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Ficus Trees
by William Creed
February 6, 2011

No indoor plant is more popular than the tree-like ficus benjamina. And no indoor plant is a greater source of agony than the ficus benjamina. It is commonly called "weeping fig" because it is in the fig family and the branches hang down in a weeping manner. I think there is more to this nickname than that. Weeping fig sheds leaves (tears) so easily that it causes many owners to cry out in despair! More ficus trees are discarded prematurely than any other indoor plant. Why is that these trees that look so gorgeous in the plant shop seem to fall apart so quickly at home? And why do I claim that ficus benjamina is the hardiest and most long-lived indoor plant that you can own? Read on.

The Problem Is Light

Ficus trees MUST have lots of sunlight. If you don't have a nice, largely unobstructed sunny window to locate a ficus tree, than you had best select another plant. There are dozens of houseplants that thrive in areas beyond the reach of the sun's rays, but the ficus is not one of them. 
The leaves on ficus benjamina are unusually light sensitive. New leaves are suited for the light level they receive at the time they emerge. If that light level changes subsequently, then many of those leaves will drop off. Replacement leaves are adapted to the new light level. For this reason, ficus trees are notorious for dropping leaves every time they are relocated. They go through a process called acclimatization, which means they must adapt to any change in light intensity. 
These trees are usually grown outside in warm climates in full sunlight. The better nursery growers move them into shaded areas for 6 weeks before they sell them so that the trees will have an easier time adapting to the lower light levels inside the home. Unfortunately, many growers skip this important step and the result is that the trees have a much more traumatic adjustment to go through after they are sold.

What To Do With Your New Ficus Tree

It is common and even expected that ficus trees will shed lots of leaves when they are moved to a new environment. Although you can't stop the leaf loss, there are some things you can do to ensure that lots of new replacement leaves appear in due time.

  • Don't add to the trauma by repotting. Wait until the acclimatization is complete before repotting.

  • Give your new ficus as much direct sunlight as possible. A south-facing window is best. After it has acclimated, you can move it to a less bright location, such as a north window, if you prefer.

  • Water the rootball thoroughly. Make sure the soil is packed in tight around the circumference of the pot so the water doesn't just run right through without soaking the rootball. Water again thoroughly when the surface soil feels dry.

  • Don't fertilize it until it has finished adjusting and is putting out healthy new growth.

  • Prune off interior branches that have lost most of their leaves. 
    You will notice that new leaves form from tiny green points at the ends of the branches. This new growth will be acclimated to its new environment. Eventually, many of the original leaves will drop off and be replaced by lots of new leaves. This process can take up to six months, so be patient. 
    Practical tip: Once a week give your ficus a vigorous shake to loosen all the leaves that are destined to fall off soon anyway. Then clean them all up at once. It's easier than picking up a few leaves every day. 
    There is nothing mysterious about ficus trees. They don't like to be moved. They don't like dry soil. They prefer more light rather than less. They thrive outside in direct sun, but they will survive indoors with a minimum of bright indirect sun all day long. That is a wide range of light to which they can adapt. In general, give them as much light as possible, but avoid moving them unless you are willing to deal with a lot of leaf shedding.

Ficus trees are finicky, but very tough to kill

When given adequate light and proper water, weeping figs will live longer than any other indoor plant. They can survive bouts of occasional over or under watering. They don't need misting or high humidity and they can survive all indoor temperature extremes, including cold drafts. Although sudden environmental changes will cause ficus trees to shed leaves for a while, be patient because this is temporary and the ficus tree will recover nicely.

How to Prune A Ficus Tree

Healthy ficus trees are wonderful to prune, once you overcome your initial hesitancy, because you really can't go wrong. They put out new growth soon enough that they quickly cover over any mistaken cuts. Just trust that the new growth will come in after you do your pruning. With experience you can learn to shape them as you see fit. 
Generally, ficus trees respond well to regular and even heavy pruning. You should routinely prune out all of the dead twigs and weak growth in the center of the tree and also prune some outer growth as well. Keep in mind that new growth always emerges at the ends of healthy stems and branches.

