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Tribute to a Tropical Bonsai Master


Jim Smith’s monster bougainvilleais a popular attraction at the gallery. Its pot is 4 feet long and the tree can only be moved by forklift!

I’ve long been a fan of Jim Smith. Both the bonsai artist and the man himself. Jim (sadly now deceased) was a true gentleman whose easy going, friendly manner left a positive impression with me each time I encountered him. So when I opened the latest online missive from the National Bonsai Foundation I was delighted to see a photo of Jim pruners in hand tending to one of his most famous trees, a Portulacaria afra that serves as the logo for The James J. Smith Bonsai Gallery at Heathcoat Botanical Gardens, in Fort Pierce, Florida.

We’ll start you off with a quote from the NBF article about Jim: “The world of bonsai is fortunate to encounter so many legendary artists, many of whom are immortalized in displays, buildings or collections at bonsai museums and gardens. For this installation of Bonsai Around the World, we highlight the bonsai collection of an eminent and accomplished icon in the Floridian bonsai community: James Smith. 

James Smith working on a 5-foot, formal upright Portulacaria Afra – the logo tree for the James J. Smith Bonsai Gallery in Fort Pierce, Florida. 

This magnificent Ficus exotica by Jim is 4 feet wide, has been in training since 1972 and was displayed at Epcot’s Flower and Garden Show in 2019.

Heathcote hosts a “Garden of Lights” event each year, bringing in 10,000 people to the bonsai gallery in a matter of weeks.

Podocarpus macrophylla by Jim that we featured on Bonsai Bark a few years ago. My best guess is that Jim used his own hedge shearing method to develop this tree. We found the photo at The Art of Bonsai Project. Speaking of the hedge shearing method, the first time i saw large one-handed shears being used was by Jim at his nursery (about 30 years ago). Because Jim had thousands of bonsai and bonsai stock he needed something fast to keep them in shape. Especially down in Florida where the growing season is year round. Since then I’ve discovered our Masters Koyo Sword Shears, which are quite similar to what Jim was using.

A mounded Buttonwood by Mother Nature and Jim. 

Another of Jim’s Portulacaria from the Heathcote Botanical Gardens.

This massive masterpiece that resides at the Heathcote Gardens is a Willow leaf ficus. Judging by what I saw at his nursery, Willow leaf ficus seem to be one of Jim’s favorites. 

This elegant Crepe myrtle by Jim also makes its home at Heathcote.

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