Why Defoliate Ficus?

remist17

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I have two ficus now and I see alot of people stripping all the leaves off them. Can you point a me in the correct direction?
- Why defoliate ?
- When to defoliate?
Thanks
 

treebeard55

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Defoliation is done for two purposes: encourage back-budding; and slow down a branch that's getting too big for the design.

Defoliation is best done when the tree is actively growing; with tropicals this means summer, in temperate zones. I'm not sure where you are, but if you have at least two months of warm/mild weather ahead -- before temps start dipping into the 40's -- you can defoliate now. Otherwise, best to wait until next year. (Unless you have a winter set-up that keeps the trees very warm, humid, and well-lit.)

Ficus can stand having all foliage removed -- they're pretty tough -- but I prefer to leave a few leaves on each branch. It's a bit of insurance, I guess.

After defoliation, make sure to keep the humidity around it as high as you can manage.
 

mat

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Defoliating also let's you see the branch structure much better, so many people will prune and wire right after removing all the leaves. Defoliating will slow the overall growth somewhat, so if your Ficus are small, you may want to wait until they put on a little bulk.
 

remist17

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One mroe question then.

When people tell me to cut back to the 3 node? Is that the third set of leaves on a branch?
 

remist17

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So if the term I am using is not correct cutting the ficus back to a given point is needed? if so what is the cut back disctance?
 

rockm

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"nodes" refers to the new leaf buds at the base of existing leaves. Many tree species have "resting" buds at the base of leaves. Those buds become active when the existing leaf is removed (either by springtime growth, or by hard pruning).

Hard pruning -- cutting back woody stems on the ends of branches, removal of entire branches or trunk tops--any time you cut into older wood--stimulates new buds on the tree because the hormones traveling through the plant's circulatory system can no longer travel to the part that's been cut off. That means the growth hormones build up at the cut sites on the plant, "telling" the inactive buds to begin growing.

The number of nodes you cut back is really of no consequence and there really isn't a specific number to count to make a specific cut. There is no "correct" answer in how to prune a tree.
There are more efficient, effective ways to do it, though.

The more leaves on the shoot you intend to cut off, the greater the chance the plant will stimulate multiple inactive buds on the part left behind. More leaves on a shoot can indicate it's older and more vigorous than a shoot with only two.

In other words, cutting three nodes miiiight be better than cutting off a shoot with only one or two leaves, since typically the smaller number of leaves is on newer tissues...

This may sound kind of arcane and "who cares," BUT understanding this process is basically what creates a bonsai's compact, twiggy foliage mass. Constant pruning AT THE RIGHT TIME ON THE RIGHT GROWTH pushes newer leaves and a denser mass of twigs, which create the illusion of a "big" tree....
 
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jk_lewis

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You need to remember, too, that not all figs defoliate well. I am NOT a figgy person, so I can't tell you all the figs that do defoliate well. I do know, however, that F. benjamina and its look-alikes do NOT like to be totally defoliated, and often don't care much for partial (an individual branch) defoliation, either. So don't go out and haphazardly rip leaves off any ol' Ficus. It may not work.

The only Ficus I work with are the willow-leaf figs. They take defoliation extremely well. But the heat of summer with lots of warm and sunny weather ahead of them for regrowth of the canopy is when you do it. In Pennsylvania, you are much too late.
 

remist17

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Is there any place that advises when to take the leaves off your plants? I have several types and not sure when to do it. I would assume spring is the best time.

I understand now what people are talking about the nodes. It makes sense and thank you for the explanation in such detail. Cutting back makes the branch sprout addtional runners or leaves which will help increase foliage in the area.
 

rockm

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"Is there any place that advises when to take the leaves off your plants? I have several types and not sure when to do it. I would assume spring is the best time."

Defoliation is done regularly to many species as part of the FINAL bonsai-ing process. Defoliation does very little good with stock that is being grown out to increase trunk diameter, develop branching, etc. If it's done on trees in the initial stage of development, it can set you back considerably (like years).

