Daisugi, the 600-Year-Old Japanese Technique of Growing Trees Out of Other Trees, Creating Perfectly Straight Lumber

Image by Wrath of Gnon

We’ve all admired the ele­gance of Japan’s tra­di­tion­al styles of archi­tec­ture. Their devel­op­ment required the kind of ded­i­cat­ed crafts­man­ship that takes gen­er­a­tions to cul­ti­vate — but also, more prac­ti­cal­ly speak­ing, no small amount of wood. By the 15th cen­tu­ry, Japan already faced a short­age of seedlings, as well as land on which to prop­er­ly cul­ti­vate the trees in the first place. Neces­si­ty being the moth­er of inven­tion, this led to the cre­ation of an inge­nious solu­tion: daisu­gi, the grow­ing of addi­tion­al trees, in effect, out of exist­ing trees — cre­at­ing, in oth­er words, a kind of giant bon­sai.

“Writ­ten as 台杉 and lit­er­al­ly mean­ing plat­form cedar, the tech­nique result­ed in a tree that resem­bled an open palm with mul­ti­ple trees grow­ing out if it, per­fect­ly ver­ti­cal,” writes Spoon and Tam­ago’s John­ny Wald­man. “Done right, the tech­nique can pre­vent defor­esta­tion and result in per­fect­ly round and straight tim­ber known as taru­ki, which are used in the roofs of Japan­ese tea­hous­es.”

These tea­hous­es are still promi­nent in Kyoto, a city still known for its tra­di­tion­al cul­tur­al her­itage, and not coin­ci­den­tal­ly where daisu­gi first devel­oped. “It’s said that it was Kyoto’s pre­em­i­nent tea mas­ter, Sen-no-rikyu, who demand­ed per­fec­tion in the Kitaya­ma cedar dur­ing the 16th cen­tu­ry,” writes My Mod­ern Met’s Jes­si­ca Stew­art.

At the time “a form of very straight and styl­ized sukiya-zukuri archi­tec­ture was high fash­ion, but there sim­ply weren’t near­ly enough raw mate­ri­als to build these homes for every noble or samu­rai who want­ed one,” says a thread by Twit­ter account Wrath of Gnon, which includes these and oth­er pho­tos of daisu­gi in action. “Hence this clever solu­tion of using bon­sai tech­niques on trees.” Aes­thet­ics aside — as far aside as they ever get in Japan, at any rate — “the lum­ber pro­duced in this method is 140% as flex­i­ble as stan­dard cedar and 200% as dense/strong,” mak­ing it “absolute­ly per­fect for rafters and roof tim­ber.” And not only is daisu­gi’s prod­uct straight, slen­der, and typhoon-resis­tant, it’s mar­veled at around the world 600 years lat­er. Of how many forestry tech­niques can we say the same?

via Spoon and Tam­a­go

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Art & Phi­los­o­phy of Bon­sai

This 392-Year-Old Bon­sai Tree Sur­vived the Hiroshi­ma Atom­ic Blast & Still Flour­ish­es Today: The Pow­er of Resilience

The Philo­soph­i­cal Appre­ci­a­tion of Rocks in Chi­na & Japan: A Short Intro­duc­tion to an Ancient Tra­di­tion

The Secret Lan­guage of Trees: A Charm­ing Ani­mat­ed Les­son Explains How Trees Share Infor­ma­tion with Each Oth­er

The Social Lives of Trees: Sci­ence Reveals How Trees Mys­te­ri­ous­ly Talk to Each Oth­er, Work Togeth­er & Form Nur­tur­ing Fam­i­lies

A Dig­i­tal Ani­ma­tion Com­pares the Size of Trees: From the 3‑Inch Bon­sai, to the 300-Foot Sequoia

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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Comments (8)
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  • David Tracey says:

    Inter­est­ing take but I’m not buy­ing.

