A brief history of Bonsai in South Africa

by Lionel Theron

Visitors to the Empire Exhibition in South Africa in 1936 were astounded to see a display of miniature trees from Japan called Bonsai. People who saw these trees still talk about them...

As far as I can ascertain the two earliest serious growers of bonsai in this country were Mrs Becky Lucas and Doug Hall.

Becky Lucas and her husband were on a visit to Japan in about 1954 when she became engrossed in the culture of bonsai. So interested was she that she went back to Japan where she spent a year or two taking classes with Japanese masters. She returned to South Africa and continued practicing her art. In 1961 she founded the Bonsai Society of South Africa in Cape Town and soon thereafter traveled throughout the country establishing branches of the Society.

The late Becky Lucas' collection of bonsai is now housed at the Botanical Garden, University of Stellenbosch, where it may be viewed.

In the meantime in about 1955 Doug Hall in Johannesburg met Dr Steven Timm who was a graduate of Rhodes University, a South African of Chinese extraction working at the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens in the USA. Dr Timm gave Doug an English translation of a book entitled 'Bonsai' by Norio Kabayashi. Using this book as a guide Doug started his bonsai culture. The Transvaal Bonsai Kai was started in about 1959.

In the Transvaal the Eastern Bonsai Society was started in 1970 and since then numerous clubs have been formed throughout the country. There is even a 'Ladies Club' which meets on Monday mornings.

In late 1969 or early 1970 the Cape Bonsai Kai was founded. Amongst the founder members were:

  • Peter Hattingh who had trained as a horticulturist at Longwood Gardens in the United States of America and where a renowned bonsai collection is kept and maintained by Japanese Masters. Peter took classes at Longwood from these masters.
  • Bob Richards was in Japan during the Korean war and became engrossed in the culture of bonsai after seeing the collection in the Emperor's gardens in 1951.
  • Phil Alden is an American and was in the armed forces and stationed in Japan for many years after the war. He studied Ikebana and Bonsai with various masters and continued to practice these arts on his return to the USA and also when he came to live in South Africa. Phil and Ella have returned to San Antonio, Texas.
  • Bernard Coetzee was also a founder member and is well known in bonsai circles. He gave classes and sold bonsai as far back as 1970, possibly before that even.

Several bonsai Masters of international repute have visited South Africa from as early as 1969, amongst whom were John Naka, Melba Tucker, Shigeo Kato and Ben Oki.

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Right at my feet -

and when did you get here,

snail? ~ Issa

Random Bonsai Tip

Straightening training wire - For those who don't know and for those who have forgotten - to straighten training wire that has been removed from a tree, grasp each end of the wire with a pair of pliers and jerk apart. Alternatively, grasping one end of the wire in a vice, and the other with pliers is much more effective as then it is possible to rub the shaft of a screwdriver up and down the wire getting rid of the small bumps.