A South African’s Guide to Bonsai
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The art of Bonsai embodies the theory that there is perfection in the imperfect. Although rooted in the Japanese traditional concept of Wabi Sabi, the art of Bonsai and the name is borrowed from China. The Chinese art of Penzai refers to producing entire natural sceneries in small pots that mimic real-life sceneries.
Similar versions of the art include the miniature living landscapes of Vietnamese Hòn non bộ.
A literal translation of Wabi Sabi is quite difficult. Any linguist who has attempted to express uniquely Japanese concepts in another language run into the same barriers. Japanese has a way of expressing feelings and experiences that other languages just cannot provide for.
Wabi (侘び) describes the pleasant feeling of being alone in nature, away from society.
Sabi (寂び) refers to the signs of rustic but elegant age.
Beth Kempton, a Japanese culture expert and author says, “over time, the word sabi has come to communicate a deep and tranquil beauty that emerges with the passage of time. Visually, we recognise this as the patina of age, weathering, tarnishing and signs of antiquity.”
“Wabi sabi is felt in a moment of real appreciation – a perfect moment in an imperfect world,” says Kempton.
Bonsai, therefore, is spending time and energy to achieve perfection but finding joy in the fact that no tree can ever achieve it.
SA Weather and Bonsai
My Ouma always said that you cannot buy a cycad in Tzaneen and think it will flourish in Pretoria. This little nugget of wisdom can be applied to most aspects of life but is rather apt when it comes to our topic.
South Africa has every conceivable climate in its provinces. If you travel from one coast to the other, and depending on the season, you could be met with downpours, snow, sleet, electrical storms and humid summer-esque temperatures. (Of course, this could also just happen if you spend a day in exactly the same spot along the garden route. Don’t like the weather? Wait 5 minutes).
This means that there are unique considerations to keep in the back of your mind when you start on your Bonsai journey.
Most trees can be tended to become exemplary Bonsai, but some species are more appropriate for the art.
These four indigenous trees are recommended for the best results.
The wild olive tree, or Olea europaea subsp. Africana is a frost-, drought- and wind-resistant evergreen tree with a dense spreading crown. It is a good choice for the warmer, less humid areas of South Africa. Olive trees generally suit higher temperatures with an abundance of sunlight. Olive Bonsai are very much the same and require being placed in an area that gets a lot of sun.
Baobab trees are succulents and were initially considered to not be fit for Bonsai. The late John Naka was proven correct in his assertion that the baobab had promising characteristics to become a very popular bonsai tree in South Africa. It’s important to note that baobabs need direct sunlight during their active growing period. They should not be kept indoors during the growing period but MUST be kept indoors during winter. They are completely dormant in the colder months and need protection from cold (below 10° C) and frost.
It belongs to the Scrophulariaceae family and is often called “false olive” or “white olive”. The Buddleja loves full sun which encourages miniaturisation of their leaves. They can withstand frost and should not be kept indoors. They are good options for Bonsai since they have a high survival rate after being removed from the wild and are evergreen.
Monkey Thorn (Senegalia galpinii) and Black Monkey Thorn (Senegalia burkei)
The senegalia grow best in the garden under the shade where it will receive indirect sunlight. Full sun should be limited to 4 hours a day lest they dry out. The Black Monkey Thorn is a candidate for indoor cultivation, but still needs lots of sunlight and ventilation. Remember, of course, that your Senegalia is still a thorn tree, even in miniature. Place it where clothing or skin won’t be tempted to make you wag-‘n-bietjie.
Regardless of your choice of tree, the basic care instructions are the same.
You must trim unwanted growth constantly to maintain the shape of your bonsai. This refers to pinching or cutting of unwanted shoots and leaves. Pruning encourages new side growth which helps shape your bonsai into that well-known look. Particular species require particular pruning tricks and methods, so it is advisable to ask the experts.
Terry Erasmus, owner and expert at bonsaitree.co.za, suggests that many who practise the art of bonsai think that they must stick to the traditional pruning shapes developed for trees indigenous to Japan. He suggests that we should not try and emulate, for instance, the Japanese Black Pine’s branch or canopy shape when working with indigenous South African trees. Terry believes that South Africa has excellent flora and that we should allow bonsai to follow the shapes natural to their species.
A pot-bound bonsai will need its nutrients replaced every 2 to 5 years. The best time for repotting is in the spring. Remove the bonsai from the container and uncoil the roots. Remove about 10 – 20% of the outer soil and roots, as well as trimming any dangling roots. Replace the bonsai and fill the gaps with bonsai soil mix. After submerging the pot into water, compress the soil around the tree.
Watch Terry Erasmus show off his expertise with comprehensive repotting here.
Water your trees when the soil gets slightly dry. Make sure to soak the entire root system. Water from above and try to use a fine nozzle to keep the soil from washing away. Don’t stop watering until water runs out of the drainage holes.
Most bonsai prefer indirect sunlight as well as the outdoors. Consider dedicating a space to your Bonsai in your garden where it will be protected from harsh afternoon light, as well as from strong gusts of wind.
Soil can mean the difference between a successful and flourishing bonsai and a dull, unhappy tree. The correct mixture of soil must have the following qualities: good water-retention, good drainage and good aeration. This is, again, a case of asking the experts. Bonsaitree.co.za has comprehensive soil suggestions for most trees.
Terry Erasmus encourages all prospective bonsai artists to disregard the idea that a healthy, flourishing tree can grow in any run-of-the-mill potting soil. “People think you can use whatever potting soil you have handy. These people just haven’t seen trees flourishing. If you’ve only ever seen unhealthy, let’s say, olives, you won’t realise that your tree is not actually healthy.”
Bonsaitree.co.za imports substrate and pumice to ensure that your bonsai has the best chance to achieve perfection.
Now that you are all fired up to start the art of Bonsai, consider joining one of the many Bonsai Clubs in South Africa. There is a club near almost every large city.
Keep us updated with your bonsai journey by tagging us in your socials at #homemakerssa.