Where mindfulness meets the Afra
Looking for the right bonsai for you can be a little tricky for someone new to the art. The typical process involves an hour long Q&A with Google, browsing through retro websites fit for the Atari or the genuine consideration for buying a tree worth a small house. However, once you’ve quickly built the immunity needed to look past overly complicated forum advice, you’ll have your eye on a select few that tick the right boxes. The Afra, here in the UK, will almost certainly be one of those trees.
If you’re anything like us, Youtube will be another port of call. The ability to get some quick commentary, advice and thoughts from users can be invaluable and will probably cement your decision. But be in no doubt: If that search term is the word “Afra”, then you’ll probably be sitting in front of one in 2-3 working days.
The reason for this will be apparent pretty quickly. You’ll be presented with a number of vibrant and enchanting thumbnails, all of which imprint a sense of creativity that you may not be used to regardless of whether you’ve been hands on with an Afra or not. As you work your way through the Little Jade Bonsai videos the waves of excitement will only build momentum and we can safely say that yes, you can do it too.
We had the pleasure of catching up with Gilbert Cantu at the Little Jade Bonsai to understand more about the Afra, the man behind the channel and the prominent role the Afra plays for someone that naturally craves a connection with nature.
You’re the Afra man.
“Haha. That’s awesome. To be honest I've always been a plant person. My father had a greenhouse when I was young and he used to spend time in there after he’d been out running but I'd always wondered why. As I’ve grown I now understand”
“We all live stressful lives, you know? I run a design business so I’m on a computer all day. I’m an artist, too, but that still means I’m working from home all the time. I get so stressed because as much as I love my job and using the computer; I love nature, and after a long day I’m gonna go trim my trees. Even if it's just one tree I work on, it keeps me balanced. I don’t know where I’d be if I didn't have them”
Our discussion carried an undertone of what it is to practice mindfulness and influence a more positive sense of mental wellbeing, a subject in which we didn't shy away from talking about and sharing our ambitions through The Happy Shrub.
We managed to catch Gilbert whilst he had been cleaning the yard in the afternoon sun. He lives in Southern Texas, having moved back to his hometown of Corpus Christi from Huston, where he had attended Art School. Temperatures sit between 20-30 degrees for most of the year. Luxury or unbearable? I think us here in the UK might be split down the middle.
So your Afras seem to be your home away from home then?
“Yeah, absolutely. It forces you to breathe. It forces you to slow down. Work can be crazy as I specialise in advertising or graphic design work and everything surrounds some sort of deadline. I’m jumping from project to project because I’m self-employed so I have to work quickly. When I go out and grab a tree, I just slow down and, I don't know, it does more for you than you think it does, as you said, you’ve got to slow down.”
What is it about the Afra that you like then?
“Well, it was 19 years ago when I first got into bonsai. I had bought juniper and started reading more about bonsai, which led me to buy a few more, so I ended up with 15 or so. Unfortunately I killed them all. Well, all but one: the Afra. I thought to myself “Okay, if I can keep that one alive, that’s my goal.
When I started looking into the species [Afra] more, a lot of what I was reading online was wrong. There was also a lot of confusion between the Afra and the Crassula, too... So I thought “let me step away from reading and figure out what this is all about”. So I started getting to know it better, taking cuttings and growing new ones. Every cutting I potted started to take and just thought “I love this plant. Let this be my focus.” 19 years later here I am.”
This is something that we were incredibly conscious of here at The Happy Shrub. One of our goals here was to provide enough accurate information to ensure all bonsai thrive. However, and this goes for all plants, there’s all sorts of environmental variables to consider when growing so the more you spend time with your plants, the more you understand what their particular needs are exactly - such as light, water, etc.
“You know, I get questions on social media all the time. I’ll get 15 messages on insta saying what's wrong with my tree, its dropping leaves what do i do? It’s more like okay, there's a lot of things I need to know... but, that’s what’s so cool about this species: they can adapt!
I have a friend in Hawaii and they live in what’s like a rainforest so it rains a ton but they do so well over there. I also have friends in Arizona and it's all desert and they thrive over there too. They flower more in dryer conditions with full sun, it’s crazy. You know, I’ve not been able to get any of mine to flower and it’s because I water and fertilise a lot. A friend of mine down the street has a big one and it flowers all the time. It gets full sun and not much water or fert, it’s also an older tree, but it flowers a lot.”
