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Spray bottle with detergent

SB Invigorator

Another product which pops up as a recommended one in the bonsai world is this one – SB Invigorator. This product is for pest control and claims to control “Whitefly, Aphid, Spider Mite, Mealybug, Scale and Psyllid.”ref As I have recently added a lot of indoor plants to my collection, these pests are becoming rather annoying, so I have been looking for ways to get rid of them without using toxic chemicals. Would SB Invigorator work?

The main claim for this product is that is uses a “physical mode of action”. However the manufacturer fails to explain what this actually means, so it sort of floats in the ether as a claim without any rationale. A physical mode of action is basically one which physically affects the pests in question. Scraping a pest off a leaf or squashing it with your fingernail would be a physical mode of action. Horticultural oil such as neem also uses a physical mode of action by altering the leaf surface characteristics.ref This method does not rely on poisons, instead it disrupts pests’ ability to move around and/or eat your plants.

What is the physical mode of action in SM Invigorator? Well, there are a couple of clues in the company’s safety data sheet and more in the company’s product manual for commercial users.

The main hazardous component (ie. the one which must be identified on the safety data sheet) is Sodium Lauryl Ether Sulphate (1-3% by volume), also known as SLES. SLES is an ‘ionic surfactant’, basically a detergent and foaming agent. A surfactant is a substance which reduces the surface tension of water of a liquid – on a plant this can make the surface slippery to insects and harder for them to gain purchase on a leaf or stem. In fact plants themselves make surfactants, known as saponins, below is an image of the saponins created by the fruit of Sapindus makorossi in a research study into the subject.ref You can see the foam in the tube, which has been shaken – this is due to the surfactants making it easier for air bubbles to be created.ref


Side note – the study identifies a range of plantsref which produce high quantities of saponins, including chickpeas. The saponins in chickpeas result in the sticky liquid left behind when you strain a can of chickpeas – also known as aquafaba. The surfactant properties of aquafaba are used to create meringues and other dishes which require air bubbles, without the need to use eggs.ref

So one of the main ingredients in SB Invigorator is detergent, the likes of which can be found in many consumer detergents. How does this affect pests? According to their product manual, which is published for commercial users, “two separate modes of action have been observed: (1) adult whitefly have been observed to stick by the wings to any surface they make contact with and aphids, juvenile whitefly and spider mite if directly hit are trapped by its wetness. (2) On mealybug an initial application removed the protective wax and a second application controlled them.”

This is why they also promote one of the features of the product being “plant wash for a cleaner, shiny appearance”!

I was interested that the biological control company ‘Dovebugs‘ had contributed to the product safety data sheet. I thought perhaps there were microbes in the product as well. But instead I believe they must have been consulted about the effect of SB Invigorator on beneficial microbes. The company’s informationref states “Studies so far have shown SB PLANT INVIGORATOR to be compatible within an integrated pest management programme where beneficial insects are used.”

On other websites selling this product there are several additional claims which are not listed on the company’s website including:

  • “SB Plant Invigorator contains naturally elements, such as seaweed”ref [this would act as a fertiliser, particularly good at providing micronutrients]
  • “improves plant health due to the inclusion of chelated iron and nitrogen fertilisers.”ref [more standard fertiliser]
  • “Active ingredient: Carbonic acid diamide/urea”ref [source of nitrogen = fertiliser]
  • “based on a blend of natural ingredients, including surfactants, amino acids, and plant extracts.”ref [as above]
  • “is a foliar feed that can be used on an extensive range of ornamental and edible plants. The spray contains a wide range of nutrients and micro nutrients that encourage growth and improve the condition and health of the plants when sprayed on the leaves.”ref [foliar fertiliser]
  • “Consisting of blends of surfactants and nutrients or fatty acids and algae extracts”ref

So if the above are true, in addition to the detergent component, SB Invigorator may also contain liquid seaweed and some fertiliser. Since the product is sprayed on the leaves, it could be acting a a foliar feed (see my article on the effectiveness of these here) as well as a general fertiliser since any runoff would end up in the soil.

