Two trees, one a ficus microcarpa “retusa”, one a ficus salicaria, are before us.
First, though, some diagnostics for your perusal.
This leaf damage
is caused by a bug called a thrip.
It can affect ficus benjamina, ficus microcarpa, and most broad leaf ficus.
When you peel the folded leaf apart, you’ll see several life cycles of the thrip.
The black ones are adults. The white ones are nymphs. Then there is a scale like phase and a cocoon like stage.
In the latter two stages its near impossible to kill the nasty bugs.
My go-to control is Merit granular systemic insecticide.
I will completely defoliate the tree, put those leaves into a plastic bag and throw them away in a trash can with a lid. Then treat with the granular.
There is a sprayed product by Bayer that uses the same active ingredient.
If you are diligent you can use neem oil; you have to repeat the spraying a few weeks later to get the hatching nymphs and adults though.
So, my retusa is defoliated
It has a beautiful base but there are some problems with crossing roots.
Lets begin at the top.
This will be my front.
Now, I’m of the younger generation that prefers more extreme taper in their trees. The tree, as is, has admirable taper and I could style it this tall and it would look ok.
I will, in my youth and arrogance, cut the trunk here
Why? Because that’s how I see the tree.
Commence chop.
The top will be rooted (just stick it in soil and water it, easy-peasy)
And here we begin for sooth
I’m gonna go fast now so….
Ok, I’ll slow for some explanation.
The sawing on the roots will not hurt this tree (unless you do it in the winter when it is not actively growing). But that’s only part of it.
I’m going to rake, cut, bend, shave, untangle and pretty much abuse these roots.
This root has to go
Cut back on the bottom so it will fit in a pot
And wash all the old soil out.
I removed just about all of the crossing roots in front and moved the ones in the back around a bit.
One more operation
I need to move these two closer
And up
That’s just a plug of wood.
The root just above my knuckle is bugging me. I might remove it.
Now for some wire
It looks good from the front but from the side
Looks a bit like Friar Tuck; with a bald spot on top.
First, a big wire
Bend it back
One thing that’s absent with a blog that you get to experience with a live demo is all the grunting that accompanies bending big branches. And the suspense that it entails. Is it gonna crack? Can he bend it? Yay! He did it.
Now a whole lotta little wires
The comb over is pretty successful
I should work at the Hair Club for Men.
All done!
It’s Miller Time!
Oh, wait. I have another tree.
I think I’ll drink this anyway. Sláinte!
Ahhhh! The Champagne of Beers ™
That hit the spot.
Next I have a well established ficus salicaria (or willow leaf ficus if you prefer)
It’s filling in well
It is even throwing some roots from the base
It has a wide base but its almost two dimensional.
I’ll try to fix that a little with a trick.
First, some history.
This tree was a small plant that I grew.
Much like the one to the left.
I had visited Mike Rogers nursery in Deland. I’m not sure if I even got anything from him that day (sorry Mike) but I did stop at a Walmart on the way home.
I found about six small salicaria plants in 4 inch square pots for a dollar apiece.
This was only about 7-8 years ago.
I potted them up, grew them, chopped them, grew them etc.
And here it is today.
I show this to give hope to all you beginners out there that maybe your little tree you got will be something one day.
It takes time and growing/chopping though.
First chop (above my finger, below my finger was a sacrificial branch I cut off)
Another chop
And another
And also some sacrifice branches that were cut off.
Growing a tree is not going to teach you how to style and care for a bonsai though. I suggest you have several trees in different stages of development that will give you a more rounded experience.
You will not achieve this trunk size if the tree is trained as a bonsai when its just a stick. Sorry.
Now I’ll do something insane. I’ll defoliate a willow leaf ficus.
I know. That’s a lot of leaves.
But it’s worth it.
Looks good but it needs wire. Lots of wire (I’m a wiring junkie, I’m ashamed to admit)
Lets repot it first.
What we have are roots that look like this
What I’m going to do is shave the top and split the end
What this does is cause ramification on the roots, which is important on all trees, but no one talks about on ficus.
It’s funny that a ficus’ roots are so easily manipulated but on many people’s trees the roots are ugly.
Go figure.
Next, a new pot
This is the old front
And the new front
I just twisted it clockwise a bit to show off the slight movement in the trunk.
And now to wire every branch……..yes, I’m addicted.
Now, if you will recall the title, Two Ficus, Two Treatments.
What does that mean, treatments?
The style, technically, on both of these (which is why I try to steer away from “style” references) is “informal upright”.
But they are not alike other than their ability to defy gravity and not flop down.
Stepping onto my soapbox, I wish we didn’t use the word “style” when it comes to the shape a tree is in.
The correct term could be “type” or “form”.
Entering the art world (Is bonsai art? I say yeah) when a sculpture of a head, neck and shoulders is presented to us we do not say that it is in the “style” of a bust.
If we are looking at a painting with a rolling field, some trees, maybe a meandering stream and a bit of woods in the background we don’t say that it’s in the “style” of a landscape.
These are types of art. The style is in the execution.
The bust might be a Rodin and therefore a, well, I’m not sure what style he is, maybe naturalistic or pre modern.
And the landscape might be a Cezanne and be considered Post-impressionistic or a Vlaminck and be in an Expressionist style (although Mr V. didn’t paint many meandering streams).
What does all this have to do with my two little ficus?
One is a naturalistic style and the other is in a Japanese style.
Both have an upright informal shape.
Here are the sketches:
The difference between the two are, the retusa is treated like a deciduous tree and the salicaria like a pine tree.
Look at this
Why do pine trees’ limbs grow down and a deciduous trees’ limbs grow up?
Simple; in the winter a pine keeps all its foliage and when it snows the accumulated flakes just fall off. A deciduous tree sheds its leaves and the snow has little surface to accumulate on. Different adaptations to accommodate the same environmental stressors.
Could I have treated the retusa as though it was a pine tree? Hell yeah.
That’s how most artists would have done it. But the tree looked to me like it wanted to be a mighty oak.
Is it wrong to shape non-pine trees into a pine tree shape. Hell no.
You can even style an elm into that form. I have.
How about a pine into a deciduous tree shape. Maybe.
I think I’ve stirred the puddin’ enough for today.
Contemplate my trees and my words:
The Retusa-
And the salicaria –


