Carving Juniper by Neli Stoyanova

Carving Juniper by Neli Stoyanova

NELI STOYANOVA ::: Imagine if you are a bonsai artist, living in a country in the interior of the African continent that no one had status as bonsai enthusiasts, many wild beasts ‘hanging around’ in the forest …. what would you do?

That’s the situation faced by Neli Stoyanova, a female bonsai artist who lived in Zambia, a country sandwiched by some countries such as Angola, Congo, Malawi, northern Namibia, Bostwana, and Zimbagwe.

“The biggest problem is that I can not buy anything bonsai related here…and have to improvise a lot. I do dig all the time, we have a game ranch with wild animals, 7000acres fenced,” said Neli Stoyanova on Neli was born in Bulgaria, have been in Africa since 1978. Okay … Let us refer to the narrative of her journey in the world of bonsai :

I went for apprenticeship to Taisho-en international bonsai school. I have had commercial nurseries for over 25 years, but bonsai I started seriously not so long ago. My teacher is the world known master from Japan, Urushibata, from Taisho-en in Shizuoka. I have a diploma from there. I have gone to Japan twice.

I love bonsai because they fill my life with Joy! They bring me something new every day, something to look for in the future. They make me hope and dream. I am an artist. Artists have this urge to create. Ones life is not full, if that urge to create is not fulfilled. Bonsai fill gaps in my life, and make it complete.

Neli receive a certificate from Master Urushibata

Neli receive a certificate from Master Urushibata

I have several areas filled with bonsai, and prebonsai. I even bought the plot next door because I run out of space. I have several bonsai-en, hospital-en, mame-en, growing area. Number of bonsai: Hard to say… do I count finished bonsai only or prebonsai also? They should be in the thousands then many thousands. Varieties? I think almost every thing tropical. I collect figs, so imported many varieties. I love and have black pines, Yatsubusa white pines, which I plan to grow in a deep freezer to create winter for it, with glass on top. Different maples, gingko, Australian native trees, Indigenous African trees, which I want to study, learn and teach about. I have too many species to count. Lets say, anything that can grow here and some that can not grow also. I like trying varieties of material that no one has tried yet too.

I am the only one here in Zambia that keeps bonsai, that I know of. But through the garden club where I have been giving lectures, I have collected several individuals, that are beginning the hobby. The biggest problem is that I can not buy anything bonsai related here, and have to improvise a lot. I like shohin and mame, but enjoy and have bigger bonsai too. I find shohin more challenging, but also rewarding if executed well. Mame is the hardest of them all. Growing for 15- 20cm a tree in the tiniest container requires lots of dedication.One small mistake and your tree is gone, but while it is alive there is nothing like it.

I tried to specialize in pines and junipers. I have been invited recently to teach about it some members of the South African bonsai forum, plus locally in conjunction with the garden club. We dont have yet a bonsai club here, but hopefully one will be started soon. I try and help any one, regardless of the distance. Bonsai is a force that unites people from all over the world in a wonderful way, crossing boundaries of religion and great distances.

In her forest, 7000 acres and fenced, Neli is digging Yamadori

In the forest, 7000 acres and fenced, Neli is digging Yamadori

I am a former university lecturer/business woman and engineer by profession, but my love for plants started at a very early age. That resulted in opening 3 commercial garden nurseries in Lusaka during the past 25 years or probably longer. Imported many bonsai from Japan, for my personal collection. Imported also some from India, mostly different varieties of figs.

Funny experience with bonsai? Yes I have. I am a spoiled brat, that has help at home. Going to school/apprenticeship, at this age, was the hardest thing I have done in many years. Starting with the bed, that was as hard as concrete, and I got terrible back pain every morning, working every day on many trees until your fingers start to bleed from wiring…going to school on a bicycle…up a steep hill, sweeping at the nursery every day… (not really hard, just dont do it home). Getting food poisoning from sushi, getting lost, so that everyone starts searching for me and Oyakata (teacher) calls the police. It was hard some time, but we laughed every day, for our Master is a wonderful, kind, patient man and thought us everything personally. Not to forget that he bought us ice cream every single day and he still does it with the new apprentices.

I am proud I survived the back pain from sitting bent every day over a bonsai, and the hard bed at night …. and learned so much while at it. But the greatest experience and joy was when Oyakata said several times that my juniper is styled to perfection. It was ones in a life time experience.

A Mame by Neli Stoyanova

A Mame by Neli Stoyanova

I have been trying to figure out what really is my favorite style in bonsai. Initially I did not like much the traditional style of styling pines and junipers in Japan. I thought it somewhat unnatural, and monotonous, but still decided to go and learn from the best. I thought if one learns how to style bonsai in traditional Japanese style, and all the techniques that go with it, one can style anything after that. But ones you are there you can not fail to appreciate the beauty of it and how hard it is to achieve good bonsai, in that style. I still lean a bit more towards more natural looking trees, but not the untidy look, caused by lazy way of commercially styling trees, some people labeled as new natural style. I believe in, make a bonsai look like a tree and not a tree look like bonsai, but one thing I have to applaud Japanese masters for is their quest for perfection, and total dedication. For them it is either perfect or it is bad. There is nothing in between.

