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Ficus bonsai – the beginner’s bonsai, care and best species

ficus bonsai

Bonsai-making is definitely an art that deserved discovering. The Ficus bonsai is a great plant to start off with. But which type is best for you?

Ficus bonsai facts

NameFicus species
FamilyMoraceae (mulberry family)
Type – easy bonsai, indoor plant

Height – 8 to 32 inches (20 to 80 cm)
Soil – bonsai plant mix, well drained

Exposure: lots of indirect light  –  Foliage: evergreen  –  Watering: moderate

General Ficus bonsai care

Care is threefold: water when dry, repot every 2-3 years, and prune often.

Ficus bonsai watering instructions

Ficus bonsai careWatering is essential. The key is to only water when the soil is dry. That way, you’re sure to avoid root rot.

  • Root rot (phytophthora is the botanical name) occurs when too much water is given to the plant.

In winter your bonsai will need much less water, perhaps only once a fortnight. In summer, however, it gets thirstier: you might have to water twice a week.

Repotting a Ficus bonsai

The most important care you can give your bonsai ficus is to repot it when needed. Every two or three years, repot your ficus bonsai to give it fresh soil nutrients and aerate/thin the root clump.

Pruning and trimming Ficus bonsai

Ficus benjamina is better suited for taller, upright bonsaiTrimming off long shoots is the way to keep your ficus bonsai in shape. Every time you cut the tip off a branch, at least two new branches will sprout out from below. A good rule of thumb to prune well is to snip the tip off every time a branch has  5 or 6 leaves already.

  • In the case of grafted ficus, take care to remove any suckers forming from below the graft point. These are branches from the rootstock variety and are often much larger than the original cute bonsai leaves.

The bonsai shown here is trimmed according to an ancient Japanese pruning technique called ‘Niwaki‘, or cloud pruning.

Pests and diseases on Ficus bonsai

Apart from thrips and, occasionally, scale insects, you won’t ever get any pests on your bonsai ficus.

Best ficus for making bonsai

Ficus ginseng, the most famous ficus bonsai

Ficus ginseng is actually a mix of other ficus species, but it grows into great bonsaiThe most common ficus bonsai is, without a doubt, Ficus ginseng. The lush, thick roots are fascinating to look at! Usually, ficus ginseng are grafted. You can tell because there’s a small stump with new branches growing out of it.

It’s an easy bonsai to care for since it doesn’t die very easily.

Apart from this perfect beginner bonsai, it’s also possible to grow ficus bonsai from other species as well:

Ficus microcarpa, ravishing bark and roots

Ficus microcarpa grows smallish leaves and a gnarly trunk, perfect for bonsaiThe “small-fruited fig” has roots that swell at the crown. Nurseries uproot them a bit and plant them higher up to showcase these thick roots.

Beautiful bark on all varieties. In time, the whole bonsai takes on a convoluted, attractive look, especially when air roots start forming.

Quite a few varieties are available:

  • ‘Green island’
  • ‘Tiger bark’…

Ficus retusa, smallish leaves and winding trunk

Ficus retusa is often among the more easily available ficus bonsaiFicus retusa is often selected to grow mid-sized bonsai. In hotels and lobbies, this is the variety you’ll find.

It grows trunks that can be easily shaped.

Perfect for medium-sized bonsai: Ficus benjamina

Small-leaf Ficus benjamina bonsai of the 'Nastaja' varietyThe slightly larger leaves of Ficus benjamina mean that this variety is also best for larger bonsai. In the wild it can grow dozens of feet high (several meters).

In particular, this species is great to experiment with braiding trunks. Braided ficus trunks definitely have a surprising appeal!

Rare and elegant is the Ficus benjamina ‘Nastaja’ (shown here): a bundle of trunks is wrapped in burlap, and it grows into a beautiful small-leaved weeping fig bonsai. Watch out because it doesn’t like staying dry for too long.

Other ficus bonsai

Large Banyan tree ficus bonsai with signageThere are hundreds of ficus species and almost all of them can be grown as bonsai. Shown here is a 40 year-old Ficus thonningii.

Ficus bonsai fruiting

It’s extremely rare to see any fruit on a ficus bonsai, but it can happen. The Ficus microcarpa is known to have tiny fruits like figs, no bigger than a fingernail. They’re rarely fertile, though, since each species depends on a single specific wasp species for pollination.

How to thicken Ficus bonsai trunks

There are three ways to thicken the trunks of a ficus bonsai and make it more interesting.

  • Ficus bonsai with thick trunk and roots flowing like pillow lavaThe typical way of thickening a ficus bonsai stem is to let it grow larger. The more leaves and large branches it has, the more wood appears around the trunk to feed them. After you’ve reached your target trunk size, cut the branch back to the trunk. Prune any new twigs short to keep the bonsai shape.
  • Another rare way is to press two or more ficus together and bind them. The trunks will merge and form a single trunk.
  • The last way happens naturally whenever the air moisture is high: aerial roots form on the ficus tree. Guide these downwards and mist them often until they reach the ground. Then, they’ll fend for themselves.

Images: CC BY 2.0: Ron Frazier, smallcurio, CC BY-SA 2.0: Helen Cook, Puddin Tain, depositphotos: nikulyasha1 Pixabay: Julio Pablo Vázquez, Sarah Dorweiler, CC BY 4.0: Kim & Forest Starr
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