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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How to Setup an Automatic Bonsai Watering System for Vacations

We all take vacations or have to go away for a few days, who is going to water our bonsai?  I mean the whole family is away, there is nobody home!  Some people hire a house sitter, a friend or a neighboring kid to water their bonsai; the outcome can be great or disastrous depending on how reliable is the help.

My wife and I often take vacations from a few days to as long as 5 weeks, we need a reliable watering system for our bonsai.  I experimented with several automatic sprinkler systems for the last 20 years or so, and found the one we have been using for about 10 years works well for us.  When we set up this sprinkler system, our objective is to allow us to go away, the bonsai are watered and are alive when we come back.  Not necessarily they receive the best of cares.  For that, you need to stay home or board them in a professional nursery.  I want to share how we do it, hopefully, readers will also share their experience and watering system benefitting others too.

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We recently went on a 10-day trip to Utah and spent two days at the Monument Valley.  Route 163, mile post 13 is where Forrest Gump suddenly stopped his cross-country run.  Now a tourist spot.

Our system is quite simple, it relies on duplications and backups. We use two hose-end water timers to deliver water to one set of sprinklers. The logic is chances for two watering timers to fail during the period we are away are quite low, and that turned out to be true so far.

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Using Bokashi Compost Tea to Lower Water pH

I collect and use rain water for my bonsai as much as possible but 70% of the time I have to water with our pH 8-9 alkaline city water when I run out of rain water.

Plant roots have difficulties absorbing iron, zinc and magnesium micro-nutrients in alkaline soil. These micro-nutrient deficiencies caused leaf chlorosis especially in azalea and gardenia. When that happened I foliar sprayed my plants with Epsom salt or chelated iron acidifier. They worked well in treating the symptom but did little or nothing to improve soil acidity. Most plants grow best when the soil is slightly acidic. I usually sprinkle a little sulfur powder to my soil and let the microbes convert it into sulfuric acid to lower the soil pH. But this is a very slow process. Some people add vinegar to lower the water pH during watering.

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Recently I started doing Bokashi composting with my kitchen wastes. Though called composting, it is actually an anaerobic fermentation. Every few days I drain the fermented liquid so that the composting bucket does not smell. Many people claimed the liquid is full of beneficial microbes and helps plant growth. I do not know how useful those microbes are for bonsai since we use mostly inorganic aggregates. What interested me most is the highly acidic fermented liquid and I could use it to lower my city water pH.

This is the collected Bokashi liquid or tea, it smells like an apple cider and has a pH of about 4-5.

When diluted at 1:100 and 1:150, our city water pH drops to 6 and 6-7, respectively. This is great. I could now turn my kitchen food wastes into something I could use for bonsai. I use a hose sprayer to deliver the diluted Bokashi liquid at 1.5 tablespoon/gallon of water.

Since I supplemented my watering with fish emulsion, liquid kelp, liquid humate, liquid fertilizer, Epsom salt, iron acidifier etc., and I do not plan to do any controlled experiment to test the effectiveness of Bokashi liquid; I guess I will never know how beneficial the Bokashi microbes are to my bonsai, but am contented that I could lower my city water pH with it. In the future, when I produce enough Bokashi compost tea for daily watering, I will experiment with delivering it using a Hozon syphon mixer or an EZ-flo fertilizer injector.

Satsuki Azalea After-Flowering Maintenance, Part 2 – Back Budding Results

In my last post, I discussed the basics of how to prune back azalea to two shoots and two leaves after removing the flowers.  In this post, I will show back budding results from those cut-backs.

This Wakaebisu has been under development for about 10 years from a nursery stock.  Although it has a good trunk base and nebari, I decided to train it into a meika azalea to enjoy the flowers instead of a shorter moyogi style bonsai.

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This is a 2018 photo. I did not take one this year.

The after-flowering maintenance was done on May 22.  By June 10, a lot of buds have popped up from where the shoots were pruned to two leaves and on some hardwood branches.

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Satsuki Azalea After-Flowering Maintenance

The best part of growing satsuki is when they are in full blooms but they only peak for about two weeks and then begin to decline. When 30-40% of the flowers have faded, it is time to remove all the flowers, fertilize the tree and do the after-flowering maintenance work.

Why the After-Flowering Maintenance?

  1. Flowers use up a lot of the tree’s energy.  It is better to remove all of them, including the unopened buds, when 30-40% of the flowers have faded.  Fertilize the tree to thank it for putting out a good show, then selectively trim back shoots and branches to improve air flow and allow sunlight into the interior.
  2. The purpose of trimming shoots is to control growths, force back buddings and improve ramifications.  One can select which branch to trim or which one to allow continuous growth to improve the overall tree structure.

I will use this 4-5 year old Osakazuki grown from a cutting to show how the shoots are trimmed after flowering.

Trimming Whorl Forming Shoots

Azaleas tend to develop a whorl of several shoots coming out from a single point. For ramification we only need to keep two shoots at each branching point.

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Two whorls of shoots grew from the ends of previously trimmed Y-shape tips.

Four shoots of the right side whorl were cut off, either with scissors or broken off by bending them backwards with fingers, leaving two with similar strengths.

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Flowering of a Chinzan Satsuki Azalea – Murphy’s Law

I started this ‘Chinzan’ satsuki azalea from a nursery gallon plant about 17-18 years ago. It was grown in a flower bed for about 7-8 years, lifted and trained as a bonsai in a pot since then.

I prepared this tree for the April 11-14 American Bonsai Society Convention hosted by the Houston Bonsai Society, and expected it to have partial blooms based on past experience. Unfortunately we had several days of unusually cold weather in late March; as a result the Chinzan was covered with swelling buds but not a single bloom during the show. A week later, flowers started to come out and had about 80%  blooms by the following week. So it went from a tree with no flower to fully covered with flowers, but only after the show! A bummer.

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At the show on April 14, 2019.

Professional azalea growers use plant growth regulating hormone such as gibberellic acid and greenhouse temperature to control flower blooms for sale on special occasions. We, hobbyists, have to rely on past experience when did flowering occurred, mother nature, with little or no control over the exact timing of flowers except crossing our fingers. Hind sight, I should have sprayed it with gibberellic acid which I have at home, and hoped for the best. May be worth to experiment to gain some knowledge.

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