a shallow tray filled with small stones and has water in the bottom of the tray.  Liquid feed every two weeks in warm weather if kept indoors. Cloud trees are suitable for any style of garden.

What to look for when choosing a Japanese cloud tree?

When looking to buy your own Cloud Tree these are the most important factors to look out for:

  • Natural shapes - more about irregularity
  • A balanced shape rather than straight lines is preferred
  • Naturally arching main stem
  • Structure and quantity of clouds

However at the end of the day when choosing a cloud tree it has to be a tree that you love, as it will form a beautiful piece of art in your garden for many decades to come.