Why Do I Repot a Big Ficus From a Ceramic Pot into a Wooden Box?

This Ficus microcarpa was potted into a 24″ round ceramic pot in 2015. By 2018, it needed repotting again but I procrastinated and did not do it in 2019 either. I finally repotted it a few days ago, but into a wooden box.  I jokingly said it was because I needed to reduce the overall weight. That is true but there are more important horticultural reasons repotting it into a wooden box, like rejuvenating the roots, regaining the tree’s health, and working on the overgrown aerial roots and nebari.


Potted into a 24″ round ceramic pot, May 2015.


July, 2018. Ready for a repot but did not do it.

Why Use a Wooden Box?

To restore a bonsai’s health, it is a good idea to repot the tree into a slightly larger container, preferably in a terra cotta pot, a wooden box or a Styrofoam box.  A slightly larger container provides more soil volume and extra rooms for the roots to rejuvenate, increased surface areas between soil aggregates also allow the roots to breath better and grow more fibrous roots.  A cedar picket fence wooden box is an obvious choice since I cannot find a larger terra cotta pot or a big Styrofoam box. Although the latter can protect the roots from over heating during our intense summer heat, it is too glaring and stands out too much among the other trees, unless I could paint it.

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As for weight, the 24″ ceramic pot weighed 32 lb., a comparable wooden box weighed about 5 lb.  I made a rough calculation, this round pot with tapered wall has a volume of about 1,100 cubic inches (about 18 L.), a square box holds almost twice the amount of soil.  Your tree will thank you for the extra room while in recovery.

Reworking Overgrown or Thickened roots

Aerial roots are great for improving the tree’s nebari, but they can become too big, crisscrossed or grew in unintended direction if one is not diligent in controlling and incorporating them to the intended design.

These two photos show how the skinny grafted aerial roots grew in 4 years without repotting in between:

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Grafted aerial roots A, B and C in 2015 and 2019. Branch D was removed as it was sticking too much towards the front.

These grafted roots needed repositioning and incorporating into the nebari:

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Repositioning thicker roots using aluminum wires and tourniquet.

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Crossed roots repositioned, once fused, the top sections will be cut off.

Exposing More of the Nebari

Every time I repotted, I raised and exposed the nebari by about 1/2”. This time I raised it by about an inch. Exposing it gave the tree a larger nebari in each repot.

Ficus raised nebari IMG_20200510_144855 (2)

Root base raised by about an inch, shown by differences in tree bark colors.

Another advantage of using a wooden box is I could easily put in a few screws on the box to attach guy wires to bring down branches.

E.J.H Corner, a Ficus Authority and “My Father in His Suitcase”

I was searching online for ficus information, came across “FigWeb” and saw this reference:

Berg, C.C. & Corner, E.J.H. 2005. Moraceae – Ficus. Flora Malesiana Series I (Seed Plants) Volume 17/Part 2. National Herbarium of the Netherlands, Leiden.

Holy Moly! Was Corner still alive in 2005?  No, he passed in 1996.  The monograph was published posthumously.

As a ficus bonsai enthusiast, I think there are two botanists whose names are worth knowing beside Carolus Linnaeus the Younger who first described our ubiquitous Ficus microcarpa. These two botanists are:

C.C. Berg: He was the one who clarified the scientific name of Willow Leaf aka Narrow Leaf Ficus, described it in a paper with a very interesting title: “A New Species of Ficus (Moraceae) of Uncertain Provenance”. His description was based on container plants (bonsai, pre-bonsai??) from Florida, which became the type specimens. So Willow Leaf Ficus’ scientific name is officially Ficus salicaria; and salicaria means willow-like in Latin, a round about way of calling it a willow-like ficus. Many people still use the names F. nerifolia, F. salicifolia, but they are different species, not the one we grow in bonsai.


Cornelius (Kees) Christiaan Berg 1934-2012

narrow leaf ficus IMG_5339

My Ficus salicaria CC Berg shohin bonsai.

