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?
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.
This 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.
When the Communists took over mainland China in 1949, the Nationalists retreated to Taiwan; military confrontations continued for many years especially in the Nationalist controlled group of small islands, called Kinmen in the Taiwan Strait. As Kinmen is literally across from the City of Xiamen of mainland China, it became military important and was heavily fortified. Three battles were fought over Kinmen between 1949 and 1958, but ended in stalemates. Both sides settled upon a routine of bombarding each other every other day, i.e. I fired on you on odd days and you fired on me on even days. This ended in 1979 after the US established diplomatic relationship with the Peoples Republic of China. Today the underground tunnels, bunkers and other military facilities are tourist attractions from both side of the Taiwan Strait.
The island, pronounced, Kinmen (which means Golden Gate) in Mandarin Chinese, has always been called “Kim M’ng” by the local Taiwanese and Fujian people in the mainland, who speak the same dialect. In Taiwanese, “Golden Gate” Kim M’ng sounds the same as “Kim M’ng” for blond or golden hair; the written Chinese name of “Kim M’ng” ficus thus became 金门榕, Kinmen (official Mandarin Chinese name written in English) ficus. I guess it would be awkard to write the new cultivar name as 金毛榕, blond or golden hair ficus. To the Taiwanese speakers (note: not everyone in Taiwan speak the local dialect because the Nationalist government enforced the Mandarin Language Policy; students had to learn and speak Mandarin Chinese only, and were forbidden to speak local dialect in schools until 1987) ‘Kim M’ng” will always have the dual meanings, golden gate or golden hair, but the etymology might be lost over time.
Now we know the origin and how Kinmen (Kim M’ng) ficus got its name, it is apparent Golden Gate (a direct translation of Kinmen, and it has nothing to do with the San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge), and the spelling variations of Kingman, Kimeng etc. refer to the same cultivar.
What about the name Tiger Bark? Since the newly discovered cultivar has conspicous white blotches and stripes in the bark of young trees, which look like tiger stripes, the name “Tiger Bark” ficus (虎皮榕) became a popular alternate name in Taiwan nursery trades. The whitish stripes would fade in old tree.
Do ficus grow in Kinmen Island? Of course, F. microcarpa grows all over Taiwan and Fujian Province. There are many old F. microcarpa in Kinmen. This travel blog has several photos of old ficus; they were cataloged with estimated age by the local Forestry Department. Interestingly, the tattered name tag in the blog reads F. retusa, which, of course is wrong. F. retusa grows in the Malay Archipelago, the name has long been misapplied to F. microcarpa and caused considerable confusions among bonsai enthusiasts.
Kinmen Island also has a Ficus Park, interestingly the outdoor war museum is right there too displaying tanks, big guns and aircrafts!
Unlike scientific name which follows rules set by the International Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants (ICN), the meanings of cultivar and variety are often blurred and are used interchangeably in nursery trades and among hobbyists. Strictly, they mean different things. Plants grown from cultivar seeds are not true to type, whereas a geographically different variety can.
So among the many names of Tiger Bark, Kinmen, Golden Gate etc., which should we use? If we were to follow the rule of priority, I think it should be called cv. ‘Kinmen’ or ‘Kim M’ng’ when the cultivar was discovered. But as hobbyists, we call them by any name we choose to but just be aware that they all refer to the same cultivar. This name variations occur only in the West but not in Taiwan because they are called either 金门榕 (Kinmen ficus) or 虎皮榕 (tiger bark ficus).