Weeping fig drops leaves, but have no fear

Home & Garden

November 06, 2005|By NANCY O'DONNELL | NANCY O'DONNELL,ALBANY (N.Y.) TIMES UNION

Ficus benjamina, alias weeping fig, is considered a top contender in the houseplant category for first-place favorite in the hearts of indoor gardeners. Many agree they are one of the finest houseplants available. Others, though, want to strangle their tree right about now because of its incessant leaf drop. That, folks, is where this plant gets its common name, "weeping fig," from, but believe me, leaf drop is a minor inconvenience when you weigh the plant's virtues.

A shirttail cousin of the edible fig (although this houseplant bears no fruit), it's actually a member of the rubber tree family and native to sub-tropical regions like the Philippines, India and the south Pacific.

The weeping fig is tall with light tan-colored trunk and shiny dark green, roughly 2-inch leaves that resemble a birch leaf. But fear not, you don't need an atrium-sized room to accommodate this beauty. Yes, given optimum light they can reach stately heights, so for those of you with large skylights and tall ceilings, they'll indeed serve as a fine specimen houseplant.

For the rest of us, with typical ceilings and less light, they will peak at around 6 feet tall and be content there for the rest of their days.

If you have never grown one before, I highly recommend starting with a smaller version and letting it mature in your home. This just makes transporting easier, because the larger the plant the heavier the root ball. Once home, place it where you plan to keep it; the beauty of these plants is that they don't require full sun, which is something most homes can't provide anyway. Bright light from an east window or indirect light across the room from a western or southern window works perfectly.

Now, here's where your patience comes in. This plant does not accept change well, to say the least. The main cause of leaf drop is the plant's response to a new lighting condition. When the plant comes from a location of bright light, such as a greenhouse or a summer vacation in the great outdoors, its leaves develop a thicker surface layer; they do this to protect the internal layers of the leaf from an overabundance of sunlight.

When relocated to a lower light situation, this thicker leaf no longer has a purpose. In fact, the exact opposite is true: The plant now needs to compensate for a lower amount of light, so it must shed the thicker leaves for new, thinner leaves.

It's not until leaf thickness and acclimation to the new amount of daylight come into balance that the shedding will cease, and this can take months. As a matter of fact, in its native lands, a weeping fig is an evergreen tree and just like the pines outside right now, there will be no leaf/needle drop until Mother Nature begins a new and improved model to take its place. Look carefully at the branch tips of a weeping fig and you will notice tiny new leaves beginning to break. These will have the much needed thinner surface.

It's important to keep the plant in one spot, so it can acclimate to the light level. Remember, every time you move it, it must readjust, which means more leaves must drop. After a while, there will be too few leaves remaining for the plant to successfully carry on photosynthesis; this is the most common cause of premature death.

Other than that, they are pretty easy to grow. Keep the soil consistently moist but not wet; allow the top 3 to 4 inches of soil to dry out before watering. When you water, it's important you do so thoroughly, so it drains out the bottom holes, ensuring that the entire root ball receives moisture. Empty the saucer once it finishes draining, as it despises "wet feet."

Nancy O'Donnell writes about gardening for the Albany (N.Y.) Times Union.

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