What shall you do with a ginseng ficus?

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Look at them.
They’re tempting, aren’t they?
This is the tree that seems to be supplanting the juniper as the official “mallsai”
We call it the “ginseng” ficus, although
it really has nothing to do with ginseng. I believe it’s just a seedling ficus microcarpa that has been treated, horticulturally, to look as it does.

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Why do I believe this? I’ve grown one out and it’s developed a standard, ficus-ish trunk

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See?
So how did I get there?
First, watch this music video I made so there’s a sound track running through your head.
Got it? Good.
My discovery was somewhat accidental, actually.
I picked up two of these ficus at The Walmart about 3-4 years ago. I got them for $1 apiece (believe it, or not) on the clearance shelf.
They were in 4 inch pots. One I put into a shallow red clay pot and put it up high.
Here it is today:

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Quite a difference between the two.
The other I put into a black plastic, 3 gallon nursery can and set it on the ground.
And this is it today

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Why did one grow so much better than the other?
Oho, boyo….you’ll have to read on to find out.

Back at the big box store I pick out the best of the bunch.
Which is not this one

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Nor this

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This one looks good but

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I’ll get this one

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What criteria did I use in choosing which one I wanted?
The aerial roots. As they thicken they will fuse with the trunk and speed us on our way to trunk-ed-ness.
Let’s get back to the studio nursery and begin:

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First, take it out of the pot.

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The funny thing is, the pots probably cost more for the importer than the tree

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I paid $10 for this one retail.
First I’ll remove the glued on rocks

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Looks like a rice crispy treat

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The textures a bit off though.
Next, I rake out the roots

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But I’m not going to cut them.
Why? You’ll see soon enough dear friends.
Next, I take these tangled roots

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And straighten them

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Clean up the top.
When the grower grows these trees the main shoot is allowed to grow.

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Then they make one cut

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And allow the tree to grow out again

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With this variety of microcarpa though, dieback tends to happen.
This was the original trunk that was cut back

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It is just about all dead.
So it goes away

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The next step is planting it in a wider, deeper pot. And now you will see what I do with those long roots..any guesses?

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I threaded them out through the drain holes and I’ll try to reproduce what caused the accelerated growth.
It was the roots growing into the ground.
A little rearranging of the aerials

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And, normally, all my plants are off the ground but this one will just sit there, roots tucked under it, like a supplicant, or a seer.

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And now we will wait……

This ficus was given to me.
It’s grown out some (not in the ground so you don’t necessarily need that step)

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So the trick is just unchecked growth and you’ll eventually get a tree-ish form.

Back to the big one.
Now, five years later, we will begin to develop this plant into a bonsai.

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Since its had mostly unchecked growth (I do chop all my ficus back to a line in the summertime) for so long it has no branching that is usable. What do we do?
Say it with me loud! I want to hear from you up in the balcony and way back in the nosebleed section!

TRUNK CHOP!
First though, we will chop the roots.

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I have heard so many times I can’t count that its not “correct” to chop the top and the bottom of a tree at the same time.
This is true of many kinds of plants. But a ficus is not one of them. It actually stimulates growth. The mistake people in the temperate parts of the world make is they believe they should repot a ficus in the winter. This tree should not be repotted unless the nighttime temps are above 60 (allowing that you are growing it outdoors) and/or the tree is actively growing.
And how can this be? For he is the Kwisatz Haderach! Sorry. Channeling the Dune movie.
There’s been a lot of talk from the Japanese trained apprentices saying that the “strength” of a tree is in certain parts of a plant; i.e the growing tips of a juniper.
I think the strength of a ficus is in the trunk.
I’ve seen Jim Smith chop a ficus (that would sell as is for $500 in the rest of the nation) to the trunk (because the branching was all wrong) and saw off the bottom and think nothing of it.
Shit, I’ve done it.
I have yet to kill one.

Back to the roots
A little untangling

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And some root raking

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At this point I will reduce the roots as though I am putting it into a bonsai pot (I’m not yet)

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It will train in this bulb pan for a year or two

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Although it could go right into this pot

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If you’re observant you’ll see that I chopped it too

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These are too big to throw away, lets make some cuttings. Here’s a trick:
Take said cutting and split the base

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Take a twig off the same plant

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Insert it into said split

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Stick into your favorite rooting medium and, as the roots are thrown off the bottom, you will have the start of a nebari already.
Back to our tree-
Into the training pot with good bonsai soil

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(In fact, in honor of one of Reddits redditors, small_trunks, who gave me the idea for this post, I will use a soil that incorporates diatomaceous earth as one of its components)

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And this tree will be put away to grow too

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Since I didn’t do any styling on this ficus at all you will have to use your imagination as to what it will look like in 2 years (or so)
This might help

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“Wait!” You say?
“The trunks in the drawing are way smaller than the actual trunks you left”
They are.
Do you remember, on the box store tree, that this plant is prone to die back?
I left some trunk in case that does happen

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The red arrow points to the apex on the smaller trunk and the orange lines show where I want the final chop to be.
Now we wait.