Here are three pruning approaches to use.

  • Remove up to one third of the outer growth on all the stems and branches. This will shrink the overall canopy of the tree by one third. This approach will yield a smaller and fuller ficus tree. It is great for ficus trees that have outgrown their space.

  • Selectively prune back up to one third of the longest individual stems and branches into the center of the tree. This will open up the center portion to more light. The cut back stems will now produce new growth and fill in the sparse center area. When done regularly, this technique will maintain the existing size of the tree without making the pruning obvious.

  • Combine the first two. 
    Pruning ficus trees is as much art as it is science - like cutting hair. Try to visualize how your tree will look with certain branches cut back and also how it will look as the new growth comes in. I have successfully pruned back ficus trees enough that there was not a single leaf remaining. In time I had a beautiful tree with all new growth. Plunge in and have fun!

Moving Your Ficus Outside

If your ficus is doing reasonably well indoors, then you should leave it there. Here's why. Ficus leaves are very sensitive to even subtle changes in light. Moving your ficus from indoors to outdoors is a dramatic change in light that puts it under considerable stress. Old leaves fall off and are replaced with healthy new growth. Ficus trees are tough plants that thrive in direct sunlight. By the end of the summer, an outdoor ficus will probably look good again (provided you water it heavily). However, you will have to move it back inside in the late fall and it will have to readjust to the dramatically lower light all over again. You will spend most of the winter picking up fallen ficus leaves. I recommend against this because most people do not want to look at a declining tree for 6+ months every year. If you are prepared to accept that, then go ahead and move it outside for the summer. 
If you have lots of direct light inside, then the winter adjustment process will not be as severe. Yet, in that circumstance, there is no benefit to moving it outside in the first place because it gets enough light inside. 
It is preferable to find a permanent location for your ficus with lots of direct or bright indirect light and leave it there. It will reward you by stabilizing and not constantly dropping leaves.

Repotting Ficus Trees

Ficus trees can manage quite well even when potbound, provided they get enough water. Really saturate the soil when you water, allowing the ficus to sit in the excess water for an hour or so to wick it up. If the soil stays damp for several days or more, then I would advise against repotting. If it dries out again in a day or two, then repotting is probably warranted. If so, use a pot one size larger, usually 1 or 2 inches wider at the top. 
You may observe roots growing out of the drainage holes of your ficus pot. In most cases you can simply cut off these roots where they emerge from the pot. These are tough plants and it will not harm them. I always prefer to do less rather than more, but if you still want to repot, read on. 
Repotting a large ficus tree is a big project requiring at least one extra pair of hands to help with the lifting. I recommend root pruning and returning the plant to its original pot. After you have removed your ficus from its pot, use a long sharp knife (a machete is ideal) to slice off approximately an inch of rootball all around the sides and bottom. Put an inch or so of fresh soil in the bottom of the pot, place the root-pruned ficus back into the pot, and fill in the sides of the pot with fresh soil.

Unexpected Leaf Drop

Sometimes a well-established ficus tree that has not been moved in a year or more will experience a sudden spurt of inexplicable leaf loss. The leaf drop seems to occur after a prolonged period of sustained growth. At some point, a ficus has as many leaves as it can support in the available light, i.e. it is maxxed out. It continues to grow and put out new foliage at the end of its branches, but it now has to sacrifice some of the older leaves to survive. This phenomenon usually occurs in the winter months when the day length is shorter. The best thing you can do in this circumstance is to prune your ficus back as much as you can stand. This will curtail the leaf drop and help keep your tree full and bushy in its center.

Ficus Pests

Scale insects and mealybugs are the most common ficus pests. Often they go undetected until the owner notices stickiness on the leaves and on furnishings under the tree. The best treatment is a silicon plant cleaner called Brand X. Horticultural and neem oil sprays are also effective. Insecticidal soap sprays and many pesticides often cause increased leaf drop. Never spray ficus trees when they are exposed to direct sunlight or high temperatures. 

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