Miniature trees are big business

Scot Robert Macnair turns bonsai hobby into thriving business in Dubai.

Robert Macnair, chief executive of Bonsai Middle East, works on a ghaf tree bonsai. Antonie Robertson / The National
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The question “who would buy them?” almost turned Robert Macnair off starting a business from his hobby of growing bonsai trees.

But he was determined. A year later he is recognised as the UAE’s foremost expert and is preparing the region’s first exhibition on the ancient Japanese art in November.

Originally from Edinburgh, Mr Macnair took up bonsai between 1986 and 1987, when recovering from a leg fracture.

Then aged 30, he came across a bonsai seed kit that his wife was preparing to send to his mother as a birthday gift.

“I had seen bonsais before and I was always quite fascinated, so I kept it,” he said. “My mother never received the little kit.”

He followed the instructions and about six weeks later, something that looked “like a blade of grass” came out of the little pot.

A few years later he spent £280 (Dh1,614) on his first bonsai – a Chinese juniper. The tree died.

“I killed it,” Mr Macnair said. “A lot of people have. You don’t know what you are doing.

“At that time there was no help. I couldn’t WhatsApp anyone or email. I learnt by reading books on it and through experience.”

By 1991, Mr Macnair’s skills had improved to the degree that he was able to sell bonsais at a market in Bordeaux, France.

The former property executive’s most memorable customer at that time was a man in a cream open-top Rolls-Royce, who pulled up in front of his stand early one morning as he was working on an arrangement of trees.

The man was insisted on buying the display after being told it was not for sale. Eventually a price of 2,000 French francs was reached and the arrangement found a home in a countryside chateau.

The trees require precise care, with just the right amount of water and sunlight. The type of pot used to grow them and the growing medium are also important.

Mr Macnair’s company, Bonsai Middle East, has a diverse group of customers. Some take the bus from as far as Al Qusais to reach his Jumeirah nursery, where he has almost 400 trees.

Others send in personal assistants to direct him to corporate offices and royal palaces.

An increasing number of people are also attending his classes on how to make bonsai and kokedama, a traditional Japanese form in which moss is tied around the roots of a plant.

Like any tree, bonsai can be grown from seed but Mr Macnair prefers tree-hunting expeditions from naturally-occurring dwarfed trees, which the Japanese called yamadori.

The process occurs when the shoots of very young trees are repeatedly grazed by animals over many years. This is also how the ancient art originated.

People living in rural China would harvest such trees, sometimes with great effort, and sell them to royalty and professionals. From China, bonsai travelled to Japan, where many style rules were introduced and are followed to this day.

When buying a tree, people should make inquiries about its age because real bonsai are at least 10 years old, Mr Macnair said.

The attraction for him comes from the ability to change an average-looking tree into something more beautiful. He often does just that, offering to replace friends’ trees with already-finished bonsai.

“They call it living sculpture and it is a sculpture that never finishes,” Mr Macnair said. “It is not frustrating, it is a pleasure every time to work on them.”

The exhibition will display bonsai trees and feature tutorials on styling them. Mr Macnair is working out the details after securing the exhibition’s first major sponsor.