On Amazon 500ml of this product is currently £13.45. Assuming their product data sheet reflects the diluted product, with 1-3% of SLES, it’s pretty similar to my eCover washing detergent (with 5-15% surfactants undiluted) which is worth 70p for an equivalent concentration and volume. Let’s say it also has 10% or 50ml of liquid seaweed – based on my Shropshire seaweed purchase recently this would be worth 67p – or to be generous 100ml, which is £1.34. Add to that 50g of Chempak 3 fertiliser (probably way too much since 800g makes 1600L) – worth 63p and you have a grand total of £2.67 for a DIY version.

Now one big caveat here is that the actual proportions of these components may be important, and this company appears to have tested their product – although they have not made their tests publicly available. Since the company is based in Guernsey their financial reports aren’t publicly available either, so it’s not possible to read about their company in much detail. So maybe there is a magic formula which they have perfected and of course there are the costs of management, marketing, packaging, distribution etc.

But, if you can’t afford SB Invigorator, and you wanted to try something similar as a do-it-yourself version, you could do worse than start with the recipe for insect deterrent provided by Jerry Coleby-Williams (a botanist, presenter on Gardening Australia and environmentalist). He says his grandad used to use ‘white oil’ for controlling scale. This recipe suggests mixing half a cup of dishwashing detergent mixed with two cups of sunflower oil, and then using one teaspoon of concentrate mixed into a litre of water. If you wanted to, you could add some seaweed extract and/or fertiliser as well.

Note – I tried a detergent solution to get rid of aphids on some succulents in my indoor plant collection (actually Portulacaria afra) and it made the leaves drop off! I think the solution was nowhere near diluted enough (it was before I read Jerry’s recipe). So do a test leaf before you spray everywhere.



(Thanks to Dr. Karen O’Hanlon of Probio Carbon for answering some of my questions about biochar).

Biochar is a product which has been advertised as a beneficial component of bonsai soil over recent years. So what exactly is it?

Biochar is basically charcoal which has been “produced from organic waste using pyrolysis technology under temperatures ranging from 400C to 700C where oxygen is either absent or depleted”.ref Pyrolosis means decomposing carbon-based materials through the application of heat.ref So a feedstock (source material) is acquired and heated in the absence of oxygen for a given period of time to create what you would probably recognise as charcoal. The structure of biochar is shown in the image – as you can see, it has many, many holes in it.

Scanning Electron Microscope image of biochar

So why would you add biochar to your bonsai soil? There are a few good reasons. It has been proven to improve water availabilityref, act as a fertiliser reducing the need for chemical fertilisersref and increase microbial biomassref (ie. it attracts beneficial microbes).

An experiment conducted in Colchester, UK by the Bartlett Tree Research & Diagnostic Laboratory amazingly found that ash trees treated with biochar did *not* get infected by ash dieback disease over a period of 4 years even when the disease was present in adjacent trees on the same site. They believed the reason for this was that the biochar enhanced the trees’ immune system and improved root growth.ref

The microbe aspect of biochar is really interesting – in one study it was found that microbes living in it were able to ‘mine’ the biochar pores for phosphorus. So it appears to have synergy between its composition (with nutrients for plants) and its attractiveness to microbes which can help get those nutrients into plants.

One of the key physical properties of biochar is that it has a massive surface area, relative to its size – in one study on malt spent rootlets (a residue from brewing) it was 340 m2 per gram!!ref That’s larger than the size of a tennis court for every gram of biochar.ref This increased surface area along with the physical structure of biochar having lots of tiny pores, results in greater water retention in the soil.ref

Biochar can be made from basically any organic material, from forestry to food production to agricultural by-products and this source material is the main determinant of its chemical properties.ref So when choosing a biochar for your bonsai soil, you want to know what it has been made from, and what this means in terms of its properties. Some of the properties which vary significantly include pH, surface area and cation exchange capability/electrical conductivity. For bonsai I would say you want high surface area & pore volume (to assist with water availability) and high microbial mass. The fertiliser aspects are probably a nice-to-have. Looking at the table below this means probably biochar made from a wood-based source material is best.

