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Durban National Bonsai Convention November 2023 by Viky Petermann

Traveling to Bonsai conventions in other parts of the country offers you not only acquiring new bonsai knowledge and enjoying the different local tree species on offer at the shows but also the experience of making new friendships and of spending time with old friends.

All of this while talking bonsai non-stop for a whole weekend!

Last weekend I travelled to Durban where the headliners were to be Cape Town’s very own Brett Simon and Stefan Pretorius from Heidelberg alongside a selection of long-time bonsai pioneers from the local clubs. I stayed with Gary Howes and got blown away by the variety of local species in his collection as well as by his love of exploring how best to develop them as bonsai. His bonsai collection is unique and very exciting. Gary, thank you for your very generous hospitality!

At the convention, watching the senior and the new growers demonstrating alongside each other made me so very aware of how far Bonsai has progressed in this country in the last couple of decades! Long gone are the days where the audience sat entranced absorbing small titbits from the presenters without questioning the validity of their offerings, the world has become smaller, and information of very high quality is easy to access on the internet.

Contemporary bonsai growers, want to grow, change and develop quickly and are happy to travel to conventions to gain knowledge of species relevant to their country.

The convention started with Shaun Murphy working on a large Ficus Natalensis.

The 15-year-old tree had a big trunk which was developed in a large container with roots allowed to grow into the ground to ensure thickening of the trunk got pruned and wired into a windswept style.

The next presenter was Stefan Pretorius from Suikerbos Bonsai Kai in Heidelberg.

He created a Buddleja Saikei with distant mountains. He explained that when making Saikei we need to consider perspective, in other words, the relationship between the rocks and the trees first. He then placed Pelindaba rocks in the rear of his tray to create a far distant view of mountains with them. He explained that care needs to be taken to match the direction of the strata in the rocks for harmony and to give a natural feeling to the landscape.

The trees he used were old, grown a long time in a pot and had beautiful slender trunks that showed their age. He explained that Buddleja do not like acid soil. The media he uses is one part each of gravel, compost, charcoal and agricultural lime.

He took great care when placing the first and second trees in the composition as he feels they set the scene. His aim was to evoke the feeling of the veld and he tried to incorporate some succulents and elephants in the planting but decided instead to use some moss as grass in the foreground with two zebras grazing.

Concurrent with Stefan’s demo, Schalk van de Merwe a long-time member of the Durban bonsai club attempted to create the South China Sea in a Penjing using recycled materials such as bricks, slate and clinker as well as incorporating water and figurines into the planting. The concept was exciting when presented, and the final product turned out to be very different when viewed at eye level than it was when viewed from above.

Schalk used an oval, deep plastic black pot which had been a shop display sign, where he put a few clinker rock mountains each planted with a small juniper and a clay fisherman figurine. He then attached a pipe to the top of the tallest mountain and to a pump and made water fall to the pot from the tallest peak to the sea where a fishing boat was sailing. He then explained how he would have liked adding some goldfish to the water as it would be fun for kids.

When viewed from eye level, the planting was in my opinion, not really successful as most of the elements were lost within the pot but when viewed from above everything changed and wonderful things happened. I really would have loved seeing the goldfish swim in the sea!

This brought home very clearly how important it is to view bonsai and penjing from the correct viewing angle!

Changing the viewing angle to looking down into the planting from above

After a traditional lunch of mutton biryani and chicken curry, the afternoon began with an interesting talk on Baobab by Scott Bredin, the current chairman of the Durban Bonsai Society.

Scott has been working for a few years now with young trees that he started as cuttings and which he develops in the ground with fast results. Characteristically and as an adaptation to being ring-barked by elephants, Baobabs are multi-trunked, have no taper or even inversed taper, and have deeply grooved trunks that are wider than taller with branches that droop because of their weight and that can develop fine ramification with clip-and-grow technique which have large 5-lobed leaves, so they are best displayed in winter. They have soft, spongy bark with waxy looking fat rolls.

Scott explained that Baobabs don’t thicken in pots but in the ground, they will double in thickness in a year. Cuttings take easily and truncheon cuttings can be done but not as successfully.

Large cuts dry out and they heal from the inside out and can survive ring-barking and fusing trunks together works well. All cuts should be sealed, he uses cold glue for this. The branches are very elastic so conventional wiring doesn’t work well. It is best to wire the branch, then break it and then set it into position. As the break heals the branch will set in place. If you rather use guide wires, then it will take about two years for the branch to set. It is very helpful to use wooden blocks as wedges to separate branches while they set in place.

Baobabs like free draining soil, Scott uses very coarse river sand. The best time to repot them is in August while they are still dormant. If they have a tuber, this is the time to cut it off. Then apply flowers of sulphur powder to the cut to prevent rot. Wait a few days for the cut to dry out before planting the tree. The removal of the tuber will have to be done periodically as it develops.

Org Exley added to the presentation by explaining that young branches can be grafted to the removed tubers. The process is to cut a “V” with a thin saw across the tuber in a couple of places and to insert into the “V” cut thin branches shaped to a point and then taping the area tightly.

It is important to note that lack of water in the growing season can kill them!

To create the classic Baobab shape, when your trunk has reached the desired thickness, flat cut at the spot you want the new shoots to emerge to become the trees’ branches. Seal the cut and let the trunk rot away between the new shoots as they develop into branches.

The lower section of the trunk can then be scared vertically starting at the point between two branches down the length of the trunk to make it look like it has “muscles”. The fibrous sections of the cuts will eventually heal completely, and the bark will be smooth. It is best to do this over 3 or 4 years to let the tree recover.

