How about indigenous?

by Adam Harrower

I'm sure that all have heard it said that we , in the Western Cape, live in one of the six floristic kingdoms of the world, I can not emphasize enough how true this is and how blessed we are. Studying Botany at UCT, has brought me face to face with this tremendous wealth of beauty and diversity, which is matched in very few other places on the planet. The other thing is that South Africa has such a variety of flora types, ranging from the fynbos to forest to grassland etc., which is echoed in the diversity of species. In terms of bonsai use, we have been relatively biased towards exotic plants, probably because most of the literature on bonsai is from overseas and deals with tried and tested species that are sure to be fail-proof. The problem is that many of these species are often difficult, if not impossible, to get hold of and often do not like our climate so we need to look to the next best option, which in our case happens to be an extremely good one - our indigenous plant material.

The Japanese for example have nowhere nearly as many indigenous trees as we do and yet they manage to tame unruly pines and the like into exquisite bonsai. Sure it's great to have a few pines in your collection but we needn't battle with difficult species like this when we have so many indigenous trees to choose from. There is a trade off, however, in that experimenting with new material can result in a lot of wasted time and effort if that particular species turns out to be a dud, but this seldom happens if you choose your species carefully looking for the right characteristics. So, if you have the space and are willing to give it a bash, why not? You may discover a gem that makes fantastic bonsai - how rewarding! We've all seen some tremendous things that have been done with some of our indigenous plants already.

Essentially what I have done for easy reference, is create a list of some of the indigenous plant species that could be and are used in bonsai cultivation and I've described some of their good and bad points.


A superb choice for bonsai. Leaves reduce well. Usually have lovely bark and flowers. Many species to choose from: A. karoo, A. erioloba, A. robusta, A. sieberana, A. tortilis, A. burkei, A. erubescens, A. galpinii, A. gerrardi, A. ataxacantha and A nigrescens. Could be many more! However, don't bother with A. schweinfurthii.

Adansonia digitata

The baobab is not often used for bonsai but it can make a nice tree if well maintained. Very difficult in Cape T own though, due to the wet climate; needs to be quite a large specimen as growth is quite coarse and leaves are not small. Easy to grow from seed.


The only species I know of that is used for bonsai is B. saligna, but there may be others. Makes a fantastic bonsai; best to collect mature material though; very fine ramification of branches and leaves reduce very well. Also try B. salvifolia.

Bauhinia natalensis

Again a fantastic specimen; very small bilobed leaves and fragrant white flowers. Makes nice shohin; prone to die back though. Another species to try is B. tomentosa which has yellow flowers.

Buxus macowanii

Boxwood - similar to the exotic B. sempervirens except the leaves are much smaller and the growth is much slower and compact; I have never seen it used but I think it would make a great bonsai, especially shohin. Difficult to find although I have seen it at Kirstenbosch.

Celtis africana - White Stinkwood

An absolute must, in my opinion our best indigenous plant for bonsai. Leaves reduce well; forms a nice trunk and excellent branch ramification. Makes good shohin as well; easy to grow from seed or an air layering. Other species worth trying are C. gomphophylla, C. mildbraedii and the closely related Trema orientalis.

Coleonema album - Cape May

One of the boegoes, hence very fragrant foliage; makes terrific bonsai; trunk thickens very slowly though - best to collect mature specimens from the wild a week or two after the first winter rains. Makes excellent shohin as well.

Commiphora - Kanniedood / Corkwood

A very interesting tree with a corky trunk and very papery bark. Seldom seen as a bonsai but with many species to choose from has a lot of potential. A good idea for those who struggle with watering!


Quite a few species to choose from; trunk thickens quickly; requires little attention and water; but branches are quite fragile.

Dalbergia armata- Thorny Rope

A much-used tree for bonsai that is very rewarding; not sure of all the species used but should imagine that most of them will work well.

Diospyros whyteana - Wild Coffee

Another gem; lends itself well to bonsai; again quite a slow grower and best to collect. There are many species of Diospyros in SA with D. natalensis. D lycioides and D. glabra (often indistinguishable from Myrtus communis!) having excellent potential. I have encountered others that are equally promising which I have not managed to identify yet. Keep an eye out for this very desirable genus.

Dovyalis caffra - Kei apple

Interesting dioecious tree from the Eastern Cape; not often used in bonsai; growth habit is a bit awkward as are the thorns! ~ not for the faint-hearted but worth a try.

Erythrina caffra - Coral tree

It looks like it would make a good bonsai but needs a lot of perseverance; leaves are very big and the growth habit is coarse. Try this one if you like a challenge!