E.J.H. Corner: This is the man this blog is about, an authority on Asiatic ficus; another botanist I think we ficus bonsai fans ought to know too.

EJH Corner

E.J.H. Corner, 1906-1996.

For years F. microcarpa is erroneously called  F. retusa, and still is.  Below are F. retusa specimens in the Kew Garden herbarium, determined by Corner in 1958 for his revision of Flora Malanesia. It is a species found only in the Malay Archipelago and is not available in the nursery trade. The ‘Kinmen’, ‘Tiger Bark’, ‘Ginseng’ bonsai we grow are F. microcarpa from Taiwan and China, not F. retusa, so please stop calling them a retusa.

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F. retusa, determined E.J.H. Corner, 8/1958.

Why do I write a blog on E.J.H. Corner?

I met Corner by chance in late 1978.  I was not into bonsai then, nor did I know he was an Asiatic ficus authority.  I was searching for a group of small, iridescent butterflies belonging to the genera Poritia and Simiskinia in Penang Hill, Malaysia.


These nine Proritia and Simiskina species were collected in Penang, Kedah and Perak states in Malaysia in 1978 and 1979. Some of them look very similar to each other and could only be identified by going through the “Keys”.

Two gentlemen came along the trail, one asked what was I doing and we struck up conversations. He introduced himself, a Mr. Corner, the author of “Wayside Trees of Malaya”, published in 1940. He was very happy that a young man with a net in hand, in the middle of a jungle trail, recognized his name. Serious butterfly collectors also learn to identify butterfly host plants and their life histories. He jovially lifted his white cotton hat and showed me his white hair, that he was indeed old enough to be the author of the 1940 book.  We had something in common to talk about.  Later, the other gentleman, who was the Director of the Penang Botanical Garden, hurried him to move along as they were heading somewhere else,

I never thought about the man I met until I came across “Figweb”, began to read about him on the internet and found a book written by his estranged son, “My Father in His Suitcase”. It was a fascinating biography of Corner by his son who left home in 1960, aged 19, and would never see his father again. Corner was a very difficult father; I could not have imagined that since he was talkative and jovial when we met in Penang Hill.

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Corner, his Malay assistance and his monkey collector.

Corner left letters, photos and memorabilia for his son in a suitcase, which was nearly thrown away without being opened.  After 46 years, John K. Corner faced his estranged father in a suitcase.  It is a well written biography of this brilliant botanist.  Here is a little background on Corner to pique your interest:

After graduating from the University of Cambridge, Corner thought it was a waste of time to get a Ph.D. (like Bill Gate?), so he headed out and worked in the Singapore Botanical Garden in 1929. There, he trained MONKEYS (!!!) to collect specimens from treetops of the rainforest. During the Japanese Occupation, he felt it was his duty to safeguard the Botanical Garden’s scientific collections, and was branded by some as a collaborator!  The Emperor of Japan, a biologist and an orchid enthusiast, had his “Wayside Trees of Malaya” for bed time reading, so Corner was ‘well treated”, at least not confined in a POW internment camp during war time. Post war, he became a highly regarded botanist, head of tropical botany in the University of Cambridge, and received several honorary doctorate degrees and accolades!

wayside trees of malaysa

You can read part of this two volume work in this link. Note a trained monkey collecting tree specimen on the book cover.

I won’t go further, please read the book if the above short note intrigues you. A brilliant man could indeed be a very difficult man to be around.

The book mentioned he re-visited Penang in 1978 but I could not find the exact sentence mentioning it; it was somewhere 2/3 or 3/4 into this 400+ page book.  I should have marked it.  As butterfly enthusiasts, we are meticulous in labelling detail information on every specimen we collected, and my Penang Hill field trip dates were from November 14, 1978 to January10, 1979. A little note on the dates if John K. Corner ever read this blog.