There is quite a bit of research out there on different biochar properties, which I will summarise here for you to read through. Unfortunately I haven’t found any research which looks at volume of microbes for each feedstock, but I would expect this to be positively associated with surface area.

Biochar FeedstockProperties
WoodHighest surface area (leading to better water retention) and highest pore volume (a factor of 10 higher than manure)
Lowest cation-exchange capability
Largest amount of C
Contain less plant-available nutrients
More electrical conductivity
Lowest ash content (associated with lower pH)
Micro-nutrient content mixed (see table here)
Total bioavailable nutrients mixed (see table here)
Crops & grassesHighest average particle size
Highest K content
Lowest calcium carbonate equivalents
Micro-nutrient content mixed (see table here)
Total bioavailable nutrients mixed (see table here)
ManureLowest surface area and lowest pore volume
Highest cation-exchange capability
Highest calcium carbonate equivalents
Lowest average particle size
Highest ash content (associated with higher pH)
Greatest N, S, P, Ca, and Mg concentrations
Highest micro-nutrient content (Fe, Cu, Zn, B, Mn, Mo, Co, Cl)
Total bioavailable nutrients mixed (see table here)
Source: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s42773-020-00067-x/tables/1

The temperature at which the biochar is created makes a difference too. Increasing pyrolisis temperature leads to “increased biochar C, P, K, Ca, ash content, pH, specific surface area (SSA), and decreased N, H, and O content”ref

Like many things in life though, you can have too much of a good thing. In some studies, too much or the wrong biochar in soil has led to phytotoxicityref You might also be wondering why it doesn’t just remove all the nutrients in the soil like activated carbon, which is used in aquariums and drink bottles to remove metals, chlorine and contaminants. When asked this question Dr. Karen O’Hanlon at Probio Carbon said it was because biochar is not ‘activated’ to the same degree as activated carbon. Reading more about this, the absorbent properties of biochar are “1/6th to 1/12th that of high quality activated carbons”.ref Activation forces more pores and surface area into the charcoal, this is done by varying the temperature and pyrolysis process. So whilst there probably is some nutrient absorption, it’s not going to be at the same level as activated carbon and can be compensated for by the nutrients within the biochar themselves and the increased microbial activity.


Biogold is another popular bonsai fertiliser, which may or may not be cagey about its ingredients since the packaging is all in Japanese which I cannot read. Deploying google translate on their website, and searching online yielded some information:

  • It’s a fertiliser with N:P:K ratio NPK 5.5:6:3
  • It contains micronutrients iron 0.12%, copper 50mg/kg, molybdenum 27 mg/kg, sulfur 0.5% and also magnesium and calcium (in unspecified amounts)
  • It contains chicken manure fermented using bacterial processes

Chicken manure isn’t used directly on plants because the organic matter will ferment and generate heat, usually it is fermented separately along with plant matter such as straw, leaves, cardboard etc, and requires turning or mixing to ensure exposure to air (this is aerobic fermentation which requires oxygen).

So it’s likely that Biogold contains some other kind of plant matter which is unspecified. When looking at other products, plant matter (particularly green or coloured leaves or skins) provided substances which helped the microbial communities in the soil flourish, enhancing root growth and nitrogen uptake. One study found a “positive effect of BioGold® and Compost in increasing the soil microbial population by providing nutritive sources for the growth of soil microbes”ref

Chicken manure is a good source of nitrogen, contains humic acidref, which is a concentrated form of organic matter (also contained in the coal precursors leonardite and peat), and was found to have better growth potential for plants than cow manure.ref

A researcher growing coconut compared BioGold with other fertilisers in this studyref – and found “There were no significant differences (P> 0.005) between treatments in any of the growth parameters tested after a period of six months after planting.” ie. the plants tested had similar outcomes from all the fertilisers tested (which included inorganic fertiliser, cattle manure, ‘Kochchikade biofertilizer’ and compost).

