‘Like raising children’: Bonsai master expands Japanese art with Australian fig trees

Strong points
  • Megumi Bennett is a bonsai master who came to Australia from Japan aged 28 in 1974.
  • As the founder of the Bonsai Society of Sydney, Ms. Bennett is passionate about incorporating Australian plants into centuries-old Japanese art.
  • She says caring for a bonsai tree is like caring for your own child
When Mrs Bennett arrived in Australia in 1974 at the age of 28, she hoped to study the local flora in order to put a unique spin on the Japanese art forms of bonsai and ikebana.
After completing a three-year horticulture course at the Ryde School of Horticulture, where she also taught bonsai, Ms Bennett opened a bonsai nursery in Terrey Hills, north Sydney, in 1988.

Ms Bennett then founded the Bonsai Society of Sydney in 1999. In total, she has been a bonsai expert for over 45 years.

Japanese bonsai with Australian fig tree at Bonsai Society of Sydney 2022 Bonsai Exhibition. Credit: SBS

Bonsai, which means “tree in a container”, is the Japanese art of growing and training trees in a pot or container. The culture dates back to the 14th century.

Compared to potted flowers, bonsai needs a lot more commitment and it can take years for a tree to start showing its shape, individual characteristics and beauty.
In recent times, bonsai has become a global phenomenon. The World Bonsai Convention, started in 1989, is held every four years in different corners of the world, just like the Olympic Games.
At the eighth convention held in 2017 in Saitama, Japan, about 60% of the 1,200 exhibitors came from outside Japan.

This year, the 9th World Bonsai Convention will be held online from Perth, WA, starting October 8 and lasting nine days.

australian bonsai

Ms Bennett’s interest in migrating Down Under stemmed from a book sent to her by an Australian high school art teacher which detailed native flowers.
She describes it as a moment that changed her life.
“I saw flowers that I had never seen before [in the book]. I felt like going to Australia and trying Japanese ikebana with Australian flowers,” Ms Bennett told SBS Japanese.
She started learning ikebana, the Japanese flower arrangement, when she was in 7th grade and earned a teaching certificate for it when she was a freshman in college.
Ms Bennett applied for a one-year business visa with the aim of teaching ikebana in Australia.

“The [sad] thing about ikebana is that your work does not last. What’s left in your hands [after years] are just pictures. I wanted my work to stay with me longer. That’s one of the reasons why I leaned more towards bonsai,” says Ms. Bennett.

Megumi Bennett, Japanese bonsai master

Japanese bonsai master Megumi Bennett gives a lecture. Credit: Bonsai Art Pty Ltd

Whether it’s bonsai or ikebana, Ms Bennett says she must have a thorough understanding of Australian plants, nature, the seasons and the landscape.

Her passion for creating a uniquely Australian version of bonsai led her to conduct extensive research into native fig trees.
In 2018, Mrs Bennett and her son Alex, also a bonsai expert, organized a bonsai exhibition featuring Australian fig trees in Sydney.

“In general, Australian trees are happy as long as you give them plenty of water. If something goes wrong, it’s often a water problem. They’re drier and tougher than Japanese trees, so it’s so it’s hard for you to arrange the shape using threads,” says Bennett.

Every tree is different. Fig trees, we see personality. Look at their aerial roots.

Megumi Bennett

According to Ms. Bennett, the fig species that are best suited for bonsai are the Port Jackson fig and the small-leaved fig, as their leaves become smaller and denser over time.
Both are found in Sydney Parks.
She has also made bonsai with the Sandpaper Creek fig tree, the Moreton Bay fig tree and even tropical fig trees from Queensland.
“If I choose an attractive fig tree as a bonsai, it would be a large-leaved weeping fig tree.

“This tree does not grow tall, so you are allowed to plant it in your garden. They bear many small fruits and the branches fall with the fruits. It is unique, good for a bonsai.”

Like taking care of your own child

If you start your bonsai from a seed, it takes up to 10 years to see its “adult” form. Bonsai trees need personalized daily care, including watering a few times a day, regular pruning, humidity and temperature control, and changing pots as they grow.

Ms Bennett says it’s not uncommon for people to treat their bonsai as if it were their own child or family member.

Bonsai at Megumi Bennett's studio

Credit: Bonsai Art Pty Ltd

Bonsai can be passed down from generation to generation. For some people, a bonsai of their age is a lifelong companion. Some people start a bonsai when their grandson is born.

“When you start from a seed, it’s exciting to see how it grows, it’s a great joy to see it,” says Ms Bennett.

After many years, your bonsai is no longer a ‘child’, now it’s up to you to learn from them. You learn a lot from old bonsai.

Megumi Bennett

The comparison with a family member does not stop there.

“Showing your bonsai at an exhibition makes you as nervous as if your child were on stage or something. I don’t really sell my bonsai collection, but when I let it go, it’s not easy at all,” adds Ms. Bennett.

Megumi Bennett, Japanese bonsai master

Credit: Bonsai Art Pty Ltd

Ms. Bennett recently sold a plant from her collection to an enthusiast. The buyer’s request was to take the bonsai out of its container and plant it in his yard.

“A part of me doesn’t want to keep bonsai just for me. If it’s a good bonsai, it’s nice to be seen and appreciated by others,” she says with a smile.
“The buyer agreed to have the bonsai checked twice a year for maintenance. I can live with that.”

The Bonsai Society of Sydney will hold a bonsai exhibition at the Calyx in the Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney, September 9-11.

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