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Figs Used for Bonsai in Queensland: a Summary
Malcolm Cox
Redlands Bonsai Society, Queensland
April, 2015
Figs Commonly Used for Bonsai.
Figs, or the genus Ficus, belong to the family Moraceae,
a huge family of plants with greater than 1000 species.
This includes plants such as mulberry and breadfruit.
For figs it is estimated there are over 800 varieties and
cultivars, as well as countless natural variations. Most
figs are native to tropical and sub-tropical areas, such
as southeast Asia, Indian sub-continent, the Americas,
as well as SW Pacific.
Ficus benjamina: “weeping fig”.
(prev. Ficus nitida; Ficus retusa var. nitida). Also called:
Benjamin fig, weeping banyan, ficus tree, or fig. One of
the most commonly sold for pots and bonsai, often
labelled only as “ficus”. A very large shade tree with
dense foliage of smallish bright green leaves. Planted in
many parks and gardens throughout Queensland from
the early days of colony. Grows to 20 m high, but
generally does not reach giant banyan size, and has
moderate aerial roots.
Leaves are glossy, oval and taper to a long point
(“acuminate”) and droop ornamentally. Fruit is rather
small and usually not considered edible. The trunk has
thin, smooth grey bark. There are many cultivars,
including variegated ones.
Note: Ficus benjamina and F. microcarpa are often
confused and grouped together, as they are similar. But
F. benjamina has a more weeping growth and F.
microcarpa grows more upright. F. benjamina has a
smaller leaf with elongated tip and are curved.
Typically, Ficus have white, latex-like sap, produce
rounded fruit of different size and colour, and flowers
are pollinated by fig wasps. Pollination ecology is also
important is defining species and sub-species. Most figs
are evergreen, but some species are deciduous.
Because of the many forms, there are many formal
biological and common names.
Quote from David Fukumoto, tropical bonsai expert in
Hawaii ( “The Ficus or Fig Family of
plants are amongst the most confusing to botanists and
the bonsai community continues to be embarrassingly
notorious for their misidentification of Ficus.”
In nature, figs can grow in the ground, or they can be
epiphytes (strangler figs) which grow in forks of trees,
usually from bird or bat spread seeds. A general term
that is often used in Qld to refer to figs is “banyan tree”;
the term “banyan” actually describes a tree with aerial
roots. As figs grown for bonsai often get a thick lower
trunk, they are informally referred to as “pot belly figs”.
Figs as Bonsai.
Overall the Ficus species is quite robust and forgiving,
mainly as the branches are flexible, and stems and
leaves grow quickly. They also grow over scars
relatively quickly. These plants are ideal for the subtropical conditions in SEQ, they like lots of water and
can easily be grown outside. However, with hot, wet
summers we need to carefully watch wired branches as
rapid growth can result in wire grooves. If branches are
growing rapidly, so are the roots; look for moss or soil
lifting near the edge of the pot. Figs usually need root
trimming and repotting every 2-3 years. Aerial roots
can also grow rapidly. These are a matter of taste, but
mostly for bonsai are kept to the trunk and lower
branches. Some species grow aerial roots rapidly as
bonsai, for example, Botany Bay fig.
Fig 1,2: Ficus benjamina in Shore St East, Cleveland.
Leaves showing elongate tip and typical backward curve.
Fig 4,5: Large banyan at Wellington Point; below: ovoid leaves
with obvious veins and red fruit on this tree.
Fig 3: Ficus benjamina Redlands Bonsai Society. This is a
“Baby Ben” bred with leaves around half size of regular plant.
Ficus microcarpa: large group called banyan figs.
There are many varieties, cultivars and names: for
example, Chinese banyan, Taiwan fig, Singapore fig,
creeping fig, Cuban laurel, Indian laurel, Malayan
banyan, ginseng and curtain fig. Many of these refer to
examples of this species from overseas, but often many
plants in Australia may be mislabelled.
Many of these figs were previously incorrectly called
Ficus retusa or Ficus nitida. However, the botanical
community now recognises these banyan figs as a
larger family, and they are called Ficus microcarpa.