And in case you skipped the video I linked to earlier, here it is again (ginseng ficus shanty)
Enjoy, comment, share!
And most of all, don’t take this Art too seriously.
Laugh, smile, have fun.
You could be digging a ditch somewhere.

About adamaskwhy

Visual artist specializing in bonsai, mostly.
This entry was posted in progression, tips and tricks and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

37 Responses to What shall you do with a ginseng ficus?

  1. I’ve been waiting for this post. I thought about developing one of these after reading another article where a guy styled one and achieved a pretty decent canopy, but he kept the big bulbous roots.

    Check it out: http://lennardsbonsaibeginnings.blogspot.com/2013/02/ginseng-pot-belly-ficus.html?m=1

    • adamaskwhy says:

      I’ve seen that before (I think it was on Reddit)
      I’ve been talking about the ginseng a lot recently so I figured I should write about it. It cost me ten bucks though.

  2. I bought a ginseng fig 2 years ago and planted it in nursery bag. It has grown now 15 cm base and the roots have gone through the packet in the ground. 4 month ago I airlayered it slightly bellow the reverse tapper starts. Now it is 15 cm diameter at the base and has 5 branches on top. Two are coming from the side and look like yours and another 3 have different leaf: small, thicker… I plan to remove the suckers which already have roots.or maybe I should leave them to thicken the trunk some more???? They are joined to the trunk above ground and I can see the roots.
    Those 3 nicer branches are thick and arranged like triangle on top of the trunk. One I managed to bend somewhat with a brick on a rope.hanging down.
    I want to develop most of the branch structure while it is in the packet/ground.
    Should I remove the airlayer this spring, and replant it, so I can arrange the roots?
    What do I do with 3 branches? 2 going up and one sideways.
    The other two can hot be bent. Too thick.

    • I also wrap the trunk with kitchen foil if I want more aerial roots to generate and not to dry.

      • Norm says:

        Hi there, Interesting comment – I really love the Banyan tree aerial look so I have a few questions.
        Do you mean aluminium foil or plastic wrap? Would you only do this in Summer (with some humidity present) and what sort of time do you have to leave them wrapped? Months? Years? Thanks in advance.

    • adamaskwhy says:

      If the two going up are the same thickness you want to get rid of one. A twin trunk should have 2 trunks of different heights and thicknesses. The ones with different branches are probably grafted from a different variety. They probably won’t thicken the trunk. I would remove the branches of one kind or the other.

      • He he he! I am a silly girl…I like experimenting! I wanted to fuse the roots of the other type of ficus to the so called trunk…and then chop those branches. For now I want to thicken those trunks some more. I shall tug you on FB so you have a look and advise better, after you see it.

      • I don’t know which of the branches were thickening the trunk but they did a good job. This year it exploded with growth. The trunk must have added few cm just in 6 month. I want to try and fuse some roots and if it does not look OK I shill chop the root some more and grow it again for nebari and trunk.

  3. But my tuber/trunk is huge and almost square, or cube like. There is a platform on top (flat) On which the tree trunks are growing…the platform is covered with bark.
    I think it will look funny as tween trunk. Unless those trunks thicken later???? and make a tappering transition from the root to the trunks????
    I need to take pictures and show you what I mean. I shall keep the small leafed variety.

  4. I have not put it up yet. I shall post the link as soon as I do. I will take a photo tomorrow. What is you FB page?

  5. Sorry Darling…Will post it on your wall.

  6. Uzi says:

    Wow you make keeping ficus so easy … I moved to uk 3 year ago and have had no luck keeping ficus here they just loose their leaves and the whole appearance of the tree is lost …. Most times die back is common …… How do you get them to grow so vigorously … Am sure the weather here has its part to play though.

    I have to admit I hardly feed them …. Could this be the problem ?