So tell me more about the Little Jade Bonsai Channel. Is there a team or what?
“It’s just me! I’m filming and, like I said, I’m an artist and do a bit of photography but I'm not great with being on camera. I struggle. A friend of mine gave me some lights and what not so I’m trying to do better. I grow all of my trees on the side of my house. Wish I could shoot outside but I’m near a main road so cars can be a pain for audio”
We’re exactly the same: the nerves have got the better of us from time to time. Particularly when it comes to live video.
“It’s funny because, with the whole bonsai thing, I never thought I’d be a Youtuber or have a following, as such. I just really enjoy sharing knowledge and helping others that want to be closer with nature. Just have fun with it, you know.”
With the kind of strong brand you have - as “Little Jade Bonsai” - we assumed you would be distributing these around the world. I mean, the videos are of such a great quality.
“Well with my job in marketing, graphic design and advertising, my role is to create brands for companies. So I think that’s where it comes from. I did want it to look professional and use what I’m good at to make it look nice. You know, I am actually working on a book for the Afra. I’m taking pictures and working on the layout right now but I had planned on really getting it done last year, ready for release this year, but when Covid-19 began I needed to secure my normal work so the book took a back seat. It’s tough because the more I work on the book the more I want to add. Last time I was working on it I counted 120 odd pages, rather than the 50 I was aiming for. haha.
I have all my bonsai books and hold them dear to me so I think it would be really cool. I plan for it to have care instructions and frequently asked questions, as well as photos. Just like I try to do with my videos: I’d love to introduce life stories, time with the trees, etc. You know, a bit of everything around Afra but more my way of training and my experience with the Afra. There's a lot of other bonsai artists out there who have done this a long time. There’s a perception from others that there's only one way to do things but there’s really not. ‘Traditional’ bonsai doesn't seem to meet with many ‘Modern’ takes. For instance, I love to use star wars figures, I think they’re great”
Bonsai is truly a case of ‘beauty in the eyes of the beholder’. With the art being dated as old as millennia, it's fair to say that bonsai carries techniques and appearances which can be considered traditional. In all arts, from Karate to interior design, traditional and modern are two ends of a very fluid spectrum and both carry very significant roles in keeping this beautiful and endearing art form alive.
What’s your advice to anyone new to the art who would pick up an Afra?
“Well, every species has their own guidelines and rules (light, direct sun, etc). Every plant has its own thing that will help it to thrive... It’s hard to say one thing. It just comes down to listening and watching the tree grow. The plant will tell you if it's happy or not. You just need to listen.
And just going back to mindfulness for a minute, how has it played a part in your life or are there any prominent times to better yourself with this?
"Bonsai reminds me of my dog, Kenobi, because he’s always there for me. I feel like they’re always there for me, too. I still have the plant that outlived the others, I name it the Godfather, and I feel like I know it so well. I’ve taken so many cuttings from it and I suppose I just treat it with so much respect because it’s just such a strong tree. It sounds kind of crazy but I feel it really understands me. Sounds weird I know but even my wife knows that if I need to calm down a little I’ll be outside once I’ve grabbed my little trimmers. It forces me to breathe and I'm a lot more relaxed after."
It’s great to think about how I’ve also turned a lot of my friends to bonsai, too. When I have visitors I always give them a little tree to start off with. Fast forward a few months and they’re doing the same with their friends. It’s amazing to think about."
When we approached the idea of blogs such as this, we were genuinely excited to dive in the deep end because we knew how valuable these conversations could be to enthusiasts and newcomers alike. However, actually being on a video call with Gilbert and working our way through the conversation shone a light on how inexperienced we might just be at this kind of thing. The primary reason being, as we put the final touches on this piece, there’s a lingering feeling that we may have done Gilbert a discredit by using the written word. We were greeted with open arms and painted a picture of life in the lone star state as well as a very humble introduction to the Afra from someone so established and highly thought of around the world, albeit in a very niche fashion.
Gilbert's videos and pictures spark a breath of fresh creativity for thousands of people who watch him on Youtube and, having spoken at length with someone who naturally inspires, the pleasure of it all unquestionably rested in the hands of The Happy Shrub.