The banyan fig (Ficus microcarpa) is common in much
of tropical SE Asia, India, Americas, SW Pacific and
Australia. There are more than 8 recognised varieties
of this species, and leaves are quite variable, but
generally are elongate oval with a rounded tip, mid-dark
green and glossy. They are typically an evergreen tree
that grows to 15-20 m, but to 30 m, the trunk has mostly
smooth, light grey bark with some whitish lines. These
trees typically grow many aerial roots with age. There is
also variation in bark colour and especially texture.
In the Redlands, Queensland, Banyan figs were planted
at Wellington Point in 1924, and Moreton Bay figs first in
1927, and also more recently.
Fig 6: Famous banyan at Grand View Hotel Cleveland is
reputed to be the oldest in Qld. Hotel was built in 1851.
Fig 7: Ovoid leaves and red fruit of tree above, March, 2015.
Fig 9,10: Tiger bark fig bonsai and detail of bark pattern.
Ficus microcarpa var. Green Island.
This is a foliar (leaf type) variety of F. microcarpa, so is
called Ficus microcarpa “Green Island”, also Ficus
“Green Island”, and green island fig. The variety
originally came from Florida. Leaves are glossy middark green, and of distinct oval shape. The plant tends
to send branches out laterally.
Fig 8: Banyan fig at QUT near Goodwill Bridge, Brisbane.
Ficus microcarpa var. hillii.
This variety is also called: weeping fig, Hills weeping fig,
Ficus hillii, weeping small fruited fig. This evergreen
variety was commonly planted in Qld. Sometimes also
called “Queensland weeping fig” which confuses it with
Ficus benjamina. It can grow to 20 m with a broad
canopy, and has glossy green leaves and dense lush
appearance. The trunk is a smooth light grey, and small
greenish figs (7-10 mm) appear from March to April after
insignificant flowers. Has vigorous fiberous aerial roots.
Ficus microcarpa var. tiger bark: “tiger bark fig”.
This variety is a clone, typically has rough bark of mid
green-brown-grey with prominent lateral raised whitish
stripes (as a tiger). Leaves are elongate with slight point
and bright mid green. The original plant is said to have
developed in Taiwan around 1960’s and is still living.
This variety can vary enormously, especially the bark.
Fig 11: Green Island fig bonsai, well developed trunk.
Brisbane Bonsai Society show Sept 2014.
Ficus macrophylla: “Moreton Bay fig”.
Also called: blade tree. A hardy, giant banyan species,
with wide spreading branches and very large trunk of
flowing buttresses. Bark is relatively smooth and light
grey. Grows to 30 m. The large leaves are elongate
ovoid with a slightly pointed tip. Fig fruit, 20–25 mm
diam., orange early turning purple at maturity; stalk 10–
20 mm long; paired or solitary; ripens throughout the
year. These are the large trees at Wellington Point
central park which are reported to be planted in 1927.
Fig 12: Leaves of Green Island fig.
Ficus obliqua: “Queensland small leaved fig”.
(prev. Ficus eugenioides). Also called: small fruited fig,
figwood. A banyan fig with large buttress roots and
aerial roots, can grow to 40 m height. This is a strangler
fig, native to SW Pacific, Indonesia, PNG, Australia. It is
often confused with Ficus benjamina. Smooth thin grey
bark. Leaves are elliptical to oblong, smallish, hairless
and alternate along the stem. It has small yellow fruit
with some dark spots, which is edible
Fig 15: Moreton Bay fig at Wellington Point showing the
buttress roots.
Fig 13,14: Bonsai Ficus obliqua in multiple trunk style 34 yrs old,
Brisbane Bonsai Society show, Sept 2014. Below fruit and
leaves of F. obliqua (csiro).
Fig 16: A large Moreton Bay fig in Shore St East, Cleveland,
opposite the Grand View Hotel. There is a row of these trees.
Fig 19, 20: Port Jackson fig leaves on a bonsai, and below fruit
Fig 17: Leaves and fruit of this Moreton Bay fig. Interestingly,
the leaf underside has the reddish colour of the Port Jackson fig.
