Gallery: The slow art of bonsai
Cape Town - This is the most famous tree in South Africa, says Rudi Adam, twirling a bonsai on a turntable. “It has three fronts. This is the Japanese front; it must be friendly, no branches are poking out at you and the focal point is the middle of the tree. This is the Chinese front; see the family – the grandparents below, the children and the grandchildren on top. The European front is like a flower arrangement.”
The wild olive bonsai is a big one, although I’m told that size is not important in this art, rather balance and aesthetic appeal. This tree is about 150 years old, estimates Adam; he “stole” it, that is, dug it up and has been working on it for 19 years.
And so begins our tour of Adam’s bonsai collection of about 150 trees in his garden adjacent to his nursery at the Olive Grove Bonsai Centre.
Adam is a master at bonsai, and has been working on his art for 43 years. It’s a privilege to spend a few hours with him as he explains what bonsai is all about, with a sparkle in his eye and a sense of humour as he takes us through his trees. Bonsai means “tree in a container”.
His fascination began when as a schoolboy in Vienna he would pass by a furniture store every day, seeing a tree in the window.
“It never changed, and I asked what it was and they told me, a bonsai. I liked it.”
It took many years, and disasters in which he lost his entire collection of 3 000 tropical fish, twice, before he turned his attention to bonsai. After losing his fish “I was getting on my wife’s nerves”, he says. “And then I went to a bonsai show at Kirstenbosch, joined a club and that was it.”
Bonsais need as much care as pets, he says. Each tree has to be watered – not too much, not too little; pruned, both roots and branches; and transplanted when they outgrow their containers.
Bonsai is an art form. Although there may be many rules in the bonsai world, Adam advises that people treat them as guidelines only.
“There are artists and there are artisans. The artisan replicates the form, and there’s nothing wrong with that; the artist breaks the rules but it must still look good. Then there is the collector, who collects the art, and the fancier, the public who admires them but doesn’t keep any.”
Fixed rules take the art out of the art of Bonsai, says Adam, which doesn’t mean they are not necessary to instill the knowledge of asymmetry, foreign to our culture, into the bonsai learner. And as you gain experience, these rules come in handy when faced with choices.
“I created all my trees,” he says, starting with a pine back in 1970, when he joined the breakaway Cape Bonsai Kai. “I was its first paid-up member,” says Adam. He wanted to plant his pine on a rock, and it took a whole Saturday to prepare it. “I told my teacher – this is the last one I do.”
Famous last words.
Adam has trees of every style: single trunks - formal (straight up), informal, leaning , semi-cascades, and full cascade; then there are the twin trunks. He grows them on rocks or in containers which are an important part of the bonsai aesthetic.
He also has forests, which take my fancy. One of his trees, growing on a moss-covered rock, makes me want to sit under the canopy with a book. That is the Japanese style, he says, inviting you in; the Chinese style would be to place a figure there. Trunks are as important as the branches in bonsai, and often draw the attention, gnarled and twisted or smooth and elegant.
Adam’s collection includes many maples, both Chinese and Japanese (with their fine red leaves); wild figs including bush figs and Natal figs; Junipers, wild olives, cedars of various kinds, pines and some which combine two species. “We call it a Phoenix graft,” he says showing us a Juniper that is grafted on to a wild olive wood. “Yes, we are ‘cheating’. We work perspective in. The base must be stable and taper up. You manipulate the tree to look younger or older. We roughen up the bark, hit it with a wire brush; or we paper it off to be smooth. Smooth bark is considered feminine, rough bark masculine.” The tree is also trained to grow in a certain direction and pruned of branches that do not fit the design.
“Artists make things which are supposed to look like something else, which is why they’re called artists,” he says. “However, unlike art, where the artist decides when it is finished, bonsai is never finished. It is a living art form.”
There is now an African style, the baobab style. Baobabs don’t grow in the Western Cape climate, so the style is a “baobab look”; an example is a wild olive trained into a baobab style.
“The more mature a tree is, the more there is to look at, to engage with, he says. “The older it looks, the more valuable. We leave dead pieces in to make it look older.”
There is no such thing as a bonsai seed. There are only young plants, and you choose a plant a few years old so you can see what it’s going to do.
“You’re in charge, and while the tree dictates to you, you need to take his ability into account. A poplar won’t cascade. The tree has something to say, you have to understand each species,” says Adam.
Some species are more suited to bonsai. To be a bonsai it must be able to be top pruned, and root pruned. That’s why most fynbos plants cannot be made into bonsai, he explains.
Care involves pruning it every second or third year, depending on its size – if the pot fits in one hand, prune every year; in two hands, every second year, big pots every four years.
Adam has been teaching bonsai growing for years; his book Master Bonsai, a Practical and Inspirational Guide (Metz) has recently been published and he’ll be exhibiting at Kirstenbosch later this month.
“I haven’t yet selected which trees will be on show.
“I have no favourite tree, today it’s different from tomorrow.”
* The Cape Bonsai Kai is having a show at Kirstenbosch from December 14 to 16, from 9am to 5pm at the Sanlam Hall, gate 2. - Cape Argus