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Fiddle-leaf fig (Ficus lyrata): Home

Young Ficus lyrata in bright room conditions; photo courtesy of Flickr cc/Emily May
If windows are high, keep fiddle-leaf fig on a stand so that all the leaves can enjoy bright, indirect sunlight; photo courtesy of Flickr cc/ Emily May

Fiddle-leaf fig (Ficus lyrata)

An important factor in determining the suitability of a plant to your home and envisioning the care it will need, is to know the origin of the plant. A member of the fig family, Ficus lyrata is native to West Africa where it grows in lowland, tropical rainforests and becomes a strong tree, up to 40 feet tall.

The plants that we grow in our home are immature and in their place of origin would be growing under the natural protection of a leafy, tropical canopy of mature trees. As a houseplant, they need strong light but protection from the sun's direct rays. A consistent and stable environment, watering restraint and some humidity are the other components of success with this striking but sometimes fussy houseplant. Other ornamental Ficus plants, like Ficus benjamina (weeping fig) and Ficus elastica (rubber plant), need similar care.

Light:

Your fiddle-leaf fig tree needs to be in the brightest room in your home but just far enough from the window that the sun's direct rays do not touch it. A shear curtain between the window and the plant will also give it the protection it needs. Take care with position so that all branches, high and low, have access to light and move objects that obstruct them. You may need to keep your plant on a stand if windows are high and light doesn't reach the lower leaves. Turn the tree a quarter turn every time you water so that all sides receive equal light and a balanced shape is maintained.

Water and Humidity:

Too much water is among the most frequent causes of fig failure. Water thoroughly, allowing the water to run from the bottom of the pot and check back after 15 minutes to remove any water sitting in the plant's run-off dish.

Wait until the top two inches of soil feel dry before watering again, or until a soil moisture meter inserted near the roots says almost dry.  In its native habitat, the soil drains very quickly and the roots of your ficus will rot easily if over-watered. In the low-light conditions of winter (October through February), your plant may take up water more slowly than during the active growing season. Look out for this change and adjust your watering routine to suit the conditions.

Your plant needs humidity year round which can be complicated by the challenges of drying winter indoor heat and summer air conditioning. If you can keep the humidity above 40%, that will be enough to prevent brown leaf tips. Stand the plant on a tray of wet pebbles during months of home dryness. If you would like to check whether you are providing enough humidity, you can buy a simple hygrometer (water vapor meter) to keep near your plant.

If you have outdoor space and live in a climate of humid summers, bring your plant outdoors in the warmest weather. Avoid the direct, burning sunlight and keep a careful eye on the increased water requirements outdoors. Your plant's enhanced vigor will reward you!

Temperature and Air Circulation:

Steady household room temperatures, in the range of 65 to 75ºF., with good air circulation are needed. Fiddle-leaf fig is very sensitive to temperature changes and reacts by dropping leaves. Your plant will experience shock if you allow the heat to rise or fall more than usual while you are away from your home and you may return to find leaves on the floor around the plant. It may also have trouble acclimatizing after a trip home from the consistent, gentle warmth of the plant nursery, particularly if the weather is quite hot or cold.

In winter, temperatures can be lowered slightly, to around 65ºF, but make the change gradually.

Protect it from all drafts; shifts in its environment from air conditioning vents, open windows, open doors and heat vents are all poorly tolerated.

Re-potting:

Fiddle-leaf fig plants like to be slightly root-bound and can stay in the same pot for several years. When lots of roots appear above the soil line or through the drain hole, move up just one pot size in the spring.  The pot should still seem to be a bit tight. A conventional, soil-based potting mixture with some added perlite for good drainage is best.  Your pot must have a draining hole at its bottom.

Many fig problems start with keeping the plant in a decorative container without a drain hole. You can insert a plastic pot with a drain hole inside of a decorative, non-draining container as long as you remove the interior pot when you water and allow the soil to drain completely before replacing your ficus in the decorative container.

Nutrition:

Feed in spring and summer only, with a balanced organic fertilizer, used every other week, at half strength. Over-feeding can cause leaves to drop.

Plant Hygiene:

The large leaves need to be wiped regularly with a damp cloth. Without this care, the accumulating dust interferes with photosynthesis and your plant will behave as though it is getting too little light. Do not use polishes or oils which will build up on the leaves and create more of a light block. Be very gentle, supporting the leaf as you wipe, particularly with young leaves which are easily damaged by touch. Dusting will also help reduce the incidence of mites.