So overall, hard to say, this product appears to be a good fertiliser with micronutrients and humic acid/concentrated organic matter. But since it doesn’t disclose all the ingredients it’s impossible to fully assess it.

What is organic fertiliser?

The word ‘organic’ in terms of fertiliser does not mean the same thing as ‘organic’ when it comes to food.

Organic food follows principles of production which in general do not permit soluble fertilisers and synthetic pesticidesref to be used during the food production.

Organic fertiliser means “any substance composed of animal or vegetable matter used alone or in combination with one or more nonsynthetically derived elements or compounds which are used for soil fertility and plant growth.”ref This does not imply that the animal or vegetable matter itself was not produced using chemicals or is organic in a food sense.

As an example, rapeseed meal can be called organic fertiliser if the oil has been extracted using cold pressing methods, but this doesn’t mean that the rapeseed itself was grown using organic farming methods. If the oil has been extracted using a solvent, I think it’s doubtful that this rapeseed meal should be called organic.

Non-nutrient Additives

Like any hobby, the bonsai world has its share of fads, snake oil and quackery. None more so than in the multitude of different potions and elixirs offering to bring a bonsai to perfection, for the right (expensive) price. Amusingly, many of these go to great pains to emphasise that they are NOT fertilisers (since actually fertiliser is cheap and relatively easy to buy). Not only that, but many fail to include ingredient lists, reference real data or otherwise explain how their product is supposed to work.

Of course plants need nutrients, these are usually elements and explained in the post Nutrients for Trees. But there are a range of other ingredients which may or may not support your trees’ health, so I thought I’d start a list to help you work out what a product might be seeking to achieve:

  • Blood meal – eugh! A non-ethical source of nitrogen. There really is no need to use animal blood when you can get nitrogen from any rotting organic matter/compost.
  • Charcoal – in the form of biochar – depending on what it’s made from, helps water retention, attracts and provides a home for benefical microbes and provides nutrients & micronutrients (acts as a fertiliser)
  • Cocoa bean shell mulch – supports endomycorrhizae and nitrogen-fixing bacteria for root growth BUT also contains theobromine which is toxic to dogs, cats & fish
  • Conifer oils – tend to be antimicrobial, insect repellent, antifungal etc
  • Ectomycorrhizae and endomycorrhizae – fungi which interact with roots to improve uptake of nutrients – whether a particular species of tree uses endo or ecto mycorrhizae is detailed in this site.
  • Feather meal – another non-ethical source of nitrogen.
  • Flavanoids, flavanols, flavanol glycosides, anthocyanins – support the symbiosis between roots and arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi (a type of endomycorrhizae), as well as with nitrogen-fixing bacteriaref
  • Humic acid – ultra-dense organic matter, converts elements into forms available to plantsref, nourishes microorganisms in the soil and may mimic the phytohormone auxin
  • Japanese Cedar (Cryptomeria japonica) oil – insect repellent, insecticide, antifungal, antimicrobial
  • Japanese Cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa) oil – antibacterial, antifungal
  • Kaempferol – a flavonoid (see above)
  • Leonardite – source of humic acid (see above) – extracted via open-cut mines
  • Manure – animal manure is a source of organic matter; from omnivores (eating both plants and animals – eg. chickens or pigs) it is higher in total nitrogen and phosphorus than from herbivores (eating only plants – eg. horses, sheep or cows) which have manure higher in total carbonref
  • Pine oil – insecticide/insect repellent
  • Quercetin – a flavonoid (see above)
  • Saponin – an insect repellent
  • Seaweed – a fertiliser which includes micronutrients which don’t appear in standard fertilizer, such as sulphur, as well as plant metabolites which can support the growth of mycorrhizal fungi and nitrogen-fixing bacteria. Seaweed extracts have been known to promote plant growth.ref
  • Succinic acid – helps reduce heavy metal contamination – as a component of Alar was used for improving fruit set in fruit tree (before Alar was banned as a carcinogen)
  • Vinasse – source of organic matter and potassium (can be chemically processed)

Read more about what some products contain here: HB-101 Analysis, SUPERthrive, Green Dream, Biochar and Biogold.