Two “Root-On-Wall” Ficus Penjing – How I Create This New Style

This article was written by Mr. Xuenian Han (韩学年), a well-known Lingnan penjing master. It was published in Mr. Shaohong Liu’s (刘少红) “The World of Penjing(盆景世界), the most widely read online penjing magazine in China with over 135,000 subscribed readers. Both Mr. Han and Mr. Liu gave me permissions to translate this article and share it with English readers on how this new style was developed.


“The Fittest”, a “root-on-wall” ficus created by Mr. Xuenian Han. 韩学年作品《适者》(附壁榕)

Ficus microcarpa is a native tree species in the Lingnan region. As a fast growing tree and an ability to grow in a broad range of habitats, it is widely cultivated in urban and rural areas. In the Pearl River Delta, especially in villages and towns along the river, banyan trees with broad canopies provide shades and are popular with villagers, where they could gather and cool themselves during the hot summer days.

Ficus has large, powerful tree trunk and wide spreading, old gnarly roots. Since Lingnan penjing practitioners often model their trees based on close-range observations of how trees grow in nature, thus, the Banyan style was born. Ficus is a popular species for Lingnan penjing, whether the material is field grown or collected, key banyan features are artistically recreated and portrayed in a grow pot. There are many excellent examples of banyan style penjing.


Ficus growing on the old Nanfeng kiln wall in Foshan city, Guangdong. 佛山市“南风古灶”古榕

Ficus have aerial roots, when these roots touch and anchor themselves onto the ground the tree would continue to grow outwards, creating a forest-like image even though it is just a single tree; and this is the familiar banyan image.  Since ficus is a strong survivor and adapts to myriads of environments, there is another tree form from which these two “root-on-wall” penjing were based upon, and I will discuss how I created them.


An old ficus growing along a river in Shunde, Guandong. 本地(顺德)一河边古榕

Figs are eaten by birds, and their seeds are scattered via bird droppings. If such a dropping were to fall into rock crevices or cracks in walls, they would root and grow when the surrounding humidity is high, and aided by rainfalls and fogs. They take roots in buildings and houses. These roots are very destructive and are usually removed. However, in some out of sight or abandoned corners and crevices, their presence is tolerated or ignored, and they eventually grow into trees that look different from the typical banyan.


An old ficus on the wall of the old Shajiao fort ruin, Dongguan city. 东莞市沙角古炮台古榕

Under these adverse conditions, such ficus does not grow into a large tree as its priority is to send out roots seeking for nutrients and to anchor itself onto the surface it is growing on. These roots criss-cross each other, sometimes bulging out from the wall, sometimes burrowing deep into the crevices. This creates a tree form which the locals called, feirong, 飞榕, literally means a Flown-in or Flying Ficus.  (Translator’s note: It is so called because the seeds were dispersed by birds. In this translation the local description, feirong, is used to retain the vernacular flair of its Cantonese origin).

With the passage of time and as the substrate deteriorates, feirong continues to thrive, a testament to its tenacity to survive. It is a natural selection at works, survival of the fittest. Feirong can be found in several prominent tourist spots, such as the ancient ruin of the Hujiao Shajiao Fort; the Qing dynasty city wall ruin in Lianhua, Guangzhou; the 500-year old Nanfeng Ancient Kiln in Foshan, etc.


A “root-on-wall” ficus on the Lianhua City wall in Guangzhou.

Sights of feirong clinging onto walls are quite common in our region. In the long history of Lingnan penjing, there is never a penjing created based on a feirong image. In my penjing pursuit, I often put on thinking hat and sometimes come up with crazy ideas like: “Can I recreate this unique and beautiful image of a feirong in a penjing?”

My inspiration came in 1987 when I saw a Chinese ink brush painting in a “Guangzhou Literature and Art” magazine; it depicted a group of old, gnarly but vigorous growing ficus clinging firmly onto a dilapidated wall. This black and white painting captured the survival spirit of a ficus,  a stark contrast between a broken wall and the powerful roots, a familiar and ubiquitous scene in our region.


