Gods and Monsters: The Genus Ficus
We encounter glorious specimens in ubiquitous bank and shopping mall
plantings, we marvel at lush archetypes on tropical isles whilst on vacation,
and we regard forlorn examples in the corners of our doctor's office. We adore
them. We despise them—yet we attempt to maintain them time and time again.
They are the gods and monsters of the indoor gardening world—they are the
figs, the rubber trees, the genus Ficus.
Ficus benjamina 'Variegata', a form of the immensely popular weeping
Since the 1880s, these plants have formed the most important group of trees
and shrubs that can be successfully cultivated indoors. They add height and
volume to an otherwise low landscape, and their various leaf textures and
colors and bark characteristics perk up a monotonous "leafy" collection. They
can be trained as indoor espaliers and topiaries, pruned into space-dividing
hedges or screens, coaxed along living room arbors and trellises, or gently
trimmed to retain a pleasing natural appearance. In addition, the small-leafed
vining species can be grown as groundcovers with larger potted plants, in
Wardian cases and terrariums, or around obelisks, finials, or wattle
The genus name Ficus is the Latin name for the edible fig. Most
Ficus species are evergreen, but some are completely deciduous (such as
Ficus carica), depending on seasonal temperatures and rainfall. Many
species have large and extraordinarily beautiful foliage, which varies in
color, texture, venation, and margination. Others have remarkably small,
delicate leaves. Almost all species produce a thick, milky latex when cut or
wounded. In fact, the viscous sap of several species has been utilized in the
manufacture of rubber, hence the common name, "rubber tree."
All Ficus species are very sensitive to over- or underwatering, which
causes yellowing of the foliage and often complete leaf-drop. Even the
remaining green leaves may plummet. The key to growing figs successfully is to
allow them to dry out almost completely (especially in apartments with chilly
hibernal temperatures) before saturating them. Never let the pots sit in excess
run-off water. Large containers may even need to sit on pot feet within their
drainage saucer in order to achieve this ideal. Drafts and low temperatures may
induce similar symptoms. The temperature and light requirements of Ficus
vary according to species, depending on the conditions in its native
Feel free to repot Ficus when they become pot-bound—every two to
three years. (Ficus elastica, however, doesn't mind a snug fit.) Figs
prefer a light, fast-draining soil of medium fertility, and do well in both
compost-based or soilless mixtures. Truly large specimens that cannot be potted
up into a larger container must rely on annual bouts of top-dressing—the
process by which several inches of the top-most soil is removed and
subsequently replaced with a fresh, fertile nutrient-enhanced mixture.
Top-dress annually in late February, when the plants begin their spring growth
cycle. Regular applications of your favorite water-soluble fertilizer are
beneficial as well.
In addition, figs benefit from a thorough feather-dusting or wiping-off with
a damp, lint-free cloth or sponge. If the plants are not too large or unwieldy,
a lukewarm shower in the bath-tub is effective. Try maintaining your plants on
dollies or caddies for easy maneuvering. Never use any type of leaf polishing
agent, including olive oil.
Ficus are susceptible to all of the standard indoor arthropod pests:
mealy bugs, spider mites, and both soft and hard scale insects. Employ your
favorite biological controls.
For the past quarter century, the figs have been workhorses in the interior
landscape industry. Surprisingly, many interior landscapers, novice and amateur
alike, believe there is nothing new in the world of Ficus. They couldn't
be more wrong! New selections have flooded the market and are readily
available; the selections that follow are ample proof.
Ficus for Indoors
Benjamin Fig, Weeping Fig Ficus benjamina—Weeping fig is
one of the most popular houseplants in the U.S. It has a graceful, open,
slightly weeping form as well as thinly leathery, symmetric, ovate-elliptic
(oval to egg-shaped) 3- to 5-inch leaves. It grows as tall as 12 to 15 feet,
and can be maintained with 250 foot-candles of light, but prefers 4,000 to
6,000. F. benjamina is extremely drought-tolerant. There is a vast
assortment of varieties and cultivars from which to select, including ruffled
and variegated forms. 'Midnight Princess' is a notable cultivar, which bears
long, dark leaves that have undulating crenate (with rounded teeth) leaf
Ficus elastica 'Burgundy'
India Rubber Tree Ficus elastica—By far the most prosaic
Ficus species is Ficus elastica, the ubiquitous India rubber
tree. It can be expected to reach ceiling-height in any indoor landscape. The
leaves are a foot or so long, elliptic to oblong in shape, thick, dark green
and leathery, but glossy on the upper surface. Ficus elastica, which is
surprisingly drought-tolerant, can be sustained with as little as 250
foot-candles, although 4,000 to 8,000 will result in far better growth. There
is an array of cultivars; 'Melany' produces deep green, truly miniature leaves
with brilliant burgundy overtones.
Fiddle-Leaf Fig Ficus lyrata—Another large-leaved
Ficus is the fiddle-leaf fig. Its foliage, as large as 18 inches long
and a foot wide, and obovate to lyrate (lyre-shaped) or pandurate
(fiddle-shaped), makes this plant easily recognizable. The leaf texture is
rough and leathery. With proper care, this species can easily reach
ceiling-height. Selective pruning will help attain a pleasing shape. It can be
maintained under 250 foot-candles, but prefers 2,000 to 6,000 for optimum
growth. It is not particularly drought-tolerant, and must be given water
regularly to survive; but do not let the pot stand in the excess run-off water.