Fig 18: Moreton Bay fig at Redland Bonsai Society
show, May, 2014, 48 years old.
Ficus rubiginosa: “Port Jackson fig”.
Also called: rusty fig, little leaved fig. A very large
banyan fig, classed as a strangling fig, grows to 30 m.
This specie is endemic to eastern Australia. It is similar
to Moreton Bay fig, but has smaller leaves, shorter fruit
stalks, and rusty yellow-red colour of the undersides of
the leaves (rubiginous means reddish brown). Roots
typically spread out around the trunk plus common
aerial roots from branches. Fruit are edible, round and
red-orange with yellow spots, ripe from summer to mid
winter (Jan-July). A natural growing dwarf of Ficus
rubiginosa called “Little Ruby” has now been
propagated from cuttings in 1990’s. It is slow growing
but has smaller leaves and suited to bonsai.
Fig 21: Bonsai Port Jackson fig,
Redlands Bonsai Show, Oct, 2013.
Ficus nerifolia: “willow leaf fig”.
(prev. Ficus salicifolia), also called: narrow leaf fig,
Ficus nerifolia regularis, Mexicana Ficus. Native to
much of Asia and India. An evergreen, smaller fig that
grows to 15 m high. Leaves are distinctive light
yellowish-green, quite narrow with sharp tip and
alternate along the stem. Looks a bit like a weeping
willow tree. Bark is grey brown and rough. Flowering
and fruiting are insignificant. Well suited to bonsai as a
small species, and can be readily trained to pleasing
Ficus religiosa: Bodhi tree.
Also: Bo tree, sacred fig, Buddha’s tree. From India
and Buddha is said to have found enlightenment
beneath the Bo Tree. Due to this religious link 1000’s of
cuttings from the original banyan tree were sent around
the world and are planted in temples. These trees are
deciduous and drop their leaves annually in summer.
Leaves are distinctive of broad heart shape with long
narrow tip, and very prominent veins. Does not have
aerial roots, but can grow high around 30 m. Old trees
grow a trunk up off the ground. Natural medicines are
made from various parts of the tree, in keeping with its
spiritual nature.
Fig 22: Ficus nerifolia bonsai, Redlands Bonsai Society show,
Nov, 2014.
Fig 23, 24: Top: narrow leaves of Ficus nerifolia. Below: well
develop bonsai with strong roots and branches.
Gold Coast Bonsai show, Nov, 2014.
Fig 25, 26: Top: Ficus religiosa at QUT campus Brisbane;
below: leaves and fruit of this tree.
Ficus rumphii: “Mock Bodhi Tree”.
Also called: Ficus cordifolia. This deciduous tree looks
similar to the Bodhi Tree and grows in the same
environment, so also has religious significance. A
common tree in Indian subcontinent. The leaves are
slightly different to the Bodhi Tree, without the very long
tip, and it does have some aerial roots.
Bark is dark-light grey and rough texture, often with lines
around the trunk. Fig fruit forms along leafy branchlets,
in small clusters, with dark spots when young, dark
purple when mature usually in auxillary pairs, round,
smooth, white or with spots, black when ripe. As a
bonsai trunk looks aged, but does not seem widely used.
Fig 27: Ficus rumphii bonsai with nice trunk and branch
structure. Pointed leaves are seen (
Fig 28, 29: Leaves and fruit; bonsai Natal fig,
Redlands Bonsai Society Show, Oct, 2013.
Ficus natalensis: Natal fig tree (“coastal strangler”).
Has various African names depending on location, and
there are numerous varieties, but 3 sub-species are
recognised. Also called coastal strangler fig, wild fig
tree, and mistletoe fig. Native to south-eastern Africa,
especially South Africa, the bark is used to make a
traditional cloth. Many other medicinal uses locally.
Ficus superba var. henneana.
(prev. Ficus petiolata). Also called: sea fig, deciduous
fig, cedar fig. A semi-epiphytic strangler fig, it can grow
to 35 m, or as a spreading tree on rocky locations. Tall
with long slender weeping branches. Native to east
Asia, Indochina and to Australia, but this variety
(henneana) is only in Australia.
