by Joelle Steele

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Ficus trees are very popular indoor plants. The rubber plants and fig trees are characterized by their milky sap, fibrous root systems, and durable nature. The most common varieties originate from West Africa, India, and Malaya: Ficus benjamina (Weeping Fig), F. elastica decora (Rubber Plant), F. elastica variegata (Variegated Rubber Plant), F. lyrata or F. pandurata (Fiddleleaf Fig), and F. retusa nitida (Indian Laurel).

Ficus trees with small leaves (benjies and nitidas) can tolerate the most light (from 50fc up to 500fc or more) without damage to the foliage once they are properly acclimated indoors. The elasticas tolerate the lowest light levels (30fc) but will exhibit more robust growth at levels of 100fc or more. The lyrata's leaves may burn if exposed to direct, hot sunlight, and therefore, they should receive only filtered light from about 50fc to 200fc.


Leaf loss on benjaminas and nitidas is usually due to improper watering or changes in light intensity. Overwatering results in the loss of newer green leaves, while underwatering causes the older leaves to turn yellow, sometimes brown, and then abscise (drop off). With light reduction, particularly when the trees have not been fully acclimated by the grower, the inner leaves may turn yellow and abscise as well. If light is increased, especially with an accompanying increase in temperature, there may be some leaf loss, but this is usually more as a result of the increased need for water due to the heat rather than the change in light itself.

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Elasticas are the sturdiest of ficus trees, and in light levels of 90fc or more they exhibit remarkable growth. To keep their growth even you should rotate the plant 45 degrees every two to three weeks during spring and summer. Their leaves tend to abscise if they are overwatered, and older leaves turn yellow when they are underwatered. But, on the whole, they are fairly tolerant of irregular watering practices.


Lyratas, with their large fiddle-shaped leaves and thin woody stems, can exhibit a variety of exotic shapes, most notably in their mature forms at heights of 8' or more. They are quite hardy and can tolerate drafts and underwatering better than other varieties of ficus.


The root systems on most ficus trees are very fibrous and can become more so if they are repeatedly subjected to prolonged water stress. When this happens, their fine roots encircle the bottom of the pot and sometimes protrude through the drainage holes. If the plant is being transplanted, these fine roots can be carefully trimmed so that the tree can be replanted into the same container with fresh soil rather than potting up a size.


Ficus trees are fairly resistant to most pests and diseases if they are not subject to water stress. Mites are the worst pest with thrips running a close second, and, of course, these pests are worse during the warm seasons. Also, lyratas can be devastated by mealybug. Check your plants very carefully for the first signs of these creatures so that you can more easily eradicate them before they do any extensive damage or spread to your other plants.

Ficus trees are susceptible to a variety of diseases, most of which are highly contagious to other plants, and for which there is no known "sure cure." If you see pustules or ascocarps (globe-shaped spore sacs) on the stems or leaves, brown leaf spots with concentric rings, edema-like swellings on the undersurface of the leaves, red or brown leaf lesions, etc., and if those infected leaves eventually die and other leaves start to exhibit the same symptoms, these plants should be removed and disposed of immediately before they can infect your other plants.

You can avoid many diseases and pest problems by being very selective about where and how you purchase your plants. Examine the foliage carefully and look at the soil and container as well. It also doesn't hurt to look at the surrounding plants in a nursery or garden center to see how they look. If there are a lot of dead leaves in the base of the plant, if it looks droopy or wilted, it's not a bargain at any price. It pays to shop around and pay a little more to get a strong, healthy, plant.


Regular pruning will promote a pleasing growth pattern. Never prune in fall or winter or you will be faced with a plant that looks "newly pruned" for months to come. Late spring or early summer are good times to prune. Remember to clean your clippers or scissors with alcohol after each plant you trim to prevent the spread of diseases or insects.

This article last updated: 04/08/1989.