Club Meeting September 2015

by Kevin Kelly 

The club president Trevor Venables opened the meeting by welcoming a new member and noting the apologies of Terry Erasmus, Francois Voges and Jan-Jurie. It was reported that a number of volunteers have offered to help at ABC4 and arrangements are proceeding well.

CBK is contributing R300 towards the conference fees of the 17 members attending. This is generated from the CBK investment account, money from the annual show and membership fees.

Tip of the month

Adam Harrower was the first speaker of the evening, on a topic which proved to be of great interest to members.

Adam is a botanical horticulturalist working for the South African National Biodiversity Institute at Kirstenbosch, and he is also an experienced bonsai artist.

He prefaced his talk by saying that his job involved scouring the country collecting interesting botanical material for SANBI, and in the course of this work he keeps always keeps his eyes open for interesting bonsai material.

He noted that we have likely only scratched the surface in identifying promising bonsai subjects among the 1,700 species of tree that grow naturally in South Africa.

He focused on a number of species that to the best of his knowledge are not much used in bonsai, and brought along specimens of each, distributing them to the delight of members by pulling names out of a hat, with no member walking away with less than three trees.

  1. Eugenia verdoorniae: He noted that it is similar to the eugenias we know well, but it is promising bonsai material in that it is small-leaved. It is a coastal forest species endemic to Pondoland.
  2. Buxus species: We know Buxus sempervirens, the English Box, but there are two species of Buxus indigenous to South Africa. Adam felt that Buxus macowanii is not a particularly promising species, but said that Buxu natalensis is very promising. It is endemic to the coastal forests of Transkei and KwaZulu-Natal . It heals well and has a ‘smoky greyish to white trunk’ which could prove interesting as a bonsai.
  3. Diospyros species: Diospyros whyteana is well used as a bonsai species in the Western Cape, but Diospyros scabrida is very rarely found and looks promising. It has rigid leaves and small white, fragrant flowers reminiscent of jasmine. This can be considered a flowering bonsai species, together with another species Diospyros lyciodes which is sometimes used in northern parts of South Africa and is known for its tendency to fruit readily. Adam also noted Diospyros natalensis which has small leaves as an adult. He also discussed Diospyros austro-africane (sub-species microphylla). This is an eastern Karoo species which tends to develop a thick stem and has tiny leaves. Adam distributed a few specimens to members and this species seemed to be of particular interest.
  4. Apodytes dimidiata: Commonly known as ‘white pear’. It has a small-leaved form which is a little like the well know bonsai species Galpinia transvaalica. Adam notes that the white pear heals over very nicely.
  5. Baobab: Whereas baobabs are well known as a bonsai species, Adam introduced the members to what he considers the best species of baobab for bonsai cultivation; namely ‘Adonsonia za’, or the Madagascan baobab’. Adam handed out a number of specimens to some very pleased recipients.
  6. Nuxia congesta: This grows into a 2-3 metre shrub. Adam noted this as a very promising bonsai species, and again handed out specimens.

Adam ended by saying that he looks forward to seeing the results achieved with the more than 60 trees he gave away at the meeting, which he hopes are evident within a few years at the annual CBK exhibition.

Just Procumbens nana

This slot was filled by Tony Bent who presented one of his trees explaining the natural affinities of this species which have caused him not to have had to put a lot of effort into designing the tree; but with a nonetheless charming outcome.


Rudi Adam was the judge for the evening and brought forward two of Freddie Bisschoff’s elms.

He proclaimed them ‘VERY good’ trees saying that if he had to score them he would be inclined to give the trees 95%, only because 100% is unheard of. He complimented Freddie, saying that his elms stand out above any others in the Western Cape.


Freddie was up next on the topic of elms. He said that they are the ‘easiest’ species for bonsai and very rewarding trees. There are more than 50 elm cultivars used for bonsai worldwide, although only three species are commonly used in Cape Town: Ulmus parvifolia (smooth bark) and two cultivars of Catlin elm (cork bark).

Elms appear to have been introduced to South African bonsai (arriving by post!) as late as 1986 (29 years ago).

Freddie spoke at length about the challenges of Catlin elms. Their roots can develop like ‘pipes’ that must be strongly cut back. He also said the Catlin elms are not conducive to the development of flat nebari. They need quite frequent repotting, every second year. He noted that they provide good material for forests.

He emphasised the value of studying their growth habit and described the cork-bark elm as ‘like a weed’ given its super-quick growth habit which needs to be watched carefully lest they take unwanted directions.

There are three rough-barked elms: Seiju - small leaves, suitable for forests; Yatsubusa – bigger leaved; and Suberosa – ‘made’ for bonsai and the easiest tree to work on.

He noted that Suberosa has many fleshy, soft roots which can be thinned out with little risk. The roots make excellent cuttings; and the bark ‘corks up’ nicely.

Freddie suggested that elm cuttings benefit from 2 days standing in water and have an approximately 60% ‘take rate’.

Wetness and moss are not good for cork bark and the loss of bark at the base of trees can lead to reverse taper. He suggested that one should plant the tree ‘just above ground’ to avoid losing the bark which is difficult to ‘get back’ in a pot.

He noted three approaches to cork bark development: grow – prune – wire. He emphasised cut-and -grow as a primary method for shaping the tree, while wiring should be limited in the early formative phases. He noted the value of a more natural approach as opposed to forcing a design on this species.

Regarding development of catlin elms he noted that the smooth bark does not shoot well or grow very fast. However, it accepts thread grafts quickly and fast results design results may be achieved in this way.

Suberosa shoots ‘all over’ and grows well from cuttings. Freddie suggested that it is helpful to occasionally ‘let the tree go’ if you want it to thicken. This species also responds well to thread grafts.

Regarding wiring Freddie noted that cork bark is very forgiving of wire bite. He said that in wiring one must be particularly careful to give branches space to grow ensuring “a place in the sun”, saying that inner branches on elms tend to die if this is not watched.

He noted the need to regulate the vigour with which elms grown. The top grows faster than the bottom branches and this can lead to difficult to remedy design problems.

He prefers to build around existing branches, and tends to take the tree down to the stump rather than spend a lot of time trying to work around awkward problems. He said that you should study the trunk and “have a vision for the tree”, saying “you can do anything with these trees if you have a plan and stick to it”, although noting that elms might not be suitable for cascades.

He said that one should not limit oneself to ‘cloud styles’ and one can be freely creative with this adaptive tree. He added that elms are good for carving – and can take a fair bit of ‘creative carving’.

Regarding fertiliser he mentioned the need for macro nutrients from February to May for ‘setting’ ramifications, and noted the value of potassium in branch setting.

He also noted that it is important to feed elms in October and November to support ramification.

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On the weathered shelf

A self-cleaned cat in autumn

Curls around itself.

Random Bonsai Tip

So much time is spent on striving towards perfection in the foliage area of trees but little contemplation goes into the area around the nebari. Consider planting your tree at different heights in the pot which might enhance the existing taper and roots. If your tree lacks roots use moss mounded in such a way to suggest underlying roots, or you can even use sticks of similar appearance to the wood of the tree as 'fake' roots until you are able to coerce roots to fill the void. Use appropriate gravel to complete the scene.