Strangler fig bonsai?! Say what?!

Who, in their right mind, would ever think that a strangler fig, with the ginormous leaves and the aggressive aerial roots, would (or could) make a good bonsai?
This guy ⤵
20130630-214601.jpg
That’s who.
Plus, Erik Wigert, Jim Smith, Pedro Morales and many others.
Who doesn’t?
Well, lets just say that there are those who doubt. The naysayers and poo poo-ers.
Then there are those who have no idea what in the jungle a strangler fig is.
I’ll speak to you first, my noobies.
The common name “strangler fig” actually refers to several, unrelated ficus species.
The two I have to work on are the dwarf African strangler fig (ficus natalensis) and the native Florida strangler fig (ficus aurea)
20130630-220330.jpg
I’m not sure why they call the f. natalensis a “dwarf” strangler fig
20130630-221312.jpg
The leave is slightly smaller.
Maybe it doesn’t grow as tall?
Anyway, the one on the left is f. natelensis.
The stipules (which is a sheath-like structure that encases new leaves before the open) are different.
F. natelensis
20130701-090921.jpg
Which, oddly, is longer than the f. aurea stipule
20130701-091051.jpg
considering the latter gets bigger leaves.
The bark is different too:
F. natelensis
20130701-091319.jpg
F. aurea
20130701-091408.jpg
So why are they both called strangler figs?
The one aspect that makes these trees unique is their seeds ability to germinate without soil.
Let me paint a picture for you. A monkey is relaxing in a tree (there are monkeys in Florida, after hurricane Andrew, a family escaped from a zoo near Miami and naturalized themselves in the wild. The alligators love them.) munching on a fig and, after the appropriate time passing, the monkey passes, complete with undigested fig seeds.
Considering that some monkeys have bad aim when they throw their poop at tourists, these seeds sometimes find themselves deposited in nooks and crannies of trees or bushes; and even the cracks of buildings (usually Federal buildings and police stations; monkeys being naturally anarchistic). The seed will germinate and begin to grow, epiphytically, dropping down aerial roots that may take years to reach the soil. This process will eventually envelop the structure the ficus is on (tree, building).
In the case of a tree, the ficus often kills it (hence the name strangler) and the tree will rot out from the middle, leaving a hollow, columnar ficus form. Cool.

Here’s a tree from Erik Wigert’s
20130701-094616.jpg
He collected this cypress with the ficus growing inside of it. Imagine the monkey using the hollowed out cypress for a….I’ll leave at that.
20130701-094716.jpg
Cooler.
Back to my trees.
I got the f. aurea from Erik. He collected it in Southwest Florida somewhere.
20130701-094905.jpg
The natalensis I got from Jim Smith.
20130701-095241.jpg
I’ll start with it.
20130701-095349.jpg
Not sure why I got it. The branches are unusable
20130701-095451.jpg
These two come off the trunk at a weird angle
20130701-095553.jpg
The aerial roots engulf the trunk like some weird, solid miasma.
20130701-100005.jpg
The only thing to do is cut it back
20130701-100120.jpg
20130701-100206.jpg
20130701-100329.jpg
Straighten the roots
20130701-100424.jpg
A little wire
20130701-100535.jpg
A familiar pot
20130701-100607.jpg
20130701-100713.jpg
There is one aerial root that is coming from close to the top
20130701-100823.jpg
By tying it to the trunk
20130701-100925.jpg
It should eventually fuse with the trunk, adding to the character of it.
I potted it slightly crooked
20130701-101148.jpg
For no reason. It just happened. It’s just a training pot.
Fertilizer, full sun, let it grow, watch the wire. That’s all I can do with this one.
That was the work. I always do a little work first.
Now I get to play.
I know exactly why I picked this one
20130701-101749.jpg
That one branch
20130701-101824.jpg
You’ll see.
What I plan on doing hinges upon this trees ability to do this
20130701-102029.jpg
That wound has healed almost completely. Most ficus take many many years to do that, if at all.
This wound is not that old, considering the size of the trunk. Maybe 10 years old.
At least, that’s what I’m betting on.
Let me clear out some of the superfluous wood, so you can see what I’m doing
20130701-102549.jpg
Wup, that was abrupt.
I plan on a bunjin style tree.
With a little carving too.
To make it easier (not really, I should have used my big angle grinder) I cut a wedge
20130701-103033.jpg
20130701-103106.jpg
and pull out the die grinder to finish the job. The aim is to create some taper by carving a hollow. And, when it begins to roll over, it will look incredibly old.
20130701-103416.jpg
Some fire and then the knife
20130701-103506.jpg
And that doesn’t look too bad
20130701-103609.jpg
Everything else is covered in sawdust.
Including me
20130701-103709.jpg
Such is my life
20130701-103757.jpg
I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Next, it’s branch selection.
The hardest part on any bunjin tree
20130701-104004.jpg
It’s a matter of the “less is more” principle.
20130701-104207.jpg
This will be the top of the tree.
I don’t want to compromise that wound. (He says this after brutalizing the trunk, who is this guy?)
A quick defoliation
20130701-112612.jpg
And this is what I left.
20130701-112915.jpg
Some wire
20130701-113005.jpg
Some bending
20130701-113041.jpg
And now to repot (you’ll have to wait until the end to see the, uh, end).
I found this fine designer, plastic pot in the pile.
20130701-113307.jpg
It’ll have to do.
It needs some clean up on top
20130701-113407.jpg
20130701-113448.jpg
Especially at the cut ends
20130701-113542.jpg
To ensure a smooth transition into the soil I will need to cut the corners (so to speak)
20130701-113657.jpg
which should heal over and appear to be two roots.
And next I need to plate cut the bottom
20130701-113808.jpg
Why would such an extreme procedure be necessary here?
To induce more rooting. Right now the only roots are coming from just those cut ends.
By plating
20130701-114035.jpg
roots should emerge from near that cut edge
(Here, highlighted in red)
20130701-114159.jpg
Which will improve the nebari considerably.
Next is the potting
20130701-114336.jpg
And now you get to see the tree
20130701-114435.jpg
Hmmmmnnnnn
Something’s not right
20130701-114526.jpg
20130701-114622.jpg
How’s this?
20130701-114702.jpg
Yeah! (And,yes, that is a SpongeBob Bandaid)
Get out the knife and
20130701-114800.jpg
Aftercare for these two trees.
Full sun, water, and watch the wires.