A 1993 photo of my “root-on-wall” ficus, the “Survivor”. Five years after it was created.

This painting inspired me. Although there is already a root-attaching-to-rock style penjing (translator’s note: this is not a root-over-rock style frequently seen in bonsai, this penjing style has either one or a few long, thick roots growing along a tall stone, plunging from the top of the stone to the bottom of the pot), none captured a feirong. I thought it would be a break-through if I could create such a scene in penjing. However, I was not sure how to proceed with it, whether it would be possible or not, and sometimes doubts if I could succeed? Those thoughts swirled in my head. There was no physical penjing model I could copy from, I just kept on thinking.


A top view of the “wall-pot”.

What is penjing? It is a visual art of growing artistic looking tree in a pot which primary function is to serve as a carrier for the tree. Without a pot (pen), would I be able to call it a penjing, a “potted scene”? Feirong has to be on a wall, not in a conventional pot. But I needed a wall which could also function as a pot. It had to look natural and aged, able to bring out the spirit of a feirong and at the same time allowed it to grow. The design required out-of-the box thinking and creativity.

Traditionally we think of “tree, pot and stand” as integral parts of penjing, and in that relative order of importance. In this case, I reversed the order, putting pot (container) first, then the tree, and lastly the stand. My priority was to make a functional “pot”; if I could do that half of the battle was won, I only had to find a suitable ficus to grow on it.


Exhibited for the first time in the 1997 Guilin Penjing Show.

I was building my house in early 1987, and was decorating the walls with reproduction antique ceramic tiles. Suddenly it donned on me I could use these tiles to make the “wall”! I went ahead and made a cement wall with a trough at the back according to dimensions of the tiles. After plastering the tiles onto the cement wall, a jagged “wall” was completed. This was the first but important step in this creation process.


The roots on wall showed prominently after defoliation, 2007.

After the completion of the wall-basin, I found a ficus tree I had, reduced its height to just above the lower section, made a hole in the wall and planted the ficus. A year later, the planting took shape but far from what I envisioned. Although more growing years were needed, it was, nevertheless, my second milestone in creating a feirong penjing. Although exposed roots is the most important part of a feirong penjing every trunk and branches have to be carefully grown in proportions. The “root-on-wall” feirong took shape 10 years later, I named it the “Survivor”, and exhibited it for the first time in the 1997 “Hong Kong Cup” Bonsai Exhibition held in Guilin, Guangxi.


The “Survivor” root-on-wall ficus. 韩学年作品《生存》(附壁榕)

In the “Survivor”, I used a tree that was originally trained for other purposes. Although it developed exposed roots, they were not as powerful and tenacious like those seen in a naturally occurring  feirong. Therefore, the “Survivor” can only be said to have a feirong look, but lacked its struggling, tenacious life force.


1998, Year 2 of my second “root-on-wall” ficus, named “The Fittest”. 《适者》附植的第二年(1998年)

In 1997, a penjing friend told me he saw a feirong that might be suitable for a “root-on-wall” penjing. He brought me to where the tree was growing. It was a dormitory building marked for demolition. This ficus grew close to a ditch and was lush green; the wall was covered with roots running in whichever directions they chose. By coincidence, a resident of this dormitory was my former colleague, and whe told me this ficus had been growing there for more than 20 years.


In 2000.

I studied and committed this material in memory, a new design began to congeal to feature the root base prominently. I then built a wall specifically for this tree. In the “Survivor,” I built a wall-pot first, found an ordinary ficus and force-fitted it onto the wall; looking back the result was barely satisfactory. This time, I found a feirong tree, and built a taller wall-pot to accommodate and show off wits spreading root system. My second attempt of a “root-on-wall” ficus was done in reversed order.


In 2002.