Evergreen and both terrestrial and semi-epiphitic,
typically to 20 m high. Canopy can be dense and
hanging. Has long leathery spatula shape leaves with
slight pointed tip, bright dark green, underside is lighter.
Round green-yellow fruit 10-12 mm to red-brown when
mature, not considered edible.
Bark is reddish-brown, rough with cracks and lumps.
Base of trunk has prominent roots but not extreme
buttresses. Long leaves which are oval or elliptical with
a short blunt tip with small point and rounded at base.
The main vein is sunken on top and raised on
underside. Fruit is large, 25 mm and when mature is
purple with pink dots. Edible but not considered to be
very palatable.
Can grow dense networks of roots both aerial and along
the ground, as well as a thick buttressed trunk. Bark is
smooth and dark grey. Popular for bonsai as has rapid
growth, is robust, grows a thick trunk and complex roots.
Some other Ficus species.
Ficus virens: white fig.
A variety of Ficus microcarpa, and also called:
mountain fig, green fig, strangler fig and of note, curtain
fig. Can be a strangling or banyan fig, mostly grows wild
as a very large tropical rainforest tree, and numerous
aerial roots can grow along branches or the trunk to
form a “curtain”.
There is a famous example at Yungaburra near
Atherton, N Qld. This fig is deciduous, and tends to be
leafless for several weeks in spring (Sept-Nov). Leaves
are elongate oval and pointed towards both ends with
prominent pale lateral veins on both sides. Round
fruit on stems is pink-purple to around 10 mm.
Fig 30: Massive Ficus superba in New Farm, Brisbane
(crn Oxlade Dr – Turner Ave).
Fig 33: Ficus virens leaves and fruit
Fig 31: Leaves and fruit of Ficus superba
(John Elliott
Fig 32 Ficus superba var henneanna bonsai
Fig 34: Curtain fig tree at Yungaburra, N. Qld.
Ficus racemosa: cluster fig.
(prev called Ficus glomerata), also called cluster tree,
Indian Fig Tree, Gular Fig (“racemosa” means a cluster
on a stem). A deciduous tree, not a strangler fig, but
does not spread branches. Native to India, SE Asia and
Australia. It has religious and medicinal significance for
Hindus and Buddhists.
Ficus platypoda: rock fig.
Also called: desert fig. A strangling fig that grows over
rocks, and roots penetrate cracks and joints. Small,
very hardy tree to 15 m around rock pools and gullies.
Leaf is long teardrop shape, mid-dark green, narrowing
to tip, and has white hairs on underside. Fruit are edible,
yellow then mature to dark red. Good for bonsai as
grows a wide base and roots.
It is leafless for a short time late winter-spring (AugSept). Its white sap will turn brown on exposure.
Leaves are shortish teardrop shape, with pointed tip and
hairy, and there are small growths (stipules) both sides
of stem which fall off. Fruit is produced on shoots from
trunk and main branches, is fairly large to 3-4 cm and
edible, and results in many lumps and scars on the
bark; young trees have fairly smooth grey bark.
Fig 37: Rock fig growing on sandstone cliff face.
Other Figs Common in Queensland
Ficus coronata: sandpaper fig.
Medium size fig to 15 m, native to creek lines through
coastal Qld. Leaves coarse and rough giving its name.
The fruit are considered edible with good flavour.
Ficus destruens: fig.
Large strangling rainforest fig to 30 m, endemic to
central and north Qld. Large spreading crown, young
leaves rusty coloured. Fruit is orange. Grows well in
uplands and rainforests.
Fig 35: Ficus racemosa showing features on trunk related to fruit
growth. This old tree is on QUT campus, Brisbane.
Fig 36 below: leaves of this tree showing pointed tip.
Ficus triradiata: fig.
Large strangling rainforest fig to 30 m, endemic to north
Qld around Cooktown and Mt Molloy. Large leathery
leaves and rounded creamy yellow fruit. Grows well in
Ficus watkinsiana: green-leaved Moreton Bay fig.