Green Dream

Green Dream is one of those products that is spoken about in whispers as some kind of miracle elixir. It was created by UK bonsai artist Colin Lewis who now lives in the US – and sells the same product there from his website. In the UK it’s available from Kaizen Bonsai. So what’s in Green Dream? Let’s just say you don’t want to use this product if you are a vegetarian, vegan, or interested in animal welfare. In the FAQs on the UK supplier’s site, it lists the following:

  • Blood meal – a source of nitrogen. Personally I feel that animal blood is over the top when nitrogen can be found in compost or any other rotting organic matter. Most likely the blood is an abattoir side-product, and associated with animal cruelty.
  • Feather meal – also a source of nitrogen and a side-product of the poultry processing industry – not known for its animal welfare standards either.
  • Cocoa shells – are the husks from processing cacao beans for chocolate. In theory this might be positive for your trees since cocoa (and its shells – known as Cocoa Bean Shells or “CBS”) contain bioactive compounds such as polyphenols. The polyphenols in chocolate products “comprise mainly catechins, flavonol glycosides, anthocyanins and procyanidins”ref – of these, flavonols and anthocyanins are both flavonoids, known to support the symbiosis of roots with arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi as well as nitrogen-fixing bacteriaref
  • CBS also contain theobromineref, which is toxic to aquatic animals, cats and dogs at reasonably low levels, so please be careful if you are using this product where cats or dogs can access it.
  • Dried organic seaweed – since seaweed is a plant itself it contains all the nutrients plants require – including many of the micronutrients which don’t appear in standard fertilizer, such as sulphur, as well as plant metabolites which can support the growth of mycorrhizal fungi and nitrogen-fixing bacteria. Seaweed extracts have been known to promote plant growth.ref
  • Vinasse – is the by-product of sugar ethanol production. It is a potassium source and a “soil fertility improver because it promotes deep root development, nutrient lixiviation and increases considerably the sugarcane yield”ref however there has been controversy over its use due to environmental damage from the high organic content.ref
  • Slow release compound fertiliser with an analysis of N.6% – P.5% – K.7%.
  • With added trace elements. Iron, Manganese, Zinc, Copper, Boron, Molybdenum (probably from the seaweed and vinasse)

Overall I won’t be using Green Dream Original as I am a vegetarian and don’t wish to use animal products from cruel farming practices for my bonsai. Also, I have a dog and don’t want to put him at risk.

The product is labelled as an organic fertiliser but this doesn’t mean its ingredients are organically produced in the same way as food: What is organic fertiliser?

In researching this article I also looked into another product on Kaizen Bonsai’s website – Green Dream Rapeseed Meal. Rapeseed is also known as canola, it’s a Brassica vegetable whose seeds are grown used for oil, which is used as vegetable oil in cooking, and as a biofuelref Since 28.3 million metric tons of rapeseed oil was produced worldwide in 2020/21ref, there is a heck of a lot of rapeseed meal to dispose of! Rapeseed meal is used as an animal feed, due to its relatively high protein content, and traditionally was used in China as a fertilizer. This is probably because China is the second largest producer and consumer of rapeseed oil and so has a lot of meal.

The meal has plant nutrients in it, because it’s made from plants, you can see a full breakdown here. Aside from the NPK listed on the label, according to the Canola Council it also contains almost every other nutrient a plant needs (see Nutrients for Trees), except for boron and nickel, so a bit like seaweed this can provide some of the trace elements that aren’t always available in the soil or in standard fertilizers.

There is a research paperref breaking down the compounds found in rapeseed meal, of these only one has any known effect on plant growth and that’s kaempferol – we came across it over in the HB-101 Analysis – it encourages the growth of endomycorrhizal fungi which aid nutrient uptake in roots.

