South African Bonsai Artists

5 months ago Nebby 0

Source: Bonsai Tree Blog.

South Africa, although it has a relatively short bonsai history, has very active and enthusiastic interest from both young and old. Many bonsai enthusiasts develop their skill supported by knowledge passed on down from the older generation. Many international bonsai professionals have visited South Africa to demonstrate at local conventions, and have in so doing added their knowledge. Only a few artists are profiled below, but many more could be and hopefully will be, added in time.

Carl Morrow

Carl morrow bonsai trees


An accomplished lecturer and teacher, he presents regular and hugely popular bonsai demonstrations at all levels – from local club meetings to national conventions. He has written extensively on the subject, with most of his work appearing in specialist bonsai magazines both in South Africa and abroad. He has consulted on and supplied photographs to three other bonsai books.

Carl’s trees have gained widespread recognition and have received numerous awards at local exhibitions, while one of his trees was selected as one of the top 100 trees in the World Bonsai Contest 2002. His trees are often portrayed in South African lifestyle magazines.

Carl holds a PhD degree in botany, is married and lives in Cape Town.

Examples of work

First rains Carl morrow bonsai

This tokonama display was arranged by Carl for the last Africa Bonsai Convention which was held in Stellenbosch in 2015. He entitled it “First Rains.” I find it a very exciting display indeed. Although based on a traditional Japanese 3 point display (Usually comprising of a tree, an accent and a scroll) Carl has produced a very African interpretation. The strong horizontal movement of the tree, from left to right, is further emphasized by the scroll which I believe Brenda {his wife} painted. The vibrant green leaves of the Acacia are a strong reference to the display’s title, but the slight upward gaze of the African lady also suggests rainfall from above, or perhaps she too is admiring this ancient tree which has survived many dry seasons in the hot and dry African sun. {Having seen this tree in real life I know the bark texture to be very expressive of hardship and maturity}

wisteria bonsai carl morrow

Flowering bonsai such as this Wisteria vine are a source of wonderment during the flowering period. Producing masses of flowers while suppressing excessive vegetative growth in this species can be a rather frustrating affair; I’m convinced its an elusive mix of technique and downright luck! What I enjoy about some species of wisteria almost more than the flowers is the scent. For our sense of sight and smell to be entertained simultaneously is very satisfying.

swamp cypress bonsai carl morrow

Carl has several really good Swamp Cypress in his collection, this being but one of them. When bonsai are as large as this one {unfortunately no sense of scale from the photo} they demand attention. The aged “sabamiki,” or damaged portion of the trunk is intriguing don’t you think? The viewer finds themselves wondering what natural event could have caused this in this magnificent tree. The rather naturalistic approach taken to styling this Swamp Cypress provides an insight into the level of sensitivity to styling Carl has attained in his art.

Chinese maple bonsai carl morrow

On a slightly lighter note, I think this must be one of the most photographed bonsai in South Africa! It is rather photogenic though, you must agree. In Carl’s book, which you can order signed copies of here, this tree is featured and you can see the humble origins of it. The harmony between container and tree is very pleasant. Deciduous trees such as this Chinese maple are very popular for their autumn foliage and remind the viewer of the passing of seasons, and on a deeper level; life and death.

rock planting carl morrow

Rock plantings such as this with Chinese elm as the main tree, can be so rewarding to the artist who creates them, and the viewer who gets to appreciate them. The atmosphere of the scene created here by Carl is very peaceful. The viewer may well imagine themselves canoeing over placid waters to the island, clambering up the side through ferns and grasses before resting on the precipice of the rock. Extreme attention to detail is necessary to produce a convincing planting; relative scale between rock, gravel and plant leaf size is important. So is the use of smaller, less defined material to create the illusion of depth {accomplished with the smaller elms}.

Hennie Nel

hennie nel bonsai trees


This gentleman happens to be one of my best bonsai friends. You know the kind that you can sit down with and talk bonsai till the sun sets while not even noticing the time? Hennie is a bonsai artist whom I have tremendous respect for, not only for his ability as an artist but also as a person who is always ready to help a newbie, always has a kind word to say about someone’s efforts and is always positive about bonsai in South Africa. It is my honour to feature some of his trees on this blog. Hennie specializes in small trees, or shohin as they are known. That said, Hennie has some great kifu sized trees also. At exhibitions his trees always create a lot of curiosity from the public and admiration from bonsai artists.

Hennie is currently serving as the Chairman of the Cape Bonsai Kai in Cape Town, of which I am also a member. 

Examples of work

hennie nel ficus shohin

This shohin sized fig of Hennie’s is a frequent star at bonsai exhibitions and one can understand why. It has a great root spread which perfectly fills the well chosen container. On the trunk you will see swollen knobs which create interest. The canopy is full and typical of how figs grow naturally. I love the balance and peacefulness of it.

firethorn pyracantha bonsai tree hennie nel

Another lovely tree in Hennie’s collection is this small leafed Firethorn (pyracantha). Although I am sure it is a real spectacle when in flower or in berry, but one can certainly appreciate the calm image created by the vibrant green leaves, the lush moss surface of the ground and the slight movement (from left to right) of the tree, almost as though swaying in the wind. Once again the styling of this tree shows a naturalistic approach which is sensitive to the manner in which trees grow and which I greatly appreciate.

bladdernut bonsai hennie nel

This Bladdernut (Diospyrus) or Wild Coffee of Hennie’s must be one of my favorite trees of his. As you probably know, these trees can be found naturally in forested areas, mountain slopes and in rocky places across all provinces of South Africa. Although rather slow-growing they can be grown from seed. This particular specimen has some history though and was collected. The sabamiki adds so much character to the tree. In my imagination I see this tree growing in a forest clearing, forest fires ravaged its trunk many years ago but it survived. From its dense canopy it bears scented flowers attracting insects and when fruiting, a multitude of birds feast on the fleshy berries.

 hennie nel japanese maple forest bonsai

I have not seen too many Japanese maple forests around, at least not where I am in the Cape. Hennie has done a wonderful job of planting this forest and maintaining it in such health. There is a very interesting diversity of trunks by using varying thicknesses and I love how he has used thinner trunks in the back to increase the perception of depth. Its probably my fault when I took this picture that the back tree appears to be dead center, as I know it isn’t. Don’t you just love how bonsai forests make you want to shrink yourself and take a walk through them? Treading on that soft mossy floor, bare footed would be so much fun! 

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