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History of Bonsai in South Africa

Before 1965, Bonsai in South Africa was practiced as a hobby by a handful of enthusiasts, with little or no access to the literature available today.  It was only around 1979, that  few of the early artists took the lead and established workshops and societies tat allowed for the the rapid expansion and interest in bonsai as a legitimate art form.


Becky Lucas should probably be recognised as the orginator of organised Bonsai in South Africa.  In 1967 -- As a Supplement to Farmer's Weekly, Bloemfontein, there was published Capel Hemy's 20 page "How to Grow Miniature Trees, Full instructions for practising the ancient art of BONSAI".  With 17 photographs and seven line drawings, it provided the first detailed in-print instructions in the country.  It featured some info on Becky Lucas, who was the Grand Dame of bonsai in South Africa.  Bonsai had first become popular in that country in the 1960's, mainly through the efforts of Mrs. Lucas of St. James, Cape Town, who had already been growing bonsai since 1939. 


Becky and her husband were on a visit to Japan in 1954 when she became engrossed in the culture of bonsai.  So interested was she that she went back to Japan in 1957 where she spent a year or two taking classes with Japanese masters.  When she returned to South Africa, she practiced the art of bonsai and started to teach other people.  She was extremely enthusiastic and passed this enthusiasm onto potential bonsai growers.  The South African Bonsai Society was founded in Cape Town in 1960, with Becky as the main driving force.  Meetings were held at her home in Boyes Drive in St James.  True to the Japanese culture she was very disciplined in her approach to bonsai and expected the same from all the members.   

Click here to read more about Becky Lewis.

At the very beginning bonsai was mostly seen as a curiosity,  and the road to transforming perceptions of bonsai from images of "cute  little trees" to well designed, aesthically pleasing horticultural works of art, that could compete successfully with the world's best was a long and rewarding one.  In the early 1980's , organised bonsai in South Africa took hold, and started to impact on a global level.  

Distinct features of bonsai grown in the pre - 1980 era in South Africa were their small size, most well below 30cm, and the target species, mostly acacia, white stinkwood and a few juniper varieties. Material was mainly propagated from seeds or cuttings or obtained from nurseries.  Styling was limited, mostly determined by pruning alone, with trees commonly left to grown into more natural shapes.  The emphasis was on the dwarfed look rather than the classical elements of bonsai design.  Until 1979, bonsai instructors and growers in South Africa were mainly self taught.  Reference material only existed in pictures or drawings of Japanese trees and in te first hand accounts of the fortunate few that had the opportunity to travel to Japan.  Being isolated from the stricter rules of  Japanese bonsai stylings , a few growers became adventurous, and a greater variety of material was introduced and the styling potential of indigenous trees was explored extensively.  Wild olive and several varieties of wild fig became features in almost every local bonsai collection.

In the scope of fifty years, South African Bonsai has proudly taken its place alongside some of the best in the world.  Today, many artists in our country boast trees that are on par with international artists.  High quality bonsai exhibitions are presented regularly in almost every city in the country, providing view pleasure to fellow artists and the general public alike.

Charles Ceronio started growing bonsai in 1968. He was a founder member of Pretoria Bonsai Kai in South Africa . He attended many local and international conventions, giving demonstrations and representing, South African Bonsai. He served as Chairman of South African bonsai association. Charles is well known throughout the world for his bonsai teaching and his book on Bonsai Styles of the World. This a classic book that deserves a spot in every bonsai lover's library and is considered a benchmark publishing.  This group of 50 Celtis sinensis trees received a golden award from the China Bonsai Convention in 2009.
They are planted on a selfmade container by Charles [1.20 cm in length]The photo was taken by two of Nederland's outstanding photographers namely Sjoerd Knibbeler and Rob Wetzner from Amsterdam.   


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Rudi Adams is one of the foremost names in South African bonsai and authored "Master Bonsai, a Practical and Inspirational Guide", an acknowledged  and widely respected bonsai expert, Rudi first started bonsai in 1970 when he joined the Cape Bonsai Kai.  In over a decade he accumulated approximately 90 awards for his trees from various international exhibitions, from a collection that he build up of hundreds of trees, many of which can be seen in his book.  

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, he went to a bonsai show at Kirstenbosch gardens and immediately joined a bonsai club.  Read more 

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