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Ficus Bonsai Offer Enjoyment Year-round

March 07, 2023Beginners, General, Plants

Ficus bonsai in a round pot against a natural wood background

Looking for a low-maintenance bonsai you can keep indoors year-round?  You need look no further than the familiar ficus. Yes, this common houseplant enjoys popularity in the world of bonsai as well.

Ficus are among the easiest indoor specimens to grow and maintain as bonsai, making them especially suited for those just getting started in the hobby. Seasoned hobbyists appreciate them as well because they are simple to style, have evergreen foliage, and can be enjoyed year-round.

Let’s explore some background on ficus, look at the varieties of ficus commonly used for bonsai, and cover how to care for them.

About Ficus

Ficus, also known as fig, is an ancient and diverse plant genus comprised of close to 1,000 species of trees, shrubs and vines. Found mostly in tropical and subtropical regions, all figs characteristically “bleed” a white to yellowish latex sap at the point of an injury. 

Another interesting trait found in many species of ficus is the tendency to produce aerial roots. Aerial roots sprout from the tree’s trunk and grow downward towards the ground where they take root and grow into a trunk-like structure to provide additional support to the tree. In the practice of bonsai, aerial roots are desirable for the visual interest they add to a specimen.

Most people are familiar with the sweet, tasty fruit of the Ficus carica, or common fig. This is the only species cultivated to any extent for its fruit. However, the fruit of most fig species is edible and, in their native environments, represents an important food source for wildlife.

Ficus Used in Bonsai

Ficus microcarpa, also known as Chinese banyan, is a favorite for bonsai. This species encompasses a number of subspecies, which has generated some interesting horticultural confusion.

A dwarf variety of Taiwanese Ficus microcarpa, which is almost universally mislabeled as Ficus retusa, is the most popular ficus used in the hobby of bonsai! Its small dark green oval leaves and ability to develop aerial roots makes this variety an excellent choice for the hobby. The actual Ficus retusa plant looks similar, but has larger leaves and is not generally used for bonsai.

These bonsai and pre bonsai sold as Ficus retusa are readily available in the marketplace. They are often presented in either an upright form or in a more stylized S-shape. 

Small tree against a green background
An example of the dwarf Ficus macrocarpa variety usually sold as Ficus retusa.

The graceful Ficus benjamina, or weeping fig, is a popular indoor shrub and tree frequently used in the decor of homes and commercial buildings. Its glossy green oval leaves taper sharply on the end to a narrow tip. When kept in humid conditions, this ficus will often produce the aerial roots desirable in bonsai.

Ficus Benjamin forest planting
A Ficus benjamina forest planting.

The willow leaf ficus, or Ficus salicaria, has small elongated, pointed green leaves. Its common name stems from the similarity of its leaves to those of the weeping willow. Those small leaves and ability to develop aerial roots makes this ficus especially well-suited for bonsai.

In yet another instance of horticultural confusion, the willow leaf fig is commonly referred to as Ficus nerifolia or Ficus salicifolia.

The pointed leaves of willow leaf ficus
The pointed leaves of willow leaf ficus, Ficus salicaria, make it well-suited for bonsai.

One of the microcarpa cultivars, Ficus microcarpa ‘Ginseng‘, features a thick bulbous trunk reminiscent of ginseng root. The trunks of this fig are often grafted with a smaller-leaved variety of Ficus microcarpa, then marketed as bonsai trees.

Some hobbyists feel that both the look of the plant and its usual presentation in tall round pots falls outside of traditional bonsai practice. However, careful selection and pruning, along with the right bonsai pot, can go a long way towards producing a respectable specimen.

Misting a Ficus ginseng plant
Misting a Ficus microcarpa ‘Ginseng‘. Note the tall, round, un-bonsai-like pot.

Pruning and Wiring Ficus Bonsai

If doing major pruning work on a ficus bonsai, start by sculpting the foliage into a triangular shape. Next, hard prune to create pads of foliage. Finally, prune the tips of shoots down to two or three leaves. 

Wear gloves when pruning figs to avoid contact with the milky sap, which can cause skin irritation. Wait for the sap to stop flowing before applying cut paste to wound. 

Ficus is one of the easiest trees to propagate from cuttings. If you want more ficus plants, place some of your pruning cuttings into damp peat moss or a combination of peat and sand. Once they have a nice set of roots, you can pot them up individually.

If you opt to wire your ficus tree, keep a close eye on the wires. Because figs grow fast, wire marks can develop quickly and are especially noticeable on the smooth ficus bark. Wire often needs removal after just a short time. Sometimes the branches require re-wiring in order to hold the desired shape.

Bonsai wires disfiguring tree bark
Wires can quickly and permanently disfigure a fast-growing fig bonsai.

Care of Ficus Bonsai

Ficus are among the easiest subjects for indoor bonsai. Fast growers in their native climates, they grow somewhat less rapidly under temperate conditions.

Some species of ficus are quite susceptible to leaf drop. This is a tendency for some species to shed leaves suddenly and copiously. Underwatering, overwatering or repotting can cause leaf drop, although relocating the plant is also a major trigger for the condition. It’s best to choose one indoor spot for your tree, as opposed to moving it around.

Ideal Environment for Ficus

Place ficus near a window or patio door where it can get plenty of quality light. A south-facing window with direct sunlight is ideal for providing the most light possible. If you don’t have a sunny window, plan to supplement with a grow light. Be sure to turn your ficus around occasionally for even growth.  

Fig trees prefer a humid environment, and during warmer months, they benefit from being outdoors. Once the weather has warmed to the point where temperatures won’t fall below 60 degrees, it’s safe to move your ficus bonsai outside.

When fall rolls around and you bring your ficus indoors, expect to experience substantial leaf drop. In addition to losing leaves in response to the move, ficus trees naturally shed leaves in the fall months.

Figs’ thick, waxy leaves help them tolerate the lower humidity generally found in houses during winter. Still, to keep ficus bonsai healthy during dry winter months, place them on a rock-and-water-filled humidity tray and mist them once daily.

If you want to encourage aerial root development on your ficus, you’ll need to keep it in an environment with humidity near 100%. An old aquarium with a lid can serve as a good terrarium for small bonsai.

Watering, Fertilizing and Pests

Water ficus when the soil is slightly dry but before it dries out completely. Fertilize bi-weekly March through September, then monthly during the cooler winter months.

Ficus can suffer from infestations of insects such as scale and spider mites. A homemade soapy water mix or an insecticidal soap made for indoor use can help alleviate the problem.

Funguses often show up as spots on dying leaves. Fungicides can be useful, but good hygiene is instrumental in helping prevent the spread of fungus spores. Be sure to remove and dispose of all diseased plant parts and clear out any dead matter that may have dropped off the plant.

A Word of Caution About Ficus

As is the case with many plants, owning a ficus comes with some downsides. Be aware that the milky sap of fig plants acts as an irritant to the skin and eyes. It’s best to wear gloves when working with the tree.

In addition, the plant is toxic if consumed by pets or people, causing irritation to the mouth and gastrointestinal tract as well as vomiting and diarrhea. Take care to keep ficus out of the reach of pets and young children.

Ficus has also been implicated as an allergy trigger. Anyone with allergy sufferers in the family, particularly those allergic to latex, may want to steer clear of bringing any fig plants or bonsai into the home.

For more recommendations on species suited for bonsai, check out our article on ten varieties to consider.

Several species of ficus make excellent, easy-care bonsai suitable for beginners and seasoned hobbyists alike. Tropical and evergreen, they are favorite subjects for enjoying the hobby year-round.

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