"Epiphytes" are trees that grow on other trees.  In Hawaii, the Chinese Banyan (Ficus microcarpa 'Retusa') is the primary Ficus tree with viable seeds.  The "flowers are tightly lined up inside the fruit shell with the center area hollow.  A specific wasp is associated with each ficus specie and it enters through a tiny opening.  The flowers are pollinated as the wasp walks over them and viable seeds develop.  While the wasps of other species have been introduced into Hawaii, none of the other figs are as common as the Chinese Banyan.

                Fertile seeds are plump, juicy, and sweet.  They are favorite food for birds.  The seeds pass through the bird's digestive system,  emerging as a "fertilizer encased seed." If it's ejected high on a tree and germinates, over time, roots travel down the trunk to reach the ground. If growth is vigorous, eventually it may strangle the host tree. 

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       Photo 1. In Hilo in the bayfront park (near Wailoa Center where the Big Island Bonsai Association holds their annual All Big Island Bonsai Show during the July 4th weekend), the open areas are sprinkled with a variety of trees. The broad crowned Monkeypod tree had dropped leaves and is leafing out in spring. Coconut trees are easy to identify and there are similar shaped Date Palms. But this Date Palm seen growing through the Monkeypod has a banyan growing in its palm fronds.

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       Photo 2.  Roots are circling the palm trunk and the tree is growing more vigorously than the Date Palm. It's just a matter of time before the banyan strangles the host palm.

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       Photo 3.  At the base, the banyan roots already circle over half of the palm's trunk and as they enter the ground they will be able to grow much more vigorously.  The trunk of the Monkeypod tree is seen behind. 

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       Photo 4.  Another epiphytic Chinese Banyan has begun life in a fork of a Jacaranda tree.  If you look carefully at the left trunk you'll see roots of another epiphytic Chinese Banyan coming down the trunk.  Chinese Banyan is shade tolerant so it will survive in the shade. But once the branches reach the top of the Jacaranda and has access to bright sun, it will grow faster and eventually shade out and kill the Jacaranda.

FicusEpiphyteCafe100.jpg (29407 bytes)         Photo 5.  Often a single tree will have several ficus epiphytes that send their roots down the trunk and these will fuse and widen until it may cover the entire host tree trunk surface.  This tree has several and the roots of the upper ones are emerging from the foliage mass and welding and fusing with the roots of the low epiphyte that began in the fork of the the two-trunked host tree.   
FicusEpiphyte5+Rainforest.jpg (16087 bytes)         Photo 6. Two Chinese Banyans in Liliuokalani Gardens in Hilo. Hilo is the wettest tropical city in the United States with between 125" to 150" of rain each year. The tree on the left has an abundance of free-falling aerial roots typical of banyans in a rainforest. The tree on the right was an Ironwood (Casuarina) that now serves as the support for an epiphytic Chinese Banyan that has taken over and is beginning to develop a typical crown.
FicusEpiphyte6Liliukalani.jpg (30935 bytes)        Photo 7: Larger photo of the same tree above.


                Imagine if instead of in a tall tree, that the "fertilizer encased seed" was deposited in the crouch of a Paperbark tree just at chest level.  This happened about ten years ago on a tree between the potting shed and the office-work building at the Fuku-Bonsai Cultural Center.  The tree began to grow vigorously when roots reached the ground. The crown had developed and spread out almost 20' wide from end tip to end tip of branches.  About five years ago, most of the crown was cut back with a chainsaw but we didn't collect it then as the main root reaching the ground was too thin.  We allowed it to grow out for another five years.

                On Saturday, September 8, 2001 on a Fuku-Bonsai Cultural Center Bonsai Day, Mid-Pacific Bonsai Foundation president Michael Imaino led a demonstration and workshop on collecting epiphytic banyans assisted by Fuku-Bonsai nursery supervisor Edison Yadao. 

