Bringing to life an ancient art form


Cape Town – The first bonsai were brought to South Africa after World War II.

Soldiers returning home from the East told stories of the beautiful trees they had seen in Japan. Some returned to that country to learn the art form.

In the early 1950s, Becky Lucas, the forerunner of the art of bonsai in the Cape, visited Japan to take classes with Japanese bonsai masters. She later founded the Bonsai Society of South Africa.

The Cape Bonsai Kai was founded in 1970 when a group of Cape bonsai enthusiasts started a local club to share information and ideas.


Bonsai expert Tony Bent says although the art of bonsai is well-known in the Western world today and very popular, an aura of mystery still surrounds this ancient art form.

“With some artistic flare, pruning, training and more importantly, time, a bonsai becomes a work of art, a reflection and expression of the creativity of the bonsaiist,” he says.



Displaying bonsai

Where you situate your bonsai is important.

“Bonsai need sun but they shouldn’t be placed in an area where they receive the very harsh afternoon sun,” says Bent. “An area with morning sun or dappled shade is very suitable and if you have a particularly windy garden, some protection is also necessary.”

Bonsai can be used to create a wonderful, living focal point in your garden. Pots can be placed on the ground or on a special bonsai bench for impact. While the trees do best outdoors, they can be brought indoors for short periods, for example, to be used as a centre piece on the lunch table for Christmas or coffee table while entertaining guests.


Caring for bonsai

Some trees are better suited to bonsai than others and many species have been particularly successful, particularly those that reduce their leaf size. Exotics like bougainvillea, azalea, fuchsia, cypress, European spruce and Japanese maples are popular candidates for bonsai.

Our indigenous trees have also be used to create stunning specimens, including white stinkwood (Celtis africana), wild olive (Olea europaea ssp. africana), bladder-nut (Diospyros whyteana), witolienhout (Buddleja saligna), confetti bush (Coleonema spp.), coral tree (Erythrina caffra) and indigenous acacia and ficus species.

Whichever tree you choose, with the right soil, correct positioning and regular water, fertiliser and pruning, your bonsai will thrive.

Here are some important tips:

* Water your bonsai daily. You can also use the “chopstick method” to test if your bonsai needs water. Place a wooden chopstick (plain wood, no coating) in the pot and leave for around 10-15 minutes, then remove. If the chopstick feels damp to the touch, you don’t need to water. Never overwater. Good drainage of the pot is essential.

* Bonsai must also be fertilised. They are a number of excellent organic products on the market. An old saying in bonsai is to “feed weakly, weekly”. This can be followed but some experts suggest a fortnightly feed. The important thing is not to over-fertilise.

* With correct positioning, water and food your bonsai will thrive and grow.

* Young trees (between one and four years old) require an annual repotting. Most seasoned bonsai growers have their own tried-and-tested soil mixes. However, a traditional mix is 25 percent to 35 percent grit to 65 percent to 75 percent compost.

* Deciduous trees can be repotted in late winter to early spring, while evergreens are best repotted between September and November. Ficus varieties can be re-potted during the height of summer.

* When repotting, remove a maximum of 30 percent of the roots and foliage. A good rule of thumb is “what you take of the bottom, take off the top”. Leave the plant in the shade for three weeks.


Did you know?

While bonsai are generally associated with Japan, the ancient art of miniaturising trees originated in China. From ancient manuscripts and paintings, historians have determined that miniature trees existed in China as far back as 600AD, later spreading to Korea and Japan. “Bon” refers to the pot, while “sai” is the plant inside.

Kay Montgomery, Independent HOME


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