Ficus Techniques : 59

The Willow Leaf Fig - An Amazing Little Tree

by Dave Bogan

Ficus salicaria 'tissue cultured' grove, one



In my early years of bonsai, I became enamored by these little trees and started collecting them for my personal collection.  I have now worked with them for well over 20 years and in fact, I still have 2 of my original trees that started from 4 inch nursery pots. Currently I have over 200 of this species and I can easily state they are my favorite tropical and they make fantastic bonsai.  If kept in the proper environment and cared for correctly, I honestly don’t think you can kill one. 

Salicaria are generally culturally treated the same as any other ficus.  They do require light (the more intense the better) but little else. During my years of experimenting, one factor that many get confused about is the amount of water they actually need.  If one stops and thinks he or she will see that most ficus are almost succulent in nature.  They are plants used to growing in extreme conditions that may dictate infrequent or frequent rain.  So, they actually can store a lot of water within their structure to provide moisture over long periods of drought.  Cut one and they bleed.  Based on their ability to retain moisture, a lot of bonsai practices should be modified or at least re-thought.  Not only does this species retain moisture but it also has evolved to know how to find moisture and nutrients when needed. 

Through experimentation, I have found if they are potted in deep pots and in a soil that retains a lot of moisture, their roots barely grow and lengthen very little. If grown in a shallow container in a coarse soil and kept dry, the roots will grow and search. Look at pictures of old ficus in nature and you will see roots that grow very very long (searching for moisture and nutrients) and also roots that swell and retain even more moisture.

Another one of their many special traits has to do with their leaves.  Have you ever seen a ficus wilt? No, they never do. In fact, I have seen ficus in the hot summer sun with no moisture in their soil and the leaves not wilted. This is due to another of their traits.  Ficus retain a lot of moisture and can keep their leaves from wilting over long periods. If they do reach a critical drying point  where the tree is in danger, it will start dropping its leaves to retain its internal moisture.  Here again, I have seen ficus bone dry, lose their leaves and then after a few days of proper watering, they will re-sprout as if nothing ever happened.  Show me a maple, elm or pine that will do this. 

Another very useful trait that is very beneficial in bonsai is seen  after dropping their leaves (or being leaf pruned) and then receiving proper care, they will bud profusely all over the trunk and branches.  Leaf pruned regularly (mine are leaf pruned annually in June and some are done twice a year to increase ramification), they will develop great ramification in only a few years.  Another benefit of leaf pruning is a lot of new branches, more leaves and thus generally smaller leaves.  The only bad point is the bonsai can become so full that some inner branches will die back from lack of light. So, like most trees, they need to be thinned to allow light to the inner areas when branching gets too dense. 

Of great interest is a a new variety of Ficus salicaria that I have found. Not actually a new species but one that is started differently.  These new ficus are grown in “tissue culture’. A process where plant cells are used to start a whole new plant. In the case of these salicaria, they are started in a culture from leaves.  With this amazing process has developed a ficus with one very interesting characteristic.  The most significant change is how quickly the base of the trunk develops.

I first obtained a few of these from a bonsai vendor about 6 – 7 years ago. These amazing little trees had bases or bottom of the trunks that were 3 and 4 times larger than any other tree or plant of this size and age.  After raising a few of these for a couple of years, I now have several little ficus with over 6” bases and a height of only around 8”. I will say I have pruned them back and am keeping them at this height, but their ratio of trunk size to total tree size is amazing. 

Fat lower trunk in cloned stock
Huge lower trunk on cloned Fiicus salicaria

Three years ago, I finally tracked down a source for the tissue cultured ficus. The minimum purchase was 144 trees but I just had to have more.  These arrived with a trunk size of a normal seedling of less than a 1/8”.  Now, 3 years later, many have trunks of 1” or better and only 4- 6” tall. These could make amazing little mame and future shohin size trees.  This winter, using several of them, I put together several groves or forest settings.  I have never assembled a better group of trees that looked so amazing at such a young age.  Imagine mame or shohin size forests of this material. 

Ficus of all types are amazing in how much abuse they can take  and still produce fantastic results.  I have repotted them year round, I have removed 90% of their roots, removed all the branches, cut them down to a stump and they have always rebounded. I have had ficus that developed “water” roots – roots that have bulges in them, and removed them with no problem. I have even found this type of root developing on the soil surface and simply cut them out with no effect to the tree.  I will, of course, state that unless you have the proper facilities ( a greenhouse) you should wait to perform your work until the heat of summer when they will respond very quickly. 

So many people think you can’t grow tropicals outside of Florida.  I will say having a greenhouse is ideal but not required. For those that over-winter bonsai in the house, you simply need to use common sense with ficus.  They need all the light you can give them whether it is wtih artificial lights or the sun.  Watch their needs.  Tropicals will go semi -dormant when they don’t receive what they require. Although, their needs are minimal never allow one to stay wet, if anything keep them slightly dry.  Always keep them clean to avoid diseases. If they lose their leaves don’t despair they will usually return. Don’t baby them.
In closing I honestly think the greatest secret to ficus is learning their water needs and actually making them work for every bit of nutriment and moisture.  If anyone is interested more in the “leaf culture” nerrifolia, contact me at


*Note: The Willow Leaf fig has also been called Ficus nerifolia, Ficus neriifolia, Ficus celebensis, Ficus irregularis, Ficus regularis etc. CC Berg has now scientifically described the Willow Leaf fig and therefore its proper scientific name is now Ficus salicaria. To see this citation click here.


Ficus salicaria 'tissue cultured', grove two



Willow Leaf Fig
Ficus salicaria clump style from tissue cultured stock


Ficus salicaria grove planting

Ficus salicaria semi-cascade

Ficus salicaria clump style


All Rights Reserved © Ficus Forum 2012