1. Ficus cordata grown from seed. Note the golden foliage on the lower plant. This may be an exciting new plant suitable for bonsai.
GROWING FIGS FROM SEED
By Jerry Meislik (Journal Contributing Editor) Whitefish, Montana (www.bonsaihunk.us)
Over the years I have grown many bonsai plants from seed. In this discussion I will be referencing my main interest which is growing figs for bonsai. Much of the discussion about growing figs from seed can be modified to work for other plant species. Of the close to 1000 species of figs only a small number are regularly available to growers in the US. Of the total number of fig species perhaps 50 species and or cultivars are available. Rare or unusual species are frequently unavailable. Growing from seed often reveals new plant characteristics such as leaf shape and color, bark or other variations. The possibility is always there of discovering some superior clone to use as bonsai.
Fig trees grown in the northern latitudes and indoors will form figs (syconia) but (will not likely form viable seed, since fertile seed requires fertilization by a fig wasp and fertile seeds are only available for specific species collected where these wasps have been introduced.) These wasps are only a few millimeters in size and are specific to each fig species. (So while fertile seeds can be obtained from some tropical locations, only those species that have the specific wasp present are possibly fertile and all other ficus in that location will not germinate.) Plants grown from seed will show more finely developed character than plants grown from field grown stock while field grown stock will be much larger at a comparable age.
THE CHALLENGE OF GROWING FROM SEED
It takes years to grow a plant from seed to a plant large enough to even begin its bonsai training. If plants of a desired species are available I recommend starting with plants or cuttings as that is a much faster way to form a bonsai. Seedlings are often weaker or of inferior quality as compared to selected known clones such as Tigerbark Fig or Green Island Fig which have already proven to be superior clones for use as bonsai.
Each seed grown plant varies from its parent trees so good qualities may not be transferred to the new plants and poor qualities may. It is always a crapshoot when growing plants from seed as to whether the seedling will be worthwhile.* One seed grown fig that I have is a cross between Ficus virens and Ficus religiosa.* It has attractive leaves with some of the features of each parent. I am still evaluating to determine if this will be a valuable bonsai material.
2. Ficus virens now 8 years old from seed
3 and 4. Ficus virens, a red leaf form, seed grown 7 years old
5 and 6. Seed grown Ficus microcarpa with unusual black bark and white spots.
(Photo below) 7. Ficus hybrid, 7 years old, parents ?virens x religiosa
Seed is available from various vendors online. Start by doing a search on Fig seed or specific species that you desire to grow. Try to purchase 20-50 seeds; many vendors sell as few as 10 seeds and that number may be too few to successfully grow any plants if the germination is poor.
Another problem is vendors who are totally inaccurate about their fig names. Often I have found that the plant is in fact incorrectly or perhaps fraudulently labeled as some rarer and more desirable species. Thus several years of careful cultivation are often wasted on growing a common and easily available fig.
Fresh seed will sprout in the highest percentages while old seed may not sprout at all; so try to obtain the freshest seed possible.
TECHNIQUES FOR GROWING FROM SEED
Fig seeds are very fine; finer than small grains of sand.* I soak them in a small cup of water for two days. Discard all materials that float and only use the seed on the bottom. Scatter the seed over the surface of moistened and finely chopped sphagnum moss or a bonsai soil of inorganic soil*. Underneath the moss use a normal bonsai soil suitable for plants. Try to use as inorganic a soil mix as possible. The soil and moss are then kept moist until germination occurs. Water again only when the soil gets slightly dry. Keep the seeds warm.
8. Ficus carica, showing very small seeds; 9.Red lava soil of 2-3mm with tiny sprouting fig seeds 10. Rockwool plugs with sprouting seeds in a dish with ¼” of water
11. Single Rockwool plug 12. A block of Rockwool plugs
13.Seedling figs removed from the rockwool 14. Moistened filter paper in the bottom of a petri dish, sprouting seeds on top. 15. Figs transplanted to plastic cups with several figs in each
Another technique that works well for me is using fiberglass growing plugs sold in hydroponic supply stores. Seed is scattered on the surface of the plug. Keep the plugs sitting in a dish containing perhaps ¼” of water. Keep the water at this level. The plugs are kept in a warm area.
Some of my friends use another technique for seed growing that involves using a petri dish, moistened filter paper and placing the seed on that until sprouting occurs*. They then transfer the barely erupted seedlings to normal soil.
