Bonsai Masters: The Art of Olive Bonsai

In South Africa, members of a local bonsai society are taking the ancient Japanese art form and applying it to some of the country's native miniature olive trees.

Durban Bonsai Society
Sep. 5, 2019
By Lisa Anderson
Durban Bonsai Society

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International bon­sai mas­ters recently esti­mated that South Africa-based Farouk Patel’s old­est olive bon­sai is between 300 and 400 years old.

Patel, chair­man of the Durban Bonsai Society, shared the story of this bon­sai — a Japanese art form in which one grows very small trees that mimic the orig­i­nal trees’ shape and scale. Together with other bon­sai mas­ters, Patel told Olive Oil Times more about the nature of olive bon­sai.

It has flow­ered and I have had fruit. But the fruit is very small – almost like a pea.- Farouk Patel, Durban Bonsai Society

Explaining how the age of his old­est olive bon­sai was deter­mined, Patel said: Looking at the diam­e­ter and growth gives you some indi­ca­tion.”

We have had many dis­cus­sions on the ages of trees in many forums, but the exact age can only be deter­mined by count­ing the rings on a trunk that is cut, as this exposes every year’s growth,” he added.

See Also: Olive and Olive Oil Culture

However, cut­ting this olive bonsai’s trunk to deter­mine its exact age is not an option.

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I hope it will sur­vive for a few thou­sand years with the cor­rect care,” Patel said. As they [olive bon­sai] are very hardy.”

Patel’s olive bon­sai is an indige­nous wild olive tree known as olien­hout.

It has flow­ered and I have had fruit,” Patel said. But the fruit is very small – almost like a pea.” He said that even though these olives are edi­ble, they don’t have too much flesh.”

Olive trees are an excel­lent” choice for cre­at­ing bon­sai, accord­ing to Patel.

I would put it with the top bon­sai species, like the pines and junipers that the Japanese revere so much,” he said. Olives have char­ac­ter, and the leaves reduce very well. The older trees can have amaz­ing dead­wood and shari.”

A shari is a sec­tion of trunk with no bark.

Patel added that olive trees are hardy and do not require con­stant atten­tion.

Even a lit­tle bit of neglect shouldn’t be too much of a prob­lem,” he said.

Patel has been cre­at­ing bon­sai for 35 years and owns around 1,500 of these minia­tures. He believes olive trees are also a good choice because they can be wired and designed into many styles.

You could use good nurs­ery stock,” he said. Or col­lect in the wild – with the proper per­mis­sion of course.”

Patel added that because olive trees are slow-grow­ing, trees col­lected from nature have a unique char­ac­ter and age. Patel col­lected his old olive bon­sai from nature a few years ago.

This was a col­lected tree some 12 years ago, so it’s been in train­ing as a bon­sai for the last 12 years,” he said. It was grow­ing in the wild for all the years of its life prior to this.”

It is a mis­con­cep­tion that bon­sai are all minute. Some bon­sai can be up to 80 inches tall and they can be cre­ated from full-grown trees that are pruned and then shaped to resem­ble ancient trees.

Farouk Patel’s garden

Asked at which point some­one gets known as a bon­sai mas­ter, Patel explained: A bon­sai mas­ter is some­one whose knowl­edge and exper­tise is admired by his peers; and who has the abil­ity to inspire oth­ers to cre­ate bon­sai with age-old tech­niques, and is also able to bring in new vigor to the art.”

Regarding the suit­abil­ity of olive trees for bon­sai, Neil Holley, a bon­sai mas­ter at the Durban Bonsai Society agreed with Patel that olive trees are a good choice for bon­sai

Olives are highly sought-after for bon­sai,” he said. Their leaves reduce dras­ti­cally, and the wood is hard and takes carv­ing well.”

Fellow-mem­ber of the Durban Bonsai Society, bon­sai mas­ter Shaun Murphy said olive trees are excep­tional mate­r­ial” for cre­at­ing bon­sai. He mir­rored Holley’s views on what makes olive trees a good choice.

“[It’s] because of the hard­wood that can be carved to cre­ate the nat­ural appear­ance it would have in the wild,” he said. And the leaves reduce down to the size of a pea.”

Murphy said the best place to get olive bon­sai was to col­lect from the wild or to pur­chase from some­one who has col­lected trees from the wild.

Join a club so you can be tutored in the cor­rect way in design­ing a tree to get the best results,” he con­cluded.





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