I wasn’t going to write a blogpost on this tree but, interestingly, when I posted it on the Socialmediaverse, I got a bunch of people asking me to do a write up. A ficus Benjamina.The weeping fig. It belongs to Cosette, who got it from her dad. My job is to style it so that Cosette likes it. At the moment she doesn’t. As some of you may know, the ficus Benjamina is not a well liked tree in the bonsai scene in the West. Not talking about Japan, because there aren’t many Japanese nurseries that use any ficus (though Kimura has one) but in the East, it’s used extensively, especially the southeast Asian countries.
In the West, I believe the contempt is two fold. Firstly, many people consider it an indoor houseplant. And once you describe a tree that can withstand being indoors, there’s a knee jerk reaction against it (to explain what that means to the non Americans, knee jerk is referring to a reflexive response that has no thought, reasoning or even emotion behind it. It may have begun with those things but the response is now conditioned so that when one might say “hello” you reply “hi”). But there are many plants we use for bonsai that can be indoor plants. It’s usually the understory trees (meaning they grow under taller trees) that work best. A notable example: azaleas. Yup, the classically Japanese bonsai subject that usually ranks very high, if not at the top, in lists of the most beautiful bonsai in the world, can be grown indoors.
The second reason people dislike Benjamina as bonsai is their propensity for dieback. This post will describe a technique for the proper pruning to minimize dieback. But to address the prejudice against Benjamina simply because of the dieback, let me give some examples of other, notable, bonsai subjects with significant dieback: maple species, bald cypress, pine, juniper, and several other species of ficus. Now, before you all get wrapped around the axle about me including pine and juniper in that list, I know what your arguemebt will be: one has to learn the proper pruning techniques when working with them. And I think I mentioned, about 60 words above, that there is a proper technique for pruning Benjamina.
Amazingly, it’s very similar to how one deals with a juniper.
First, growing tips are important. When doing a clean out before pruning, remove any interior branching and old or damaged leaves. But leave growing tips. On a ficus they’re called a stipule. Those are the pointy things at the base of the leaves on the above picture.
There is an Achilles heel, much like spider mites on a juniper, that Benjamina have. They are the first to get a bug called a thrip. You’ll know it by the leaf folding in half. Prune off those leaves and treat with a systemic insecticide.
I can, for the sake of brevity of work, just cut out some of the branches I won’t use in the final design. The question now is, how does one do that to minimize dieback?
Same as with a juniper. Cut to another branch with strong growing tips.
If there’s one mark, one legacy I can impart on the bonsai world it is this: Please untangle your ficus roots!On a Benjamina, which grows the best trunk and nebari without the need for grafting, it’s just a matter of straightening them, pushing the roots against the trunk, and tying then down.
Now, the fun part. Hee hee!
How about some wire?
I’d like to see it in a more shallow, cream colored oval with a dark clay body.
I think I tamed the beast and, most importantly, Cosette, the owner, likes it now (sorry Cosette’s dad…). And, bonus, Cosette is a potter and is already thinking of a new pot for the tree. That is very gratifying.
And with that, I think, my work is done.