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A Ficus Bonsai Story

by Mary C. Miller

This Ficus bonsai story is a significant part of the history of bonsai trees in the United States.  Many of you may have a Ficus nerifolia*, but do you know where it originated?

Joe Samuels


In 1965, tropical bonsai pioneer Joe Samuels was Superintendent of Parks for the City of Miami Beach.  Part of his responsibility was buying landscape plants and trees for the city.  One of Joe's favorite stops was the old Fantastic Gardens Nursery (an importer, long since gone).  On one such visit, he spotted a small tree (“finger thick“) that looked to him, like a strange Ficus. 

He questioned the owner who said he had imported the fig from New Guinea ... however, it was not for sale.  (Today that source is questioned.)  Joe was a patient man and continued to ask about this new found prize.


After much “pleading and arm twisting”, Joe finally purchased the unusual fig in 1966.  A friend researched the tree and identified it as Ficus nerifolia.  Since that time, the correct name has been much discussed.  The scientific name is still a matter of debate.

As the Ficus n. grew, Joe envisioned a mature looking fig tree in a bonsai container.  Most of what he did was experimental at the time.  Joe was determined to create a good tropical bonsai.  I asked him if he intended the resulting effect or if it was by chance.

"I observed the growth pattern of figs in the landscape and planned accordingly, including aerial roots.  I noticed that Ficus often have surface roots as far as 500 feet from the trunk.  From this I found out they would grow in shallow containers."  Joe always took “wisdom from trees in their natural environment".

Exhibited with Pride

Samuels first exhibited his banyan style fig at the Bonsai Clubs International convention in Miami Beach 1975.  Participants from all over the world (including Japan) applauded it.

Ficus nerifolia "The Cloud"


When exhibited again in 1985, the original Ficus nerifolia bonsai was a specimen tree.  A fellow Miami bonsai enthusiast, Bruce Sutton, took one look at it and called it "The Cloud."  The name stuck.

“Just in Case”

Joe rooted cuttings "just in case anything happened to the original tree, the strain would keep going."  He shared these cuttings with his bonsai friends.

Today, many hobbyists claim to have a bonsai grown from a cutting of "Joe's tree."  They probably do.

For progression photos of this famous tree click here:


Thanks to Mary Miller, herself a pioneer with tropical bonsai, for putting this material together.

I knew Joe for many years and I am one of the ones who personally obtained cuttings from Joe's tree. We are all indebted to Joe for his insights with tropical materials and tropical designs for bonsai. He is truly one of the pioneers of bonsai with tropical materials.

Ficus nerifolia has scientifically been published and re-named as Ficus salicaria by C. C. Berg in Brittonia, 2004. "A new species of Ficus (Moraceae) of uncertain provenance", Brittonia 56 (1) : 54-57. This is an official naming and as such is the only legitimate name in the scientific community (at least until it is re-named in the future to something else!)

Jerry "Bonsaihunk" Meislik

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