The new branches, when thick enough can also be pushed and torn apart. Use wooden wedges to keep them in place. The aim here is not to rip them apart but rather to tear the “wood” in the branches so that they can set into their new positions. The best time to carve Baobabs is during their growing season and it is very important to remember to seal the cuts.

A second way to create the traditional Baobab shape is by tying a few trunks tightly together and then letting them grow wild in the ground for 2 or 3 years for them to fuse.

Brett Simon was up next to talk on junipers. We in Cape Town are lucky to be familiar with Brett’s fantastic junipers and what he does to develop them but to the crowd in Durban it was all new information.

Brett spoke about how junipers store their energy in the foliage and that there are two different types of junipers, mounding vs. running, about choosing either potting or styling in a year, not both on the same year and that the best times to do this are spring and, less aggressively in autumn and also, about feeding them specially in autumn.

He then thinned, wired and placed the branches on a beautiful semi cascade juniper of Gary Howes’.

The Saturday closed with the presentation of the following awards by SABA/WBFF Awards:

  • Scott Bredin for the best bonsai tree of display,

  • Shaun Murphy and Arthi Ramrung for receiving the WBFF Awards of Appreciation;

  • The Durban Bonsai for receiving the floating trophy from the World Bonsai Friendship Federation trophy and

  • Sarel Swartz for receiving the African Bonsai Association's Presidents Floating Merit Award "Forbidden Branch".

Also, the results of the New Talent National Competition were announced and the awards presented. Congratulations to all the participants especially the winners:

  • 3rd place: Andre van Niekerk;

  • 2nd place: Hardus Scheepers and

  • 1st place: Johann Raath. Well done to all of you!

Saturday ended with the SABA AGM which got underway after the prize giving ceremony. Thank you to the outgoing Exco for a job well done and congratulations to the new Exco.

Sunday started with Brett giving a wonderful demo on a multi trunk Olive.

His assistants, Gary Howes and Hannes Fritz , wired his tree while he spoke about the different collection methods of olives between the Cape, where collected olives are flat-cut and, Natal where the root ball is preserved and he expressed his feeling that flat cutting olives weakens them in the long term as the new roots that grow are always soft and brittle and often snap when the trees are repotted. He explained the growing media that he uses for Olives, a well-draining open mix. He uses 6 parts pumice, 2 parts LECA and 1-part akadama and spoke about the need to feed the trees following Walter Pall’s advice: ”weekly weakly”.

While Brett worked on his Olive, Farouk Patel, another long-term member of the Durban Bonsai Society spoke about Dalbergias. He explained that the species is a vine and as such they don’t usually have good neabari, but they are easy to collect and even easier to grow from cuttings. He feels that they can be grown in any style from upright to cascade and as single trunk trees or with multi trunks. The tree has thorns that get bigger in size and in number as the plant ages and should not be removed.

All of his Dalbergias are started from cuttings, including truncheon cuttings and even root-cuttings and in his opinion, they are slow to thicken but they develop elegant thin trunks. The branches need to be wired and bent when young as they are not supple when they thicken.

They are best repotted in late winter and kept in shade and away from wind as aftercare. Use an open soil mix. The outside roots need to be combed to allow them to penetrate the new soil more easily. Repotting should be done every 3 to 5 years, depending on the development of the tree, the tree will indicate when it needs repotting by slowing down its growth.

The new foliage is allowed to extend until mature when it is pruned back. He does this a few times in the growing season always allowing the new foliage to mature before pruning it back. This lets the tree maintain vigour while keeping the chosen shape of the canopy. He never prunes them after March. He defoliates in October and in January by pulling the leaves and the stalks off the trees. The leaves reduce in size well by doing this. Wired branches will set in 4 to 6 months and a bit of wire damage in Faruk’s opinion gives the tree character.

The trees are strong apical growers that respond well to trunk cutting as they easily break back from old wood, but they don’t fuse so grafting is not an option. They can cope with cold temperatures but not with frost which will kill them. Gary Howes added to the discussion by explaining that he keeps his Dalbergias in water all summer long. He then demonstrated styling and potting with one of his young trees.

Stefan was up next with a Literati Olive talk and demonstration. He explained that this style does not represent trees in nature but rather it is an artistic representation of trees trying to survive severe growing conditions in the mountains or in rocky places and that the trunk lines emulate the lines of Japanese script.

He summarised the characteristics of literati tress as being elegant and refined, elongated, with few branches that display simplicity and grace and with obvious visual character. He also explained that the best choice of container for this plantings are round organically shaped pots or rocks and slabs.

The last demo took place while Stefan worked on his literati. Daryl Clifford, an long-time member of the Durban club did a before and after demonstration of Pierneef style in a yamadori olive which he has been carefully styling for many years.

I particularly enjoyed the bonsai exhibition in the Botanical Garden because it contained a different variety of species that we usually have at shows in Cape Town.

There was a large number of beautiful Baobabs, Dalbergias and Ficus Natalensis. Many of the trees were well developed and grown in classical forms but I missed the stands and accent plants to complement the trees and, I felt that in many instances the choice of container was too heavy and detracted from the beauty of the tree.

Overall, I had a wonderful time and a great experience viewing the different varieties of trees and listening to the presenters at the convention.

Thank you to Durban Bonsai Society for putting together a wonderful convention for 2023 and I hope to see you all next year, in Cape Town for ABC6

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