Pruning:

Remove dead leaves at any time. Prune for shape in the spring, if desired. Cut back leggy branches to a node to rebalance the tree. If the plant is developing long, drooping limbs with leaves far apart, it is getting too little light.

What to Watch for:

Loss of lower leaves is to some extent natural. These are your tree's oldest leaves and will yellow and drop with age. If a lot of lower leaves are dropping at once, it could be the start of a more serious problem or loss of vigor. Make sure that you are feeding the plant as recommended - not too much or too little. Keep your plant in a position that allows the lower leaves to receive light; moving obstructing objects or raising the plant on a plant stand can help.

Sudden dropping leaves are the language of distress for your ficus and it is telling you that something is wrong in its environment. Has the temperature risen or fallen outside the usual steady range, even briefly, in its micro-environment in your home? Has it been exposed to a warm or cool draft from a heat source, air conditioner, trip home from the nursery, door or window? Has there been a seasonal change but the watering schedule hasn't been adjusted to reflect new rates of water uptake? Is the watering routine irregular? Is water draining properly and the run-off being removed? Is it begging you for more light to reach all or some of its leaves?  In some cases, like roots that have rotted from overwatering, the damage may not be repairable. For more minor issues, review the proper care steps above and make necessary changes to gradually restore your plant's health.

Raised, white dots on leaves that do not wipe off are common cell structures on ficus leaves. They are most frequently observed on Ficus elastica but may be present on Ficus lyrata. These are lithocysts which are large cells that protrude from an interior layer of the leaf onto its surface and contain a mineral deposit called a cystolith (cell rock).  They are believed to enhance photosynthesis efficiency by improving light absorption, though there are other theories about their function. They are a natural occurrence and nothing to worry about.

New leaves with tiny red or brown spots usually indicates that the soil is staying too moist. The spots are ruptured leaf cells and do not damage the plant if you correct your watering quickly.  Make sure that your plant is being watered using the technique described above. Your plant needs to be in a container with a drain hole at the bottom and the runoff water should be emptied after watering. The correct fast-draining soil is important. A soil moisture meter inserted near the roots is helpful to ensure that you are not over-watering while you establish a routine.

Brown edges on leaves frequently indicate a lack of adequate air humidity. If you can keep the humidity above 40%, that will be enough to prevent brown leaf tips. Stand the plant on a tray of wet pebbles during months of home dryness. If you would like to check whether you are providing enough humidity, you can buy a simple hygrometer (water vapor meter) to keep near your plant.

Brown leaf spots can occur for a number of reasons. Leaves can burn in spots if exposed to direct sunlight. Lower leaves that don't receive enough light may also turn brown in spots. Soft, light colored spots surrounding leaf veins, becoming brown, indicate too much water in the soil, from over-watering or poor drainage. Under- or irregular watering also creates crisp, brown spots on leaves. Fungal and bacterial diseases can create leaf spots, though the appearance of a disease is frequently related to a plant that is stressed from a different problem in its growing conditions or care.

Leggy or unstable growth indicates inadequate light. The entire plant may grow tall and weak, with a frail trunk. Leaves may be spaced far apart on long branches or  this may happen only to the lower branches if they are  blocked from sunlight. Keep leaves dust-free. Prune leggy branches to a node in the spring and move your plant to a location with brighter, indirect light.

Soil that resists hydration  is not uncommon. It begins with the soil being watered incompletely and then drying more than it should. After that it can become hydrophobic and repel water. To force the soil to rehydrate, water from the bottom. For a sizeable tree, place the pot into a tub or bucket of tepid water and allow the water to be absorbed up through the drain hole. There will be so much air in the soil at first that the pot will float and you will have to hold it down. Once the air bubbles stop rising, it means that water has saturated the soil and you can remove the pot. Let it drain into its run-off dish and then empty the run-off water. Once your soil has been reconditioned, you should be able to follow the standard watering technique described above. Thoroughly hydrating should be easier going forward.

The plants that we grow in our home are immature. This is a mature ficus outdoors in Hawaii; Photo courtesy of Flickr cc/ Wendy Cutler
The plants that we grow in our home are immature and the full grown trees reach up to 40 feet; photo courtesy of Flickr cc/ Wendy Cutler

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