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Watch: Bonsai boffins take visitors deep inside centuries-old craft

Bonsai boffin Neil Holley trims a miniature paperbark tree in preparation for next weekend’s bonsai show in Durban North. Shelley Kjonstad/African News Agency (ANA)

Bonsai boffin Neil Holley trims a miniature paperbark tree in preparation for next weekend’s bonsai show in Durban North. Shelley Kjonstad/African News Agency (ANA)

Published Nov 6, 2021


Fundis will be on hand to offer tips on bonsai growing at the Bonsai Society’s annual show in Durban North next weekend.

One of them will be Gillitts bonsai enthusiast Neil Holley, who spoke to the Independent on Saturday as he tended to a miniature paperbark tree growing from a piece of trunk collected in the wild.

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Classic bonsai trees in the Far East where the art began, he explained, are trimmed to have a triangular shape with an apex to make it easy for snow to fall off them rather than gather on their branches, causing them to collapse.

“But here in Africa the classic shape is how they appear in the wild, usually with large crowns to absorb maximum photosynthesis.”

The art of Yamadori means “collected in the mountains” in Japanese.

But not all bonsais have such roots.

Two white stinkwood trees that Holley bought from a nursery years ago stand on his property not far from one another. One, standing tall, grows out of the ground with large leaves. The other, tiny, is a bonsai in a pot and has tiny leaves.

Flowers and fruit of bonsai plants are the same size as those on the large versions.

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“The leaves reduce in size because of the roots,” noted fellow bonsai grower Shaun Murphy. “But the fruit and flowers stay the normal size.”

Maintenance requires one to keep the number of flowers in check.

“Too much fruit can kill a (bonsai) tree,” he said.

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The two men call their hobby “a living art form”, changing every day and improving with age.

The classic Durban bonsai is a fig, often grown from specimens that grow destructively in buildings and infrastructure or in the bush in harsh conditions.

“Once they grow in soil in a pot, they love it.”

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The bonsai growers say they gather yamadori only in compliance with the law and are reluctant to divulge any details about where they find their specimens. In the case of Holley’s paperbark, he’s only willing to divulge as much as “in the (former) Transkei” back in 2004.

While he’s always had a love for trees in the bush, it was the pots that got him hooked on bonsai.

“I once drove my son back from university in Pretoria and we broke down, having to spend the night on the side of the N3. Somebody had asked me to bring a load of bonsai pots down and I spent the whole night looking at them.”

Next weekend the Durban Bonsai Society will be holding its annual show again at the Durban North Lions Club, at the c

orner of Uitsig and Prospect Hall Roads (behind Pick n Pay Hyper), from 9am to 3pm on Saturday and from 9am to 1pm on Sunday.

The show will include a large display of mature bonsai trees, with demonstrations and talks by seasoned growers.

There will be sales tables with mature and starter trees and members will be on hand to guide the public on any purchases.

“Another feature will be the bonsai clinic, where people can bring their own trees to the show for one-on-one advice from experts,” said Holley.

Entrance will cost R20 for adults and half price for pensioners. Children under 12 will be allowed in free.

The Independent on Saturday

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