Small beauties, tall tales
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.