As we come out of self-isolation, the moment may have passed, but if you are looking for a lasting hobby to remind you of the time that was COVID-19, a native bonsai may be for you.

The oldest bonsai in the world is estimated at 1000 years old. In WA, Dianne, President of the Bonsai Society of WA says the tallest in the WA bonsai community is over 1.5 metres, and the oldest is over 35 years old, but the actual tree could be a lot older than that,

“The age of a bonsai starts from when it was placed in a bonsai pot. You could use the stump of a 100 year old olive tree, but its age [as a bonsai] will start again as soon as you pot it in the bonsai pot.”

Bonsais need a lot of attention and as Dianne explained, without the proper love and care, you can kiss your baby bonsai goodbye. For first timers, it’s best to start with Chinese elms, fig or olive trees, as these are easiest to grow and maintain.

However, once you’ve built up your confidence, you should try tackling a more difficult species, like the native WA Melaleuca species, including rhaphiophylla or cuticularis (both pictured below), elliptica or nesophila. Dianne told us “they don’t use these species anywhere else in the world [to make a bonsai].” If you’ve got one of these in your collection, you’re one of very few.

Dianne told us that one of the Australian native trees she has used in the past was a coastal tea tree, which is actually classified as a noxious weed in WA. Although you often see them on our coast with white flowers, Dianne found it near Perth Airport, and it surprisingly makes a very good bonsai.

Watering & Repotting

Bonsais are exclusively an outdoor plant, “[bonsai’s made from] juniper [trees], for example, will live for about three days inside before they start [dying].”

In the hot WA summer, a key part of keeping a bonsai alive is ensuring that the soil doesn’t dry up. So, rule one is to be sure not to dry out the soil, or leave the tree or pot out uncovered in the heat. Dianne also said to “make sure the pot stays cool. The pot might get to 60 degrees in summer and it dries out the soil… you might need to water your bonsai three times a day in summer.”

On the flip side, you have to be equally as careful in the winter, “if [your bonsai] gets too wet in the winter, they get root rot. I might not water my trees for a couple of days if they were rained on or if it’s cool enough that the water hasn’t been absorbed.” This is particularly important for a bonsai made from Chinese elms, fig trees or junipers, as they are more susceptible to rotting.

On repotting, Dianne told us that best practice is to “put it in the shade for a while and keep [the soil] a little drier so they don’t get too much water and rot.”

So, rule two is to be wary of overwatering, especially in the cooler months.

Training

In terms of training your bonsai, in other words, wiring the branches to shape into a certain design, Dianne told us this can take quite some time. The advantage of a lot of WA native trees, such as melaleucas, is that they will set into their position in just 6-8 weeks, while other species can take up to 6-9 months, so be patient!

It’s best to leave the wire on until it’s about to cut into the branch, then chop the wire with a proper bonsai wire cutter and re-wire a new spot if you’d like to manipulate the shape more. But you don’t necessarily have to make that decision just yet! Dianne told us you can change the tree’s shape years down the track, as long as the bonsai was already curved initially. So, rule three is to ensure the wiring doesn’t press into the branches and know when to cut it.

The 2021 World Bonsai Exhibition being hosted in Perth at the Crown in October next year. Given the 1000 year record, best not to mention that you started yours in 2020!

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