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.

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

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:

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

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

Nor this

This one looks good but

I’ll get this one

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:

First, take it out of the pot.

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

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

Looks like a rice crispy treat

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

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

And straighten them

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

Then they make one cut

And allow the tree to grow out again

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

It is just about all dead.
So it goes away

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?

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

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.

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)

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.

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!

First though, we will chop the roots.

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


And some root raking

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

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

Although it could go right into this pot

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

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

Take a twig off the same plant

Insert it into said split

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

(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)

And this tree will be put away to grow too

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

“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

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.

42 thoughts

    1. 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.


  1. 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.


      1. 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.


    1. 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.


      1. 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.


      2. 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.


  2. 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.


      1. Have look in my albums . I just chopped the tubers…experimenting with it. The trunk is huge, but half of it is tubers.
        I am on iPad now…going to the laptop to post you the link


  3. 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 ?


    1. 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


  4. 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


  5. 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 ?


    1. 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


  6. 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..
    Keep up th good work..


    1. 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


      1. 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..


  7. 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.


      1. Reading this now, it seems a bit rude that I never gave you an update. The speech must have gone ok, because I managed to graduate! Thank you again for allowing me to use your content!

        Liked by 1 person

  8. 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


  9. 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.


    1. 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


  10. 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.


  11. 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.


  12. Thank you! Going to try to get my homedepotsai ginseng to grow larger. With my location, i don’t think putting it in the ground is the best solution, am in Virginia, and Nov-Feb, we regularly get freezing temps. I was wondering if a solution would be to kinda duplicate what you have done here, but instead of placing it on the ground, maybe placing it on a 5 gallon bucket filled with good topsoil. So I can bring it inside when winter hits. Would this work?


  13. Excellent content. I did not skip the track. I’ve had one of these from Ikea for almost 10 y3ars now. It’s hardly grown, but the leaves and branches I have cut off it have grown into glorious beings. Live in south eastern Australia so the dry hot summers take a huge toll and they someyimes loose all their leaves, but ive never once killed one. The trick ive used for watering is that ive covered the base in moss that i found on the footpath (very rare in this part of earth) and as long as the moss looks healthy and spongy, the tree is healthy. Its especially helpful in summer as a thirst indicator and helps increase absorbtion, i feel kinda like im really just looking after moss. I’ve never cut the trunk off one, too scared but I think today is the day. Thanks for the step by step guide to being a good ficcus nanny.


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