Ficus for bonsai

Fig trees, or Ficus spp, are often encountered in commercial trade. Vilified as mallsai (e.g., the ginseng ficus), most of these are mass produced. As such, many people believe ficus to be unsuitable for bonsai practice. Nothing is less true. Well-trained and cared for properly the species make for excellent tropical bonsai.

Ficus benjamina (left) and microcarpa

Note that most of the ficus ‘bonsai’ sold in large furniture chains and supermarkets are often the combination of two varieties or even species of fig. The main trunk is often a regular Ficus macrocarpa. This is a fast-growing species with large leaves. When the trunk is grown, these are grafted with a dwarf variety of the same species (e.g., F. macrocarpa ‘green island’) or even another species. Cutting off the grafted foliage can lead to sprouting of the original trunk and thus, coarser growth branches.

Ficus carica, the species which produces the edible figs, are only rarely seen as bonsai. In mediteranian climates however some growers are successful and leaves may reduce down to about 5cm.

Ficus bonsai identification

Ficus is a large group of tree species characterized by inverted flowers. The most commonly used species are fast growing species which in the tropics grow out to a height of 10+ meters tall. The leaves are staggered rather than opposing and when healthy, highly glossy. The leaves from F. microcarpa en F. Benjamina have a slightly pointed end, allowing for water to drip off more easily. When a leaf or branch is cut, a white sap comes out, natural latex.

Do not mistake Ficus bonsai with

Ligustrum spp. The foliage of ficus is sometimes mixed up with privets. Privets however have much smaller, and semi-opposing leaves.

Ficus bonsai position

All fig species are sunlovers. In full sun sufficient water is however crucial.

Ficus are tropical to Mediterranean species. As far as I know, only the edible fig, ficus carica, can stand light frost. All others need to be brought indoors during cold spells (sustained temperatures below ~10c and/or frost). The indoors spot needs to be as bright as possible. A window with southern exposure is optimal. Over summer the plants are best outside in full sun.

Hint: When ficus is brought indoors for winter, often many leaves drops. This is a response to changes in position as well as the dry air indoors and frequently reduced water availability. Ficus is adjusted to dry-seaons by dropping foliage. Reduce this response by placing a transparent bag over the tree for some 2 weeks.

When moving the tree outdoors for summer, keep in mind it is not used to the direct sun, and sunburn is guaranteed if the tree is placed in direct sun. As such, first put the tree in the shade for 2 weeks, then in dappled sun, before moving it into full sun, otherwise part of the leaves will get burnt.

Ficus bonsai watering

Ficus are often described as species that likes to be kept dry. This is only the case when it is cold. If kept warm, the roots need constant access to water. Here access to oxygen is important, so an open substrate is required. Normal potting soil often is of poor quality and creates anaerobic mud (leading to root mortality)

Ficus bonsai trimming

Ficus can be pruned without constrained. Trimming is best done during late spring, after the tree has spent a bit of time in the sun outside. That leaves enough summer growing to recover, yet has allowed the tree to regain strength after a dark winter (This of course for people in cold climates). During winter indoors and directly after, figs are weak and may not respond as expected to a strong trim.

In late spring backbudding can be induced by trimming off all the growing tips. Do this only with healthy specimens.

Ficus bonsai repotting

Healthy figs fill a pot in 1-2 years and can best be repotted in late spring, after the weather has warmed up a little.

Ficus bonsai propagation

Ficus is very easy to propagate as cutting. Sticking any size branch in moist soil under warm conditions will have a high strike rate. Growing from seed is only for those who can source seed locally as seed loose viability quickly.

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