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Azalea as Bonsai

by Gerrit Vroom

Each year with Christmas, you wish yourself a real, classic bonsai. You know .... , with a fat base, good roots, nice sturdy trunk, good left and right branches, with dense. well spaced foliage, topped by a nice tapering apex. Ha! To own a tree like that, what happiness! Or to have one of those awe-inspiring blocks of dead wood, with a live clinging branch sticking out here and there like hairs on a balding head. What a conversation piece! "How old is this tree?" "Did you dig it out in the wilds?" "Was it like this when you found it?"

"Yes, I saved it from certain death."(The owner spent hours, sweating in the garage, armed with power saw and drill on the poor olive). As sure as God made little apples and human beings created bonsai, these aforementioned trees carry away the prizes at bonsai shows. When I enter my modest bonsai, the prize of my backyard, at the annual show, I feel like the owner of an ordinary "house-lappies," cat at a pedigree cat show. Perhaps this Christmas.

However do not despair folks. It is possible to have a tree for which you do not have to wait till Christmas or have to go on a back-breaking, dangerous safari into the wild koppies of darkest Africa. I refer to the AZALEA (Rhododendron). Azaleas do not grow wild in Southern Africa, all specimens were originally imported. The countries of origin are mostly located in South East Asia.

In my opinion, of all the specimens in this group, the Azalea kurume is the best choice for bonsai. The kurume originates from Japan. The leaves and flowers are small and when in bloom, the tree is densely covered in flowers - a beautiful sight indeed. The colours vary from white to pink, mauve, scarlet, salmon, red. Experienced growers graft different colours on one' tree, which must make a spectacular effect. I have never seen such trees, only read about it. The use of Azalea for bonsai is very old. Some historians maintain that it is the oldest form of bonsai. Azalea bonsai of an age of a hundred years or older are not rare in Eastern collections. To obtain Azalea kurume in Cape Town. you need two things. Firstly a good nursery which stocks this variety and secondly cash money or a valid credit card.

Having found a reasonable tree at a reasonable price, do not plant it in a bonsai pot straightaway. I recommend that you carefully remove the nursery soil from the plant, do not cut the roots yet, prune the branches into the rough shape you wish your bonsai to take and replant the tree in one of those large plastic nursery pots with plenty of room. Most nurseries stock a special azalea soil which I found very good. It is a coarse mixture of river sand, peat and pine needles and it has a low pH value. Keep the azalea in this pot for at least a year. After flowering which takes place in July/August prune the tree heavily (otherwise no flowers for next year). Replant the tree into a bonsai pot, take care not to cut away more than 1/3 of the roots. Azaleas do not like much interference with their root system.

Azaleas have the habit of growing heavy lower branches at the cost of the top branches. At budding time (May/ June) it is best to remove all the buds from the top branches, partly from the middle branches and leave all the buds on the lower branches. This will strengthen the top of the tree. Too many flowers at the top may kill this part. Wiring should be done at pruning time. however, be very careful. The branches are brittle and sensitive, the trunk is marked very easily. Remove the wire after a couple of weeks.

Azaleas may be trained in all styles, but it is a slow growing tree and it may prove to be a long procedure to train into the more difficult of the five basic styles. A broom like style seems the easiest and fastest method, especially for a beginner.

Do not plant your tree in a dull coloured, unglazed pot. A glazed blue. white, green or yellow pot will display a flowering azalea at its best.

Fertilize your azalea regularly with liquid fertilizers as you do your other bonsai, but do NOT fertilize while it is flowering. Since the rootlets of the tree approach the surface of the soil, it is advisable to have the surface covered with moss or gravel for protection. Azaleas like light, not too strong sunlight and a moist soil, so water well.

The pest which really likes to live in azaleas is the red spider mite, and if not checked, will kill it. Spraying with an insecticide for red spider mite (available at all nurseries) is effective, but you must repeat the procedure after 4-5 days.

The great attraction Azalea kurume has for the beginner is its beauty and charm when in flower. Your azalea may not be a classical style bonsai, but when in bloom, any azalea in any style is a feast for the eye. A healthy azalea bonsai will flower for weeks and will give you pleasure and satisfaction.

The only drawback for us Cape Kai members is, that at the time of our annual show in December, the azalea is not in flower and not at its best. What a pity. I remember a show held in the Good Hope Centre in July a couple of years ago. Dan Smit displayed an azalea in full bloom. It proved to be the main attraction of that show and believe me, that we displayed some of the top bonsai in the country. A case of the "lappies cat" running away with the prize.

Perhaps with this year's Christmas I wish myself a nice Azalea kurume.

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Tree stabilizers - Sew cotton/canvas tubes or use plastic shopping bags partly fill with sand and use as stabilizers when transporting trees by car.