    • adamaskwhy says:

      It might be where you keep them. They need to be outside mostly until below freezing weather.
      Or it might be the variety. Ficus Benjamina (weeping fig) is not a good one for bonsai.
      They grow well here in Florida because of the climate. And we have only 3-4 cold snaps in the winter

  7. Uzi says:

    Hmmm I think it might be the weather…. They seem to be very temperamental sometimes growing and other times yellowing and leaf dropping.
    Thanx for the reply …. Amazing work btw

  8. Ryan says:

    Great stuff. I also picked up one of these Wal-Mart variety but with slightly different aspirations. I love bonsai don’t get me wrong they are a beautiful addition to interior design but being that I have so much exterior property I tend to gravitate more towards full size vegetation….so my question is, how do you think these little guys would do planted outside ? I live in SE Texas so have a pretty similar climate to what you have in FL. Will it grow large ? If so will it maintain its exaggerated growth patterns and drop more aerial roots ?

    • adamaskwhy says:

      If you’re climate doesn’t freeze the ficus will get large. Banyan trees are some of the largest spreading trees in the world.
      I grow all of my trees outside, I don’t even consider a bonsai as an indoor plant myself.
      Good luck

  9. Pingback: So, you’ve recently purchased a “mallsai….. | Adam's Art and Bonsai Blog

  10. faez says:

    Firstly, Awesome stuff..
    Ok, so I recently got a ginseng ficus from a green house and didn’t realize the plant had yellowing leaves in the center… how do i fix it… I also noticed one or 2 black dots on the yellowing leaves.. one last thing..how much should they be watered..
    Thnx
    Keep up th good work..

    • adamaskwhy says:

      Thanks man,
      Firstly, the yellow leaves are probably just old leaves, pick them off, that will take care of the black dots too.
      As for watering it, you’ll have to learn the needs of the tree and learn when it needs water. If it’s outside and actively growing it might need water every day

      • faez says:

        Thnk you so much for your reply.. im a girl by th way.. im keeping th plant indoors.. its really hot and sunny here.. i dnt think it could survive.. temperature outside is 43 c.. nd humidity 12%.. no rainfall.. so indoors it is.. shud i giv it some fertiliser ?? Or is that a bad idea.. i also tried finding the soiling mix you use.. bt th greenhouses nd shops only hav pitmoss.. will it be ok if i use just that?? Should i mix in some clay pebbles to make it airy? And suggestions are highly appreciated..

  11. aronwanderer says:

    I am going to give a presentation (6 minute) in my speech class and I have chosen to present an informative speech on ginsing ficus as they relate to bonsai. May I use pictures from this blog to illustrate my points? I will provide proper accreditation in my sources of course.

  12. Natalie says:

    Great article, thanks for all your handy hints. I have a Ginseng Ficus and unfortunately it’s pots been recently smashed. It has become very unstable int he soil so I bought a new pot but hesitant to plant it until the spring. Do you think it’s better to risk repotting in the winter or have it in a broken, and unstable pot til spring? Thanks in advance

  13. Norm says:

    Thanks for the info, it’s much appreciated.I am fairly new to Bonsai and am only just realizing what a huge amount there is to learn.Matter of fact I picked up my first Ficus today which I purchased via an auction site.It’s coming into winter down here in New Zealand but I would like to shift the plant into a new Bonsai pot I have waiting.My plan is to remove soil from around the top of the roots to expose more of the thick roots and then rearrange them in a “banyan x over a rock” sort of style.I am hoping that as long as I don’t cut or damage the roots they should be okay,Temperature is getting down to 9 degrees Celsius (48 F) and will get down to 4 degrees Celsius (39 F) on the coldest nights,I will then wait until late Spring before taking out any roots.Does this idea sound reasonable? Thanks very much.

    • adamaskwhy says:

      As long as you don’t cut any roots you should be ok. Use a hose to remove the soil on top rather than a root hook. It won’t grow much over the winter so keep the leaves untouched as much as you can

  14. Eric says:

    I bought one the other day just for giggles. It’s ugly as sin now with a painfully obvious reverse taper caused by the worled branches at the site of the chop. I think a successful thread graft next summer and another careful decapitation, should set it on the path to look something like a tree in a year or two.

  15. Anna says:

    Can i leave the bonsai on my stoep under the roof in the winter or will the tree be affect of the cold

  16. Tristan says:

    Well I do believe that was one of the best info on a ginseng ficus I have read in a long time I have one now and have kinda really poking around with it. I live in germany and I am not sure if I should put it outside or not temp right now are around mid 50s at night and up to mid 70s -low 80s in the day.

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