Ficus - Fig

Another must for any collection; generally grow quickly; leaves reduce well; easy to care for and propagate. Many species to choose from: F natalensis, F burtttdavyi, F craterostoma and F ingens amongst others.

Galpinia transvaalica - Wild Pride of the Transvaal

Another one of my favourites; leaves reduce very well and go a beautiful red in autumn; trunk thickens well and has lovely bark; easy to wire and a vigorous grower. Easy to grow from seed and cuttings.

Grewia occidentalis - Crosssberry

Not used very much in bonsai but I should imagine could be quite promising. There are quite a number of species to choose from, many of which have small leaves; also has lovely light pink flowers.

Ochna - Lekkerbreek

A plant that would seem as if it had a lot of potential as a bonsai but is in fact quite difficult and hence not often used. Again many species to choose from but most common are 0. serrulata and 0. pulchra. Give these two a try and see if you have any success.

Olea - Olive

Need I say anything at all! A fine specimen for bonsai if not our best! Usually collected for their lovely trunks; leaves as well as internodes reduce remarkably well; lends itself nicely to carving; very tough. Species used: 0. europaea subsp. africana, 0. exasperata, 0. capensis and 0. woodiana.

Phylica buxifolia

A plant from the fynbos which would seem to have a lot of potential as a bonsai; gets quite a thick trunk; has small leaves with short internodes; quite common on Table mountain; keep an eye out for it.

Podocarpus - Yellowood

One of only two indigenous conifers! ~ the only species worth trying is P. falcatus as the leaves of the others are too long; the tree needs to be quite big as the growth habit is quite coarse; definitely worth a try.

Portulacaria afra - Spekboom

Another succulent species like the crassula that is very underused; very easy to maintain and very drought resistant; trunk thickens very well; needs constant thinning. Produces lovely fine pink flowers in late spring.


Many species of this trifoliate plant in SA but very seldom used - strange because it makes fantastic bonsai; very common in the wild and easy to collect; quite tough; there are many species to choose from but R. undulata is especially good.

Schotia - Boerboon

A compound leafed tree sometimes grown as bonsai; trunks thicken quickly, they grow vigorously and are very tough especially with regard to drought; big leaves can be problem though and secondary branches are difficult to obtain; transplanting is also a bit tricky. Most common species are S. brachypetala and S. afra (small leaves and will do nicely as a small tree).

Widdringtonia cedarbergensis - Clanwilliam cedar

The other indigenous conifer and after which the Cedarberg is named. This lovely tree is very similar in leaf shape and nature to a cypress; is a vigorous grower but transplanting is a bit of a problem. W. bergensis and W. schwarzii are both too rare to collect from the wild, but W. nodiflora, which doesn't grow very tall, could make excellent multiitrunk plantings; easy to grow from seed.

Myrsine africana - A definite no-no.

At first glance it looks like it would make a fine bonsai but on closer inspection you will notice that the 'trunk' never gets thicker than that of a pencil.

Other things to avoid are: obviously plants with big &/or compound leaves; things like Ericas and other similar fynbos plants, as they have a limited life expectancy and don't like their roots disturbed; also plants with trunks that do not thicken much.

Essentially the converse is true for desirable species i.e. plants with small leaves and internodes with the potential to obtain relatively thick trunks. The best places to look for these species are usually in forested areas like on the slopes of mountains and along the South and East coasts. The Kirstenbosch nursery, the annual plant sale and other nurseries specialising in indigenous plants are good places to look as well. These places often get in weird and wonderful plants from all over the country.

South Africa has about 1700 indigenous tree species and we have only skimmed the surface with a handful in this article. Just imagine how many other gems are out there waiting to be discovered! I've found that the best way to find new material is just to keep my eyes open where ever I go, like during hikes in the mountain or walks through the forest and especially on trips to other parts of the country. I would encourage you all to do the same and try your hand at more of our indigenous material so that we can show the rest of the world what beautiful flora we've been blessed with and what fantastic bonsai we can create out of them. Happy hunting!

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Maple leaves turning

red-gold in the Autumn sun

falling..... falling..... gone

Random Bonsai Tip

To thicken thin branches make a cut just below the branch or a bud on the branch. The sugars produced in the leaves of the tree move down to the roots through the phloem, this flow of sap is interrupted by the cut and the accumulation of sugars above the cut increases the vigour as it is used by the bud, forcing it into action. As soon as the wound heals the normal sap flow resumes.