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Ficus

Fig
Moraceae
Deciduous, Evergreen, Shrubs, Trees, Vines

The average gardener would never expect to find the commercial edible fig, small-leafed climbing fig, banyan tree, and potted rubber tree under one heading—but they are classed together because they bear small or large figs (inedible in most species). Ornamental types are discussed here; for sorts grown for tasty fruit, see Fig. Many ornamental species make good houseplants. Generally, they thrive on rich, steadily moist (not wet) soil, frequent light feedings, and bright, indirect light.

Ficus auriculata (photo courtesy of David Dixon/Garden Picture Library/Photolibrary)
Ficus auriculata (photo courtesy of David Dixon/Garden Picture Library/Photolibrary)

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Ficus auriculata

Native to India. Grows to 15–25 ft. tall and wide. Leaves have sandpapery texture and are unusually large—broadly oval to round, about 15 in. across. New growth is mahogany red, turning to rich green. Large figs (more ornamental than edible) are borne in clusters on the trunk and framework branches. Can be shaped as a small tree or espaliered. Beautiful in a large container; good near swimming pools. Grow in a wind-protected, sunny location.

Ficus benjamina
Ficus benjamina

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Ficus benjamina

From India and Malaysia. One of the most popular houseplants, this is easily held to 7 ft. high and 4 ft. wide indoors. Outside, it’s large: In Hawaii, it’s fast growing to 60 ft. tall with an even greater spread. Good shade or specimen tree for larger gardens or parks, since it requires space for its invasive surface root system. In Southern California and Arizona, the plant reaches about half the size it does in Hawaii and is often used as an entryway or a patio tree; also good as a screen, espalier, or clipped hedge. Leathery, 5-in.-long, shiny green leaves are densely clothed in drooping branches.

New plants are easy to start from cuttings taken between late spring and early summer. Give a frost-free, wind-protected location in sun or shade. 

Sudden leaf shedding is a common problem, often resulting from the plant being moved to a new location. If shedding begins shortly after a move, be patient; the leaves usually grow back. If the leaves that fall are green, insufficient water is another possible cause; try to keep the soil evenly moist. If the fallen leaves are yellow, overwatering may be to blame. If shedding is accompanied by a sweet smell and sticky leaves, look for and control scale insects.

Ficus elastica ‘Variegata’ (photo courtesy of Annie & Jean-Claude Malausa/Bios/Photolibrary)
Ficus elastica ‘Variegata’ (photo courtesy of Annie & Jean-Claude Malausa/Bios/Photolibrary)

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Ficus elastica

Native to India and Malaysia. In Hawaii, it is a wide-spreading tree to 60–80 ft. tall (up to 100 ft. in damp, tropical forests). On the mainland, it can become a 40-ft. tree in frost-free zones; often seen as a small tree or shrub in shaded patios and garden entrances in the cooler part of the range. Narrow, leathery dark green leaves are 8–12 in. long. New leaves unfold from rosy pink sheaths that soon wither and drop. Comes back quickly if killed to the ground by frost. Good in containers; if a potted plant becomes too tall and leggy, you can cut off the top and select a side branch to form a new main shoot. One of the most foolproof indoor plants. Partial or full shade.

Ficus microcarpa

Native from Malay peninsula to Borneo. One of the more common banyans in Hawaiian landscapes, where it grows quickly to 60 ft. high, with a dense canopy spreading to about 75 ft. wide; produces multiple aerial roots in wet areas. In California and Arizona, it grows at a more moderate rate to 25–30 ft. high, 35–40 ft. wide. Beautiful weeping form, with long, drooping branches thickly clothed with blunt-tipped, 2–4-in.-long leaves. Light rose to chartreuse new leaves, produce almost continuously.

Ficus pumila (photo courtesy of Linda Lamb Peters)
Ficus pumila (photo courtesy of Linda Lamb Peters)

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Ficus pumila

Native to China, Japan, and Australia. This plant has a most unfiglike habit; it is one of the few plants that attach themselves securely to wood, masonry, or even metal in barnacle fashion. Because it is grown on walls and thus protected, it is found in colder climates more often than any other evergreen fig. Grows in sun or shade but will burn on a hot south or west wall. Looks innocent enough in youth, making a delicate tracery of tiny, heart-shaped leaves. Juvenile foliage ultimately develops into big (2–4-in.-long), leathery leaves borne on stubby branches that bear large oblong fruits. In time, stems will envelop a three- or four-story building so completely that it becomes necessary to keep them trimmed away from windows. It’s safe to use on house walls if you cut it to the ground every few years; also control by removing fruiting stems from time to time as they form. Roots are invasive. ‘Minima’ has shorter, narrower leaves than species. ‘Variegata’ has standard-size leaves with creamy white markings. F. p. quercifolia (F. p. ‘Oakleaf’) has small, lobed leaves that resemble miniature oak leaves.

Ficus rubiginosa

Native to Australia. Single or multitrunked, densely foliaged tree that grows to 20–50 ft. tall, with a broad crown 30–50 ft. wide. Leaves are about 5 in. long, deep green above, generally rust colored and woolly beneath. May develop hanging aerial roots characteristic of many of the evergreen figs that grow in tropical environments. A small-leafed form has been sold as Ficus microphylla.

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