Bonsai is an ancient Japanese art form where natural tree forms are created in miniature, in a tray-like container, for the purpose of contemplation. It surely must be of the most popular of the Japanese arts in South Africa today with many bonsai clubs gathering around the country, members meeting to share their enjoyment of this fascinating art with one another. The challenge of creating nature in miniature, as a living piece of art; seeing to its daily needs and being rewarded in turn with that connection to nature missing from so many urban lives today fuels the growing number of enthusiasts.
The Monkey-thorn (Senegalia galpinii) is a very popular species for bonsai locally. This tree in the Pierneef Style was grown by the author from nursery bag stock and is roughly 25 years old, rather young as a bonsai.
Originally the Japanese who although did not discover bonsai but rather popularized it to Westerners, based the styling of their trees on the Japanese Black Pine and the way it grew in nature. These are known today as the Classical Japanese styles and they include Informal upright, Leaning trunk, Cascade and more.
The Root-over-rock style is very popular and can readily be achieved using any of the locally available Fig species. This tree is a Chinese maple, imported from Japan by the author.
South Africa has its own styles too, thanks to pioneer bonsai grower Charles Ceronio, now deceased, who wrote a very popular book on the subject. In it he featured styles to which every South African can relate; Baobab, Pierneef, Flat Top and Bushveld to name a few. Defining these styles help bonsai artists to create natural looking trees in miniature.
The author working on his favorite species, the Japanese Black Pine.
Although some believe they are created from special seed, bonsai are often commonly available species you may even have growing in your backyard right now. South Africa is blessed with an abundance of flora highly suited to bonsai cultivation, some of which are also unique to our country. To name but a few indigenous species popular among local artists; Baobab, Witolienhout or False Olive, Num-num, Bladdernut, Coral Tree and the Wild Olive.
A tapering trunk is desirable and contributes much to the character of a bonsai tree. In order to achieve it a seedling may be grown in the ground, using specialist techniques for many years. This is a Hackberry or Celtis sinensis of about 15 years of age, grown from seed by the author.
If you cannot find suitable plants at your local nurseryman there are online sources of seeds which can be a rather fun way of starting your collection and even perhaps getting more of the family involved. A neighbor might have a tree you like and will allow you to take cuttings or perhaps even to air layer a branch from it.
Bougainvillea make wonderful bonsai subjects. Not only are the water wise and easy to find, they flower for months of the year.
There are also many specialist bonsai nurseries around which retail ready-made bonsai. Purchasing a tree from one of these nurseries ensures you get the correct care instructions and you will also have someone to go back to and ask questions as they arise.
Although the plant is most important, you will also need a suitable container into which the roots can grow. There are many types of containers an artist can use or even make themselves but the most common one is the ceramic pot. Unlike the typical pot plant pot, containers intended for bonsai cultivation are shallower than they are wide, with the exception of bonsai representing trees cascading from a mountain or cliff. The container is either unglazed, revealing the clay’s natural hue; or glazed. Glazed containers are available in many colors and it is the bonsai artists personal preference which determines which best enhances the tree planted into it. Sometimes a black container will be used to contrast strongly with white flowers the tree bears, or a blue container might be selected to complement the bright green leaves. Read more about choosing a suitable container here.
Despite being plants, it is not recommended that you grow bonsai in garden soil. Pot cultivation is quite different to growing in the ground and to support a dense network of fine twigs and branches a lot of roots are needed. A more open, fast draining medium is best and where oxygen exchange will provide the ideal environment for roots to thrive. The growing medium must also retain some moisture for the roots but not so much that they become waterlogged. There are many components available today from which the artists may make up their own unique growing medium. These might include akadama, pumice, LECA, stone, bark, perlite, peat and more.
Tools of the art
The modern bonsai artist has many tools to choose from which make applying the techniques used to train these small trees easier. To begin with a basic pair of scissors is a must but soon a branch cutter will be needed to remove unnecessary branches and to reduce the length of branches which have grown too long.
A wide variety of bonsai tools are available today which make this artform more enjoyable.
As an enthusiast’s confidence develops and their collection of trees grow and mature, specialist tools can be purchased to remove candles, bend thick trunks or create and refine deadwood. Aluminium and copper wire is used extensively, specially prepared for bonsai growers, it is applied to the branches of the tree so they may be bent into the desired shape.
What bonsai need
The needs of a bonsai are much the same as those of any plant; water, oxygen and food. Watering is generally a task performed daily, often by hand with a suitable spray nozzle, but one can also use irrigation systems including drip irrigation, watering cans or even a basin with water into which you can soak the bonsai tree. If your growing medium is suitable and drains well, you need not worry about oxygen.
Every few years a bonsai is lifted from its container and the roots are carefully raked and cut, and the old growing media is replaced. This helps to maintain the health of the tree.
Fertilizers used by bonsai artists are usually organic as it is far more difficult to give too much and burn the roots of the tree than it is to do so with chemical types. Fertilizers can be applied in pellet, solid, granular forms or liquids which are sprayed or watered onto the tree. Depending on the desired outcome the artist might fertilize more or less and may change the type of fertilizer used to have a higher nitrogen content to encourage growth or to one which has more phosphorus for more flowers.
One of the most common myths in bonsai is that if you bonsai an apple tree you will get miniature apples. Although it is true that leaves do become smaller as a result of frequent pruning; flowers and fruit do not. If you want a bonsai will small apples, then it would be best to choose a species which already has them such as the crab apple. Similarly, if you want to create a really small tree then small leaves will help to create the illusion so it is better to find a plant with small leaves to begin with that will further miniaturize than to start off with very large leaves.
A farm, forest or your backyard may be the source of wonderful material. The author developed this Rockspray, planted originally as a cutting, in his front garden. When collecting always get the landowners permission first!
Another myth is that bonsai are very fragile and need to be kept indoors. There are indeed some tropical species of trees which do adapt to the environment indoors rather well, the majority of plants grow better outside. Improper watering is probably the most common cause of a trees demise, either too much or too little and most likely less to do with whether you have ‘green fingers’ or not.
Part of the enjoyment and luxury of having a potted bonsai is to display them inside the house from time to time where you can appreciate them either on your own in quiet contemplation or over dinner with friends. Most bonsai clubs also hold public exhibitions of their members’ trees and it is a rather good idea to go along to these as you will be able to meet the people who grew them. They are usually more than happy to share their knowledge frequently and most also run beginner’s courses.