One thing to know about rapeseed meal is that when it’s not dressed up as a bonsai fertilizer, it can purchased for quite a bit less. I found 20kg available for less than £14 (including delivery to UK mainland) at this site selling animal feed.


SUPERthrive is another product claiming great results for plant health without being a fertiliser. I’m not sure why these companies find it so offensive for their products to be known as fertilisers! Fertiliser just means a product containing plant nutrients. Anyway, what is in SUPERthrive? Here is the ingredient list:

So to start with – it *is* a fertiliser (1:1:1). Aside from nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium it also contains another macronutrient – calcium, and a micronutrient – iron. I’ve taken the explanation of these below from my post What each nutrient does (x17).

Calcium is used for plant structure as it strengthens the cell walls in plants. Its presence (or absence) is also used for signalling of stresses to the plant, allowing it to activate defences against pathogens. There is twice as much calcium in this product than N P or K – so quite a lot.

Iron is present in a large number of different enzymes within plant cells, appearing in chloroplasts (where photosynthesis takes place), mitochondria (where energy is created) and the cell compartment. Iron is therefore a key nutrient for growth and survival in plants – in just the same way it is with humans and other forms of life. Iron is a component of so many enzymes that there is a specific name for them – ‘FeRE’ or iron requiring enzymes (Fe is the chemical symbol for iron).

Iron can be toxic if too much is present, so plants have evolved mechanisms to remove it when it gets too high. There is a much smaller amount of iron than other nutrients in SUPERthrive.

SUPERthrive also contains four varieties of mycorrhizae (fungus which integrates with plant roots). The types included are all arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi which are a form of endomycorrhizae – that is, the fungal cells enter the plant’s roots. This supports healthy root development, improved access to soil nutrients and healthier trees. You can find these mycorrhizae in soil, particularly in established forests. Whether or not a specific type of mycorrhizal fungus will benefit your tree depends on the species of tree. There is a list of which types work with with species on this site.

From a bonsai point of view this list helps us see that endomycorrhizae (ie. the fungi in SUPERthrive) are not associated with plants in the families Pinaceae (fir, cedar, larch, spruce, pine, hemlock) and Fagaceae (beech, chestnut, oak), neither should they work for lime trees (Tilia).

They are associated with plants in the families Cupressaceae (cypress, juniper, redwoods, thuja), as well as acers, ginkgos and most other flowering trees. So you might see a difference in effect depending on the species of tree with which you use this product.

The final ingredient in SUPERthrive is humic acid. Leonardite, the source of the humic acid in this product, “is an oxidized form of lignite, very enriched in HS [humic substances] and characterized by well-known auxin-like effects”ref Lignite is a form of brown coal, which used to be peat but hasn’t become coal yet. Humic acid is a liquid made by dissolving leonardite, so it contains dissolved, concentrated organic matter (dead plants), effectively this is like super-concentrated liquid compost. Could it be similar to compost tea? In fact, yes, liquid from compost has also shown the same auxin-like effectref. Peat analysis shows a chemical composition of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, sulphur in decreasing order.ref But this doesn’t tell the whole story. Peat and its compressed descendants contain a multiplicity of nutrients as well as other components – basically it’s all the ingredients which go into plants, and are synthesised by plants, compressed and starting to decompose. So this component of SUPERthrive probably has most of the nutrients required for plant growth – although these aren’t necessarily bioavailable. This study found that “Leonardites did not affect significantly any measured variables in comparison to the control”ref So my guess is that if you are fertilising your trees with a comprehensive fertiliser, and giving them some organic matter, the addition of humic acid may not make a difference.

Leonardite is mined in open-cut mines, and can be extracted using chemicals, so it’s not particularly environmentally friendlyref, nor sustainable as claimed by this manufacturerref, since it takes 300 million years to create!

