July: Bulging-trunk Bonsai (Ficus Microcarpa Mallsai)

Have you ever done something and while you’re doing it you know you’ve made a mistake?  My ficus microcarpa pick for the month I had that feeling about.

If you’re not sure what I mean I’ll give you an example.  Yesterday I made homemade pretzels with my daughter. We followed the recipe and mixed the dough. But it would not thicken and form into a ball. The dough just sloshed around in the mixer. That’s the part where I was pretty sure I made a mistake. I made the best of what I had. I covered it with plastic wrap and came back an hour later. Sure enough, it resembled the green toy slime I got as a kid more than pretzel dough.  There was no choice but to dump the whole gooey dough liquid mess into the trash. I told my daughter “Sometimes things we make just don’t work out. We burned the yeast, so we don’t have any pretzels. But it’s okay because we’ll just try again tomorrow.”

It’s the same way with me and root-over-rock bonsai.



Visiting Walmart’s garden section to find my pick for the month there wasn’t much inspiring to work with. The best around was something with a tag labeled simply “bonsai.” It doesn’t say what species it is, but it does say it’s a “symbol of harmony & peace.” Others in the bonsai community would call this type of thing a mallsai or I’ve called them big box bonsai. For real it’s a ficus (a ficus microcarpa), with big fleshy roots and some leaves grafted on. Doesn’t look a thing like a bonsai to me, but I picked it up anyway.

Forget a thick, tapered base with movement or good primary and secondary branches. I picked this over other types of plants because there wasn’t a fat trunk on anything in the whole joint for a decent price. They were probably getting ready to restock, but that day I was determined to go home with something.  I picked the ficus macrocarpa because it’s a common mallsai and I wanted to make one of these a monthly pick.

I picked this particular microcarpa over other plants of the same type because instead of the typical cluster of bulging trunk-ness, there was a gap in the roots that I liked. The foliage was healthy and it was $13. I admit the gap in the roots had me thinking root over rock.



I got my rock and started the repotting. First I had to remove the rocks glued on top. They were glued down pretty well. No individual pebbles shake loose. A butter knife wedged in the side of the pot had trouble. But once you take the whole plant out of the pot and work on the pebbles that way I made progress pretty easily. The pebbles came up in chunks I was able to remove by hand (bare handed, no work gloves. So it wasn’t that bad a job.)

After pebble removal I used my root hook to comb out the roots and old soil and see what I was working with. The roots below look pretty typical compared to the bulgy above soil level roots. The rock I thought would fit nicely, didn’t.

I used raffia to tie the tree roots to the rock as snugly as I could, which isn’t very snugly at all. It was so poor a bond that I followed up with tape. The whole thing looked a sad mess, which was the moment I knew I had it wrong. I potted it anyway being sure to cover the rock and the previously covered roots with soil.



Checking out the results after repotting the top has some serious problems.  As with all mallsai ficus microcarpa, this has a bit of an hourglass shape that doesn’t resemble a typical tree at all.  The trunk bulges and then narrows into a neck, where it then spouts several branches or stems with the leafy growth.  In this case, as in many, there is a clump where growth was grafted on.  The original top to the tree was cut off at a right angle.  So basically the whole thing just looks odd and not at all tree like.

I wouldn’t want a tree with no taper to the top.  The two groups of branches coming out of the trunk are basically exactly opposite one another like arms, which I’d like to avoid.  For both of those places several branches come out of one place.

To get rid of the flat top, attempt to start some taper I cut off the grafted bits at an angle.

After cutting it at an angle, I worked on the stump to smooth it out a bit.  Viola, here’s what’s left.



After I finished up I searched online and found half a dozen people telling me different tips and tricks for root over rock bonsai, all of which I hadn’t done.

Trouble is, bonsai is a bit different than cooking. Regardless of if your pretzels were great or terrible you know it the same day. In bonsai it takes months before you know you’re doing something wrong. With the pretzels we just tried it again the next day. But with bonsai going through two or three attempts to figure out what works can take years.

If I were to do this tree over again I’d pick a different rock, or chisel a bit on this one to sneak it into the gap in the tree roots better.


As a side note the pretzels didn’t turn out the second day either. I decided it was a bad recipe. They were goopy and closer to a liquid than a dough but at that point I had already made the baking soda bath and preheated the oven so I decided to make the best of it. I mixed in flour and made them into balls or rolls. Which actually didn’t taste half bad, so you never know.

We’ll see how the ficus looks next year when I pull it back up and unwind it. Until then, we’re waiting for the buns to get out of the oven for this round so to speak.