The Ficus or Fig Family of plants are amongst the most confusing to botanists and the bonsai community continues to be embarrassingly notorious for their misidentification of ficus. This is a real mine field for simplistic minds as there can be a huge visual difference in the same plant when grown in different locations. A plant in India may have one name. A very different plant in the Philippines could have a totally different name. In between these different locations, there may be 20 plants with different names. But when the plants are very carefully examined, there's a continuous gradation from one extreme to another and all of the plants should therefore carry the same name with varietal notations.
A ficus once known as "Ficus mexicana" was identified by a "ficus expert" who lived far from the tropics as "Ficus nerifolia," "Ficus regularis," or "Ficus nerifolia irregularis." Another expert identified it a Ficus salicifolia. The recognized primary ficus reference is Ficus; The Exotic Species by Ira J. Condit. During my research days, I corresponded with Dr. Condit, and his book clearly identifies the plant as the Celebes Fig from the Celebes Islands off the Philippines. Ficus are a tropical family of plants and most of the best collections in the United States are in Florida, California, and Hawaii.
Fuku-Bonsai is a research affiliate of the Harold Lyon Arboretum of the University of Hawaii at Manoa, the former Hawaii Sugar Planters Association (HSPA) Experimental Research Station. Hundreds of ficus and other imported trees were planted in grids. After Western contact, goats, cattle, and pigs were introduced and allowed to run wild. Hawaiian indigenous plants had no defenses and over time, much of the vegetation was eaten and the hills began to erode. HSPA's potential reforestation trees included a large number of ficus that are now over 100 years old. We have had an opportunity to study these trees, and as a research affiliate, we've had access to many varieties for field trials.
Our interest is due to Ficus being the most prominent family contributing true trees for interiorscaping. These include the Rubber Tree (Ficus elastica), Fiddleleaf fig (F. lyrata), Benjamin or Weeping Banyan (F. benjamina), Mistletoe Fig (F. deltoidea syn. F. diversifolia), and many others. We reasoned that it would be very likely that the future "King and Queen of Indoor Bonsai" would likely be a ficus.
In Hawaii, Dr. Horace Clay and Haruo Kaneshiro participated in my study. Horace kept an eye out for new varieties in his travels and in the mid-1960's Haruo was the first to notice that the seeds that should have not have been fertile could be germinated. He selected a specific clone of a volunteer crossing between the Round Leaf Taiwan Banyan (then unnamed) and the Chinese Banyan (then known as Ficus retusa). To that time, it was believed that they were two separate distinct species.
Because flowers are pollinated by a specific wasp, the botanical community recognizes that this is a larger family of ficus varieties now collectively known as Ficus microcarpa. The Kaneshiro Banyan is Ficus microcarpa 'Kaneshiro;' a selected clone. A specimen is in the National Bonsai and Penjing Museum in Washington, DC. The Fuku-Bonsai Banyan is Ficus microcarpa 'Fuku-Bonsai;' a selected clone.
An unidentified fig tree on the Fuku-Bonsai Kurtistown property has many strings of figs that produce a profusion of figs two or more times per year! In old Hawaii, this was known as "Cha-wan cut." "Cha" is tea and chawan is a tea bowl. A large one was placed over the heads of young children and the barber cut off everything that stuck out of the bowl. At the Pearlridge Shopping Center in Honolulu. (Ficus benjamina) Buddha is said to have received his enlightenment under a Bo Tree (Ficus religiosa) and this tree is associated with Buddhism. Thousands of cuttings were taken from the original tree in India, rooted, and sent to be planted at Buddhist churches throughout the world including this one at Puna Hongawanji about two miles from Fuku-Bonsai. This is the basic banyan form. Port Jackson or Rusty Fig (Ficus rubiginosa) is an Australian specie that can handle dry climates. It makes a nice park tree and is one of the better ficus to grow as tropical bonsai. Liliuokalani Gardens in Hilo on the Big Island of Hawaii. The Indian Banyan (Ficus bengalensis) is the most famous banyan. In India, an entire army camped under a single giant old tree! In Lahaina, Maui, a single tree covers over one acre! This tree is at the Honolulu Zoo. In Hawaii, the Chinese Banyan is amongst the most common and because of its vigorous growth and small leaves, it is popular for bonsai. The left tree is a rainforest banyan with an abundance of aerial roots. Birds eat the figs and the seeds travel through their digestive systems to emerge as "fertilizer-encased seeds" deposited high in tree branches. They germinate, send down roots to the ground, grow vigorously and eventually strangle their host! Near the Nihon Restaurant in Liliuokalani Park in Hilo.
Ficus come in all shapes and sizes for tiny vines to towering forest giants!