The extremely rare but striking variegated cultivar 'Ivonne' bears leaves with
a green and gray-green center surrounded by a variable ivory margin.
Banana-Leaf Fig Ficus maclellandi—During the 1980s, F.
maclellandi was introduced by two leaders of the indoor landscape industry,
Kraft Gardens, Inc., and Aloha Foliage. The former gave it the common name
banana-leaf fig, while the latter received a trademark for the name 'Alii'. The
word, correctly written Ali'i, is Hawaiian for "royalty." This plant has
a heavier trunk, sheds fewer leaves, and appears to be far more durable than
F. benjamina. It has long, narrow, slightly weeping, willow-like
foliage, and can quickly attain a height of 14 feet indoors. It is
exceptionally drought-tolerant. 'Alii' tolerates light as low as 200
foot-candles, but it prefers 4,000 to 6,000. No cultivars.
Indian Laurel Ficus microcarpa (F. retusa, F.
nitida)—A little more difficult to find commercially is the Indian
laurel. It bears handsome 3- to 5-inch dark green leaves that are long and
broadly elliptic (oval). The bark can be a light gray to almost white in color.
This species can tolerate exceptionally cool indoor winter temperatures without
any yellowing or leaf-drop. It recovers from hard pruning quite well, making it
a good candidate for indoor hedges, screens, or espaliers. It can be maintained
under 300 foot-candles but prefers 4,000 to 6,000. There are several
Mistletoe Fig Ficus deltoidea (F. diversifolia)—An
easy-to-care-for shrub for the indoor landscape is the mistletoe fig. The
outstanding foliage, though variable, usually has an interesting fan-like
shape. The leaves are held on slender zigzagging branches. This is one of the
few Ficus species to develop fruit indoors, and the inedible, yellow or
ivory fruit is very persistent. This species can eventually achieve a height of
3 to 5 feet. It cherishes heat and humidity and is quite intolerant of draughts
and overwatering. It can be sustained under 250 foot-candles but prefers at
least 4,000. Currently, there are no cultivars.
Ficus aspera 'Parcellii', clown fig
Clown Fig, Mosaic Fig Ficus aspera 'Parcellii'—One of the
most spectacular Ficus species available today is the variegated form of
Ficus aspera, the cultivar 'Parcellii'. It is usually a large shrub or
small tree, and may attain a height of 3 to 5 feet in ideal conditions. The
foliage is 8 to 12 inches in length, cordate (heart-shaped at base) to rhomboid
(like a lozenge) in shape, and sometimes coarsely toothed on the margins. The
leaves are a sensational combination of white speckling or marbleizing and
gray-green blotches on a dark green background. Some leaves may be pure white.
In perfect conditions, the plant bears pink to purple figs. This Ficus
requires heat and humidity, and detests cold and drafts. It needs at least
3,000 foot-candles to prosper. Use room temperature (warm) water only, and tip
out the run-off, especially in a cool room.
Creeping Fig Ficus pumila (F. repens)—The best
known of the vining species of Ficus, this beloved houseplant is a great
choice for poorly insulated homes and apartments. It is a fast and vigorous
grower, bearing 1- to 2-inch soft green leaves. It can be easily trained upon
sphagnum moss-filled topiary shapes, osmunda fiber poles, or wooden frames, and
it is a perfect groundcover for larger containers, Wardian cases, and
terrariums. Creeping fig also makes a handsome choice for hanging pots or
raised planters. It suffers greatly when overwatered, but can be successfully
cultivated under 350 foot-candles. Several cultivars are readily available,
including 'Minima', whose especially tiny foliage makes it an attractive
subject for tracery against light-colored walls.
Oak-Leafed Fig Ficus montana (F.
quercifolia)—Another small-leafed climbing Ficus, very similar
to the creeping fig, except its tiny 1- to 1 ½-inch leaves have
irregularly dented margins, making them look decidedly like oak leaves. It's a
little slower growing than the creeping fig, but a perfect diminutive plant to
incorporate in eye-level planters, terrariums, or moss or osmunda fiber topiary
forms. It prefers at least 350 foot-candles of light. Avoid overwatering. The
choice cultivar 'Snowflake' has a variable variegation of pure white.
Ficus Sagittata (no common name)—For a coarser-textured
vining fig, try Ficus sagittata, The foliage is 2 to 3 inches in length
and held on wiry, trailing stems. Like the aforementioned climbing species,
F. sagittata resents overwatering. The cultivar 'Variegata' is quite
wonderful, though difficult to find. It has gray-green leaves variegated with
creamy white and makes an effective groundcover or topiary.
Scott D. Appell is a regular contributor to BBG publications and the author of four books, Pansies, Lilies, Tulips, and Orchids. He lives and gardens on the island of Vieques, Puerto Rico.
Top two photos: David Cavagnaro; bottom photo: Elvin McDonald