This project began in 2004 and a dead former bonsai stump and living Ficus microcarpa trees are shown at the start. 
By Jerry Meislik,  Journal contributing editor (Whitefish, Montana)

               Epiphytic growth is used by plants in many plant families including figs. Simply put epiphytes grow on other plants using the supporting plant as a place to grow and often to obtain more sunlight in rainforest areas. But these epiphytic plants are not parasites and do not tap into the supporting plant to remove any nutrition from the supporting plant. They live only on decaying material, and rain that falls to supply their nutritional needs. 


               Many Ficus species are capable of growing epiphytically on other trees. These epiphytically growing figs are also called Strangler Figs but the botanists call them hemi-epiphytes, suggesting that they only spend part of their life cycle as epiphytes. Not all figs grow naturally as epiphytes. Only some of the many hundreds of fig species are capable of starting life as an epiphyte. Life begins for epiphytes as the fig fruit is eaten by a bird or animal and then the remains of the fig and living seed are then deposited by the animal on a tree trunk where the seed can sprout if conditions are favorable. 


               Over time the seed sprouts, send roots down the host tree's trunk and ultimately if conditions are right the figs roots will succeed in rooting into the ground. Once the roots take hold the fig will outgrow and shade out the host tree and sometimes strangle off the host tree's vascular system. The fig will survive and the host will die. This gives rise to the common name of Strangler Fig, a picturesque but over-dramatic description.   The stages and forms in the life of an epiphytic fig will be discussed in another article.


                This article describes the creation of one epiphytic style fig in my collection. The process was started in about 2004, making the tree currently about 10 years old.  The trunk of a dead bonsai, in this case a Water Jasmine, or a piece of wood that is properly shaped can be  used as the support host tree. No treatment of any sort is done to preserve the trunk because I wish to have the host trunk rot out with time. If the host tree is to remain  than wood preservatives need to be applied to the host trunk.


          Grinding out some of the trunk to properly fit the fig trees and a close up of the figs nailed and wired to the host trunk.   Seven Ficus microcrapa 'Tigerbark' will be attached to this trunk. These Ficus trees are selected for relatively straight trunks and few branches to keep the design as simple as possible.  All these trees are rooted cuttings taken from the same tree so that they are alike in all respects. Do not use random seed grown Ficus as their bark color and other characteristics will vary and the final creation may look "unusual". 


         The trees are removed from their pots, the soil is removed and roots are kept intact, especially the long ones. Keep the roots moist during this process. Trees are selected to fit on the host trunk. Some minor amounts of wood are removed from the host if the contour does not allow a good fit. I used a rotary grinder and a chainsaw like tool to move away un-needed wood.


         Branches that interfere with the attachment of the trees to the host are removed. Iron nails are hammered through the trees and into the host trunk to secure them. Wire was also used to keep the trees well positioned and secure.


        Roots are  positioned on the trunk, stapled to the trunk and led into the soil. The roots should be kept moist during this process to keep the trees from dehydrating.   Shaping the trees and wiring them to shape is probably best be done at a later time to minimize stress on the trees. 



           Seven trees attached to the host trunk.  Moss covers all the exposed roots, leading them into the soil.  Foil collar is applied around the moss to help keep the moss moist. Gaps at the top of the foil collar are left to allow water to be applied to the moss and to the soil in the pot.  The tree is kept in high humidity and out of the sun and wind for at least two weeks and no fertilizer is applied until new growth is evident. 








              After 12-24 months of very vigorous and uncontrolled growth, the foil is removed and the sphagnum moss gradually pulled away to exposed the roots to the air (2006)










               The tree in 2011.  Many new roots will have formed and these are thinned out, keeping the best and most artistic. Unneeded roots can be removed or repositioned, covered with moss and plastic and allowed to grow.


               Over time the Ficus trees will cover the whole trunk and may fuse to each other and in fact may look like one tree with a very large trunk. Or their growth can be restrained and the individual trees allowed to remain as separate epiphytes. Most observers visiting my plant room do not realize that what they are looking at is not seven trees but they interpret the design as one bonsai tree.







           The tree in 2014.  The creation of an epiphytic style fig is easy and fun. Young, inexpensive Ficus can easily be propagated or purchased and attached to a deadwood trunk. With this simple technique a unique and wonderful bonsai can be created in only a few years. Future articles will discuss epiphytic styling in more detail.


         - - - Jerry Meislik  (   








               I once thought that ficus (figs) were the future of American Bonsai because they were a whole lot easier to grow than the traditional temperate climate Japanese evergreen and deciduous bonsai that mostly require a winter dormancy period, relatively high light,  and very specific cultural practices.  Most will not grow in tropical Hawaii nor in Jerry's plant room that has strong artificial light but no "winter dormancy."  


              Many of the Junipers and other trees sold in the malls, on the Internet, and garden shops are temperate climate outdoor trees. But there are a still a huge number of "bonsai professional wannabes" and unscrupulous venders who call them "INDOOR BONSAI"  OR CLAIM THEY THRIVE INDOORS! They are not houseplants and they do not thrive indoors!


             It may be possible to keep them alive for a while with supplemental light, good cultural practices, and a lot of luck.  There are a few strains of junipers that can grow indoors as skilled bonsai growers like Jack Wikle of Michigan who has grown them for years under fluorescent lights.  I've visited his home and anyone who has met Jack is impressed with his keen abilities and attention to detail.  But he's the exception.


             If you have strong supplemental light,  I highly recommend that after you master Dwarf Schefflera, that you contact Jerry Meislik and increase your challenge by growing ficus.  Fuku-Bonsai will not offer ficus to the general public, but we will offer a limited ficus selection one day to members of the Mid-Pacific Bonsai Foundation and study group members.  In interested, please write for more information. 


            Because my primary objective was to grow only the highest quality and most successful bonsai for anyone, anywhere who can grow houseplants, I shifted my focus and specialty to Dwarf Schefflera.  But I really enjoy Jerry's ficus articles and honored that he is a Journal contributing editor.  If you have interest in ficus bonsai, be sure to get his book and visit his website (URL: 


            In general,  if you tweak Jerry's techniques,  you can get them to work with Dwarf Schefflera. Ficus also grows relatively fast with a high success indoors if you have stronger light.  Jerry, mahalo for sharing your knowledge with Journal readers!  ~~~David


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

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