Exhibited at the 2006 Chinese Penjing Exhibition at Quanzhou, Fujian. 参加泉州第六届中国盆景展览(2004年)

After about seven years of cultivation, I succeeded in creating my second feirong “root-on-wall” penjing. It was a step forward, it was a much better looking penjing, meeting my expectations more than the first “Survivor”. I called this second creation, “The Fittest”, and submitted it to the 2004 6th National Penjing Exhibition held in Quanzhou, Fujian.

These two works, the “Survivor” and “The Fittest” were inspired by a natural occurring landscape.  The processes in creating these two feirong fulfilled my dream during my long penjing journey.


“The Fittest”, a “root-on-wall” penjing by Mr. Xuenian Han. 韩学年作品《适者》(附壁榕)

Ficus Tree House Bonsai?

Huge tree roots clinging onto this ancient Ta Phrom Temple ruin in Cambodia is an iconic image.  They are not ficus, but silk-cotton, aka kapok, (Ceiba pentadra)  tree roots.


“Tomb Raider” was filmed at the Ta Phrom Temple. Waiting for Angelina Jolie to come out.

Strangler figs, Ficus tinctoria spp. gibbosa, (thank you Kasu Bonsai for correcting the subspecies name) do claim Ta Phrom, however, they look different with distinctive mesh-like aerial root networks.


Ficus grows rapidly in the tropic, it does not take very long for it to completely engulf an abandoned building.  Let me take you to the Anping Tree House in Tainan, Taiwan.  It was a warehouse built in 1867 by the Tait Company, a British trading company.  The Japanese later took over the building and used it for salt trading.  After the Second World War ended in 1945, the Taiwanese continued to use it for some years, and the building was abandoned.

Birds dropped some banyan seeds onto this abandoned building, in about 70-80 years, the old Tait Company warehouse became known as the Anping Tree House, completely engulfed by banyan tree trunks and aerial roots, transformed from an abandoned warehouse into a popular tourist attraction in less than 100 years!








Instead of razing down this condemned building, the city mayor had the foresight of building steel supports and stairs; it opened to the public in 2004 as a tourist attraction.



That’s my wife, Soon, in the red striped shirt.

One can now safely reach the roof top or the tree top, whichever you want to call it.  It offers some wonderful views of aerial root formations over different sections of the building.


Aerial roots grew parallel like carefully laid roof beams.  The corrugated roof probably served as a template for their growths.


This is not a typical big umbrella-like canopy, big trunk ficus we see in Taiwan.  Can some creative artists make a ficus tree house bonsai, please?




International Friendship Kusamono with Uwe Harwardt and Hermann Wallenhaupt

A post from my wife, Soon Cheah, a kusamono aficionado.

Our Facebook friend, Uwe Harwardt from Germany, sent us a selfie video showing how he made a kusamono pot from a lump of clay into a pot with surface cracks; at the end of the 20+ minute video he asked whether we like this pot or not, if so he would send it as our Christmas present.  We were delighted when it arrived in time for the 2017 Christmas.

Uwe and I have been Facebook friends for several years and we communicated often about kusamono.  Every time I received Uwe’s pot, I would put my heart into creating a kusamono that I felt we both would like and enjoy, and shared photos with him on the outcomes.

This is one of the early pots I received from Uwe.  I planted a false dandelion (Pyrrhopappus multicaulis), a common weed from our backyard in it, and asked our Houston Chinese Bonsai Society friend, Dr. Sun-Chueh Gao (高珊爵), to write a Chinese poem to accompany this kusamono.  My husband and I selected a verse from his poem, which we thought best summarized how one could even enjoy such a simple ubiquitous weed as long as it appealed to our hearts and souls, and pasted this verse on the photo like in a Chinese painting.


This is the translation:


I created a mixed planting with Uwe’s Christmas gift.  Uwe and I love mixed kusamono plantings that reflect something we see in nature, a blend of common flowers, grasses and weeds, as randomly and naturally as possible, yet encompassing the three basic elements of kusamono aesthetics representing the relative heights between heaven, earth and people, 天,地,人.

