By Dave Charles
Did you know that a bonsai tree can live for over 100 years if it’s properly cared for? Actually, they can live for considerably longer than that by all accounts. There is a Ficus Retusa Linn in Italy that is considered to be the oldest existing bonsai in the world. It’s over 1000 years old and Luigi Crespi, the founder of the Crespi Bonsai Musuem, spent ten years trying to gain ownership of the bonsai tree before he eventually succeeded in 1986.
The tree was originally shaped by Chinese masters before Japanese bonsai master Shotaro Kawahara brought it to Italy where Crespi acquired it for an undisclosed sum to become the centrepiece of his bonsai museum. One could say that it’s a lucky tree to have been lovingly tended for so long and there are several others on record that are worth millions that are also meticulously cared for due to their age and provenance.
But most modern bonsai trees have a limited lifespan. They don’t require much to keep them happy, but an injudicious hand can kill them with kindness just as easily as it can with neglect.
This worries me. I have a collection of bonsai trees that I love. Each has a story, some more poignant than others, and I wonder whether anyone will care enough to take on the responsibility of looking after them when I someday slip the bonds of earth to touch the face of God.
They are all relatively young bonsais as far these things go, the oldest being a forty-something-year-old Acacia Sieberiana or Paperbark that I inherited from friends who left it behind when they emigrated. The youngest in my collection is just over a year old, sprouted from a seed that I collected from a tree that I used to climb as a boy in my old hometown of Benoni.
I grew up in Lakefield in the 60s and 70s. We lived in Westfield Road, a quiet cul-de-sac that was lined with strange trees that I was convinced were magical. They produced pretty, bell-shaped flowers and bright green seedpods that later darkened and split open revealing hair-covered seeds that irritated the skin if you touched them. They are apparently called Bottle trees and are native to Australia.
As we grew, these trees that lined the grassy verges along our street were our communal jungle gyms and we climbed them until it was no longer cool to climb trees. From tricycle to bicycle to motorcycle and eventually to car, the trees were always there like silent watchmen to welcome you home.
I loved those trees and from time to time over the years, long after I had left Benoni, I came “home” to visit them and the happy memories they evoke. Shortly before my mom passed away last year, I collected some seeds from the tree that still stands on the grassy verge outside our old house and one of them germinated.
It’s doing very well now in its early bonsai form in Ballito and is a living link with that gloriously happy childhood in the town that will always hold a very special place in my heart.