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



               Although there are close to 1000 fig species in the world not all are suitable to bonsai training. Some species have leaves that are just too big for normal sized bonsai while others are vines or climbers that do not easily form trunks. The list of species that could be suitable for bonsai is currently a short list as many fig species have never been grown as bonsai and information on their suitability is not known. Future efforts will further define the range of suitable and unsuitable species.


              My growing conditions are very specific as I grow plants indoors under artificial light so my list will be limited to species that have worked well for me and under my specific growing conditions. Under your growing conditions you may discover other species that work or don’t work for you. Use this material as a starting point for your explorations with figs.



                    Most plant nurseries will only have one or two species available for bonsai; typically Ficus benjamina, the Weeping fig, and Ficus microcarpa, Chinese banyan, are the most routinely available. There are many cultivars of these two species. I would consider any of the cultivars to act similarly as the type species.  Let’s go through the list and describe some details of each species starting with the first photo above:


BURTT-DAVYI  is a good species for bonsai and as there are small leaf cultivars it may be used for very small bonsai.

•    Good points – forms aerial roots, small leaf cultivars are available, develops syconia/figs routinely

•    Bad points - none

•    Special needs – do not keep soil constantly wet or roots will rot especially when it tends to slow down growth in the shorter days of winter, it can be allowed to cool down in the fall











            MICROCARPA, the Chinese Banyan, is one of the finest species for bonsai and one of the most commonly used for bonsai.

•    Good points – vigorous growth, produces aerial roots, leaves reduce, resists leaf drop

•    Bad points – susceptible to thrips

•    Special needs – none






Microcarpa is a variable specie. The top photo shows a small 5" tall bonsai with bluish leaves.  The photo below it is in the banyan rainforest style and large about 30" wide. 







             NATALENSIS;  the Natal Fig is relatively uncommon in the US but is used extensively in Africa where it originates. It is a very aggressive grower and lives happily in containers.

•    Good points – very vigorous, aerial roots, leaves reduce very well, propagates from cuttings of stems and roots

•    Bad points - none

•    Special needs – none



           OBLIQUA is the Small Leaf fig.  Obliqua and rubiginosa are difficult to separate without  the presence of figs/syconia. Both are very suitable for bonsai.

         •    Good points – vigorous, produces aerial roots, leaves reduce

         •    Bad points – none

         •    Special needs - none


          RUBIGINOSA  or the Port Jackson fig is a strong grower and tolerates container growth very well.


         •    Good points – vigorous, aerial roots, leaves reduce

         •    Bad points – some cultivars have fairly large leaves

         •    Special needs – none


Right photo:  Rubiginosa in banyan style; 30" wide



         SALICARIA, the Willow Leaf fig is one of the best figs for bonsai. Due to its small leaves its use for small sized bonsai is very easy.


        •    Good points – very small leaf, aerial roots, excellent surface rootage

        •    Bad points – leaf drop under un-suitable conditions, susceptible to mites

        •    Special needs – avoid soggy, wet soils, grow the plant with even growing conditions, not too drastic changes in water, temperature, light intensity





            VIRENS,  the White Fig is one of the most underused species. It is used extensively in Thailand but it is not grown with great frequency in other countries in which it is native.


            •    Good points – vigorous, buds back easily, leaves reduce well, some clones have very attractive bronze or red leaves on new growth

            •    Bad points – larger leaves

            •    Special needs – may require higher humidity levels



             "MYSTERY FIG," this is one of the finest fig species that I have ever used as bonsai. It is a material that I got from David in 2004 and he believes that it is Ficus natalensis. By whatever name it is a super aggressive producer of aerials and roots. It is extremely happy in container culture. Leaves although large reduce easily. It may be offered as a benefit to members of the MPBF in the future.


               •    Good points – vigorous, buds back easily, leaves reduce well, very easy growth of aerial roots

               •    Bad points – larger leaves

               •    Special needs - none




               BENJAMINA,  the Weeping Fig, is found in nearly every big box store and garden center but is one of the less desirable species on my list. It is an excellent choice for bonsai when grown in tropical climates but behaves erratically when grown in more northern areas and grown indoors. It is prone to leaf drop and rots out when kept too moist.


            •    Good points – available in most garden centers

            •    Bad points – leaf drop, die-back, avoid heavy reductions

            •    Special needs – keep drier than most figs to avoid root rot


Right photo shows the miniature Benjamina variety "Too Little" that is just 9" tall 



              CONCLUSION.   Of the many hundreds of figs there are some proven performers that are worthwhile for bonsai. Likely many more cultivars and species will be found in the years ahead.  Please let me know of any species that work well for you as bonsai. 

               - - - Jerry "Bonsaihunk" (


             SOME COMMENTS FROM DAVID.  May I share with you some thoughts?  I've known Jerry since the 1980's and value his friendship and dedication to bonsai.  Many years ago, I thought that ficus (figs) would be the "king of all indoor bonsai" because it was really the only true "houseplant" that were actually trees and I loved banyans.  But after I learned most ficus required more light than available in ordinary homes and offices, I switched research to Schefflera and Dwarf Schefflera which are the primary most durable of all low light houseplants.  At one time, our ficus research collection totaled over 200 species and clones.

             So I really am pleased that Jerry has advanced much past where I left off and I was delighted when he published his book:  "FICUS; THE EXOTIC BONSAI."  You can read my review at   or go to his website at

            As everyone should know,  I believe that Dwarf Schefflera is the superior plant for bonsai as it can grow indoors throughout the year in ordinary homes and offices anywhere where anyone can successfully grow any houseplant!  It can be trained into masterpiece world-class quality bonsai as tiny mini-bonsai but also large impressive trees. Dwarf Schefflera grows vigorously and rapidly and can be trained into more styles than any other tree trained as bonsai.  And of course, Fuku-Bonsai grows the highest quality in large quantities to be able to over exceptional workshop packages. 

           That said,  if I were to be asked what would be my second choice, it would clearly be ficus!  This tropical tree is ideal for bonsai if you can supply supplemental light.  It is great to grow outdoors whenever night temperatures are above 55°F.  I hear stories of people who take ficus bonsai outdoors during cooler days as soon as temperatures reach 55°F and bring them in before night temperatures go below that!  They get better growth than other trees.  They are strong, fast-growing trees (although not as fast as Dwarf Schefflera. 

            Additionally,  there have been major advances in lighting as you can see from Jerry's trees in this article that were grown indoors 100% of the time!  So for those ready to advance beyond Dwarf Schefflera,  consider Ficus and learn as much as you can from Jerry and his website!  MAHALO JERRY! 


  ***  Return to the November issue of Tropical & True Indoor Bonsai
  ***  Go to the Mid-Pacific Bonsai Foundation website
  ***  Go to the Fuku-Bonsai website
         ©  Jerry Meislik,  Mid-Pacific Bonsai Foundation and Fuku-Bonsai, 2013