An Unusual Ficus Bonsai Style From Taiwan

Huge massive trees with umbrella-like canopies and neatly arranged pads are hallmarks of Taiwan’s ficus bonsai. They are created and modeled after an old majestic Ficus microcarpa in Tainan’s National Cheng Kung University campus.


F. microcarpa at the National Cheng Kung University campus

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An Award Winning F. microcarpa modeled after the National Cheng Kung University ficus, height: 87 cm, by Hisu Yang

Over the last decade, there have been increasing criticisms among some Taiwanese artists that too many of their ficus bonsai look like each other, prompting comment likeif you have seen one, you have seen a hundred”. The artist of the above award winning “standard” ficus, Mr. Hsiu Yang, 杨修, did something unusual; he created two “non-traditional” ficus bonsai.


Planted in stainless steel tray, size of tray is 6-8 foot long if I recall correctly.


Another Mr. Yang’s creation. Note a cut wound filled with clear red resin. He had a spot light illuminating that red resin.

When I saw these two ficus at the Cheng Mei Cultural Park (成美文化園), I was shocked.  I would not be surprised to see bonsai styled this way in China, but in Taiwan?  However, these trees looked familiar and they appealed to me; I could appreciate them because I have seen oddly shaped ficus just like these two growing in suburban parks, street corners and village squares.

Taiwan is densely populated and is very crowded. Although ficus are widely grown as landscape trees in subdivisions and small community parks, as they grow their extended limbs eventually encroach nearby buildings, fences, etc., they compete for space with human dwellings.

When these encroaching limbs were cut off, since bonsai rules do not apply during tree trimming, new branches grow at odd angles and finally into a form which I could only ascribed to “a cohabitation between ficus and human competing for space”.


A ficus I saw in Lukang, which has become too big and too close to a shop house. It ended up a mushroom shape.

To many bonsai eyes, they are ugly looking trees but are nonetheless alternative “natural” models for bonsai inspirations. There is a Chinese proverb which says “there is beauty when ugliness is at its extreme,” and it might apply in this case.

Here are some photos from Taiwan streets and squares I downloaded from the internet with their respective sources:

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An old ficus growing in the Qing dynasty military governor’s compound in Kinman.×768

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Old ficus in Kinman Island. Source:


A plaque, not in this photo, said it was planted in 1886.

I thought these urban ficus inspired Mr. Yang’s creations but I was wrong!  I later found out he got his Master degree from the Mingdao University using the ficus in the stainless steel container as a project, and his thesis was entitled “A Study of Bonsai Sculpture Creative Method and Ficus microcarpa Linn. f. Example.” 

In his thesis, Mr. Yang discussed applying aesthetic principles to bonsai creations. This ficus was created based on his Buddhist believes of causality; aerial roots were used to create a more organic tree without an obvious massive trunk, and the whole creation process represented the three stages of past, present and future in Buddhism.

I do not understand the religious and philosophical meanings in this creation but I can relate to it because I have seen ficus growing in crowded urban areas. There are a lot of intentional “imperfections” from partly peeled irregular aerial roots, crisscross branches to unclosed large wounds, called “horse eyes,” throughout the bonsai. They are very different from the Japanese aesthetics of perfections.

Anyway, please enjoy detailed photos of these two unusual ficus bonsai.

Ficus in Stainless Steel Container: 


Multiple trunks created with aerial roots; they are not fused together into massive trunk we see in most Taiwan ficus bonsai.


Fused irregular aerial roots as part of the “organic” trunks. Even the moss dressings were not neatly arranged like those in Japanese bonsai exhibits.





Large unclosed wounds, “horse eyes,” accentuate imperfections.

Ficus with Filled Red Resin:


A light inside a 5-gallon white plastic bucket was aimed directly at the resin to capture the “tree goblin”.



No massive nebari for this tree.

The Cheng Mei Cultural Park is a beautiful garden worth a visit if you go to Taiwan.

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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.

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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
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My Ficus salicaria CC Berg shohin bonsai.

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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

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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?

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.

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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?

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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.


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.

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