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        Paperbark trees are planted between the Potting Shed and the Office-Work Building which are 12' apart and connected by a covered walkway. It's a cool shady area where we grow some non-certified plants.  The Paperbark trees were planted about 1976 and are about 50' tall with trunks about 2' to 3' thick. The Chinese Banyan epiphyte began growing about 1990 and growing out of the right side of the Paperbark.

FicusEpiphyteSep2001FBC2a.jpg (48417 bytes)         Close-up of the Chinese Banyan epiphyte growing out of the right side of a Paperbark tree. One branch in front has dropped a several 3' long aerial roots and one has thickened to over 1.5" in diameter. This section will be separated with the hope that the long straight aerial roots will provide nutrients and a section of the branch will send out new growth. 

        Initially Michael will remove the branches longer than planned.All branches will be cut back very short in proportion to it's thickness.  A 3" thick branch will be cut back to 3". A 5" thick branch will become 5" long.

        Note that most of the roots are hugging the trunk but one large root and several smaller roots are falling free of the trunk. This section will be separated to try to create a second bonsai.

FicusEpiphyteSep2001FBC3.jpg (21099 bytes)         Michael has observed this epiphyte for ten years and originally removed most of the top and branches with a chainsaw about five years ago. He'll dictate the training and styling of this bonsai as the the second generation Fuku-Bonsai master as he shares and teaches the third generation, the participants in the workshop, and center visitors.    
FicusEpiphyteSep2001FBC4.jpg (35747 bytes)         There was only one 4" thick root hugging the trunk of the Paperbark host tree and it was hidden under several sheet layers of the papery bark. At the level of his left hand, the large root branched and turned abruptly and Michael decided to sever the root at that level to create a 4' long collected section to finish off at about 6' tall. 

        The Fuku-Bonsai Cultural Center is an educational and promotional permanent public bonsai collection and we have opportunity to create such large impressive bonsai.  This one may one day be on loan to one of the upscale resorts in the South Kohala destination on the other side of the Big Island.   

FicusEpiphyteSep2001FBC5.jpg (34058 bytes)       After severing any small roots spreading out around the trunk, Michael quickly levered the epiphytic section free of the host tree using a 6' long iron pry bar.
FicusEpiphyteSep2001FBC6.jpg (18528 bytes)        The complex root structure is exposed after stripping and waterblasting out Paperbark pieces .   Michael is carving and removing the remnants of the original trunk and branches that he reduced five years ago. Collected trees are not sold and only a small number of one-of-a-kind specimens are collected to one day go into the exhibit collections. In creating the greatest possible variety Michael must devise an original training strategy and concept and cannot ethically just copy or duplicate a previous bonsai.
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   Because this tree has the thicker roots on the outside and a different root formation that was hugging the trunk, Michael has devised a training strategy for this tree that will be explained in future updates.   Assisted by Eddie, he's setting guylines to hold the tree until roots develop.   The container is a 3'x2'x8" deep plastic tub with 2"x2" top rim reinforcing that holds tie-down screws. Extended sections serve as handles so four people can easily and safely move the plant around. The cuts were sealed with Vaseline petroleum jelly. 
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JUNE 28, 2002

        9 months after the tree was collected, new growth developed on all parts of the tree.  The new top and branches were selected and the tree was then allow to grow strongly.  

        The photo above shows 9 months of growth since the tree was collected!  Tropical bonsai are fast-growing and ideal for impatient hobbyists who don't have the patience to work with slow growing temperate climate trees.

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        The original selected top and branches are doing well and new growth has been removed.   Michael decided to reposition the tree so the aerial roots are vertical which is a characteristic of banyan trees.  The container was tilted with a hollow tile block to show the new orientation. 

        The top growth is about 1/2" in diameter and is emerging off the former top growth.  About 10' to 15'  was cut away leaving a 3" diameter scar. The new top will be allowed to grow vigorously until the base of that new growth is about 1 1/2" in diameter or about 1/2 the size of the scar. 

