Rubber trees, weeping figs, and other friendly ficus
Ficus elastica (rubber plant)
Some of the most handsome and durable plants you can grow indoors belong to the genus Ficus. Known for their glossy, leathery leaves, they vary in height and growth habit as well as leaf size and shape, offering something that will appeal to just about everyone's taste in houseplants.
From the old-fashioned rubber tree (Ficus elastica) to the ubiquitous weeping fig (Ficus benjamina), darling of the indoor shopping malls, they're generally undemanding plants, not particularly prone to pest problems. They make superb houseplants for people who don't like to fuss much with their foliage.
The Ficus we grow indoors are commonly improved varieties of plants native to India, southeast Asia and the Malaysian Archipelago. Since they evolved in tropical and sub-tropical climates, they're able to withstand a great deal of heat, and are an excellent choice for a sunny atrium or south-facing bay window. On the other hand, they're fairly sensitive to cold temperatures, and should not be placed near a drafty doorway or icy window in winter.
There are two main concerns to keep in mind when choosing a houseplant you'd like to have look good for years. First and foremost is whether you have enough light to support that particular plant. Though Ficus plants grow vigorously in full sunlight, they'll all thrive indoors in bright, medium light. Old-fashioned rubber trees are even quite reliable when grown in a north-facing window that never receives any direct sunlight.
Second, and this is important in choosing a Ficus, how much space can you allot the plant as it grows? Don't assume you must buy a large, mature plant. Ficus species grow quite rapidly with minimal attention, provided they receive adequate light.
Size and form
Most Ficus we grow indoors are upright, woody plants. Many are single-trunk "trees", others, multi-stemmed "shrub" forms. You'll even find novelty versions where stems of several individual plants have been braided together. (These braids fuse as the plant grows older and each stem expands.) There's also a vining form, Ficus pumila or creeping fig, that has small leaves and clings to walls by means of aerial roots.
Prune to control size
Left to their own devices, Ficus plants can grow much larger than you'd expect. Luckily, they may all may be pruned to control their size. In fact, pruning tends to encourage branching and results in fuller growth--assuming there's enough light.
Prune Ficus "trees and shrubs" as you would any woody plant, making your cuts just above a node, where a leaf is attached to the stem, or where another stem branches off. You can also prune just above a leaf scar, even though there's no leaf there any more. New growth should arise from the scar area.
Water Ficus thoroughly. Don't stop until you see water coming through the pot's drain holes, then remove the extra water after a few minutes. Use room temperature or lukewarm water to avoid shocking their roots. Tap water is fine, but try not to use "softened" water, if possible.
Except for creeping fig, which should be watered the minute the soil surface feels dry, allow Ficus plants to dry a bit between waterings. However, they do best when they aren't allowed to dry too much. It's important to retain some moisture in the root ball between waterings rather than letting the soil get bone dry so it cracks away from the container.
The practice of keeping soil too wet or allowing it to get terribly dry can each result in leaf loss. And while leaf loss is primarily a nuisance in a weeping fig, it can be quite disfiguring in large-leaved plants such as fiddle-leaf figs or rubber trees.
Tailor your fertilizing routine to the plant's growth cycle. When a Ficus is producing new leaves and growing actively, you can fertilize every three or four weeks, provided you mix your fertilizer 1/2 the label-recommended strength. Taper off as growth slows in autumn. It probably won't be necessary to fertilize during the short days of winter, unless your plant continues to grow well due to its location or supplementary fluorescent lighting.
Here are some Ficus plants you may find at your local garden center or florist's shop:
Ficus benjamina (weeping fig)
Ficus benjamina or weeping fig:There are more sizes and varieties of weeping fig on the market than any other Ficus. You'll find them ranging from little table-top specimens to large "floor models." Weeping figs have lots of glossy, slightly wavy leaves.
These plants are notorious for dropping leaves when they're moved from one location to another; they also tend to lose them in autumn as days grow shorter. Luckily, they're capable of developing lots of new foliage fairly rapidly, as long as they get reasonable amounts of light.
Ficus lyrata (fiddle-leaf fig)
Ficus elastica or rubber plant: You may find variegated as well as burgundy-colored versions of this old favorite. With large, stiff leaves and woody stems, this plant truly has the potential to become a "tree" indoors.
Ficus lyrata or fiddle-leaf fig: This is another woody plant with lots of potential. Its leaves are even larger than those of the ordinary rubber plant. Think of it as "living sculpture."
Ficus maclellandii 'Alii' really has no common name; people just call it Alii. Without a label, you'd probably never guess this plant is a Ficus. It's woody like the others, but its leaves are very long, narrow, and pointed--a bit bamboo-like.
Ficus retusa nitida or Indian laurel: This plant is similar to the weeping fig, but its leaves are slightly larger and stiffer. And, it's not quite so fussy about change in its environment. Though used extensively in commercial interior landscaping, Indian laurel is less common in the marketplace. If you find one, grab it.
H146F Reviewed 2001