A ficus tree growing root-over-rock in a natural setting in Thailand

By Jerry Meislik, Journal contributing editor (Whitefish, Montana) 

              In Part One of this set of articles on Root-Over-Rock style,  I discussed my work with Brassaia and Schefflera. In this second article I will discuss Ficus.  The similarities between these species is interesting in that many figs are also aggressive epiphytes like Brassaia and Schefflera. My experience is that these aggressive tolerant species are able to survive in nature by being adaptable to low or high light and excessive moisture or dryness. I will be discussing several of the plantings that I have done to illustrate various points about the Root-Over-Rock style and its creation. (Note:  Part I is posted at: www.fukubonsai.com/1a9a18.html)












                  Willow Leaf root cutting with twin roots:     1. Peculiar young Willow Leaf root cutting with two long roots and leaves sprouting from the cut end.       2. Same plant placed on a rock about 11 or so years ago.      3. Same tree in 2014 - the rock has been lifted, placed into a shallow pot and the tree has grown significantly

                  This Willow Leaf fig started out as a root cutting which sprouted foliage on the top end. Not all species of Ficus will sprout from a root cutting. The cutting was started about 10-12 years ago. The peculiar twin root stumped me for quite a while and I could not decide how to shape this into a bonsai.

                   Eureka! One day I spread the two heavy roots over a rock and I used wire to attach the roots. Fortunately no wire scars developed. I allowed the tree to grow pretty vigorously to get the stiff roots to finally adhere to the stone. 

                   Over time the two roots seemed insufficient to give the tree good visual stability on the rock. As luck would have it there was a branch that sprouted near the left side of the tree's base. I allowed this to grow and brought it down the left side of the rock and buried it in the soil but allowed the tip to continue growing out of the soil. Over time the branch has thickened and now appears as a third root. It has not yet rooted well - so more time is needed to get it to ground layer and then the foliage end growing out of the soil will be removed permanently.

                 LESSON:   Use a nicely shaped plant as your starting point. The root that I used was hardly worthwhile but it has matured well enough to be attractive after quite a few years. I should have started with a more suitable piece of material and shaved years off the whole process. Fuku-Bonsai fortunately has prepared stock and rocks that will put you way ahead of the game.   Attach the roots firmly as possible to the rock. David uses thin paper coated wires that quickly rot and do not injure the roots. Use any method you please but be sure that wire or other marks do not spoil the future of the bonsai. Plastic or rubber bolsters will protect from scars. Many times I just use a small piece of branch or wood that is lying about and tie it between the root and the  wire or plastic tie.




            Chinese Banyan (Ficus microcarpa) 'Epiphyte'.       4. Ficus microcarpa growing epiphytically on another tree in Hawaii and David using a prybar to remove the fig.   5. David holding the fig and showing its long, long but very stiff roots.   6. Fig set on the stone, soil and sphagnum moss added around the stone held in place with aluminum foil.


                    7. After free growth the foil and soil were removed exposing the rock and newly adherent roots.  8. Branches selected for the design but are too long.     9. Branches shortened back as suggested by David to bring the focus back to the rock and less focus on the branching.


                      10.  Branches and allowed to grow out.   11. A virtual image showing one possible selection of branches that might work for the final design

                 When I visited David in 2004 we took a ride around to find some great figs for me to photograph and admire. At that time I was in the process of completing my fig book and needed to learn more about certain aspects of fig culture. Where better to learn but from David himself.    On our drive David spotted this fig, Ficus microcarpa, growing epiphytically on another tree. He sprang out of the trunk and harvested the fig in a few moments and in short order it was thrown into the back of the truck and eventually made it home with me to Montana.

                At home I planted the tree on a lovely piece of lava also provided by David. The roots were placed as well as I could manage since they were very large and stiff and not flexible at all. Some sphagnum moss and coarse soil were added around the roots on the rock and aluminum foil used to hold it all in place. After perhaps a year of un-restricted growth the aluminum foil was gradually removed allowing the roots to gradually harden off and adapt to being uncovered.

               The tree is now well secured on the rock. I need to add additional rock to the back where the loss of some of the initial large roots have exposed a gap between the tree and the rock. Still not quite sure what will work best to put the two rocks together and how to make the joint invisible. Perhaps quick set cement and/or some type of glue as has been mentioned in the study group.    My initial design for the tree used the current back view. A few years back David helped me to change the front as well as to consider shortening back on branches.  A virtual is attached for one possible future look.

               LESSON - Rock plantings look their best if major roots adhere to the underlying rock. One could just fill the gap with moss and visually "cure" the gap but I think once I find a suitable rock I will glue it into the gap for a more aesthetic and permanent cure.  The exact branch selection of the tree remains a puzzle for me to decipher. I am not happy with the current branching but I am including a virtual to show how one of my preferred futures looks might be. Your opinion on a possible future design is encouraged.