It is performed on trees that ALREADY HAVE established, years-old branching and trunks of desireable size to increase the twigginess on thsoe branches.

If you're growing out trunks, etc, this technique is of extremely little value to you and your trees at this point....It might be worth doing 10 years down the road...
 
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remist17

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So I should just keep these under control with trimming I would assume and time will help
 

rockm

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So I should just keep these under control with trimming I would assume and time will help

this all depends on what you want from the plant. If you want more trunk diameter, bigger better branching, best to let it grow unhindered for a few years, then cut it back severely to force ramification. Do search on "clip and grow" or "cut and grow bonsai" and see what can be done and why.
 

treebeard55

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Rock and JKL make a couple of good points. Defoliation is done at different times, to different degrees, according to what one is trying to accomplish and the species of the tree. "Cut back to the 3d node" can be a useful general guideline for a beginner, but don't treat it as Holy Writ! :eek:

I posted the link to Jerry Meislik's site on another of your posts, Remist. Jerry isn't known as "Mr. Ficus" for nothing! :)
 

SU2

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You need to remember, too, that not all figs defoliate well. I am NOT a figgy person, so I can't tell you all the figs that do defoliate well. I do know, however, that F. benjamina and its look-alikes do NOT like to be totally defoliated, and often don't care much for partial (an individual branch) defoliation, either. So don't go out and haphazardly rip leaves off any ol' Ficus. It may not work.

The only Ficus I work with are the willow-leaf figs. They take defoliation extremely well. But the heat of summer with lots of warm and sunny weather ahead of them for regrowth of the canopy is when you do it. In Pennsylvania, you are much too late.
lol I was thinking this when I read that post near-top saying 'go ahead defoliate-fully'.... my 1st-ever trunk chopping was to a nice Ficus Benji topiary, watched it die for months lol...sometimes they'll backbud I've got a 4-5 ficus.b 'clump/group' planted w/o foliage now and have several spots clearly wanting to break-open, we'll see this week!

Anyways I'm glad I found this to add-to instead of making a new thread, am curious about partial-defoliations, specifically Is it beneficial to have a 'default' of removing lower/older leafs? I know to cut on the petiole (leaving an attached fragment can cause it to try repairing the leaf, not replace it) and have always defaulted to removing older / leaving newer, hoping this is on-point (for context this is on trees in-development where I'm growing primaries, I'll certainly swap to tips down the road but right now it's a PITB to accidentally break one because ramification doesn't help me fatten branches!)

My intent is to remove about 1/3rd of the foliage - the oldest 1/3rd - from this Ficus Ginseng (just heard the ID on it lol, thought it may've been an adenium, here it is before re-pot it got a good root-prune and re-pot but top is still un-touched:
19700107_220755.jpg
The roots were trash, most of the root-mass was dry as a bone soil had gone hydrophobic so # and % feeder-roots was abysmal, I cut long stuff that'd have to be cut because screw 2-stepping a ficus'-root-reduction in FL @ early-summer, usually in such cases I'll wait a day or two then do the leaf removals (or the pruning if that's the case, w/ this guy I see 1 option for now IE wire&grow those 2 branches to get the start of an apex & close that wounding!)

Thanks for help understanding, although even specific "do this/that for your Ficus Ginseng", "treat your Ginseng differently from your Macro's / your Benji's in XYZ ways" etc :)

(PS/Trivia: This is a "hybrid", a fused plant, right? Could anybody tell me the proper names for top/bottom (scion/rootstock, iirc) ? Am very curious!)
PPS: Style-wise, with its caudex-like trunk+nebari area, where its got those two large diagonal bulges....would you just remove one of them? Leaving both makes me think "pot-grown/circled-roots lignified", but seems getting rid of either would fix that (the lower one is flexible enough that, upon re-potting, I was able to spread&wedge it away-from the thicker diagonal 'buttress'/flare by nearly 3/4", thing's gonna need a strong recovery has crossed my mind to delay wiring -- why hurt cambial-strength for style when so weak, when so easy to alter things later?-- but at same time I want hard bends on a double-trunked tree which is what this is being grown as, wanna bend those two horizontal & grow them out til next year @this time at earliest before starting to cut back (as quickly as Ficus Ginseng's allow!)
 

