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.
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."
Later it 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."
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.
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".
In those days tropical plants were rarely displayed in what is known as "winter silhouette." Today many exhibits show tropical bonsai without leaves to show off the structure.
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.)
An introduction to Ficus bonsai trees.