Africa / Middle East

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 more: 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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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.