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A Ficus Bonsai Story
An American Tropical First

This 'Ficus Bonsai Story' is a significant part of the history of bonsai trees in the United States. This is an edited version of my article which appeared in Bonsai Today magazine Issue 61, 1999.

banyan, ficus bonsai, bonsai nerifolia

In 1965, tropical bonsai pioneer Joe Samuels was Superintendent of Parks for the City of Miami Beach. Part of his responsibility was buying landscape plants and trees. One of Joe's favorite stops was the old Fantastic Gardens Nursery (long since gone).

On one such visit, he spotted a small tree (“finger thick“) that looked like a strange Ficus. He questioned the owner who said he had "imported the fig from New Guinea" ... however, it was not for sale.

Joe was a patient man and continued to ask about this new found prize. After much “pleading and arm twisting”, Joe finally purchased the unusual fig in 1966.


At that time, a friend researched the tree and identified it as Ficus nerifolia. It then became "F. salicifolia." Since then, the correct name has been much discussed and often debated by scientists as well as bonsai people. As of this writing the official scientific name is Ficus salicaria.

The most common name is willow leaf fig.


As his Ficus n. grew, Joe envisioned a mature looking fig tree in a bonsai container. Most of what he did was experimental at the time. Joe was determined to create a good tropical bonsai. I asked him if he intended the resulting effect or if it was by chance.

"I observed the growth pattern of figs in the landscape and planned accordingly, including aerial roots. I noticed that Ficus often have surface roots as far as 500 feet from the trunk. From this I found out they would grow in shallow containers."

Joe said he always took “wisdom from trees in their natural environment."

Bonsai Ficus nerifolia Ficus Bonsai Ficus Bonsai The Cloud
This is the first photo of Joe's Ficus bonsai (to be) 1967. By 1970 the small tree began to develop a canopy. In 1972, the first aerial roots were ready for refinement.




Samuels first exhibited his banyan style fig at the Bonsai Clubs International convention in Miami Beach, FL in 1975.

Participants from all over the world (including Japan) applauded it.




A New Vision

Following the convention, Joe had a new vision for his Ficus bonsai. He placed it in a larger container, and let it grow.

Meanwhile, he rooted cuttings "just in case anything happened to the original tree, the strain would keep going."

He shared these cuttings with many of his bonsai friends.

When exhibited again in 1985, the original Ficus nerifolia bonsai was a specimen tree.

Fellow Miami bonsai enthusiast, Bruce Sutton, took one look at it and called it "The Cloud." The name stuck.

As beautiful as the tree was in full leaf, this was always Joe's favorite way of viewing "The Cloud". 

Today, many hobbyists claim to have a Ficus bonsai grown from a cutting of "Joe's tree."  They probably do.

(Then again it may be a great-great-grandchild.)

Where to Go From Here

More about Ficus bonsai trees.

You can also see a complete list of Bonsai tree articles here,

including another Ficus story by Guest Author Victor Mills.

Other types of Bonsai




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