Also: Watkin’s fig, strangling fig, nipple fig, grey leaved
Moreton Bay fig, figwood. An aggressive strangling fig
to 30 m, forms network of aerial roots, spreading
branches and buttressed ground roots. Can also grow
in the ground. Endemic to Australia, especially SEQ and
NE-NSW. The species can be difficult to identify.
Ficus carica: common fig.
A summary of figs should include Ficus carica which is
the main species grown for the fruit. Also called edible
fig, fruit fig, and commercial fig. This is one of the first
plants cultivated in ancient times (said to be the leaves
worn by Adam and Eve!). It is native to the Middle East
and Western Asia, and described as a sub-tropical
deciduous tree that likes warm-hot summers and cool
winters. This hardy plant can tolerate seasonal drought
and is a phreatophyte, whose roots seek groundwater.
There are 9 varieties and thousands of cultivars.
The plant grows to 7-10 m, has white-grey bark, and
leaves are 12-25 cm long and 10-18 cm wide, with
characteristic shape of 3 to 5 large lobes. Fruit is round
teardrop shape to 3-5 cm, starts green and ripens to
purple brown. Some varieties have 2 crops per year,
the later summer crop is heavier. Wild figs are
pollinated by particular wasps, but commercial varieties
are self-fertilising. This plant has been found to be a
successful bonsai, including bearing fruit.
Fig.40: Ficus carica bonsai, old plant with well developed
trunk ( Below: 3 and 5 lobe leaves.
Comparison of Common Bonsai Figs
A selection of 8 figs as bonsai, typically 4-7 years old,
are presented below to enable comparison of structure,
trunk character and leaf shape. These bonsai are still
being developed as bonsai.
Fig. 38: Ficus carica growing in commercial orchard.
Comparison bonsai fig trees:
Fig 39: Leaves (3 lobes) and fruit of Ficus carica
Ficus benjamina
Ficus nerifolia
Ficus rumphii
Ficus macrophylla
Ficus rubiginosa
Ficus microcarpa
Ficus microcarpa
Ficus microcarpa
weeping fig.
willow leaf fig.
mock Bodh tree.
Moreton Bay fig.
Port Jackson fig.
var. “Singapore” fig.
var. “Tiger bark” fig.
var. “Green Island” fig.
Protection of fig trees in Queensland
Figs have been an historic part of much of eastern Queensland, and certainly in the southeast around
Brisbane, and in the Redlands. They were commonly planted for aesthetics and for shade in community
and administrative areas in the cities, and as shade in rural areas. Many of these are now large old trees,
and are a combination of both local and overseas species. All these trees form a component of the local
ecology, largely as a source of food for wildlife. There are many excellent examples in the Brisbane
Botanical Gardens which were planted in the 1870’s-1880’s.
This historic and ecological value is recognised, for example, by Brisbane City Council as “significant
landscape trees”, and the following nine species have been listed:
F. benjamina, F. obliqua, F. rubiginosa (prev. F. platypoda), F. microcarpa var. hillii, F. benghalensis,
F. macrophylla, F. religiosa, F. virens and F. watkinsiana.
Trees classified as “protected” will have a trunk diameter of over 100 cm at 1.4 m above ground.
Other cities, such as Sydney and Melbourne also have online sites for historic and protected trees,
which include many figs. Of note in the Melbourne Botanical Gardens are numerous examples of very
large Moreton Bay figs.
Useful references
For excellent photos of figs see Tony Rodd’s flickriver:
Footnote: Ficus are complicated. I have tried to check the facts in this note, but if you find some errors
please let us know. If you wish to confirm the correct and accepted botanical names try this website: of the Australian Plant Name Index (APNI) by the Australian National
Herbarium. This site gives the history of proposed and accepted names, including some interesting
background and debate. The currently accepted name for a plant has the red tick of the APC
(Australian Plant Census).
Acknowledgements. Steve Cullum, Tony Bebb and Dr Tanya Scharaschkin are thanked for
contributions, comments and discussion.
Large Ficus superba in Andrew St, Lota, in the Redlands.
This is a deciduous tree and here is loosing leaves in Autumn.