Ficus names from top left: Ficus 'Benjamina'
Top right: Ficus 'Louis'
Bottom left: Ficus 'Lyrata' or fiddle leaf fig,
Bottom right: Ficus 'Elastica'
Botanical Name: Ficus
Common Name: Fig tree
Plant Family: Moraceae
About the fascinating Ficus….
The genus Ficus contains about 850 species of woody trees, shrubs, vines, epiphytes and hemiepiphytes, mostly native to tropical regions. There is considerable variation within this genus, from the small, flat climber F. pumila, to the famously large leaves of the Fiddle leaf fig F. lyrata, to the arid-adapted bonsai F. palmeri, with its thick caudex.
Like their common name suggests, these plants produce fruit known as figs. However, all the figs you’ve eaten in your life are likely to have come from just the one species, F. carica. All Ficus have a super interesting pollination strategy that relies on a mutualistic relationship with a specialised wasp. A female pollinator wasp will enter the tube of a fig flower to lay her eggs. As she walks out of the tube, the pollen from her ‘birth fig’ will pollinate the flower. Her eggs develop inside, relying on the fig for shelter and food. The males hatch first, mature, then impregnate the females. The males then dig a hole out of the fig for the females to leave, then die. The females will leave, and fly to another fig tree and start the cycle again. Each species of Ficus is only pollinated by one or two specialised fig wasp species. If a fig tree is grown outside of its native habitat, somewhere where its corresponding fig wasp doesn’t exist, the tree is effectively sterile. Ficus are a keystone species in many tropical forest ecosystems, as their fruit is an important food source for many birds, bats, butterflies, and monkeys.
Most Ficus species appreciate bright, indirect light, though can handle some direct sun. Too much sun can cause burn spots on the leaves.
Drafts, and being moved around too much. Find a spot that works for your plant, then keep it there!
They like warm temperatures, and grow most when it’s above 21°C. They’re not a big fan of temps below 16°C. As tropical plants, Ficus appreciate relatively high humidity. You can increase the humidity around your plant by sitting them on a pebble tray (a shallow dish filled with small rocks and water, that will locally increase the humidity as the water evaporates), misting regularly, or by adding a humidifier.
Allow at least the top inch of soil to dry out between waterings. Allow them to drain after watering, ficus don’t like having wet feet. Decrease watering over winter, and allow the soil to dry out slightly more. Increase watering when temps are high, or leaves are growing. Many ficus species, such as F. lyrata and F. cyathistipula, have large leaves which demand a lot of water!
Soil or mix….
Ficus tend to thrive in a well-aerated, rich soil mixture. A good quality potting mix is recommended, mixed with perlite for aeration. It is not recommended to plant directly into a pot with no drainage, as Ficus can be fickle, and it will be difficult to balance giving them enough water without overwatering.
Ficus only flower when mature, and it is unlikely you will see your indoor specimen produce a fig.
Feed with a liquid fertiliser designed for general houseplants, e.g. seaweed based, during spring, summer, and autumn.
Ficus can be easily propagated by stem cuttings or air-layering, and it is best attempted during the growing seasons. For stem cuttings, use a clean blade to cut a portion of the stem that has a couple sets of leaves and a growing tip. Remove the lower set of leaves, and put in water, or dip in rooting hormone and plant into soil. Make sure the soil stays lightly moist and doesn’t dry out while you are trying to grow roots. You can make a little plastic tent over your pot to increase the humidity, but take it off every few days to allow air circulation.
Leaf drop: it’s a sad day when your beloved Ficus experiences mass leaf drop, but don’t stress, they’ll often grow back. Leaf drop occurs when the plant is stressed, and can usually be traced back to underwatering, a drop in temperature or humidity, or exposure to drafts. It’s important to keep a close eye on the soil moisture, especially when the weather warms up and your plant is producing new growth. Investing in a moisture meter is useful. Once your Ficus has a suitable, sheltered place to live in your home, try not to move it around. They are sensitive to the microclimate, and may drop their leaves to cope with the change.
Brown edges: crispy brown edges are often a sign of underwatering. Remember, damaged leaves don’t repair. Check the current soil moisture and the health of the newest leaves to see if you need to up your watering.
Edema: tiny red spots on the leaves caused by the roots taking up water faster than the leaves can transpire, creating pressure that causes cells to burst. With consistent watering overtime, these cells can regenerate and the spots disappear. A moisture meter can be a useful tool.
Bacterial leaf spot: several varieties of leaf spot may occur, caused by bacteria or fungi. This may occur in high humidity, or when the plant is overwatered or misted. Splash from overhead watering of affected plants may spread the bacteria to other plants. Isolate the plant, remove affected leaves, and let the plant dry out between waterings. Ensure good airflow and, light and warmth.
Mealybug: small insects with a soft, white coating that usually appear in large colonies. When detected, isolate your plant and remove each bug with a disposable wipe soaked with a houseplant bug spray. Make sure you check every nook and cranny, including both side of the leaves, behind leaf sheaths, inside growing tips, in the top layer of soil, and under the rim of the nursery pot. Spray down the entire plant, and leave in isolation for at least a couple of weeks, and until no bugs are detected.
Maintenance (pruning, legginess, repotting)
Ficus grow toward the light, so rotate it slightly every few months if you want a symmetrical plant, or leave it to gracefully arc towards a window. Trim off any damaged leaves if they become unsightly. Ficus may become leggy if they experience mass leaf drop. Leave them to try regrow, or you could try notch the trunk with a sterile blade to encourage branching. Repot when you see roots coming out the drainage holes, and the pot appears tight and somewhat root-bound. Select a pot that’s no more than a third bigger. If you have a large specimen (lucky you) that can’t be repotted, top-dress with fresh soil enriched with a slow-release fertiliser such as bio-char.
Ficus sap is considered mildly toxic. If you suspect your pet or child has nibbled your Ficus, watch out for decreased appetite, drooling, vomiting, diarrhea, and skin irritation.
Cook, J. & Rasplus, J. (2003). Mutualists with attitude: coevolving fig wasps and figs Trends in Ecology & Evolution. 18 (5) 241–8.
Moorman, G. (2016). Ficus diseases. Retrieved from: https://extension.psu.edu/ficus-diseases
Norman, D. & Ali, G.S. (2018). Ornamental Ficus Diseases: Identification and Control in Commercial Greenhouse Operations. Retrieved from: https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/pdf/PP/PP30800.pdf
Missouri Botanical Garden. Oedema. Retrieved from: https://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/gardens-gardening/your-garden/help-for-the-home-gardener/advice-tips-resources/pests-and-problems/environmental/oedema.aspx
Pet Poison Helpline. Ficus. Retrieved from: https://www.petpoisonhelpline.com/poison/ficus/