Two Bonsai Hobbyists
The Australian native plants are a wide and diverse group of which are quite different than what I’m familiar with. Many are also native in South Africa because of similar climates. A few of these plants are common landscape plants or invasive in Florida. Since there is a great diversity of plant material here the botanical names are important. It is quite difficult to import plants into Western Australia from the other states so the group tends to use the native plants for bonsai training, although Junipers, Chinese elm, Ficus, Olives and Japanese black pine can be found, especially in bonsai nurseries.
It’s interesting to note that most members of the Bonsai Society of Western Australia have an excellent working knowledge of both the botanical and common names of the native plant material. That’s important because there are over 700 species of Eucalyptus, over 200 species of Melaleuca (Paper bark) and over 80 species of Leptosperum (New Zealand Tea tree).
Derek W. Oakley
Italian Stone Pine
One of the longest members and a past president of the Bonsai Society of Western Australia is Derek Oakley with his wife Sue. I met Derek in 1985 when I first gave a presentation for his society when he was beginning bonsai. He has developed his skills and artistic design quite well and is now one of the most prominent bonsai artists in Western Australia.
Derek has an encyclopedic knowledge of Australian native plant material. He knows all the botanical and common names as well as how suitable they are for bonsai training. Some species can be drastically pruned back to old wood, while most others must have some green foliage remaining after trimming.
His garden is small, but completely packed with beautiful bonsai of all shapes and a multitude of plants native to Western Australia. Many of the original plants were collected in the bush as well as Chinese elms. Since Derek has an understanding of the peculiar growth habit of Australian native plants he applies it to his bonsai training as well as sharing the information with club members.
I was particularly impressed with his shohin bonsai, especially his Chinese elms. Some have been propagated from root cuttings as well as stem cuttings. They are maintained in shallow pans of moist gravel because the dry out quickly. Currently summer is beginning and the forecast for today is 95F. It gets windy here in addition to the scorching sun so he has a frame for shade cloth which will then be pulled over his bonsai soon.
Sue Oakley also has her own bonsai collection which she grows and trains herself. There are several tray landscapes which are particularly distinctive. She also loves small pots and suiseki and has the walls of two rooms completely filled with her small treasures.
Both Derek and Sue are still active members of the Bonsai Society of Western Australia and display their trees often as well as share their knowledge so others can train Australian native plants.
C. J. Leo
Originally from Singapore, C.J. has been training bonsai for over 30 years. He retired to Perth about 20 years ago and started a new bonsai collection in his new home. He travels extensively in Asia studying the landscape as well as plant material. His collection of over 700 trees is packed into a small suburban yard and could easily fill his five acre lot in another location. Rather than move the bonsai C.J. has decided to reduce his collection by 300 pieces. I wish I lived closer to him. He has a few Junipers, Chinese elms, Plums, Pines as well as common species he is training for bonsai.
Japanese black pine air layer, note roots on lower left
Although C.J. has some collected Australian native plants, as well as those dug from gardens, his specialty is the New Zealand tea tree, Leptosperum scoparium which he originally obtained from nurseries. Now he starts them from seed and air layers as well. I’ve tried for years to grow the New Zealand tea but kill them when transplanting. Even for others this species is extremely difficult to grow, as well as training for bonsai. Well, C.J. is THE authority for cultivating and training the species, but is quick to point out that he occasionally loses a well developed bonsai he has had for over ten years for no apparent reason.
C.J. keeps all of his New Zealand tea trees sitting in water, not in moist sand. The roots like to grow into the water and he has his shohin bonsai in a large water tray. Some of his larger specimens are in old frying pans and others have their pots wrapped in heavy water holding plastic. He rarely transplants but sometimes air layers the plants to put them into new containers. They like to be pot bound, at least in his garden.
Trim first to silhouette
Thin out after establishing silhouette to allow fresh air and sunlight
Seed pods of New Zealand tea tree
Seeds of New Zealand tea tree
His garden is filled with New Zealand tea trees of many different colors and forms which he has grown from seed. He is searching for a yellow flowering cultivar, and may just develop one from his seedlings. There are many species of Leptospernum, and like other members of the Bonsai Society of Western Australia is familiar with the botanical and common names as well as their growth characteristics for bonsai training. And, he displays his bonsai and shares his knowledge and experiences with other members of his club.