Category Archives: Twists and Turns, shaping trunks

Genetics and figs

These are two seed grown Ficus virens, Lipstick fig. Each plant shows some variation in its leaves, bark, growth pattern etc. These characteristics can be influenced by the growth environment. In the case of these two plants the newly emerged leaves are red in color. This color changes to a deep green after a week or two.

Since the two trees are grown in identical soil, identical lighting and identical fertilization the variation in the red color is due to genetics. One consistently has darker red new leaves. I would love to find a clone that has red leaves that remain red! That would be a great addition to the bonsai community.

The virens on the left has bronze colored new leaves while the one on the right has deep, dark red new leaves. Genetics of each is determining this factor.

The base of your fig

One of the most attractive features of Ficus trees is their amazing, wide-spread surface rootage and the strong buttress of the base of the tree. This occurs more quickly when the tree is kept in relatively shallow containers. The fig responds by developing a very strong base and radiating powerful roots. However, care must be taken in shallow pots to keep the roots from rotting.

Ficus salicaria with powerful basal rootage and buttress base of the trunk

What I do when I am puzzled

Very often I have some trees that just seem to be a puzzle. I can’t quite figure out what design might work for the tree. I usually put these on the bottom shelf and just let them grow and wait for a burst of inspiration. Perhaps the tree will speak to me and I can listen to it and style and train it to become a wonderful bonsai.

But, sometimes the tree isn’t speaking or I am not listening. Not all bonsai creations will be created “instantly”. Sometime the bonsai will evolve after the tree or the designer mature.

Ficus virens which has been allowed to grow wild

No brilliant ideas so I take the tree back to the best basic structure and allow it to grow

Another Ficus virens that has not worked for me and it was allowed to grow wild

With no inspiration, I just cut it back to the best trunk line that I could think of. Time and growth may show me a way in the future.

Grafting figs

Grafting is a very useful way to improve a fig. It can add branches, new roots or thicken trunks. One factor to keep in mind is to graft identical parts together. Simply use material to graft, the scion, and the stock that are genetically identical. If this is not done the bark and foliage will be a mis-match and not suitable for bonsai.


The graft point is at 1 and the 2 shows that the foliage of the graft and the stock are not the same. Both are Ficus microcarpa but not genetically identical.


Close up of the graft point, 1, shows the mis-match in the bark color and texture

Willow Leaf fig has small leaves suitible for small trees

Willow leaf fig is a terrific species to use for smaller bonsai since its leaves are already small and will be in good proportion for smaller bonsai.

An assortment of Willow Leaf figs is shown that are all grown from cuttings and are less than 10″._23a3922 _23a3914 _23a3906 _23a3883 _23a3877

The definitive reference work on Ficus
for bonsai. The book is a softcover, 8 by 10 inch volume, with 144 color pages, containing detailed information for the beginner as well as the advanced hobbyist.

The “Too Heavy” root

In dealing with a fig that has too heavy a root there are several ways to handle the situation. One, is to simply use soil and moss to partially or completely cover the thick root.

Another solution is to cut the large root completely off. After removing the root seal the cut with cut paste and cover lightly with some soil or sphagnum moss. Usually the cut root will sprout and replace the heavy part with a new and thinner root in much better scale than the original. Cutting off one large root on a healthy tree should not prove to be harmful to the bonsai tree.



Heavy root on the left is not in scale with the rest of the tree



Heavy root on the left has been totally removed and smeared with cut paste

The removed portion of the root is sprouting and will become another bonsai

The cut end of the root on the tree shows new finer roots taking over and once a bit thicker will be in good scale to the size of the bonsai

Yet other ways to handle the heavy root is to split the root or cut the root in half lenghtwise.

All of these will result in a root that is proper scale to the trunk and design of the tree.


Ficus burtt-davyi cutting after 5 years

Ficus burtt-davyi is a very useful plant for bonsai. It can form nice bonsai in even small size due to its leaves that can become quite small under proper cultivation. There are also several clones that vary from normal to very small leaves.

The photos below show a larger BD fig that was cut into pieces and the one circled in red is a very small piece that was potted up.

The last shot shows the small tree after about 5 years of growth.



Original mother tree cut into several pieces.


The pieces potted up individually, 2011


The same plant in 2016

Some recent bonsai work

Spending a few hours in the growing room and changed and updated a few of my figs.

  1. Ficus natalensis grown from a root cutting. Aluminum foil was used to protect the new root cutting from dehydration. Soon it will be removed.

    Root cutting taken a few months back


    Trunk shape achieved with wiring. Next step to form the branches and canopy to suit the trunk shape



  2. _23A1598

    Ficus virens has grown out of shape and needs a haircut


    Ficus virens after trimming

How to thicken a branch

On this bonsai Ficus natalensis the lowest branch on the right side is not thick enough. Most often the lowest branch should be the thickest on the tree. In order to achieve proper thickness the branch is allowed to grow longer than the style dictates. Note the leaves are also larger than the rest of the tree which is being trimmed regularly.

In a year or two the branch will thicken because of its continued growth and then it will be appropriately shortened. The next step will be to continue the process of shaping the branch properly.

The area in red is allowed to grow without trimming to thicken the branch

The area in red is allowed to grow without trimming to thicken the branch

Slave branches

Slave branches are used to thicken a part of the trunk or branch that needs to be heavier. Slave branches are allowed to grow wildly without trimming and when the thickening has been achieved they are removed.

This Ficus natalensis has a slim trunk that would be improved by thickening it to introduce some more taper. The branch outlined in red was allowed to grow for a year or two to thicken the trunk.


Slave branch on this Ficus natalensis to thicken the lower trunk of the tree


Lower trunk has been thickened sufficiently so the slave branch has been removed