10 thoughts

  1. I’ve been using ‘bt insecticide’ ( on both vegetables and ficus, etc. It provides an additional but slightly more friendly barrage against pests (on top of merit).

    For folks who haven’t battled thrips, the tip about putting the removed leaves in closed containers is key, thrips fly and will simply migrate to your other plants.


  2. I’m not sure what you mean when you say “You will not achieve this trunk size if the tree is trained as a bonsai when its just a stick.” Your started out as pretty much a stick, right?


    1. I started as a stick but I let it grow as a normal plant. In a big pot with little pruning. Once a year I cut the trunk but let it grow after that.
      If you put a stick in a bonsai pot and train it as a bonsai you will still have a stick in ten years.
      My tree had been in a bonsai pot for 2 or three years and the trunk has not grown since I put it there.


      1. Okay, I get. As a bonsai novice it’s definitely hard to resist the urge to continually prune the “sticks.”


    1. The ficus we use for bonsai that has the common name “willow leaf” or “narrow leaf” was first called nerifolia which was “narrow leaf”. Then they called it salicifolia. Which was “willow leaf” then someone who knew Latin better chose salicaria.
      There is an effort underway to ascertain the actual genetics and call it by a known trees name, with a variety name in parenthesis.


  3. Adam,
    I just did a pretty heavy root prune and transplanting of my narifolia which is healthy but was due for the repotting. Did this yesterday. Is it safe or even maybe beneficial to defoliate it at the same time? I would like to defoliate for reshaping purposes but am unsure of the timing.


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