    Yes trees can be pruned to affect future growth, but not to change their genet­ic dis­po­si­tions to be tall or straight or what­ev­er. You can keep prun­ing for some ongo­ing desired effect, as I sus­pect the trees in these pics have been to remove all branch­es up to the high­est lev­el of the canopy. I sup­pose that could help in ensur­ing a smooth and straight trunk. But call­ing some­thing a “giant bon­sai” is a puz­zler. Isn’t that anoth­er word for “tree”?

    Also it seemed odd to try to grow trees this tall on the weak sup­port of branch­es as seen in the top pic­ture. Com­par­ing the two pics made me think all the more we’re being fed some guff. Look at the trunks in the two pics to see what I mean.

    Any­way, just some ran­dom first impres­sions with zero research so if I’m wrong, sor­ry. I hope the writer con­tin­ues to find and report on inter­est­ing inter­na­tion­al tree news — always a wor­thy top­ic.

  • sdaf says:

    It does seem a lit­tle bit too per­fect, why would the trees grow straight just because they are on oth­er trees?

  • cm83 says:

    This require a lot of work. You need to care­ful­ly prune them every two years (so you can remove all the knots in the wood) for twen­ty years.
    Here’s your giant bon­sai

  • Ivo says:

    Also known as ‘cop­pic­ing’ in the West, a com­mon prac­tise … it’s not that unusu­al!

  • Tamsin says:

    As Ivo says this is a stan­dard wood­land man­age­ment tech­nique, called cop­pic­ing in the west, which has been prac­ticed for hun­dreds of years to do exact­ly this — pro­duce straight usable pole size tim­ber which can be har­vest­ed over and over again, on a 5 — 15 year rota­tion time scale, with­out hav­ing to fell the orig­i­nal tree from which the ‘poles’ grow.
    In my expe­ri­ence its prac­ticed on broadleaf species includ­ing com­mon­ly hazel, alder, wil­low, chest­nut, ash, and some­times oak.

    It’s fall­en out of wide scale use sad­ly with the rise of destruc­tive indus­tri­al scale com­mer­cial forestry, but is re-emerg­ing as a good sus­tain­able way of man­ag­ing wood­land.

    I’ve nev­er seen it done on a conifer and it looks fas­ci­nat­ing.

    There’s no mag­ic to ‘buy’! or any­thing too ‘per­fect’ about it — its just what nature does! And its got noth­ing to do with alter­ing the trees genet­ics!

    Prune an apple tree and see what hap­pens — it throws up water shoots — exact­ly the same reac­tion by the tree.

  • Sainath Pawar says:

    This is great tech­nique . The tech­nique shu­uld be impli­ments in India. Thise type of knowl­edge should be addded in our school and col­lege syl­labus and should imple­ment on it . I am try­ing my best to imple­ment this tech­nique in my nation INDIA 💯💯

  • Sylvia says:

    Your com­ment tells me that you know lit­tle about the his­to­ry of Japan and their well known com­pe­ti­tion with nature. If you have seen any Bon­sai, that is the work of the Japan­ese. I have been to com­mer­cial orchards and often go for the har­vest, a have picked an apple weigh­ing 700gramms and had peach­es just short of 1kg
    Please do more research

  • Ray Theron says:

    Con­sid­er­ing that 67% of Japan’s land sur­face is even today cov­ered by forests and plan­ta­tions, and giv­en that Hino­ki, Sugi and red pine nat­u­ral­ly tend to grow straight and tall, there is no need for daisu­gi. Not only is it unnec­es­sar­i­ly time con­sum­ing when there are MILLIONS of nor­mal­ly grow­ing trees avail­able, but it will not pro­duce near­ly enough tim­ber. I lived in rur­al Japan and close to my vil­lage there were vir­tu­al­ly impen­e­tra­ble hino­ki forests used by two sawmills in the vil­lage, sawmills that had been in oper­a­tion for many gen­er­a­tions.

    As for the notion that the Japan­ese are “in com­pe­ti­tion with Nature”, that’s an idea inim­i­cal to the Japan­ese: they live in HARMONY with nature, not in com­pe­ti­tion with it.

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