MHBonsai

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You need to remember, too, that not all figs defoliate well. I am NOT a figgy person, so I can't tell you all the figs that do defoliate well. I do know, however, that F. benjamina and its look-alikes do NOT like to be totally defoliated, and often don't care much for partial (an individual branch) defoliation, either. So don't go out and haphazardly rip leaves off any ol' Ficus. It may not work.

The only Ficus I work with are the willow-leaf figs. They take defoliation extremely well. But the heat of summer with lots of warm and sunny weather ahead of them for regrowth of the canopy is when you do it. In Pennsylvania, you are much too late.

Not exactly true in my experience. You can absolutely defoliate a benjamina a long as the growth tips remain intact, and the tree is healthy and growing hard. It's one of the most effective ways to get one to backbud on old wood, you just must have good tips and cut the leaves at the petoles.

Keep the blue circles. Cut leaves at the red.

2BBC27E4-A549-4B2A-A324-95E27D5B458A.jpeg
 

Forsoothe!

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When you defoliate, you force the tree to replace the entire canopy at the same time. If it is done just before a tropical tree would normally begin replacing last year's canopy, all the leaves will be new and about the same size. For instance, in spring. If it is done in June after the tree has already replaced last year's canopy it becomes an emergency response for the tree which has just used-up a normal amount of the resources accumulated in the last year to make this year's new canopy. Since it has not had time to replace those resources, all the leaves will be significantly smaller and all the same size, if and only if the primary buds at the tips of the stem have been removed. It is necessary to remove every primary growth bud, -those at the tips of branches, to force the tree to direct growth to the secondary buds, those present and immediately interior on the stem, and some tertiary buds, those that normally are reserved for emergencies and would not be expanded, ever. Tertiary buds are even closer to the trunk. The resources of the tree are evenly divided between the new leaves which are smaller because the tree has very limited resources. The tree will grow less in that growing season, and slower, and put on less wood than in a normal season. If you do not remove the tips, all the resources will be directed to the tips and you will get nearly standard size leaves growing on stems that are elongating, usually not helpful for bonsai purposes.

There is an inverse correlation between the normal lifespan of a leaf and the response to grow a new canopy. The longer the normal lifespan of a leaf, the poorer the response. It is true for figs with big leaves like F. elastica and F. benghalensis, and for most Boxwood and Holly and other evergreen or semi-evergreen species. It can take two years for a boxwood to replace an entire canopy, and with no positive attributes.
Some trees can be defoliated more than once in a season, like Maples. But, since this is very stressful to the tree, it is playing with fire to do so. There has to be enough of the growing season left to grow the new leaves and also mature new buds for the following spring and store enough resources to expand the canopy, or you will have a silent spring. If the winter is particularly hard they may not be able to support a new canopy and perish while leafing out only partially. Some trees have a single flush of growth per year and if defoliated stay that way for the balance of the season. Euonymus alatus is one.

When defoliating, it is necessary to not damage the new bud in the axil. The best way to guarantee that is to cut the petiole at the base of the leaf instead of at the branch. The tree will look stupid for a couple weeks, but the stem will be drying and will be kicked off by the expanding bud. If you feed the tree immediately before this operation, or any time before the leaves are fully expanded, they will be bigger. If you feed immediately following full expansion of the leaves, you are feeding next season's buds and flowers.

Trees that flower of the tips of the stem most likely will not have flowers if you defoliate as late as June (and remove primary buds). Normally a tree needs one full year's worth of growth in order to flower, so you prune hard immediately following flowering, whenever that is. That would be in conflict with defoliating, for example Stewartia pseudocamellia.

