Gardening How-to Articles

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.

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 shapes.

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."

Growing Figs

Resuscitating Ficus

Many the lament I have heard from the rubber tree owner who has returned home from a brief vacation to find his or her tree completely leafless, the victim of a benevolent neighbor or other plant-sitter. One or two poorly timed waterings had sent the poor plant into deciduous shock! As long as the leafless stems and branches of a Ficus in shock remain supple, they are capable of sprouting new foliage. If the soil is dry, give the plant a thorough watering. Never fertilize your leafless charge(s) with the assumption that a dose of plant food will help them "come 'round." This will only send them over the edge. Sadly, figs with kindling-dry twigs and snapping branches are candidates for the compost pile, wood chipper, or Department of Sanitation.

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 habitat.

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 margins.

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 cultivars.

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.

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.

    Discussion

  • John May 30, 2013

    I have some Ficus pumila growing on a wall. I planted it nearly 10 years ago and didn’t give it much care or attention. Recently I decided to do an intense hard pruning on the shrubs that blocked the view of the ficus and discovered a small section of the plant growing with almost pure white foliage. The new growth has a pink tinge. I was just wondering if this sort of mutation had been seen before.

Submit a Comment

Please keep your comments relevant to this article. Comments are moderated and will be posted after BBG staff review. Your email address is required; it will not be displayed, but may be needed to confirm your comments.

Image, top of page: