Ficus is a genus of about 850 species in the mulberry or fig family, Moraceae. They are tropical trees with just a few temperate species, one of which being the common fig, or the edible fruit in Fig Newtons! Some species within the Ficus genus are are trees, while others are shrubs or even vines! Quite a few ficus are found in the houseplant trade, such as Ficus lyrata, Ficus altissima, Ficus benjamina, Ficus quercifolia, Ficus elastica, Ficus pumila, and many more! The ficus sold as houseplants all have very similar care, so while this care sheet may not be applicable to the temperate species of fig or Ficus carica, the fruit tree, but if you just brought home a ficus, or perhaps are wondering if a ficus is right for the space you are trying to fill in your home, this care sheet will help!
Ficus need bright light in order to thrive. Depending on their growing conditions beforehand, they may be able to tolerate full sun immediately, but giving them slow adjustments will always be the safest bet. If you move a plant that is used to dimmer conditions straight out into full sun without protection in the form of shade, the plants will get sunburn. Sunburn looks like brown spots on the leaves where the sun hit them the most and will not heal. Slowly giving them more light over the course of a few weeks will mitigate this risk. It is important to not that not every species if ficus can tolerate full sun, but most, if not all species of ficus in available in cultivation need bright light to thrive. Plants that don't receive enough light will lean toward the light and the space between the leaves will lengthen. The process of plants becoming leggy and leaning toward the light is called etiolation. If you notice your plant showing signs of too little light, but there is not a brighter location in your home to move it to, you can set up grow lights. Grow lights carry the same risk of sunburn as the sun does, so it is important to be sure they are mounted far enough away from the plant. Every grow light manufacturer is different, so it is best to follow the recommendation on the packaging. Most lights suggest being mounted 12-18 inches away from the highest point of the plant.
Ficus follow what I like to call "generic houseplant care." This means they follow the same watering requirements as most other houseplants. Many short directions, like those found on pot tags, will often say something along the lines of "allow to dry between watering." What is really ideal for these plants is to allow the soil in the pots to dry about 50-75% before watering again. When it is time to water, be sure to saturate the soil entirely. While this may sound like over watering to some, but over watering is the frequency at which the water is added, not the quantity. It doesn't mattter if you water from the top or the bottom, so long as the soil is fully wet when you are finished and excess water discarded. If watering from the top, this looks like adding water until the excess drains away through the holes in the bottom of the pot. If watering from the bottom, this means including enough water in the tray to fully saturate the soil, until the surface appears or feels damp, as well. This could mean adding water halfway through the soaking process. This could take anywhere from minutes to hours, depending on the size of the pot.
Ficus do well in most average, high quality potting soils. They need the rich, well draining soil that is provided by most potting soil brands. Soil that drains faster and more thoroughly will need to be watered more frequently than others. It is possible to get them to thrive in chunky soils, but should you choose a chunkier mix for these plants, they will become higher maintenance plants.
Ficus can be more finicky houseplants, great for a moderately experienced plant grower. While they aren't as disease or pest resistant as some of the other common and beginner friendly houseplants, ficus are a wonderful plant that, once you get the hang of their care, they grow quickly and thrive. These are some of the most common problems to look out for and how to deal with them.
This is possibly the most common symptom that you hear about with ficus. Leaf drop often manifests as leaves falling off of the plant in various locations without the leaves appearing to yellow or otherwise look unhealthy beforehand. This is a sign of allowing your ficus to dry just a little too much. Ficus will drop their leaves like this in an effort to conserve water. While the leaves are important for the process of photosynthesis, their often broad leaves lose a lot of water during this process. Sometimes your ficus will look fine until it is jostled, then potentially many leaves will fall at once. Watering more often will help the plant to grow more leaves back and prevent the further loss of existing leaves.
Mealybugs are a white, sap-sucking insect that produces honeydew that can lead to sooty mildew. They often hide on the underside of leaves and in tight crevices of new growth. They are easily treated with pesticides, an alcohol mixture, or beneficial insects. For more information on how to identify and treat mealybugs, check out the blog post titled Mealybugs and How to Deal with Them.
Brown Circles on the Leaves
If the brown circles on the leaves are perfect circles, this is a sign that there is a fungal infection. This is often caused by watering the foliage while you are watering the rest of the plant, or when the plant is located in an area with too low of ventilation for a prolonged period of time. The circles will often have a “bullseye” appearance, though this is not always present. It is best if the plants are treated with a systemic fungicide. The brown circles will not heal, but if they are not spreading, this is a good sign. Removing the affected leaf or leaves will not necessarily remove the entire infection, but it is still a good practice.
Older Leaves Yellowing and Falling
Yellowing leaves are common in healthy and unhealthy plants alike. Old leaves on the bottom of the plant will tend to yellow and die. In healthy plants, they will only yellow a few leaves at a time and the rest of the plant will look healthy. This isn't a cause for worry! Just like you can't keep every hair on your head, plants can't keep every leaf they make.
Scale is a type of sap-sucking insect. The common name scale comprises about 8,000 different species. They look like brown lumps along stems and often on the undersides of leaves. Sometimes they are overlooked before the infestation gets out of control. Their camouflage often makes them look like a leaf scar, or the area where a leaf was before falling off. They're often found on new growth. Because they have a hard shield covering them, many of the methods that control mealybugs are not effective, despite them both technically being scale insects. Soft bodied scale can be controlled via rubbing alcohol, though this will not effect hard bodied scale. They should be physically removed and crushed as you do so. Systemic pesticides will kill any that are not physically removed. If you prefer to avoid the use of pesticides, Aphytis melinus, and Lindorus lophanthae are to beneficial insects that will target scale for control.
Though ficus are not always a top recommendation for those only just starting out on their plant journey, they are a wonderfully rewarding plant once you get the hang of them! The most important part to remember to make sure your ficus keeps its leaves and continues to brighten up your room is to water consistently. That is the biggest and most common issue with new and old ficus growers alike. As always, if you have any questions or are worried about your plant in any way, send me some photos of your plant and a brief description of how you have been taking care of it to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will be able to help!