By Jerry Meislik, Journal Contributing Editor Emeritus (Whitefish, Montana)

              Last month I described a journey with a Ficus benjamina that eventually concluded with the "completion" and death of the bonsai. This month I will describe my work with a bonsai that took a somewhat less drastic but not desirable path.

                Ficus burtt-davyii (BD) is a fig native to southern parts of Africa and one that is frequently used in those areas as a bonsai. I had the occasion to visit South Africa several years back and saw many good bonsai created with this material. There are many cultivars of burtt-davyii with at least 3 common leaf variations from full to small sized. Most often in the US the smaller leaf cultivars are used for bonsai.


                My first BD has been with me for about 15 years. Mine is the variety with the smallest leaves. 

On the plus side of BD it has a very nice whitish trunk, develops aerial roots even in the dry Montana climate and it is also the only fig in my collection of many figs species that has figs/syconia almost each year. The figs are small and in perfect scale with the smallest of bonsai.



     (Left)  The ree in 2000 showing reasonable vigor.  (Right) Tree actually looking healthier, 2005



      (Left)  Tree still showing vigor, 2008   (Right) Part of apex removed to debulk the apex, 2011


    (Left) 2011, lower limb removed for design reasons.  (Right)  2012, tree not showing much strength.


        (Left) 2012, tree cut into two parts  (Center) Right side of tree, 2014.  (Right photo)  Left half surviving happily on its single aerial root, 2014


              My tree has been a puzzle to me since I got it. Over the years, despite my best efforts, its growth has been spotty if not directly in decline. As you can see from the progression of the photographs it has gradually shown less and less vigor and less foliage. Checking the root system during its repotting I noticed that interestingly most of the roots under the main trunk had rotted away although the tree itself has never shown any tendency to rot. Virtually the whole tree was being supported by the single aerial root descending near the left side of the trunk! Despite this the tree survived on very few living roots, never died or lost a branch. But clearly the trajectory of the tree has been downhill.


                    My puzzle about why this cultivar has proven less than ideal for me was answered during my visit to Africa where I discovered that the BD often endures freezing winter temperature and is watered just a little bit during its winter resting period. Additionally many of the BD's that I saw growing in Africa were in small containers or growing over rocks so that the roots had plenty of air circulation and were not subjected to persistent and excessive root moisture. 


                    In my growing room I basically keep temperatures about 60F and plants never have a real rest period. Most all of my trees are tropical or sub-tropical and are treated as such. I normally have the same light levels, watering, fertilizing and stable temperatures throughout the year.  Now knowing that this tree is not really a tropical has forced me to keep this material potted in smaller pots than normal, water it only when the soil is dry and allow it to slow down growth when it seems to be at rest. Because my plant room has only one temperature zone and most of my trees are tropicals means that I can't really cool my BD down for the winter rest period.


                    Since treating my BD in this way it seems that my BD is doing better but unfortunately it is one of my ugliest bonsai.  I decided to take drastic action to renovate the design in 2012 . You can see that the tree was split into two parts. Leaving one piece as a slant style and the other as a tree suspended high in the air by a single aerial root. Not sure what to call this ugly single rooted creature but I hope to come up with some way to use this ugly piece. 


                    In conclusion, not all trees progress along a smooth path to become beautiful bonsai. Last month we saw a benjamina fig that succumbed despite my best efforts and this month I am featuring another fig tree that has declined and is as yet not on the path to star quality as a bonsai, and perhaps it never will. Sometimes knowing a little bit more about how a tree exists in its natural environment may  help us to grow better bonsai. I will keep you updated as time continues.


                    Another Ficus burtt-davyii, in upright style, in a very small container seems to be doing well

(Below left)  Another very small BD in a tiny container appears to be thriving (Below Right)  Another BD is fruiting in a small container and fairly healthy






         1.      All figs are not tropical and do not thrive under tropical conditions


         2.      Ficus burtt-davyii is not a true tropical


         3.      Ficus burtt-davyii roots are sensitive to excess moisture; so use smaller pots, coarser soil, allow winter rest period and decreased watering


        4.       Not all plants will work well under "typical conditions", learn as much as possible about the plant in question and supply those conditions 


        5.       Not all plants improve over time






                  As this is being posted in mid-September for the October 2014 issue of the Journal of Tropical and True Indoor Bonsai,  Jerry is again in South Africa where he's been invited to make a series of presentations as part of a teaching tour.  While I once was an early ficus bonsai authority, in the 1980's I strongly switched over to researching True Indoor Bonsai and Jerry took over where I left off.  He has since greatly expanded the knowledge of Ficus Bonsai and his book:  "FICUS; The Exotic Bonsai," is the best text in print and highly recommended.


                 For those who especially enjoy ficus bonsai,  be sure to keep visiting Jerry's website at  as he is continually adding to it.  We are very appreciative that Jerry contributes articles to our Journal of Tropical and True Indoor Bonsai and have honored and elevated him to Journal Contributing Editor Emeritus to relieve the pressure of submitting an article every month.  This is due to his help and assistance in launching this Journal and the growing number of Fast-Track Study Group members that are rapidly advancing and providing higher-standard reports and articles for the Journal.  The entire bonsai world is appreciative of Jerry's love of bonsai and his commitment to help others. 
                 If you are growing Ficus Bonsai and have exhausted all other possible sources of help, Jerry invites you to email him at  But he's got a very busy schedule and you should keep your emails short, to the point and explain your problem or request in a single formal request. It's not appropriate to request help in a single rude   email question.  That's really very poor courtesy and not appropriate when asking for help from an expert like Jerry.  If he replies,  DON'T immediately zing him with another rude email .  .  .  and another  .  .  .  and another! 
                 I also receive a whole bunch of these and cringe but try to answer in a patient civil manner.  I hope all in the Tropical and True Indoor Bonsai community will communicate with clarity and courtesy and appreciate Jerry as much as the Journal editorial team!  MAHALO JERRY!
                ~~~David (