Ultimately this product is a fertiliser with extra calcium, mycorrhizae to promote healthy root development (but only for certain tree species), and concentrated liquid compost/organic matter. It probably provides beneficial compounds to bonsai trees – particularly those in families which benefit from endomycorrhizal fungae. But I’d argue these compounds could be obtained elsewhere – from a comprehensive fertiliser, compost tea and a handful of humus (dark, organic material that forms in soil when plant matter decays) from your local forest. It’s probably a useful product though if you don’t have the time or access to other additives for your bonsai.

HB-101 Analysis

Recently a member of my bonsai club was talking about this product, HB-101. It is apparently wildly popular in Japan and supposed to be fantastic for bonsai. It claims to be an “all-purpose natural plant vitalizer”. Since plants synthesise their own requirements for growth from the 17 nutrients, I couldn’t really see how this would work unless this product was a fertilizer, so wanted to dive a bit deeper into this product to work out what it does. Unfortunately the product website is pretty waffly, or possibly just poorly translated, so a bit of investigation was required.

According to the manufacturer HB-101 is made from “essences of such long-lived trees as cedars, Japanese cypress, and pines as well as from plantains.” Without knowing how they define ‘essences’ and which bit of the plantain they use, this doesn’t help much. But more info is in their submission to the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation: “HB-101 is synthesized from organic distillate, which is extracted from the heated raw material of cedars, Japanese cypress, pines, and plantains as raw materials”. So it contains substances from Cryptomeria japonica (Japanese Cedar), Chamaecyparis obtusa (Japanese Cypress) and Pinus thunbergii (Japanese Pine) as well as plantain grass (not plantains like bananas).

In their safety data sheet it shows the product has a pH: 3.0 ~ 4.5, and is toxic to fish, daphnia and other aquatic invertebrates within 48h at 1% concentration or more. The product explanation from the UN submission contains more useful data including a typical analysis chemical breakdown:

  • Kaempferol; 0.1 ~ 0.2 ppm
  • Water-Soluble Nitrogen (as N); 0.001 ~ 0.005 %,
  • Water-Soluble Phosphoric Acid (as P2O5); 0.0001~ 0.0005 %,
  • Water-Soluble Potassium (as K2O); 0.0001 ~ 0.0005 %,
  • Total Sulfur (as S); 0.0001 ~ 0.001 %,
  • Calcium (Ca); 0.5 ~ 3 ppm,
  • Magnesium (Mg); 0.3 ~ 3 ppm,
  • Iron (Fe); 0.01 ~ 0.05 ppm,
  • Zinc (Zn); 0.01 ~ 0.05 ppm,
  • Silicon (Si); 1 ~ 5 ppm

Based on this breakdown, the product appears to be mainly a nitrogen fertilizer (NPK of 10:1:1) which includes all six macronutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus, sulphur, potassium, magnesium, calcium), and two micronutrients (zinc, iron). It also contains two non-nutrient ingredients – silicon and Kaempferol.

I was surprised to see silicon in the list as it’s not considered one of the 17 required plant nutrients. But a bit of digging and apparently it “activates plant defence mechanisms” and “increases the resistance of plants to pathogenic fungi”ref. Interesting! Looks like I will need to write a new post on non-essential-but-benefical nutrients…there are bound to be others aside from silicon.

The other ingredient is Kaempferol. Kaempferol (in case you were wondering) is a flavonoid (substance synthesised by plants) which “has a role as an antibacterial agent, a plant metabolite, a human xenobiotic metabolite, a human urinary metabolite, a human blood serum metabolite and a geroprotector.”ref It has a molecular formula of C15H10O6. Flavonoids are “pigments that color most flowers, fruits, and seeds”ref and they are actually produced by plants themselves, so it’s not obvious to me why adding them to a plant would do anything.

