Small beau­ties, tall tales


Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - GOOD PASTIMES - KAY MONT­GOMERY

BON­SAI is a hobby that fo­cuses on grow­ing trees in con­tain­ers and styling them into the shapes seen in na­ture. Lit­er­ally trans­lated, bon­sai means “plant in a pot” and it re­mains one of the most pop­u­lar fes­tive sea­son gifts.

There are many myths around the art of bon­sai. Re­spected Cape bon­sai hob­by­ist Peter Bruyns de­bunks the more com­monly held myths and mis­con­cep­tions.

MYTH: Keep­ing trees small is cruel.

A bon­sai is not a ge­net­i­cally dwarfed tree nor is it kept small by any cru­elty. Left to grow on its own in the ground, with ad­e­quate wa­ter, light and nu­tri­ents, a bon­sai will re­vert to the size and char­ac­ter­is­tics of any tree of that species.

Well cared-for bon­sai can live for hun­dreds of years and of­ten out­live full-size trees of the same species. One of the old­est-known liv­ing bon­sai trees, a Na­tional Trea­sure of Ja­pan, is a pine (Pi­nus pen­ta­phylla var negishi) con­sid­ered to be at least 500 years old.

MYTH: All bon­sai are less than 15cm in height.

While bon­sai are small com­pared to their full-sized broth­ers, most are over 25 cen­time­tres tall and can be a me­tre or more. Bon­sai are de­vel­oped from seeds or cut­tings, from young trees or nat­u­rally oc­cur­ring stunted trees trans­planted into con­tain­ers. They are kept small and trained by prun­ing branches, new growth and roots, by pe­ri­odic re­pot­ting and by wiring the branches and trunk so that they grow into the de­sired shape.

MYTH: All bon­sai must be kept in­doors.

With very few ex­cep­tions, bon­sai will not thrive if kept in­doors. They need to be out­doors to get sun­light and air move­ment, and should only be brought in­doors for show and then only for short pe­ri­ods.

MYTH: Bon­sai orig­i­nated in Ja­pan.

The art of bon­sai did not orig­i­nate in Ja­pan. The Ja­panese adopted it from China about 900 years ago. The Chi­nese (who use the term “Pen­sai”) have been grow­ing “trees in pots” for be­tween 1 500 and 2 000 years, and the old­est doc­u­mented proof of this is the exis- tence of a Chi­nese bon­sai that is 1 300 years old.

The Chi­nese “pen­jing”, or land­scapes in a pot or tray, sought to recre­ate land­scaped gar­dens of the elite. A Chi­nese em­peror in the Han Dy­nasty (206BC-220AD) cre­ated a land­scape rep­re­sent­ing his en­tire em­pire in his court­yard so that he could look at it from his palace win­dow. Leg­end sug­gests that only the em­peror could own a minia­ture land­scape and that any­one else found to have one was put to death.

MYTH: Only ex­otic trees can be used in bon­sai.

Bon­sai hob­by­ists around the world have ex­per­i­mented with their own in­dige­nous plants over many decades.

This year, the Cape Bon­sai Kai cel­e­brates its 40th an­niver­sary and its mem­bers have be­come world­fa­mous for not only us­ing in­dige­nous flora, but also de­vel­op­ing and con­tribut­ing to at least two, now es­tab­lished, African styles – the Baobab style (the up­side-down tree) and the Pierneef style (multi-flat­domed fo­liage pad of aca­cias as de­picted by the South African artist, Ja­cob Pierneef).

Don’t miss the Cape Bon­sai Kai’s an­nual show. Meet the ex­perts and see their mag­nif­i­cent trees. From Thurs­day to Sun­day, 9am to 5pm at Kirsten­bosch. No en­try fee to show, en­trance to gar­dens ap­plies. Phone Tony Bent at 083 230 5348 or Dorothy Franz at 021 797 8972.


AFRICAN LAND­SCAPE: This mag­nif­i­cent in­dige­nous mon­key thorn bon­sai bears cream-yel­low to yel­low flow­ers from spring un­til sum­mer.

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