Cultivating interests: How a renowned Philippine landscape artist went from bonsai enthusiast to award-winning collector

Bobby Gopiao is an award-winning bonsai collector in the Philippines.

By Patricia Bianca S. Taculao

The word bonsai is a Japanese term that directly translates to “planted in a container.” The ultimate goal of this horticultural art form is to create a miniature but realistic representation of nature in the form of a tree.

In the Philippines, many bonsai enthusiasts spend time, effort, and money to create their version of nature. Some enthusiasts have already found their footing in the art form and have become award-winning experts in the field.

One of these experts is Bobby Gopiao, one of the Philippines’ top landscape artists who started his interest in the art of bonsai when he was just a high school freshman at the Ateneo High School where he joined a botany club.

At a young age, Gopiao showed an interest in collecting plants.

The club’s moderator was a priest who had an affinity for bonsai. Eventually, Gopiao learned more about the art of making bonsai as well as how to care for them as they mature.

Like mother, like son

Gopiao’s involvement in horticulture didn’t just come from being a member of a botany club in Ateneo High School. It is also a result of his mother’s influence.

Corazon Gopiao also introduced the world of landscaping to her son Bobby who was a teenager at the time when the tourism industry boomed in the mid-1970s. From then, Gopiao’s mother shifted her focus from supplying food to five-star hotels to creating eye-catching landscape installments into the same establishments.

“My mom and I would go around Los Baños looking for plants. My mom collected orchids and I got into bromeliads, cycads, and then my interest began to vary,” Gopiao said.

But being a plant enthusiast in the 70s wasn’t easy. During that time, imported plants weren’t as easy to obtain as they are now. Gopiao added that it was only the professors of the University of the Philippines in Los Baños who could bring rare plant species into the country.

Learning how to care for rare plants was also a challenge during this decade since the information was only available in select books and yet to be available to the public.

To guide him in his horticultural pursuits, Gopiao would ask for books on plants from his aunt who was overseas. But most of all, he remembered and applied the things he learned from his botany club and their moderator until he became well-acquainted in caring for all kinds of plants.

As he became more well-versed, Gopiao realized that caring for plants usually requires the same elements but only varies on the amount that they need to receive to survive.

Creating award-winning, top quality bonsais

Even though Gopiao exhibited a great interest in bonsai, he stopped collecting them when he was in college so he could focus more on his studies. But when he went on trips to other Southeast Asian countries, he rekindled his passion for collecting miniature trees.

Gopiao managed to acquire about 40 to 50 different trees that became recognized for their quality as well as a unique style which was a result of Gopiao’s efforts and creativity.

He would go on to become the grand champion of the World Bonsai Friendship Federation in 2006 as well as the three-time Best in Show of the Philippine Bonsai Society Inc. (PBSI) Bonsai Exhibition and Competition.

Over the years as a bonsai collector, Gopiao has joined groups such as the Asia Pacific Bonsai and Suiseki Convention & Exhibition (ASPAC), Asia-Pacific Bonsai Friendship Federation (ABFF), and the PBSI where he became president for several years.

Some tips for aspiring bonsai enthusiasts

To create quality bonsai, Gopiao said to start with a good quality tree that will last through the years since tending to bonsais will take the same amount of time and the same materials to shape it according to the collector’s preference, but if it started from a good quality tree, the results could be favorable.

Gopiao received various recognitions and awards for his bonsais.

He added that a good example of a tree to start with is the balete tree, which is sturdy and can last longer because it is accustomed to the Philippines’ climate.

Another characteristic of a good quality bonsai, according to Gopiao, is a tapering trunk. This means that the trunks get thinner as it grows, and is one of the marks of a well-cultivated bonsai.

In caring for bonsai, Gopiao said that the process is never-ending and requires both collectors and enthusiasts to keep learning how to properly work with and care for bonsais, as well as become knowledgeable the particular varieties that are known among collectors.

Gopiao also said that being interested in bonsai knows no age.

“Bonsai making may look like it’s for aged people only because they’re the ones who people usually see, but there are also young ones who are interested in this art form. In our bonsai groups, we have members who are just seven-years-old but are already showing an interest in bonsai-making,” the renowned bonsai collector said.

Making a bonsai takes a lot of dedication. Not only does it need a lot of work to become a miniature representation of nature, but it also takes years for a miniature tree to mature, which needs a lot of supervision from the collector to keep it from growing any larger than the desired size.

Not mixing business with bonsai

As a landscape artist, Bobby Gopiao has had all kinds of clients who requested his services in creating a curated area in their space where both art and nature are equally represented.

Gopiao has done all kinds of landscaping designs such as Japanese gardens, formal gardens, and modern gardens per his clients’ requests. But his favorite is making tropical gardens since it’s easy to do given our climate.

Being a plant collector also has its perks for Gopiao. Because of his knowledge and experience with plants, he can create landscapes that provide plants with the optimum amount of sun, water, and air that they need in order to thrive.

Despite this, Gopiao doesn’t build landscapes that involve bonsai unless clearly stated by the client. The reason behind this is that bonsais need a lot of care as well as supervision for them to thrive and grow into a miniature tree which is what bonsais are.

Presently, Gopiao has 40 to 50 bonsais in his care.

Adding that element into his landscapes without the clients’ approval would thus defeat Gopiao’s goal for his designs: practicality.

“I always think about practicality when landscaping. I must think about what best fits the clients’ preferences while also assessing if the plants that I will add to the design will thrive under their care. The overall aesthetic will follow after all the elements have been sorted out accordingly,” Gopiao said.

He makes it a point to carefully select which plants that can withstand the Philippine climate.

Some things to consider before having an area landscaped

Before having an area landscaped, Gopiao advises homeowners to think about how much time and effort they’re willing to put into maintaining their garden over the years since he believes that it needs to be sustainable for it to be enjoyed for a long time.

This involves taking care of the plants included in the design by watering, weeding, and pruning them among other maintenance work.

Gopiao added that homeowners need to know more about the plants that they want to have in their area. This can be done by learning their basic requirements, how much of it do they need, and when do they need it.

But plants aren’t the only thing that needs to be cared for in a landscaped area. All the elements present there must also be cared for so that the area will look its best and stand through the test of time.

“There is no such thing as a maintenance-free garden. Every single thing you plant in your garden, you will have to maintain. Even your pebbles you have to maintain; you have to clean your pebbles for it to look neat,” Gopiao said.

Creating a landscaped area is not an easy task. Artists like Gopiao have to consider a lot of elements, both living and material, to create a sustainable design that fits their clients’ requests.

Some requests may even prove to be challenging. For instance, some clients may require rare elements such as imported plants to be a part of the overall concept. This is where the artist’s creativity and practicality come into play. They have to create a balance between what they’re told to do and what they should do to maintain a garden.

With his eye for art and knowledge about plants, Gopiao has become a respected landscape artist in the Philippines who can create designs that are picturesque and sustainable.

Bobby Gopiao is among the many bonsai collectors and landscape artists who have made their mark in the horticulture industry through their hard work and creativity. And as the horticulture industry continues to grow because of how gardening is trending today, it’s only a matter of time before people can see the potential of bonsai as well as other ornamentals.

Photos courtesy of Bobby Gopiao. 

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Patricia Bianca S. Taculao
Patricia Taculao, or Patty as she likes to be called, is a content producer for Manila Bulletin Digital Lifestyle. She graduated from University of Santo Tomas with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism. She loves to spend her free time, reading, painting, and watching old movies.

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