                 Willow Leaf with detailed root net.      13. Willow leaf root cutting wired to a rock and allowed aggressive top growth to get the roots established.         14. Same plant with nearly all growth removed to rebuild the apex closer to the stone; focusing attention back to the roots and stone - new apex on the way

                A more recent planting is this Willow Leaf cutting placed on a rock. The rock was not very interesting but the plant has an extensive net-like root pattern that is interesting in itself.  The tree was initially secured on the rock and covered in foil with some soil. Over time the top was allowed to grow wildly and once it seemed that the roots were mature enough I removed the foil but allowed the securing wires to remain.  The top was chopped back and a new apex will be grown that is closer to the rock.

               LESSON -   When choosing a design for a root-over-rock consider whether the tree is dominant or the stone is dominant. The two concepts are very different.  If the tree is too large or wide and has a heavy foliage crown the design will pull the eye away from the rock and make the rock sub-ordinate.   In this example I think the plexus of roots will be of interest and less so the rock itself or the tree. So the tree is being kept simple and short.



                Some of the most fun and exciting designs incorporate a tree and a stone. There are many ways to accomplish this task. It looks like I have taken most of the slow paths.   My root-over-rock designs even though immature provide me with great pleasure.   Why not try your own and start with a set of proper components from David who will get you there in much faster time.   Next month in part lll I will offer some more of my Root-Over-Rock designs experiments.      - - - Jerry "Bonsaihunk" (jerry@bonsaihunk.us )

                Visit Jerry's website at www.bonsaihunk.us



                 First I want to commend Jerry on his awesome filing of photos and notes and for sharing them with us.  Jerry will tell you that at one time I was really into ficus as I believed it would be the "King of all Indoor Bonsai!"  It's the only true tree that is a recognized and durable houseplant.  The primary disadvantage is that it requires more light than ordinarily available in average homes and offices and with my primary desire to help and support those starting into bonsai who want to grow them indoors,  I switched to specialize in Dwarf Schefflera which is probably faster growing and more adaptable than ficus. 

                If you gave Dwarf Schefflera the same amount of light as needed for ficus,  you'll have really great growth and some in our more advanced Fast-Track Study Group are doing just that.  They are getting great growth even during the stormy winter we're in and are pruning and repotting in the middle of winter!  In a few parts of the country, Dwarf Scheff and ficus are already outdoors as night temperatures go above 55F.  In Jerry's Montana, it's still a few months off and he just grows his trees indoors year around. I'm looking forward to Jay's reports from Michigan and the middle states.  The one point I try always to emphasize is to get the best possible growth and I've always been impressed with what Jerry can achieve in Montana. 

               With the increased interaction with more individuals,  I'm coming to recognize that the overall bonsai community is moving in two different directions:  The traditional outdoor temperate climate bonsai community is typified by the late John Naka who collected and refined Nature's Bonsai as well as created large assembly bonsai such as his "Goshin" forest arrangement masterpiece.

               The emphasis of this group is searching and trying to obtain the highest potential material and a person's success in this area will generally determine the quality of that person's collection.  With general bonsai information becoming increasingly available, obtaining highest potential material is really the major bonsai challenge for both the traditional outdoor temperate climate bonsai growers. 

               But it's also true for those of us in the growing "Tropical and True Indoor Bonsai" community that we are building.  In this respect John Naka and I pursued very opposite bonsai strategies and philosophies.  He looked for extraordinary trees with the potential to be masterpieces.  There are relatively few such trees and success is mainly luck (if you're collecting) or the size of your bank account (if you're buying). 

               Very few will grow trees from seeds and cuttings as Jerry and I do.  It makes sense to start training as early as possible to be able to create character when the trees are as small as possible.  At Fuku-Bonsai our standard is for ALL trees to have character within one inch of the soil line.  If you don't have it there, you'll never be able to create it! Creating character down low requires skill and discipline.  You can't take an 8" long cutting and expect to get character within one inch!  Doesn't it make sense to root a branch that already has a bend in it?  Or learn to take small cuttings and as soon as it's growing strongly, prune it dramatically!  Many will die but that's the price you have to pay to get high-potential plants! 

              Fuku-Bonsai is committed to providing the highest quality Dwarf Schefflera and encourages other bonsai professionals to improve the quality of their starter stock and to offer them to hobbyists as parts of kits.  With success, enthusiasm and the hobby will grow!  ~~~David  (david.f@fukubonsai.com)

***  Return to the March 2014 issue of the Journal of Tropical & True Indoor Bonsai

*** Go to the Mid-Pacific Bonsai Foundation website
*** Go to the Fuku-Bonsai website
Mid-Pacific Bonsai Foundation and Fuku-Bonsai 2014