The product explanation claims that Kaempferol ‘activates plant mitochondrial enzymes’. Looking into Kaempferol further, it is referenced in a wide variety of human disease research, including cancerref and brain injuriesref. It does indeed appear to affect the function of mitochondria and provide protection to cells against injury – at least in humans. In this article Kaempferol is said to protect against oxidative stress and various forms of toxicity by affecting mitopaghy (the removal of damaged mitochondria), suppressing fission (cell reproduction) and apostosis (cell death). In humans it seems to have the almost magical property of helping healthy cells to survive while inducing the death of cancer cellsref.

Admittedly plants (like all complex life) do contain mitochondria, which generate the energy needed to power cells. So if a substance affects mitochondria in people, it may well have similar effects in plants. The question is whether externally delivered Kaempferol can actually enter the plant and get into its cells, which it would need to do in order to make any difference. As flavonoids are synthesised by plants, and since plants don’t absorb this kind of substance – instead absorbing the raw materials to make it themselves – I don’t think Kaempferol can be having any impact on the plant mitochondria.

BUT – what it might be doing is having an effect on other living things that affect tree health. And hey presto, a bit of searching uncovered that Kaempferol has been shown to improve root development by supporting Arbuscular Mycorrhizal Fungi (AMF) ref – this is a type of fungi in soil which can help expand the volume of soil from which nutrients can be extracted (Thomas).

In one study a range of flavonols were tested for their contribution to the growth of mycorrhizal fungi and Kaempferol was shown to make a modest improvementref but another flavonoid called Quercetin was even better.

Kaempferol does come from conifers which are in this product’s ingredient list. But it’s also high in green leafy vegetables like spinach, kale and dillref. So my guess is that a lot of it comes from the plantain grass in this product. Quercetin, which was more effective for nurturing mycorrhizal fungi, is apparently found in red, green, and purple-pigmented plants – for example, red onions. Unfortunately though, it seems that Quercetin (and Kaempferol) are not very easy to extract – industrial methods (likely the one used for HB-101) require ethanol but if you’re keen here is a method using ‘subcritical water’ (liquid water under pressure at temperatures above usual boiling point, 100 °C (212 °F)

So what else might the cypress, pine and cryptomeria be contributing? The company’s product page gives a few other clues – specifically it mentions saponin, pine oil and succinic acid, although these are not listed on the chemical analysis data sheet.

Saponins are substances produced by plants which are “responsible for plant defense against antagonists; such as mollusks, pathogens and insects”ref They are contained in a wide range of plants but do not appear to be present in conifersref. By contrast saponins are found in plantain grass (and actual plantains!)

Looking at what the conifers are providing to this product – pine oil has larvicidal and mosquito repellent propertiesref, Cryptomeria japonica oil is insect repellant and insecticidalref, antifungal against tree pathogenic fungiref as well as antimicrobialref and Japanese Cypress oil is antibacterial and antifungalref (and apparently also good for hair loss!).

And finally, succinic acid. This has been shown to improve tree tolerance (in Larix olgensis) to heavy metal contamination – specifically with Leadref and Cadmiumref. This doesn’t seem to me a particularly useful attribute for bonsai, since we’re using inert bonsai medium. Dig a bit further and you find succinic acid was combined with 2,2-dimethylhydrazine to make a plant growth regulator called Daminozide (also known as Alar). It regulated the growth and set of fruit but has been banned due to concerns about cancer risk. This isn’t on the ingredient list so I don’t think it’s present in the product. I can’t find much useful information on what succinic acid might be contributing.

So what’s my overall analysis? Initially I was sceptical because I don’t like products that rely on fluffy advertising and don’t explain how they work. It annoyed me that the product doesn’t contain an ingredient list, and it doesn’t admit to largely being a fertiliser, which is most definitely is.

However one of the key features of this product is that parts of it are derived from a distillation process, which enables the extraction of beneficial compounds from the conifer leaves and wood as well as from the leafy plantain grass. These should help boost a tree’s defences to insects, pathogenic microbes and fungi, and improve the mycorrhizal activity in the pot to supports better root development (and thus healthier trees). It also has a lot of nitrogen, which as outlined in nutrients is hard for plants to obtain.

So somewhat grudgingly I have to say it might actually work.