So, you defoliate for reasons: to get this or that, and pay the price, and take your chances.
 

SU2

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One of the best posts I've read in ages (are you self-taught or do you have formal botany instruction?)
When you defoliate, you force the tree to replace the entire canopy at the same time. If it is done just before a tropical tree would normally begin replacing last year's canopy, all the leaves will be new and about the same size. For instance, in spring. If it is done in June after the tree has already replaced last year's canopy it becomes an emergency response for the tree which has just used-up a normal amount of the resources accumulated in the last year to make this year's new canopy. Since it has not had time to replace those resources, all the leaves will be significantly smaller and all the same size, if and only if the primary buds at the tips of the stem have been removed. It is necessary to remove every primary growth bud, -those at the tips of branches, to force the tree to direct growth to the secondary buds, those present and immediately interior on the stem, and some tertiary buds, those that normally are reserved for emergencies and would not be expanded, ever. Tertiary buds are even closer to the trunk. The resources of the tree are evenly divided between the new leaves which are smaller because the tree has very limited resources. The tree will grow less in that growing season, and slower, and put on less wood than in a normal season. If you do not remove the tips, all the resources will be directed to the tips and you will get nearly standard size leaves growing on stems that are elongating, usually not helpful for bonsai purposes.

There is an inverse correlation between the normal lifespan of a leaf and the response to grow a new canopy. The longer the normal lifespan of a leaf, the poorer the response. It is true for figs with big leaves like F. elastica and F. benghalensis, and for most Boxwood and Holly and other evergreen or semi-evergreen species. It can take two years for a boxwood to replace an entire canopy, and with no positive attributes.
Some trees can be defoliated more than once in a season, like Maples. But, since this is very stressful to the tree, it is playing with fire to do so. There has to be enough of the growing season left to grow the new leaves and also mature new buds for the following spring and store enough resources to expand the canopy, or you will have a silent spring. If the winter is particularly hard they may not be able to support a new canopy and perish while leafing out only partially. Some trees have a single flush of growth per year and if defoliated stay that way for the balance of the season. Euonymus alatus is one.

When defoliating, it is necessary to not damage the new bud in the axil. The best way to guarantee that is to cut the petiole at the base of the leaf instead of at the branch. The tree will look stupid for a couple weeks, but the stem will be drying and will be kicked off by the expanding bud. If you feed the tree immediately before this operation, or any time before the leaves are fully expanded, they will be bigger. If you feed immediately following full expansion of the leaves, you are feeding next season's buds and flowers.

Trees that flower of the tips of the stem most likely will not have flowers if you defoliate as late as June (and remove primary buds). Normally a tree needs one full year's worth of growth in order to flower, so you prune hard immediately following flowering, whenever that is. That would be in conflict with defoliating, for example Stewartia pseudocamellia.

So, you defoliate for reasons: to get this or that, and pay the price, and take your chances.
So much to digest here am gonna need a few spaced-apart reads, thanks :D

This ^ is very useful information for people who've got a bonsai in-refinement but what of people like me who have a garden of stock & pre-bonsai, wherein I'm going for rapid-growth so I can have the proper branch-structure to then enact principles alluded to in your^ post... I de-foliate individual leaves or branches (or 'areas') very frequently so that stronger apical growth on, say, my Maples isn't shadowing-out and killing lower-branches' foliage and to help promote more balanced growth (although Re "balance", I now suspect it'd be smartest to simply focus entirely on chop-wound-closure 1st and *then* just hard-prune your newly-formed apex so you can force-growth on the lower limbs, and only worry about keeping them with the bare-minimum light while the apex is allowed to get run-away-lush)

