What is Lime Sulphur?
Lime Sulphur is a foul-smelling liquid that bonsai enthusiasts brush onto deadwood in order to produce a distinctive white colour. It does not paint a coat of colour onto the wood, but rather as the lime sulphur dries, it 'bleaches' or 'stains' the wood with a white, chalky colour.
Lime Sulphur was originally developed as a winter wash (fungicide and insecticide) and used to spray trees during the Winter to kill any residual moulds, fungi and overwintering insects or eggs. It was first developed during the mid 19th century to control mildews on grapevines in French vineyards. From the early 1900's to the 1940's, lime sulphur was used widely and produced on a commercial basis until it was superceded by newer, more efficient chemicals.
How does Lime Sulphur stain the wood of a tree? The Lime Sulphur mixture produces a certain amount of Sulphur dioxide (SO2) as it dries (dependent on the ambient temperature, the warmer Lime Sulphur solution is as it dries, the greater the volume of Sulphur Dioxide that is produced). Sulphur dioxide is a known preservative still used in the wine-making and dried-fruits industries where it is used for its ability to kill microbes and bacteria.
Sulphur dioxide is also known as a reductant; that is, in the presence of water, it is able to 'decolourise'/remove the colours of permeable materials that it comes into contact with (Sulphur dioxide is still used in some industries to bleach paper and delicate fabrics such as clothes).
The bleaching effect of Sulphur dioxide is not permanent however, after exposure to oxygen (in the air), the bleached material is slowly oxidised and the natural, original colour or pigment of the stained material returns.
This is one of the reasons why Lime Sulphur must be repeatedly applied to the deadwood of bonsai to ensure it stays white.
Lime-sulphur isn't a pleasant liquid. Without doubt it should be treated with respect. Wear gloves when applying it. Store it out of reach of children. Wear a face mask if you use it as a spray. If you swallow any solution or get any in your eyes, seek medical assistance.
Where do you obtain Lime Sulphur?
Lime sulphur is virtually impossible to obtain at general horticultural outlets as it has long been superceded by other insecticides, fungicides and winter washes. These days, the only place you will find Lime Sulphur liquid is at Bonsai nurseries or online through Bonsai mail order companies. It is a relatively cheap product and a small bottle will last a long time.
I have only ever seen one authoritative guide to producing your own Lime Sulphur that involves boiling calcium hydroxide and sulphur and allowing it to simmer for a few hours .Given the cost of obtaining the ingredients, the danger of this process and the fact that it is extremely smelly, it is not worth trying to produce your own lime sulphur!
Materials Required for applying Lime Sulphur to Bonsai Deadwood.
Together with your lime-sulphur, you will require a separate dish. Pour a small amount of the lime-sulphur solution into the dish or container. Do not apply the lime sulphur directly from the bottle as it will spoil the mixture.
You need to use a covered or old surface to work on as the lime sulphur can splash and flick as you apply it to the deadwood.The lime sulphur will stain almost anything that it comes into contact with.
You must work outside. Lime sulphur is very pungent until it dries, do not apply it indoors!
Use a paintbrush to apply the lime sulphur to the deadwood. The exact size of brush you require will depend on the size and intricacy of the deadwood but generally an old paintbrush of 1cm or less is required. It is worth finding some old artist's paintbrushes if possible; I find that the bristles of cheap brushes tend to disintegrate quickly with the combined effects of the rough deadwood surface and the effect of the lime sulphur on the glue used to attach the bristles. Otherwise you can spend a lot of time carefully removing bristles from the deadwood!
The brush can be cleaned with soapy water if done so immediately after use. However, if allowed to dry, the lime sulphur will render the brush unusable.
Lastly, have some absorbent paper cloth (kitchen roll/tissue) at hand to absorb spills and excess Lime sulphur on the deadwood.
A Practical Guide to Applying Lime Sulphur to Bonsai to Whiten Deadwood.
It does not matter whether the deadwood is fresh and has just been created (from live wood) or has been 'allowed to dry for a while'. You will find that new deadwood is slightly sappy and the lime sulphur will not take quite as well as when the deadwood is older, but again, it is not necessary to wait after creating deadwood before applying lime sulphur.
Secondly, as mentioned previously, moisture (water) is necessary for the Sulphur dioxide to have a bleaching or staining effect. Dry wood takes much longer to whiten and in some cases can retain some of the original yellow/red colour of the lime sulphur mixture.
If the wood is not already wet from being outside in rainy weather, spray it thoroughly with water.
Obviously, a large amount of lime-sulphur in the soil is not a good thing for the health of the tree but this must be kept in perspective. A small amount of run-off will not poison the tree. On many occasions I have lime sulphured deadwood roots (as shown in these images) and lime sulphur has run into the soil with absolutely no detriment to the health of the tree. If you worried that too much lime sulphur has entered the soil, simply flush the lime sulphur out with water.
The newly lime sulphured deadwood of the tree above is shown just hours after the lime sulphur was applied. As can be seen, the wood is not as white as can be achieved and this is normal for a first application of lime sulphur on freshly stripped deadwood. Additional applications will ensure that the wood takes on a much more even stark-white finish that contrasts well with the adjoining live wood and bark.
Colouring Lime Sulphur.
