Demonstration on Olive Bonsai

On May 23, 2017, Redwood Empire Bonsai Society (REBS) held its monthly meeting at the Luther Burbank Art & Garden Center, Santa Rosa, California, featuring members John Roehl, Ned Lycett and Ivan Lukrich on the subject of Olive (Olea europea) bonsai.

John Roehl with the demo olive tree.
Ned working on the demo tree.


Specific Bonsai care guidelines for the Olive

Position: Place the Olive bonsai outside and at a sunny spot, this also helps to reduce the size of the leaves. Must be protected during the winter if temperatures get too low.

Watering: No specifics.

Feeding: Feed abundant, with a normal fertilizer monthly from spring to mid-autumn.

Pruning: Strong pruning is recommended in late winter. The olive will respond with vigorous growth in the following spring. For maintenance pruning, cut back to 2-3 pairs of leaves, and in very vigorous (and healthy) specimens you can use defoliation.

Repotting: Repot in spring before the buds begin to swell, every three or four years. Preferably use a bonsai mix with good drainage.

Propagation: From seeds and cuttings.


Ned working on removing large roots from the bottom of the root ball.

The olive is commonly found in Mediterranean countries, where it is a tree with strong symbolic importance. You can use cultivated varieties for bonsai (like the common olive) but it is often to use the wild olive (Olea europea silvestrys).

The wild olive is of greater interest for Bonsai as these develop tiny leaves. In many cases these possess much appreciated features like the presence of jin, shari and bark that indicate a high age and survival in hostile conditions. The Olive as bonsai is easy to care for and very strong so it is a suitable choice.

A medium sized Mediterranean tree which has been cultivated by men for thousands of years. Its trunks thicken very slowly, but the trees can become very old. The leaves are lanceolate and grayish green on the upper side and silvery grey with little hairs underneath. In spring yellow-white flower clusters can emerge, followed by green or black stone fruit. The olive is easy to care for, tolerates temporary droughts, but cannot endure frost. In temperate climates, it needs a frost-free place with as much light as possible.

Tuscany is famous for its regional olive oils. Tuscan olive trees are visually the same as olive trees anywhere else. Because olive trees look virtually the same, identifying cultivars can be a challenge.1

John cutting leaves off of his olive tree brought for show & tell.

John has a lot of experience in bonsai. He purchased his first bonsai in 1961 for $50.00, which is still living and a part of his collection. John has studied bonsai under many master bonsai artists, such names as John Naka.

John recommended when choosing an olive for bonsai, select older stock. The trunk will be larger, bark will show signs of age and there may even be deadwood features, such as jin, shari.

Ned Lycett and Dave Hattam working on the demo tree.

Ned began working the demo tree which John selected from his collection. He started first by cleaning the top soil from around the trunk’s base. The plastic container was cut earlier to exposed three to four inches of soil and surface roots. Ned cut off all the suckers growing around the trunk’s base and lower parts. John and Ned intended to repot the demo tree into a bonsai pot.

Ned combed the surface roots to radiate away from the trunk base. The next step required a power saw to cut the root ball nearly in half, so that it would fit the bonsai pot. Use of a power saw on the demo tree removed all large, downward growing roots. Not a problem with a healthy olive tree. Ned then used a bonsai scissors to cut the trailing roots. He would clean cut the roots remaining on the root ball. Small and unwanted branches were cut off. John mentioned that a piece of plywood can be used under the root ball in order to force the roots to grow flat and radiate from the trunk.

Ned preparing to repot the demo tree.

Ned prepared the bonsai pot with plastic screens and tie down wires for repotting purposes. He then went through the steps of repotting. First, laying a bonsai soil mix on the bottom of the pot. Then placing the olive tree in the pot, making sure it fit correctly. Ned added soil mix and tied the tree into the pot securely. Watering the bonsai is a critical step at this point in repotting.

Ivan took over at this point and did some light wiring of branches to create movement and styling or shape. He brought branches down and also twisted them from side to side for a more natural appearance of an older olive.

Critical review of the finished repotting process

Upon completion of the demonstration, member Tom Giannini won the raffle drawing and took home a very nice olive bonsai. Care of the olive bonsai will require watering and fertilizer, as well as keeping an eye for the copper wire cutting into the branches during the growing season.

– George Haas

Winner of the raffle Tom Giannini standing between Ned and John.


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