When you describe a defoliation without removal of the apical bud (something I didn't know was as-important as it was, thanks for that!), I can't help wonder "If I do this and intentionally leave apical tips, wouldn't it force more growth in a given time-period"? I know there's a cost, and it wouldn't enter the next season as-optimally, but the zero-touch approach tends to lead to the tree lushing-out and then kinda just stopping (or flowering), it's here that I tend to intervene and force another vegetative flush (or at bare-minimum removal of flowers), I know it's 'stealing' resources from the next flush but every spring they're still more-vigorous than the year before ie I'm seeing zero negative long-terms, had stopped touching things entirely but then lost several lower branches to shade-out (one of which was an important one and I didn't realize til too late) so am now kinda "clip&grow" pruning on a plant-by-plant basis when I see something whether it's balancing vigor & diameter of specific limbs or allowing light to larger areas of the interior of a canopy...in FL I can grow-out "top-primary"/leader branches off a chopped-trunk so quickly they shade out much of what's below in like a year)
 

Forsoothe!

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Your series of questions don't have a single answer.

I'm going for rapid-growth so I can have the proper branch-structure to then enact principles alluded to in your^ post... I de-foliate individual leaves or branches (or 'areas') very frequently so that stronger apical growth on, say, my Maples isn't shadowing-out and killing lower-branches' foliage and to help promote more balanced growth...
I don't think I understand this. The basic rules of bonsai guide us to have space between branches/layers/clouds so that we can have healthy lower branches. That characterizes a formal or informal upright design. We create the spaces to style the tree, but the tree wouldn't have healthy lower branches without this "styling" procedure. This is a chicken-and-egg statement. You can't have one without the other. If you have a helmet design of a broom, you only have foliage on the ends of branches. That's also part of the design. Brooms are helmets and not balls because foliage won't grow on the underside of the ball.

You are correct that there are two distinctly different processes here, strong growth and fine-tuning. You really choose one, or the other, one at a time. If you are still growing the basic architecture of a tree then you need to stop stealing leaves. Every leaf removed will deprive the tree of some comparable amount of wood that would have been added if that leaf had not been removed which forced the tree to replace it instead of applying that amount of replacement resource to making a new leaf. If you prune hard for architecture in autumn after the leaves are no longer a lost resource, you will deprive the tree of some number of buds, and the wood you remove, but it will have all winter to reassign dormant buds to replace lost primary and secondary buds. I speculate that trade-off is a lower net loss to growth. You would keep in mind that you prune to have enough space between branches the whole growing season so you don't have to steal leaves. You should be pruning into a triangular canopy, anyway, where the lower branches have enough light to not be shaded out. It's not like you can manage the tree by stealing leaves until you get to some size you like and then stop providing for light for the lower branches.

"If I do this (defoliaging) and intentionally leave apical tips, wouldn't it force more growth in a given time-period"?
Apical growth is the default. If you leave the apical bud after denuding, it will grow the typical way growth does, it will extend the tip and add a few pairs of secondaries, too, and I speculate all or most of the lower secondaries would be abandoned. If you want to encourage apical growth, do nothing, and the second & third flushes will grow from the tips.
...it's here that I tend to intervene and force another vegetative flush (or at bare-minimum removal of flowers), I know it's 'stealing' resources from the next flush but every spring they're still more-vigorous than the year before ie I'm seeing zero negative long-terms...
Yes you are seeing negative effects. Just because you are getting what looks like vigorous growth the following spring doesn't mean there is no net loss of vigor. You are, indeed, stealing resources and converting those resources into leaves that have been lost. The tree is recovering, but it would would grown more if you didn't steal those resources. You will have a second and third flush with Maples only to the extent that you didn't steal so much in resources to preclude either or both.

I don't have any formal training or education in hort. Like lots of others, I stand on the shoulders of all who came before me and left notes and books and lectured and coached anyone who would listen. Also like lots of others, the more I know about this or that, the more I see there is to learn. Alas, you really can't know it all. I collect thousands of computer screen backgrounds of great photos, wisdoms and jokes, and here's one from early in the last century...
Ford's #2.JPG
I'm still just a babe in arms.
 

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