I also like our African styles, like Pierneef, Flat top, baobab, and several others. They represent to me my environment and the inspiration our type of trees evoke in me. I believe one should concentrate on his indigenous trees first , and try to style them in unique, different way, so that ones one look at a tree they can know the variety just from the outline. Also, I love curving my trees. I managed to import all the tools one needs for that. Starting with angle grinder, die grander, Dremel, and all the bits that go with them, from different parts of the world.

I think probably I have over 300 different bits and cutting discs, Managed to burn already a Dremel and a Ryobi, carvers but learned not to be too hard on them again. Dead wood gives life to a tree, in a strange way it animates it, and makes it real.  My biggest ambition is to write ( I am actually writing it now) an article on pines and junipers styling, that no one has done in the way I want to do it. I hope my efforts will be fruitful, and that will help people understand better how pines and junipers are styled. []



  1. Vern Smith says:

    Very interesting…I think many Bonsai artists, myself included, take their proximity to supplies and materials for granted…however, the flipside for you is that it forces you to be more innovative and creative, which is a good state for an artist to be in! It definitely shows in your work!

    • Neli says:

      Thanks Vern. I guess you are right. But if you had seen me wiring at first with steel wire that springs back… :) you would have laughed. Nothing too inspirational about that.

  2. Neli says:

    Thank You Iwan. This are some of the mama and papa giraffes. We had 3 babies this year at the game ranch, but did not manage to take a picture of them yet.
    The little mame I bought in Japan, so it is not really my work. But have plenty more at home.
    I wish you new how hard it is not to be able to go to a shop and buy a bonsai pot. I will buy soon from abroad, but need to travel for that again. I bought some Tokoname pots in Japan, but not too many and not too big. Meanwhile I have been making my own pots by curving stones.which I have become an “expert” on, and cement for grow up pots. It is not easy but gives variety to every day life.

  3. Theresia Waypong says:

    Life story of a memorable journey … Neli, keep moving and do for bonsai. Salut

    • Neli says:

      Thanks Theresia. I shall go to indonesia Malaysia next. They know their deciduous there.

  4. Jubah Fesyen says:

    Why did you not tell the locals to dig Yamadori from the forest? I believe Africa has a diverse native species and quality, have the typical forms of a tree.

    • Neli says:

      I dig every month. On the SA forum they told me dont dig this month. They will die. I kept on digging every month yamadori with almost no roots and they kept surviving. You can dig/transplant any time with proper after care.
      You can see here some of my yamadori expditions, but had no time to post the trees yet.:

  5. Peter Chan says:

    Good luck with your bonsai.
    I admire your courage and spirit.
    All the best

  6. Neli says:

    Thank you!

  7. Мартин says:

    Не знаех, че има българи в Замбия, а още по-малко бонсай-майстори. Поздрави от Родината!

  8. JP Riberio says:

    Just one word … SALUT!
    You are a warrior art of bonsai. You live in a country that has a lot of specific trees, exploitation and cultivated it. You have a chance to contribute to the ‘coloring’ the world of bonsai in the future.

    Greeting from Brasil

    • Neli says:

      JP, Thank You for the kind words. You are right! One should first concentrate on his local trees. It is the most sensible idea. Though no one has bonsied them yet, so info on likes and dislikes is not available, it is a must to learn more about them. I like trying things no one has tried yet. I just wish that I can ID them some how. I have failed to ID most of them, and that is not for luck of trying.

    • Neli says:

      Thank you! That is a fantastic idea. I shall soon finish all the indigenous trees on our ranch….:) I have collected many different types.

  9. hernandez says:

    Like reading an epic
    saludos desde Mexico

    • Neli says:

      I am glad someone finds my adventures in the world of bonsai interesting. saludos desde Zambia! And may God bless you.

  10. Borton Haynes says:

    Just curious, do you live with son and husband in Zambia? Or you take care of all of it alone?

    • Neli says:

      Unfortunatly I lost my only son in an accident, and dont have a husband any more. I have several gardeners that help me.

  11. Krajichek says:

    Tisztelettel a Neli. Üdvözöllek benneteket az elkötelezettség bonsai. Eddig, ha valaha is visszatér Magyarországra?

  12. Neli says:

    I have been to Hungary. It is a lovely place. Thanks for the compliment.

  13. hari bakti says:

    Great Neli.
    I am extremely appreciated for your biography.
    So great doing work ….

  14. rofiq says:

    interesting and admirable personal

  15. Rajawali Bonsai says:

    Was glad to read it. Greeting from Indonesia

    • Neli says:

      Rajawali, When I come next year to Indonesia I hope we shall have some fun, and see lots of nice bonsai.

  16. Theresia Waypong says:

    Neli, what you are planting and gardening in Zambia?

    • Neli says:

      Darling Theresia, You can see some ofmy garden here:
      and here:
      and my old pond (I have a new one)
      I brought lots of plants from all over the world. I think I have almost everything, and if I dont have it will not sleep until I get it. Crazy woman where plants are concerned.

  17. プラダ バイロン says:

    Keep the spirit.
    Best appreciation for you ….

  18. Jonathan Cain says:

    Quite an adventure. I am sure that bonsai in Zambia will start to grow.

    • Neli says:

      Thank You Jonathan. With your help and advise I am sure that everything is possible.

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