Acacias as bonsai

Acacias/Vachellia/Senegalia are Africa’s trademark and (apart from the Baobab), the most recognised tree in Africa.  No one will ever forget the silhouette of a Thorn tree against the setting sun.

They are known for being hardy and thorny.  Many a bonsaist will tell you that they regret working on this tree without gloves (and who works with gloves?).


Acacias are normally tall and semi-evergreen, shrubs or small trees. Their leaves are feathery,  divided leaflets and generally a soft green colour. The stems are generally rough, vary in colour and very often possess long, sharp, or hooked multiple thorns. Some acacias have a very nice fragrant flowers. Flowers, ranging from white to yellow in colour appear in late winter. Some fruits have glossy coats and contain seeds preferred by birds and other wildlife. Acacias have a tendency to grow up and out, so you have to pay attention to training.

There are very many different species and not all are suited to bonsai. Popular species (but not limited to) are:  Senegalia burkei (Black Monkey Thorn) ; Vachellia erioloba (Camel Thorn); Senegalia erubescens (Common Hook thorn); Senegalia galpinii (Monkey Thorn); Vachellia karoo (Sweet Thorn); Vachellia robusta (Enkeldoring) and Vachelia sieberiana (Paperbark Thorn).

Soil & pH

Always use a well-draining basic bonsai soil mix .  Any fast draining soil is good.  Acacias can tolerate low pH, but are sensitive to saline/salts in soil, so special care should be taken along coastal areas. It also helps to spray down the leaves late in the afternoon to wash away any salt deposits. (Thanks, Thian – this may not be necessary if you are inland! – Ed). I will also add that one should spray the leaves to wash away dust.


Acacia prefer slightly drier conditions; so allow the soil to dry between waterings. Do not let the soil dry out too much, as the leaves will drop if the soil is allowed to get too dry.  You can water twice a day in summer (morning and night) depending on your location and once a day in cooler months. Acacias are very hardy, so don’t stress too much if you miss an odd watering!


Acacias are generally pruned in early Spring when the buds break.  They not only tolerate a second heavy pruning around the middle of Summer, but actually thrive. Regular maintenance during the growing season is necessary.  Always seal all cuts.



Repot only when necessary and take care not to disturb the roots too much.  Acacias hate having their tap root cut, so do that in stages, and always using an anti-fungal agent.

Light and Temperature

Acacias prefer full sun, but will do well in dappled shade. Acacias need at least 4 hours of sun a day.


Feed every 2 – 3 weeks during the Summer growth period. You can use a standard bonsai fertilizer of your choice, or look for one with low nitrogen content to encourage flowering. (Although I have never seen or heard of a flowering Acacia bonsai.


They germinate very easy from seed and are quick growers. It is best to plant the seeds in pots with little soil so the tap root bends and curls early on.  It will make it easier to fit in a pot later on.

Pests & Diseases

Aphids, flies, mites etc., hard shelled insects like scale and wooly aphids. Occasionally anthracnose can infect leaves.

Flowering Time

Different species flower at different times of the year, mainly April to November.  Do not over water in winter and do not trim at all after summer (December) to encourage flowering.

Special Instructions

Acacia bonsai have a tendency towards growing upwards which can destroy lower branches and harm the overall look of your tree, keeping the top branches shorter in order to give the lower branches more light. Ensure you prune regularly at the top of the tree to encourage lower growth.  Pay attention to branch pruning as leaf pruning will follow.  Wiring Acacias are a tough job and they lend themselves more towards clipping and growing. You can even opt to tie branches down, so as to minimise damage. Don’t let moss grow on the main stem.  It will destroy the bark and rot can set in. You can treat damage with a dusting of fungicide.

I have seen the usual Black Monkey Thorns (Senegalia burkei) (I find it really difficult to use the new names Vachellia or Senegalia – and will lovingly refer to them as Acacias, but use their proper names🙂 as bonsai, and I have seen the Knob Thorns (Senegalia nigrescens – they are notoriously difficult to have in a proper bonsai style), and Paperbark Thorns (Vachellia sieberiana). What is rare as bonsai, is the Fever Tree (Vachellia xanthophloea), Sweet Thorn (V.karoo) and my favourites, the Enkeldoring (V.robusta), Camel Thorn (V.erioloba) and Driehaakdoring (S.senegal). These trees are my favourites because their leaves are naturally small. What other types of Acacias do you have?