Sprouting can occur in two weeks or as long as 3 months. The seedlings are very small and delicate and should not be moved until the fourth or fifth leaf is hardened off and the plants are 4-5” tall*. The plants can then be potted into a container of bonsai soil. I often will put two or three into a plastic cup with adequate drain holes and bonsai soil.
LIGHT. Keep the seedlings and seed in bright light but avoid direct sunlight until the seedlings are potted up in individual bonsai pots. Gradually move the seedlings after potting them up to as bright light as possible.
MOISTURE. Most seed and seedlings die from rot due to over-watering. Keep the soil media moist but never totally wet for day after day.
POTTING / SEPARATING. Young seedlings are delicate and should be handled gently. Try to disturb the fine roots as little as possible when potting. Pot one or two seedlings per pot to give them the best chances for vigorous growth*. Often you have quite a few surviving seedlings and you will have to select the best plants and dispose of the rest to friends and family. One of the great delights is discovering a seedling that has special potential. A new form with tinier leaves, redder buds, special bark etc.
I have grown Ficus microcarpa from seed and have some individuals with a much blacker colored bark than normal microcarpa. Another special plant that I have discovered is a golden leaf form of Ficus cordata. New leaves on this plant are a lovely gold in color. This is a random seedling variation and I hope one that may prove useful as a decorative bonsai.
16. Edible olives from seed 17. Tamarind seedlings from the local supermarket 18. Guava plant grown from seed
Growing bonsai from seed is a lot of fun and easy to do. It takes years to produce a bonsai but the control over the whole process is a real learning experience. Give it a try. Other tropical species that I have grown from seed include: edible figs, guava, tamarind, citrus, kumquat, European olive, caesalpinia, acacia, Adansonia and others.
PS: Often a visit to your grocer’s fruit and vegetable department can uncover many possible sources of seed.
- - - Jerry "Bonsaihunk" (email@example.com)
A NOTE FROM DAVID. Thank you Jerry for a great article. I think that even if you don't grow bonsai indoors throughout the year like Jerry, or even if you don't grow plants from seeds, that this article was a great contribution to Journal readers if only to learn what is involved in the research and techniques that are needed. Jerry mentioned, but I'd like to repeat that seedlings are very, very sensitive and anything can happen even to the most experienced growers.
In a nursery, there are many ways that an entire seed crop can get wiped out! It is necessary to keep the seedling areas, tools, containers, media, etc. as clean as possible. From a professional point of view, there are a huge number of things that must be considered and there are many major schools of thought concerning growing from seeds.
The industry magazines are filled with articles by academia about the latest greatest techniques to get plants to grow faster and better with larger percentage of germination, the use of high-tech moisture and nutritional sensors to create the optimum environments! Moisture controlled solenoids start misting systems and shades start unrolling and moving mechanically to shade out crops that may be getting too much light! That's one school of thought that we disagree with! Those nurseries and educational institutions may produce the fastest growing plants to be harvested and sold at the highest profit.
But bonsai should not be grown like that. Bonsai reflect the reality of nature --- the struggle for life in inhospitable environments that cause plants to die off --- with the survivors taking on a layer of character in being able to survive and that the greatest bonsai in the world are the strongest, most durable survivors that have out-lived the great robust plants grown by academia and high-tech nurseries.
Fuku-Bonsai is a basic "low-tech nursery that uses uncommon techniques" to produce the most successful gift bonsai for anyone, anywhere who can grow houseplants! That's because we don't baby our plants and even though we have a superior natural environment compared to Jerry's controlled environment, most of his trees would really struggle to survive at Fuku-Bonsai as we just can't give the individual care! We believe that the "average Fuku-Bonsai True Indoor Bonsai" customer doesn't have an optimum environment nor the skills acquired over many years. So we try to select only the toughest, most durable plants, then "over-water" them in our nursery where we may get 175" of annual rainfall, followed by 3 to 6 months with hardly any rain and with minimum irrigation. That kills off the weakest plants and our customers end up with the tough survivors and that's a large part of the reasons for the success!
Jerry is one of the nicest and luckiest guys that I know. He's very competent and willing to share what he knows and enjoys challenging himself. As you can tell right now he's excited about that off-color fig seedling and I hope his proves to be a winner. Every few years, a mutation pops out of our seed crops and staff know to set it aside for trials. Unfortunately, the overwhelming number of such mutations don't turn out to be good bonsai material. They are different and add some interest to our collection, but don't have the traits needed for good bonsai and we don't grow them for sale. There's a story of one of them in this issue. Future stories of other plants will provide insights into how to train different plants. I hope you enjoy these stories!