South African bonsai

by Gail Theron

We are very fortunate in South Africa to have many varieties of trees and shrubs ideally suited to the culture of Bonsai. Over the past 17 years I have worked with many of them but the three which have inspired me and which I have enjoyed the most are Celtis africana (White Stinkwood) Diospyros whyteana (Wild Coffee or Bladder Nut) and Coleonema Album (Cape May).

Celtis Africana

This is a deciduous tree growing to about 15m. It has ovate, furry soft green leaves and a greyish bark. The tree grows under very diverse conditions, along rivers, in forests and on bare koppies. Celtis are extremely versatile and over the years I have created several forests, a slab planting, a hollow trunk, leaning trunk, upright and informal upright, and many Shohin. Recently I have even attempted three 'no-no 's' - Literati Cascade and windswept. Theoretically these styles should be reserved for evergreen material. I have not been able to collect any Celtis from the wild and thus all my material has been ex- nursery stock.

As Bonsai Celtis require just a little extra care in choosing the position where they are to grow. Part of their beauty is in their soft delicate foliage and in order to keep this foliage in prime condition they should be protected from the wind and not exposed to full sun. They enjoy a copious supply of water and are gross feeders, enjoying frequent small doses of fertilizer. I use a wide range of fertilizers to make sure the trees have a balanced diet. If you pay attention to these details you will not have brown-edged leaves in summer or die-back of branches in winter. Prorogation can be from seed, cuttings; root cuttings are extremely easy but the most rewarding method is air-layering. Roots are formed within 6-8 weeks if done in early summer and after the branch is removed from the parent plant the tree develops a very interesting base.

For the beginner this is a responsive subject as a mature tree can be turned into a Bonsai in a relatively short time provided it is left to establish in a big container with all its roots intact. It sprouts out readily on hard wood and branches develop well with correct feeding. Direction can be achieved either by pruning or wiring. For the more advanced grower the development of that very fine ramification of branches so attractive in the bare Celtis is a real labor of love and a goal worth striving for. To achieve this, winter should be meticulously done, trimming each branchlet back to one or two eyes. In summer the tree should be well fed and after a spurt of growth all branch lets should be trimmed back to one or two leaves. This procedure should be repeated throughout the growing season. Reduction in leaf size is very rewarding.

Coleonema Album

This is one of the many fynbos indigenous to the South Western Cape. it grows to a height of 1m and is evergreen with very small aromatic leaves. In Spring it is covered with tiny white flowers. It is very versatile as far as styles are concerned and is ideal for saikei. In my collection I have a cascade, semi-cascade, sprout style, multi-trunk slab planting, informal upright and numerous Shohin. It sprouts very well on hard wood and does not object to being wired, but I prefer to use directional pruning where possible. It can stand in a position of full sun and is tolerant to wind. If you want the coleonema to flower, it should be well fed, and pruned no later than February, when it will flower in September. After this it should be well shaped and fed again.

Propagation can be from cuttings, ground layering's or seed. Young plants are readily available at nurseries. A ridiculous situation existed a few years ago when the only Cape May available commercially here were those transported from Malanseuns in Pretoria.

I am fortunate in that my Bonsai shed seeds onto the gravel on my benches and this gives me many "volunteers."

Diospyros Whyteana

This is a member of the Ebony family and grows as a shrub or small tree. It is found in scrub forest on mountain slopes and among rocks from the peninsula up to the Transvaal. I really enjoy my Diospyros as in Spring they are covered with new pinkish foliage which then turns dark glossy green in summer. The very distinctive fruit first looks like a Cape Gooseberry. Inside is an ovoid fruit 1,5cm long which turns bright red when ripe.

Another distinctive feature of the Diospyros is the dead wood which is black, giving a tree with Jins and Sharis the appearance of being ravaged by fire.

Diospyros are easy to grow, preferring semi-shade conditions with a well balanced feeding programme. They lend themselves to virtually any style.

A close relation, Diospyros lycioides also makes a good subject, having pale furry leaves and orange fruit.

We are truly fortunate in having such a rich heritage of plant material to choose from for this fascinating hobby of ours.

Visit Bishopsford Bonsai Nurseries webpage