As far back as 1 200 years ago, the Japanese people learnt of the intriguing Chinese practice of penzai, (also known as penjing) in which, through limiting the growth of plants, they were able to imitate nature in miniature form. Japanese horticulturalists would go on to reinterpret the tradition and seamlessly thread it into their own cultural and visual ideals, eventually turning bonsai into the internationally respected art form that it is today.
The word ‘bonsai’ comprises a pair of Japanese characters that translate to ‘plant in a container’ – a tree or shrub cultivated in a pot and made to look like a dwarfed mature version (usually less than 1m in height) through the use of horticultural and aesthetic training techniques. The result is an artistic marriage of visual harmony and botanical wellbeing.
Henk Swanepoel of Bonsai Studio at Johannesburg’s 44 Stanley Avenue in Milpark became fascinated with the diminutive art form when he saw a TV show about it in his teens. It inspired his first bonsai efforts, which involved bloudraat (hard industrial wire), a pair of secateurs and his mother’s rose bush. ‘The rose bush obviously isn’t alive any more,’ he laughs. Now, at the age of 50, Swanepoel has started a new venture dedicated to reimagining the ancient practice in a more urban way, as he spends his time publically shaping and pruning his tiny living beauties in the middle of a busy thoroughfare in an industrial commercial space in the heart of the city.
‘It’s not my intention to change bonsai, or try to reinvent it. That’s not the idea at all. I just want to urbanise it: I’d like to see a bonsai on everyone’s little patio or the balcony outside their flats.’
Swanepoel is enthusiastic about imparting his knowledge to others, and shares some pointers for bonsai beginners:
When building a bonsai collection from scratch, it’s always wise to start off with indigenous trees because they are already acclimatised and can endure an extra level of coaxing. ‘Go with a monkey thorn (Acacia galpinii),’ says Swanepoel. ‘They’re tough and you can cut their roots to death, and they won’t die – at least, not easily.’
From there, move on to more exotic and adventurous territory with Chinese elms (Ulmus parvifolia) or maples (Acer buergerianum). When you really get going, you can graduate to trees that are known to be quite fickle, such as the snow rose (Serissa foetida), where every cut is crucial – if you get it wrong, it could turn out poorly for the tree. But according to Swanepoel, seeing how far you can push nature is all part of the challenge.
There is a misconception that a level of heartlessness is needed to stunt a tree’s growth in order to create beauty on such a small scale. ‘I don’t want to be cruel,’ says Swanepoel, ‘but if you want magnificent bonsais, you have to be a little aggressive.’
The main aim of bonsai, like any potted plant, is to grow and maintain the tree in good health, even in restrained conditions. But through aggressive techniques related to shaping and root pruning, you’re able to get the most out of your charges. Defoliating new leaf growth in spring is a common practice. When you clip the new leaves at the petiole (the thin stalk that connects a leaf to the plant stem), the tree responds by producing up to twice the number of leaves at half the size. These smaller leaves help carry the miniature aesthetic.
twist and shout
Half the enjoyment of bonsai is the scope of interesting shapes into which trees can be guided. Through the use of training wire or systemically cutting the branches, you can encourage and give tree forms added dimension. Although there are typically five basic bonsai styles – formal upright; informal upright; slanting (or windswept); semi-cascade; and cascade – Swanepoel encourages you to have fun while generating the desired effect.
‘You can create any shape you want, but I wouldn’t say there is a right or a wrong way. Although, if you go to a bonsai show, the judges might throw you out,’ jokes Swanepoel. ‘For me, it’s about having fun with the tree and not worrying so much about the rules. Just learn about its characteristics and how to grow it.’
patience is a virtue
‘The first thing people do is bring me trees grown from seed and planted the year before and say, “Please turn this into a bonsai”. You have to give the tree a chance – at least a few years,’ says Swanepoel.
Bonsai is by and large a living act of patience. It is a practice that encourages enthusiasts to take time with nature and to cultivate a slow, calm connection with the tree – and thus, with themselves. As Zen as it may sound, all good things take time and there are no shortcuts. This horticultural pastime is a pleasant form of living art that can elicit a deep sense of satisfaction and, like all good art, bonsai endures.