In my conversations with Erik (these are my first strangler figs btw) he says that f. aurea’s leaves will reduce. The problem is ramification.
F. natalensis has been used often enough in bonsai culture that its suitability as a bonsai subject shouldn’t be in question.
Of course, it is.
It’s usually questioned by those who hate aerial roots though. Or any tropical for that matter. They can’t all be elms and junipers.
These trees should be fun to watch grow.
We shall see what happens.

Alright then, here’s a drawing of the f. natalensis. (I sent a preview of this post to a friend and he insisted on a drawing)
20130701-133427.jpg
But you (and he) will have to use your imagination (or wait) on this one
20130701-133732.jpg
See ya’

8 responses to “Strangler fig bonsai?! Say what?!

  1. I’ve been referring to a few of my Jim Smith trees as ‘natalesis’ which apparently is wrong. Maybe they’re ’89s or something. I have some of the larger-leaved strangler or natalensis or whatever they are. Aggressive aerial roots is an understatement, give them some shade and it looks like spaghetti under there.

      • May not be microcarpa, but I’ve been known to be wrong. I chose/was attracted to them because they look like larger versions of nerifolia <– whatever the accurate name is. But they're larger than the '89 leaves.

  2. Adam, you come up with some great ideas – creating a wound top side to taper the curve, soften the chop and also to offset an existing old wound on the opposite low side – good post and nice tree. Don’t forget to post the *months later* down the road.

  3. Hi
    I am writing from Cape Town, South Africa. I think the information on F.natalensis also being referred to as a “strangler fig” is possilby incorrect.

    I have a number of F.natalensis which is indigenous to SA and they are definitely not “stranglers”. They do put out aerial roots but they are normally thin and not very proliferate. The link http://treeco-treeco.blogspot.com/2010/05/ficus-natalensis-natal-fig.html will give some more information.

    Locally we refer to F.sur as the “stranger fig” (see http://www.plantzafrica.com/plantefg/ficussur.htm. I use Plantzafrica.com for information on African tree species)

    With regard to leaf size both have fairly large leaves in nature but both reduce well with leaf pruning and so make good bonsai specimens.

    It does not seem possible to attach images and attachments to this reply so, for those who are interested the I have posted two Strangler fig progressions at https://www.dropbox.com/sh/t3qtmx2kfjl10kw/fQWi28r-dD. These are from an Oyama Bonsai Kai show. for more information see http://www.oyama.co.za

    enjoy
    Peter Bruyns

    I

    • I began the post with the caveat that there were several unrelated ficus species with the common name “strangler fig” and f. Natalensis was one of them. Another common name is “natal fig”. Most fig species have the capability to germinate above soil and be, in essence, epyphytic. Even f. Microcarpa.
      Refer to this book -Trees and Shrubs of Mpumalanga and Kruger National Park
      By Ernst Schmidt, Mervyn Lötter, Warren MacCleland page 80.
      And I did a web search for “dwarf African strangler fig” and it does yield results for f. Natalensis.
      Common names are often inexact and change from region to region as well and that’s why I use the Latin where I can. The two authorities in Florida I consult with are Jim Smith and Erik Wigert.
      I would love a specimen for f. Sur to play with and you’ve now piqued my interest.
      Thanks for your reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s