Tiny treasures

Malcolm Potts trims up one of his bonsai.
Malcolm Potts trims up one of his bonsai.

If Peter Jackson ever needs native trees for his miniature movie sets, he only need visit a New Plymouth man.

In the backyard of Malcolm and Florence Potts' place is a wee taste of a southern beech forest, groves of little kowhai, totara and kahikatea, plus weeping rimu. There are tiny pohutukawa and rata too, their buds ready to burst into Christmas bloom.

"I believe this is the most varied mix of New Zealand native bonsai trees there is in the universe," Malcolm says.

He's the bonsai man and she's the flower woman, her delphiniums, pansies, poppies and calendula turning the front and side of their garden into a vivacious vision of colour.

Today, though, is all about his nearly 40-year-old love of the littlies.

Standing in front of a couple of shelves built against the back fence, Malcolm points out his first-ever bonsai; a Hall's totara shaped like a towering tree.

"That was just a little twig with seven leaves on it and I got it from Coromandel in 1973. That started my collection."

His bonsai bent began with love.

He grew up in Hawke's Bay and says there were few native trees in his town garden because it was too dry.

"When I came to Taranaki I fell in love with the native bush," he says.

On Florence's family farm at Durham Rd, Inglewood, there was 4 acres of native bush the cows had run through for 100 years. "There were lovely big trees with nothing underneath," he says. "My brother-in-law let me fence off a quarter-acre and that became 'Malcolm's Bush'."

At the time, Malcolm was living in Napier and working at the ANZ Bank. "I would be 200 miles away wondering how my bush was going and so a colleague said 'put some in little pots and live with them'."

His colleague was Pat Goudie, a typist at the bank and a former bonsai enthusiast. Her encouragement came with a warning: "She said 'nobody lasts more than a few years doing bonsai'."

About five years ago, Malcolm visited Pat, now aged in her 90s, and showed her photos of his trees. "She was thrilled to bits."

During the past 39 years, Malcolm has gone to great lengths to source his bonsai stock, but he's extremely protective of native bush and trees.

"I will never take a tree seedling on its own, but if there are 50,000 of them . . ."

That was the case with five white pines he found in a piece of swamp at Granity, north of Westport, in 1983. "There was this puddle with millions of seedlings, so I jumped the fence, scooped up a handful and that became this grove of kahikatea."

He says it's important to have an odd number in a group of bonsai.

Malcolm has also grafted five seedlings together to form the ropy-looking trunk of a giant kahikatea tree, which can grow up to 55 metres high. His bonsai version is about 55cm in height.

"That's what bonsai is all about - creating an illusion of a full-sized tree."

Bonsai simply means a tree in a pot. By keeping a plant contained, it can't grow too big.

To keep leaves small, a bonsai grower needs to pinch out any larger leaves and also pick off flowers.

Malcolm is not always one for suppression. "Some people will never let pohutukawa flower because they don't want the leaves to grow big, but if it's got a lovely New Zealand flower I would rather see it."

To take cuttings off an adult tree, the bonsai grower must learn how to air layer.

He explains how this is done.

"You ring bark it right through to the sap wood, put a bit of rooting hormone around the cut - I just use honey; that's one of the best."

He then wraps the honeyed area with damp sphagnum moss and covers with plastic to make a cocoon-looking form. The sap then runs down into the cut area and, with help from the honey, new roots begin to form.

"When you can see the roots, it's time to cut it off," he says. "Depending on the plants, it might take three months or 18 months."

Patience is part of growing bonsai, but many don't take as long as many people would imagine. Malcolm has grown bonsai from adult cuttings to full-blown miniature trees in four years.

For half of his time involved with bonsai, Malcolm learnt from books.

During his career working for the ANZ and transferring with his job, household and his trees from Napier to Hamilton, Rotorua, Masterton and Wellington, he took over as manager in New Plymouth in 1992.

As a bank manager, Malcolm's bonsai became his relaxation. "I would come out here to see my trees after getting home from work, take my tie off and I would be in a different world."

He also found a world among experts.

"Finally, I joined the New Plymouth Bonsai Club and I learnt more in one afternoon than in the 19 years of reading books," he says, citing the late Leo Jury, Peter Beamish, Stuart Skeen and Paul Urbahn as his wise advisers.

"My trees were two-dimensional and they taught me to get a third dimension into it."

One of his great joys is multi- dimensional. On a stand outside his seedling shed is Malcolm's beech forest, which he saved from Tuatapere, at the bottom of the South Island, in 2003.

"I went down to Southland with my four-wheel-drive and visited one of these places that had knocked over great tracts of forest before the law changed."

He visited an owner of one of these forests and was given the go-ahead to pick up whatever he wanted. "I drove through a few hundred metres of beautiful native forest and out into desolation," he says, shaking his head. "Oh, it was heart-breaking."

Malcolm's little forest was growing on a rotten log.

Using a spade, he pulled the whole thing off the log, put it into a big plastic bag and popped it into the back of the car.

"I made a stand and put it there and that's just how God made it," he says.

Peering into this tiny forest, Malcolm points out silver beech, southern rata, kamahi, horopito, tree and low-growing ferns, putaputaweta and a smattering of orchids.

"I'm hoping in due course this will go into the fernery [in Pukekura Park] - when I'm no longer able to live here," the 76-year-old says.

Bonsai can live for centuries and there are believed to be some specimens in Japan that are about 800 years old.

"It's a wonderful thing to think that generations to come will be looking after my trees."

The New Plymouth Bonsai Club meets at 2pm on the last Sunday of the month in the Blind Foundation rooms on Vivian St. Contact is president Glenys Jackson, phone 753 9644.

Taranaki Daily News