The Olive - a beginner's tree

by Pieter Janse Van Rensburg

When one considers evergreen species for Bonsai purposes, one would have to search far and wide to find something more suitable for Bonsai than the Olive. In the Cape we are quite fortunate to have at least three of the numerous varieties available namely Olea europaea subsp. africana (wild olive), O.subsp. capensis (ironwood) and O.subsp. exasperata (Coastal Olive). By far the most common and most popular is the Wild Olive. It is available at most nurseries in various sizes, but mostly young material.


It has been my experience that seedlings uproot and transplant quite easily with about 80%-90% success rate. They do very well at first in a sand compost mixture. I prefer to scissor-train this size of tree. If it is unavoidable, wire with covered wire - plastic tubing, insulation tape, masking tape or paper works well. Olive bark is very tender and damages easily.

This caliber tree is best suited to Shohin Bonsai or Saikei. Do not be in too much of a hurry to pot your seedling into a bonsai container. The longer it is kept in a nursery bag or flower pot the sooner you will see results. Once the seedling has established itself in its container, feeding can commence. There are too many different types of plant food on the market to mention. Olives respond well to foliar feeding. A few grains of 2-3-2 around the outer perimeter of the container will usually make your little olive respond with multiple shoots. Always remember the three golden rules about feeding:

  1. Never fertilize a dry tree;
  2. Never fertilize during the heat of the day;
  3. Never fertilize a sick tree;

An application every 10-14 days is usually sufficient. Keep on clipping or nipping if you have strong finger nails, and in no time your clouds of foliage will start shaping very smartly indeed.

Nursery Trees:

Good nursery trees are very rare. Trunk diameters are normally 1cm - 4cm. Trees are usually tall with virtually no taper at all. I have cut trees of one meter plus, down to 15cm without any problems, but it would probably be better to shorten the tree in stages. If possible cut to a side branch and wire this up to form the new apex. What I do next is to let the new apex run wild so that I can get some taper into the trunk. After it has reached about pencil thickness, I prune back hard once more. If you have fed well the little olive will respond with multiple shoots all over the trunk. Select those best suited to the style you anticipate and prune the rest. Seal all but the smallest of scars to aid healing. Wire branches down at an early stage as they set quickly. Watch the wire daily if possible because it bites in very quickly. It has been my experience t hat wire marks don't grow out. In severe cases it might be best to cut the offending branch off and start all over again. Keep the top growth in check so that the bottom branches get a chance to catch up. Keep on feeding, alternating between Seagro and 2-3-2 or something similar.

Young nursery trees do not have as much stored food and energy as do their collected cousins and therefore one should take a little more care when re-potting them. Reduce the root-ball in stages over the next three years. Again, leave the tree in a big pot as long as possible and you will see much quicker results. The best time to re-pot is from late spring to summer. Let the tree tell you, if it is growing strong and looks healthy, re-pot it. I have used vitamin B1 and B12 with great success especially on my collected trees. Brands that I have used are Thiamine Hydrochloride injection fluid and Cytacon tablets. A few drops per small spray can is sufficient. The tablets I usually crush with a pair of pliers and soak well into the soil. This is an anti-shock treatment and wont harm the tree in any way.

Grow your olives in full sun if possible, the leaves will turn a beautiful dark green. With constant pruning and nipping the leaves will reduce almost beyond recognition; some of my large trees have leaves only a few millimeters long. Olives can be trained in all of the upright styles, occasionally one would find one that lends itself to be trained in the Cascading styles.

Olives prefer medium to deep pots. Unglazed pots in brown, red and grey earthy tones look best. In glazed pots I prefer cobalt blue and perhaps some earthy mottled grey or brown.

So what do you look for when you go to a nursery? Find a tree with a good display of surface roots. If you plan on bending the trunk you would be better off with a thin one. If you prefer the thicker trees, pick one with an interesting feature because once the tree has reached a diameter of about 3cm, it is not easily bent.

I hope you find the olive as desirable as I have. The positive features outweigh the negative ones by far.

Remember that cuttings strike well in course sand and in gravel.

Good hunting!

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Distant mountain heights...

Lonely trees clinging...

In the hollow of my hand

Random Bonsai Tip

You can bend thick, hardened branches by undercutting. A wedge is cut underneath where the bend is needed and then the branch is eased down anw wired into place. Thick, coarse branches could also be removed completely and replaced with new branches by thread grafting or approach grafting