Updated: Jan 7
When practising bonsai you might often hear of people having or removing sacrifice branching. This can sound like some crazy ritual where we are removing parts of the tree as a sacrifice to the bonsai gods, but really its just a technique that is useful in some situations. Lets take a look at What Is Sacrifice Branching.
This will be another one of those articles that wont be super long but should hopefully help clarify something that is pretty common in this practise.
There are many different techniques that are utilised in Bonsai that can be confusing just at face value but when you take a closer look it makes a lot more sense, this is true for sacrifice branches. Have you ever been to someone's collection and seen a branch that looks like its starting to cross over the neighbours boundary line? chances are that's a sacrifice branch. So what are they? They are basically a means of thickening a trunk without wrecking your branch structure. We know that when developing a tree we can leave a lot of foliage on and this will help thicken the tree nice and quick, This is great for trees that can be grown then chopped for taper and grown again from a new leader. But some trees we need to stop everything growing wild at some point otherwise if we have branches on the tree that we would like to keep getting closer to the final design we could end up making them branches too thick if we let them go too long with out a trim, once the branch gets to thick we might have to cut it off and start again. This is where sacrifice branching can come in. If you need to keep your branches in check by keeping them pruned ( which will slow down the trees growing rate ) you can grow a sacrifice branch or branches in areas that you can cut off the tree later, generally this will be somewhere right at the top of the tree which is the ideal spot for a sacrifice branch as it is on the very apex and will pull everything up through the tree which also thickens the tree evenly, if you have sacrifice branches in random spots over the tree you may find that those sections swell.
By having a branch on the tree that you can keep all the growth on this will allow you to trim your branches you want to keep under control while also being able to keep a good amount of foliage on the tree to keep driving a good amount of energy. As mentioned this technique is usually done somewhere between late development and early refinement of a tree.
My advice if you are going to use a sacrifice to thicken the tree is to try and put the sacrifice branch right at the top somewhere to help evenly thicken the tree but also try and pick a shoot that is fairly hidden, you have to remember that at some point you will be cutting this branch off the tree all together so this means there will be a wound where the branch was, and if you let the sacrifice get thick enough this could be a substantial wound that might take a season or 2 to close up. So try pick a shoot that is around the back of the tree rather then something that is right at the front in the viewers face, It is a little easier with conifers because we can use dense foliage to cover the wound from view but other trees that are a little more sparse or deciduous are a lot harder to cover up.
Lastly there is some sense to using a sacrifice branch to fix a section of a tree that goes thick > Thin > Thick. Almost an hour glass shape in the middle of the trunk. IF you could be so lucky to have a bud pop right in the middle of that thinner section you could let that grow into a sacrifice branch and hopefully cause some swelling in that thinner section evening it out, if you get 2 buds pop opposite each other in that section go by a lottery ticket!. But just be aware that this isn't a perfect fix and the best way to fix a problem is to prevent it from happening in the first place so being aware of the branches that are growing on your trunk and being aware of what you are letting thicken and what you are pruning back is the best thing to do.
I hope this has helped you understand what people mean when they say sacrifice branching and i hope you scored a few little tips when it comes to utilizing them.
Until Next Time, Enjoy Your Bonsai Journey.