Hell no!

Why do we do bonsai? Some of us do it for the accolades and the “Likes” and “Hallelujas”. And some of do it for ourselves, the “Oh-Yeah’s” and the “OK’s” and the “This-Is-Just-For-Me”! What the last two years have taught me is that life is too short. I do bonsai for myself and yes, I can only talk about plants. Ok, not just plants, but also the conditions they need for optimal growth, the soil they need for proliferation, the food my trees need, and, and, and. Then I can talk about lots. I am seldom concerned about bonsai styles or which way the first branch bends or how far it is from the top of the soil. I feel that is personal to the “artist” and should reflect some of your own style and or personality. Let me explain: maybe nobody ever taught Picasso to draw. Or what if he got a paint-by-numbers kit for Christmas and that started his career as an artist? Make no mistake, there is nothing wrong with a bit of bonsai-by-numbers, but bonsai should be about fun, too. I am first and foremost a Tree-Lover and secondly a bonsai artist. I collect species and have some very rare and exotic trees in my collection. I love growing trees from seed or making truncheon cuttings. I have no illusion that they will never be called bonsai by anyone but me. But they are my bonsai. And that makes me happy. I will post a series of care instructions on various species. That said: there is ONE rule!  Know your area and know your species!

Why it is important to have someone to sort out your sh!t!

2019 was probably one of the toughest years of my life and the year I found that making friends was easier than keeping them.  It was also the year too many people gave up on their passion for bonsai, some found other interests, some moved, and some became too ill to take care of their trees.  I was honoured in all the above occasions to receive the phone call/message. During a conversation with another person discussing issues of “what happens to my trees when I can no longer look after them?”, this person replied, “well, I am not sorting out your sh!t too!”

It is a great honour for me, to be remembered;  when people turn to me to help get rid of their trees or take over when someone has passed on.

I have had calls from people who are moving house and cannot take their trees. I have found gems amongst the neglect and yes, I have found the sheissen too!

So, when the call came from a friend’s wife that she did not have the capacity to look after his trees since he had passed on and that she would like me to have them, I felt so honoured. We had not been good friends in the sense that we visited regularly, but whenever we bumped into each other in a shop, we would always  talk bonsai. We would discuss the latest soil fad, a new watering techniques or schedule sand ooh’ed and aah’ed about some or other artist (with a good dose of gossip too:-)

He was a tall, gentle man, with honest worker-hands. His eyes softened when I asked after his wife. I knew what his trees meant to him and how much pleasure he got out of them. I liked him, even though he always politely declined my invitation to join our club or to do a talk during one of our meetings.

The day I went to pick up his trees, his wife and I talked and talked a lot. I could see how difficult it was for her to part with this side of his life. After tea and cake (and Grappa – at 09h00 in the morning – it was something his dad needed), it was time to start loading the car.  Papino said: “You come back. We finish this bottle!”

At first, we stopped at each tree and I started cutting run-away branches to get it all in the car.  It was such a holy moment. We reflected on the style, what else could be done and I even related a story or two about some trees and their (sic) history. I was there when a “V” was cut into the baobab. I did not agree at the time and I walked away. I swear, I saw the panic in his eyes. Now, many years later, I can see it was a good move.

The “I-am-not-sorting-out-your-sh!t” moment hit me when his wife handed me his box of tools. What a privilege to share this intimate moment with someone who cares. His box was neat and ordered, (mine not!). His tools are mostly still in their original packaging (mine not!), they are clean, (mine not!)!

Do we know when we put our “toys” away, that it might be the last time? Do we pack our tools so that when someone comes to clear our sh!t, they don’t see the panic and tears and heartache and doubt and self-hate in our boxes?

When I look at his trees, there was not one weed in any pot. Did he know? Did he prepare? I am honoured and I know that she found consolation in the fact that “He knows they are in good hands!” May you find peace, my friend, and the heartache lessen with time!

But..who is going to sort my sh!t?


Kintsugi Art

Kintsugi (golden joinery) or kintsukuroi (golden joinery) is the Japanese method of repairing broken (bonsai) pots.  They believe that there is beauty in imperfection (wabi-sabi) and that one should not hide those scars (that life dealt you).  Instead, broken pots are fixed with epoxy mixed with gold dust.  This transforms the (ugly) broken pot into beautiful artwork and something more valuable.