        It will then be cut back, a new apical point allowed to grow until it is about 3/4" or about 1/2 the size of the second scar and so on until a nice taper is formed!  Fuku-Bonsai's "Reduction-Building" techniques are ideal for training collected tropical trees.

                There really are no bonsai secrets.  If you aspire to train exciting bonsai, the principles are logical.  Begin with trees that will grow well for you in your environment or change your environment to meet the needs of your bonsai.  Most failures are due to ignoring this common sense principle.  Those growing juniper bonsai indoors are naive and unrealistic and those who sell juniper bonsai as "indoor bonsai" are unethical charlatans!

                Second, start with character!  It takes the highest skill, patience, and commitment to train and develop character from seedlings or cuttings.  When you start with a lot of character, the tree will suggest the final shape.  By studying Michael's challenge, can you imagine a future shape?

                Third, for most rapid development, create optimum growth. In Hawaii, Chinese Banyan is considered an undesirable "weed" that is difficult to kill.  By using such vigorously growing trees,  development is a lot easier. It's forgiving and more aggressive creative styling is possible!  In contrast, if you utilize plants that are difficult just to keep alive, the opportunities to actually train the tree are limited.  Here's a preview of some of the Epiphytic Banyan Bonsai that we've created so far.


                Imagine if instead of a tall tree, that the "fertilizer encased seed" was deposited on a stump of a dead tree, that it germinated and sent down roots. I found several such trees with interesting "trunks," pruned off most of the top growth, and dug up the dead stump with as many roots as possible.  We are generally successful and within six months, an abundance of new growth become the basic structure for developing a new crown. 

                Using the principle that 1% nitrogen is needed to compost organic matter (including wood), we drilled 1/4" or larger holes angled downwards. We make a thin slurry by dissolving organic fertilizer in water. This is whipped with a high-speed paint mixer until it's runny like cream, packed into a squirt bottle, and squirted into the angled holes. Each time we water the plant, the fertilizer is activated and in a year or so, the woody trunk is almost totally composed and can be water-blasted out.  The former host trunk creates an interesting filigree trunk.

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       Photo 1:  In 1974 when Fuku-Bonsai was being built, we planted Eucalyptus for fast growing shade.  These are very fast growing trees that grew to over 60' tall by 1980!  By then the other trees had grown and we cut the Eucalyptus down and left the 16" diameter  stumps that were about 24" high in the ground.  About 1985 I planted a Chinese Banyan seedling on a corner of the stump. It was pruned heavily and often.  In 1999 we cut off the rotting stump at ground level with a chainsaw and potted it into a 20"x28"x8" tub.

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       Photo 2:  Much of the trunk is rotting away and sections are removed as they become loose.  Two thick "octopus-like" roots are the early roots that went off the top and down the sides of the stump. The finer roots are the ones that went down the rotting stump that were later exposed.  It's likely that one or more of the heavy roots will be removed when training begins. 

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        Photo 3:  Our oldest epiphytic banyan bonsai in training from stock collected about 1975. County work crews had chopped off the top of a guava tree about 24" above the ground. The tree had died, and the epiphyte had germinated on top of the dead stump. The top section of the Chinese Banyan was removed and the epiphyte and dead stump was collected.  Over time the Guava trunk was rotted out and a new bonsai crown was trained for the Chinese Banyan.

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       Photo 4:  A close-up of the back side of the same tree.  The overall height is _____ " with the trunk about ______" thick measured 1" above the soil level.  It's in a rounded corner rectangular pot measuring _____" long x ____" wide x ____" high.

Photo 5: "Elbow-up"

Photo 6: Elbow-up detail

Photo 7: Cascade

Photo 9: Cascade detail
Photo 10: Natural sculpture
Photo 11:  Natural sculpture detail #1
Photo 12: Natural sculpture detail #2
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