HBS-Showcase 2019-6 72dpi

Our joint work exhibited at the 2019 American Bonsai Society Convention, ‘Bonsai on the Bayou” held in Houston, Texas. The clay scratching monkey is a gift from out Taiji class senior, Marcia Yang.  Photo taken by Shau Lin Hon of Slyworks Photography.

Continue reading

More Ficus Bonsai From the Taiwan Hwa Fong National Show

I wrote this blog after returning from the 2017 Taiwan National Hwa Fong Show but did not finish it.  I can give many excuses, truth is I was just lazy.  Procrastination has become a way of life for a retiree; there is never a rush to finish things I used to hurry and complete over the weekends while I was still working.

With the coronavirus pandemic, many of us are staying home for various reasons, doing our best to cope in this difficult time, and I want to wish every safe and well.  I thought I should pick up this old draft, add some more ficus bonsai from the show and post it.


The main entrance decoration to the show.

Without a doubt Taiwan has among the best ficus bonsai in the world, and there are many things we can learn from studying the trees upclose in person.

I counted 15 ficus in this show; each one is a masterpiece.  Since my wife and I travelled to the show on our own, unbound by group activities and schedules, we could spend time studying and admiring trees we like; how the trunks were fused, how aerial roots were used to enhance the trunks and nebari, how side branches, ramifications, and pads were formed.  In fact, we came back to the show two days later since we were not done admiring so many amazing bonsai in our first visit.  Studying top-notch trees in person and talking to high level practitioners are among the best ways to learn.

Massive Ficus From Fused Trunks

The majority of the very large ficus we saw were fused from several smaller trees.

The first one I want to discuss is a massive Ficus microcarpa with an umbrella shape canopy.  A lot of ficus bonsai in Taiwan are shaped this way with variations in how the pads are arranged.  The roots are powerful, anchoring the tree firmly onto the soil level, giving the whole tree a feel of stability and unmovable.


Ficus microcarpa by Rui Long Tsai (蔡瑞隆).

The main trunk is made up of several fused smaller plants. Although some could have been created from fused aerial roots.  Surface roots that became too fat were split to form smaller V-shape roots.  This is an important part of maintaining old ficus bonsai, preventing the roots from become overly and disproportionally fat. Continue reading

How Did Tiger Bark, Kinmen, Golden Gate Ficus Get Their Names?

Ficus microcarpa, commonly called the Chinese Banyan or Indian Laurel, is the most used ficus species for bonsai.  Although it has many cultivars and varieties, Tiger Bark, aka Golden Gate, Kinmen, Kingman, Kimeng, Kin Men etc. is perhaps the most popular because it is easy to grow, has a beautiful bark, and their leaves reduced easily.  Where do these names come from?

IMG_6695 tiger bark us nationals

My ‘Tiger Bark’ ficus which won the Best Tropical Bonsai in the 2016 US National Bonsai Exhibitions.  The history of its training from a pre-bonsai was described in an older blog.

Min Hsuan Lo gave a short description on the discovery and naming of Kinmen (Tiger Bark) ficus in his book, “Bonsai Journey”.  Since it was written in Chinese and not many ficus enthusiasts in the West read Chinese, I will retell the story with explanations on related Taiwan history and background.

re'si'zebonsai-journey-min-hsuan-lo-coverThis cultivar was discovered in the 1970s by a grower in southern part of Taiwan, and was named after the grower’s nickname, “Kim M’ng”, which means blond or golden hair in Taiwanese dialect for his blond hair.  I do not know whether he is a natural blond or not; the Dutch colonized southern Taiwan from 1622 to 1644 until they were driven out by the Ming General, Chen Cheng Kong.  To this day, blond hair occasionally show up in family members of mixed Dutch and local descendents. Continue reading