Most people want to hide their flaws. We want things fixed so that no-one can see they are broken or that we had once faltered.  We pretend that we live these perfect lives, in beautiful houses, in tranquil suburbs, in lush gardens, where we sip our afternoon tea, sitting in white wicker chairs.

But reality is not like that.  Life has dealt all of us some nasty bumps, our insecurities eat us alive when we want to attempt new things or meet new friends.  A friend once said, that he is yet to see a person upload an ugly Facebook profile picture. We don’t show off our failures. We don’t post anything less than our perfect lives.

But what if we can embrace our shortcomings? What if we treat these scars and use them to make something more valuable in our lives?  We often see broken adults, who struggle to move on from an abusive childhood, or people who managed to escape from damaging relationships or trauma unable to shake the episodes and it continues to rule their lives. What if we can ‘fix’ that using therapy (epoxy mixed with gold dust) and create a new, beautiful story in and of, our lives.

Zen philosophy acknowledges flaws, embraces change, and restores (an object) with a newfound beauty.  It is not thrown away or discarded.  It is picked up and cleaned and gently put back together again, to be made better than before.

When our dreams lay shattered at our feet and we have nowhere else to go, we can pick it up, turn it around in our hands (Look at it from different angles) and make something new from it.  Sometimes, just being quiet and looking at things from a different angle, gives us new perspective. Knowing that the new dream will be more!


Watched Bonsai Never Grow (Part 2)

This is really a follow on of TWO posts.  First, Trunksplitting, scoring and scratching to thicken bonsai cuttings and A Watched Baobab Never Thickens.  I must state from the outset that I live in a sub tropical area where things just grow and grow and grow.  If anything, I can never reduce my leaves as small as bonsaiists in, say Gauteng or the Cape. I have to really be careful with watering, because it gets either too hot and my trees die or they get too much water and I sit with long internodes.

May 2015’s Porticularia afra in the green pot (which has since been broken by monkeys), looked like this:

DSC_0028  and the next image was taken today, 6 November 2016, albeit it in a new pot. The next step for this potensai will be to split the trunk and get some movement in it.


At the time, I experimented and took three similar sized cuttings. Put one in a small meme pot, scored one and put it in a green pot and put one in my garden and forgot about it.


The moral of the story is: if you want quick fixes to your bonsai, stick them in the ground and forget about them.  I was pleasantly surprised by the above specimen and gave it a quick preliminary styling. Now you have a lot more to work with on the tree AND a lot more cuttings.


A Watched Baobab Never Thickens

Someone once asked me why I plant baobab seeds as I will never have the privilege to to see them as bonsai. You see, a baobab is considered to be a seedling up until the age of 5 years.  That is when they “grow” the fastest at around 500 – 800mm per year.  A baobab is only considered to be an adult when it is 80 years or older.  At 53, I do not have 80 years or so. So you see, why I have to cheat?

A few years ago, I experimented with a few baobabs by planting them in the garden in our soak pit.  (For those of you who do not know what a soak pit is, it is a hole in the ground where your flushed toilet water runs into and a whole lot of nunus take over and do their job). Far more environmentally friendly than a sewerage farm. I think.

In any case, I tried various methods on 5 and left one as the “control”.  I managed to grow one from 10mm circumference to 350mm in 3 years.  It was blown over during a storm and I cut it up in 7 pieces. Two grew and one is evidence that you can grow a baobab from a cutting.  Baobabs have ONE enemy and that is water.  It will die if it gets too much. I find that after 2 years, the baobabs are very hardy and I water them every day.  The ones in tubs are not really getting bigger, so today, I planted a whole lot of 1 year old seedlings in the soak pit again. And I am going to forget about them.  Here’s to hoping getting the same results and not to fiddle until they get blown over again.

Why do I plant baobabs from seed? Because I am ever the hopeful!DSC07383 When I started out in 2011


IMG_1360 In 2014 when a storm blew over my 4 meter baobab

IMG_4761 The same piece as above but the ants hollowed it out.

aIMG_8636 In 2016. I still need to work on the taper.

IMG_8635 The “cutting” in 2016.  It lacks the bottled shape taper, but I am working on that.

Joy and more Joy!