By its nature, Lime Sulphur produces a white finish to deadwood. While a stark white colour is suitable for coniferous species such as pine and juniper, on other tree species such as boxwood, hawthorn, privet and the majority of deciduous and broadleaf trees, lime sulphur is often coloured to produce a more appropriate variety of tones and colours.
Additionally, b because lime sulphur produces such a flat white colour with no tone or variety, it can make deadwood look very flat and 2 dimensional. Being able to darken and colour lime sulphur allows the artist to produce an appearance of depth and a third dimension to lime sulphured wood.
The outer edges of this trunk were painted with pure lime sulphur and then as I painted deeper and deeper into the hollow, I added a few drops of black ink to the lime-sulphur mixture to produce a steadily darker colour.
Lime sulphur can be coloured with a variety of ingredients and some experimentation is required. All water-based inks and paints will work well but avoid using anything oil-based as it will not mix with the lime-sulphur. Generally only a very small amount of black ink or paint is required for the finish to become a grey colour. For a more natural 'wood' colour, try ochres or burnt umber paints.
For a more 'natural' approach to colouring, you can use diluted (in boiling water) tea leaves, instant coffee granules or grinds to produce softened white to ochre tones. For grey tones you can use wood or cigarette ash either mixed into the lime sulphur or applied to the wood after the lime sulphur has dried.
Due to the nature of lime sulphur, it is not possible to advise of exact mixtures or recipes and experimentation is necessary. Always allow the lime sulphur to dry to its 'final' colour before judging the results of your work!
Using Lime Sulphur as a Winter Wash for Bonsai.
Lime Sulphur still has its uses as a winter wash for (outdoor) bonsai. Mix Lime Sulphur with water at a rate of approx 1:25 to 1:50 and spray over the trunk and bare branches to kill any overwintering insects, bacteria or fungi. Rinse off the soil surface and bonsai pot with water afterwards to remove any temporary staining that the diluted lime sulphur may cause (This is purely for aesthetic reasons). I use a lime sulphur winter wash only on my deciduous trees however I understand that some enthusiasts also spray their coniferous evergreens; the needles may however have a temporary white colour that disappears by Spring.
A lower rate of dilution (approx 1:25) with water is useful for cleaning and brightening the trunk of trees with smooth bark such as Hornbeams, Beech and Chinese Elms. Simply spray the solution onto the bark, allow to dry and the bark becomes a subtly lighter and brighter colour. Again, for aesthetic reasons rinse away any excess solution that lands on the soil surface or the pot.
Mixing Lime Sulphur with water at a rate of between 1:25 to 1:50
Add between 4 to 8 teaspoons of lime sulphur to 1 litre of water.
Add between 2 to 4 teaspoons of lime sulphur to 1/2 litre of water.
One teaspoon holds 5ml of lime sulphur.
Lime Sulphur as a Bird Deterrent
As with many enthusiasts, I have great problems with birds (in particular blackbirds) in late Winter and early Spring using the soil surface of my trees as a dust bath and making a mess while foraging for food.
By accident I have found that spraying my trees with a diluted lime sulphur winter wash is an excellent way of reducing the attraction of my bonsai to birds. Birds have a good sense of smell too! I have since found that if the lime sulphur solution is sprayed as soon as the first birds come to feed in and around your bonsai in Winter, they immediately 'learn' that your bonsai do not smell appetizing and will not return to feed or take a bath for the remainder of Winter and Spring.
And please, before I receive e-mails condemning this advice, the smell of the lime sulphur dissuades any feeding long before a bird would consider ingesting it.
Finally. Does Lime Sulphur Actually Preserve Deadwood?
Yes and No.
Lime Sulphur kills all (or at least most) bacteria that cause the breakdown and deterioration of wood that we know as 'rot'. It also produces a temporarily hostile environment against bacteria. However, the anti-bacterial or anti-fungal effect of the lime sulphur is relatively short-lived in comparison to its bleaching effect. Most enthusiasts will have seen lime-sulphured wood begin to turn green and support bacteria within a relatively short period of time.
This short term protection requires that the lime sulphur be applied on an annual or even 6 monthly basis to ensure that all of the wood remains stark white (if this is required) and to keep the majority of bacteria and fungi at bay.
Not only is the anti-bacterial effect of the lime sulphur relatively short-lived, but it only has an effect on the parts of the deadwood that it is able to access. As has already been discussed, lime sulphur is only able to permeate the wood of a tree to a certain depth (depending on the density and condition of the deadwood). Whilst lime sulphur is able to kill bacteria on the surface of the wood and possibly to a depth of a few millimetres on a soft wood), the underlying layers of wood will remain unprotected.
If bacteria is able to access the underlying layers of wood that the lime sulphur cannot (for instance though fissures or breaks in the integrity of the wood or through deadwood exposed only to the soil), rotting will continue unabated.
In summary; lime sulphur cannot and should not be regarded as a preservative that will protect deadwood from rotting or breaking down. While it is able to preserve shallow or thin areas of deadwood for a period of time, it is not a reliable method of rot-prevention.
For the dense and hard wood of Yews, Junipers and Pines, lime sulphur is probably going to be sufficient as these woods are naturally resistant to rotting. On species with softer wood such as privet, bougainvillea and most deciduous species, a proper wood preserver or wood hardener must be used.
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