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Podocarpus macrophyllus

Tree of the Month - August 2006: Podocarpus macrophyllus
by Ken Schultz

This is the tree stock selected for our August 20 meeting workshop. I have picked up the twelve trees ordered. I understand that Tom Holcomb will offer Serrisa or Ficus if you missed signing up and wish to participate.

Podocarpus are native to china and Japan. There they are known as “Buddhist Pine. “ Here they are sold as “China yew” or “Southern Yew” due to their resemblance to taxus. The Maki variety has shorter needles, about ½”. You may see other varieties in your bonsai books with longer needles. Supposedly the shorter needled variety is a bit hardier. My references say they are zones 9-11, which means tropical.

I found information on growing and training Podocarpus in books by Crespi, Lewis, Lesneiwicz, Owen and the Internet. Each author offered a tidbit of information the others failed to mention. Together, I hope that the following information will help you to keep your tree healthy for many years.

Because we will be styling and trimming up our new plant material at the August meeting, I will present tips on training first. Use sharp scissors. Any crushing by using dull scissors will cause die back. Wire should only be applied to shoots that have lignified (turned woody). When trimming back foliage, leave at least 5-6 needles/leaves. Generally, shoots can be trimmed once they are 2 ½ to 4” long back to to ¾” to 1 ½”.

Pruning can take place whenever there is active growth. One author talks about pinching new growth back to stimulate back budding. (I have had a podocarpus for 3 years and it has done well) Another of my sources says that the growth is too tough to pinch, so cut it back to prevent die back. Similarly they give different advice on wiring. One author says that you can wire new green growth, but keep it loose. Old wood does become rigid and difficult to bend. Wire may need to be removed in 60-90 days, so watch for cutting in. Also, needles trapped under the wire will brown and die.

All authors agree that Podocarpus do not take kindly to root pruning. Colin Lewis warns against taking more than 1/8th of the root mass off when repotting. Repotting is suggested at 2-3 year intervals. Lesniewicz says this is best done in the spring, Colin says late spring. When repotting the experts also have their own favorite soil blends. John Naka says ½ scoop soil, 2 mulch, 2 medium sand and one small sand. Another says 1 part loam, 1 part peat moss and 1part sand, and a third says 35% compost, 35% Akadama, and 30% course sand. All warn against “wet feet”. Colin Lewis says over watering turns the leaves grey. Crespi and Lesniewicz agree that the root ball should not be allowed to dry out. Crespi suggests daily spraying. Something I haven’t managed to do.

The Internet provided the most interesting tips on fertilizing. All say spring to October. Colin suggests ½ strength, Peters 20-20-20 and fish emulsion at least every 2 weeks, every six in the winter. I usually fertilize once each month in the winter, ½ strength. Because Podocarpus like their soil slightly acid one author suggested Miracid, including chelated iron twice a year and 2-3 applications of 1 Tbs per gallon of Epsom Salts a year to aid your plants in taking up Magnesium. I have read this tip before and always find it interesting. You should see 2-4” of new growth a year.

Light and temperature are the last items to discuss. Apparently Podocarpus can handle temperatures down to 41 degrees in winter, but prolonged cool weather slows growth, so I treat mine as a tropical. They can handle direct sun. But this can cause leaf burn on larger needles. Conversely they can also survive with as little as 800 LUX. This must be why mine doesn’t seem to suffer as much as my other tropicals when I take it to the basement and keep it under a 4’ shop light all winter. However, the experts’ say protect them from frost and give it a bright location. While indoors protect it from heat sources that can dry them out.