Jill Badonsky said that the feeling of being creative is synonymous with joy and fulfilment. Is it therefore seriously necessary for your bonsai tree to comply with all the bonsai ‘rules’? If you copy, so-and-so’s tree, is it still yours?

When I walk through my garden, I do not see the faults in my trees. I see the memory of the person in the tree that I made when they passed away.  I see the love and patience and fun I had when I thought of the person in whose memory it was created.  It is a testament of the fact that I think of them often. That I will never forget.

But the beauty of bonsai is that you can have your own reasons for making one. It does not have to be my reasons. Sometimes, it really is just for fun. Unless you are a world renowned Master. Then your bonsai can never be just for fun. (Too many people are watching you).

Masaru Yamaki said:  “Each bonsai has its special quality. Some express changes in the four seasons, while others express the elegance of nature in a pot. Bonsai is not limited to expensive trees in a classic shape. Indeed, by using excessive wire or growing unnecessary branches in order to create a classic shape, the artist may fail to express the tree’s essential beauty.

Trees best expressing bonsai no kokoro (the spirit of bonsai) are often marked by unaffected simplicity. Even if the tree has a slender trunk, it can still touch one’s heart deeply, conveying with overflowing vitality the beauty of nature in fields and mountains.” (…/centuries-old-japanese-white-pine-bonsai-that-survived-hiroshima


So, this morning, I removed the tanuki’s around my thin-trunked Yellow wood. I am going to develop the lower branches and enjoy my tree.  I potted my thin trunked Rosemary in a shocking blue pot and put my Riverbush willow (Combretum erythrophyllum) forest in the most beautiful forest pot. Not nearly ready to be potted, but I had the most beautiful pot beggin for some trees. (Yes, it is no Goshin or Mieke’s Forest, but it is “my” forest.)  It is named after an old school friend who gave me a handful of seeds in 2008, so, Peter’s Forest it is! (I wanted to post a better photograph, but it is raining – so it will have to wait.)


In this case, beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder. Nothing should stop you from enjoying your trees. Don’t wait. Do it now. Make a bonsai, plant a tree. Feel good!

All in a Saturday’s work!

While the rest of South Africa is watching the rugby, I got busy with some recycling.  Let me back track a bit.  A while ago, I got tools to cut and design pots made from polystyrene.  Then I got busier with pottery and discovered the joy of clay. I still like working with polystyrene and have a shed full of throw-away-packaging pieces.  (I have been known to stop the maintenance guys and ask them for the packaging. – I have a shed full).

I also have loads of thimble and mame bonsai which I keep going by standing them in very shallow water to create a micro climate.  Then an idea hit me! I can make my own penzai. (Potted landscape). As with all my bonsai, I reserve artistic rights and adapt this to my own style and memories.  I made a Phuket penzai in memory of our second honeymoon (I have two other floating in my guppy pond!) I have a Senyati Gorge in memory of my first honeymoon in Zimbabwe.

IMG_5028  IMG_5025

Some of the penzai that I built today, will be to showcase some of my kusamono, mames and thimble bonsai.

So, get some throw-away packaging, your cutting tools, and carve away!


You will also need to paint your finished penzai, and here there are as many recipes as there are bonsai rules.  I will tell you what works for me and what I have tried.

Cement Paint

1 cup tile grout (There are many colours and you can add cement oxide stain to manipulate is further)

1 cup beach sand (if you like a coarser finish – I did not use any today)

1 cup tile glue

Add tile bonding liquid till you have a sludge that will easily paint on, (As I use it up, I may add water to the remaining sludge to get it back to the original consistency) and start painting.

It is very messy, so make sure you are wearing old clothes and gloves. (I like getting dirty and don’t mind scraping cement off my nails later:-)


I give my finished penzai and initial all over coat of my base colour.  I will often then add a darker oxide (or grout) to the remaining mix and give it a more artistic finish. Please note that I am not an artist and a lot of what I make and do, is copied from what I have seen.  Also, having lived in a small rural village in South Africa, we often have to make do with what we can find.

IMG_5017You can see my torii gate in the background.

Both these penzai will be used to plant Portucularia afra cuttings to create a landscape.

IMG_5018This specific landscape was made as a display for my thimbles and mames. Obviously, it is not completely finished yet. I will add some crushed coral to the center which will be filled with water to create the micro climate.  Once weathered, you will never know it is not real!


Some ideas of what I am planning to do:

IMG_5021  IMG_5022