The Fukien tea is one of the most commonly used materials for indoor/tropical bonsai. Part of its popularity is due to the plants ready availability from discount stores, bonsai nurseries, and many online sources.
It is named after the Fukien or Fujien province of Southern China from which the plant originates. It is most often listed by its old scientific name of Carmona microphylla but its most recent scientific name is Ehretia micropylla (buxifolia).
In its native land it grows as a small tree or shrub to twelve feet in height. The tree is found from India and Malaysia to the Philippines. It is a member of the Borage family.
Using Fukien Tea For Bonsai
Fukien tea has an attractive gray bark with darker, warty elevated areas. Its small leaves allow it to be used for even the littlest bonsai. The tree seems to be continuously covered with small white five petaled flowers. If the flowers are fertilized they are replaced with a miniature red cherry. Contained within the fruit is one hard seed.
The Fukien tea unlike most tropical/indoor bonsai seems to grow continuously with no detectable rest period. Lastly, the plant is twiggy allowing for tree-like bonsai character.
Problems With FT Used For Bonsai
Fukien tree’s normal growth is quite straight and stiff. Wire the branches while they are still green or just turning woody or use the “clip and grow” technique to give the tree dynamic movement. Old woody stems are nearly impossible to bend.
Fukien tea handles reduction cuts with good back budding but large cuts do not heal over. So plan to hide or incorporate large pruning scars in the tree's design.
Fukien tea's main deficit is this attractiveness to insects. Particularly fond of this tree are mealy bugs, white fluffy soft insects, seen on the new branches and at the base of the leaves. Root mealy bugs prefer to live on the roots and are impossible to see except when repotting. Root mealy bugs must be treated with a systemic insecticide. If inadequately treated mealy bugs can become a chronic problem eventually weakening the tree and killing it.
Scale also attacks this tree and can be detected when the tree becomes sticky with secretions. The secretions turn black when colonized with fungus. Scale is directly recognized as brownish or black bumps on the twigs and leaves. Scale is easily dislodged from the branches with a fingernail and underneath is a soft tan or pink insect. Scale looks different than the normal bumpy appearance of the bark.
Aphids are small soft insects located at the branch tips and are often accompanied and cared for by ants. Both insects can be treated with a mild soap spray available at plant nurseries. They can also be mechanically dislodged from the branches with a strong spray of water or removed with a Q-tip soaked in rubbing alcohol.
Fukien tea is sensitive to many chemicals including my standard indoor insect dormant oil treatment. Diazinon is particularly toxic to the Fukien and should not be used. Always test spray a single leaf or sacrifice branch and observe it for 7 days. If the leaves do not turn yellow or black and do not fall off, it is likely safe to spray the tree itself.
Before bringing any newly purchased tree into the indoor bonsai collection isolate the new tree. Use a systemic spray each week for 3 weeks to prevent introducing insects to the collection and to be sure the Fukien is rid of any hidden insects.
There are several common varieties of Fukien tea available. They range from a small, medium and a large leaf form. All the varieties require identical care. Fruit forms most readily on the small leaf form and not on the large leaf variety.
All the Fukien types have a bumpy, "sand-paper" leaf surface containing small gray spots. This appearance is normal and is not the result of insect infestation.
A good soil for the Fukien is a freely draining bonsai mix made from half organic and half inorganic soil components. Fukien is not fussy as to soil and is quite happy in a 100% inorganic mix or even a well draining organic mix. Do not allow the soil to become compacted or the roots will rot.
Fertilize the tree weekly. Always water well before fertilizing and mix the fertilizer at half the recommended dilution. Fertilize the tree as long as it is growing. Do not fertilize a newly purchased, transplanted or sick tree.
The plant tolerates typical room temperatures, but keep it above 55 degrees Fahrenheit.
The soil should be cycled from moist to a bit on the dry side. Water the soil well and then allow it to go nearly dry. Consistently wet soil causes root rot. If the tree is allowed to dry too much the leaves will droop and look a bit shriveled. Watering soon thereafter results in no harm, but if the dryness becomes too severe the leaves will stay limp, turn black, and drop off the tree.
Should the leaves drop keep the soil slightly moist but never continuously wet. Replacement leaves will grow back in several weeks.
Fukien tolerates home humidity levels but will be happier if the humidity is kept above 20-25%.
FT lives happily in a bright window with south or west exposure. If the window has north or east exposure give the tree supplementary light with a fluorescent bulb 4-6 in inches from the tree’s top for 10-12 hours each day.
While the Fukien tea is easy to grow indoors the trunk is slow to thicken. Buy as large a trunk as you would like and can afford.
Wire branches while they are still green or just turning woody; old branches are difficult to bend.
Large cuts do not callus over so place large cuts on the back of the tree or allow cuts to rot and form irregular hollows to integrate with the design.
Chubby tapered trunks are not usual with Fukien tea so larger trees have had a reduction or “hack back” technique applied.
Imported trees have been grown with clip and grow and show angular growth patterns ideal for Penjing.
Fukien tea’s growth characteristics make it a splendid material to use for forest, landscape or Saikei plantings.
Propagating from fresh seed is very easy. Remove the moist coating from the fruit, plant the fresh seed in bonsai soil, and keep it moist. In one to 4 weeks, small seedlings will poke up out of the soil. Allow them to grow for a year and once they are slightly woody use wire to give the trunks movement.
Stem cuttings root very easily. Use any cutting with a green or softwood stem and cuttings from vigorous plants increases the success rate.
The Fukien is a terrific addition to an indoor bonsai collection. It is easy to care for once its basic needs are met. The small foliage, small white flowers and tiny red fruit never fail to delight the observer.