Ficus – Weeping Fig (F. benjamina), Rubber Plant (F. elastica)

Native to Malaysia, where it might grow to a height of 50 feet (15 metres), Ficus (F. benjamina), known as Java, weeping fig, or tropic laurel, is a small, graceful tree that is increasing in popularity as a specimen plant for the modern home.  When young, the weeping fig can be useful in mixed plantings, as it grows the weeping, tree-like appearance becomes more and more pronounced.  Related to the edible fig, Ficus does not bear fruit, it does, however, make a beautiful display for an indoor plant.  Ficus benjamina has 2-4 inch (5-10 cm), shiny, pointed leaves that tolerate low humidity well, one of the reasons it is so popular as a houseplant.  When young the leaves are apple green but turn darker with age.  There are a number of variegated varieties of Ficus benjamina including F.b. ‘Variegata’ and F.b. ‘Starlight.’

The best-known indoor Ficus (F. elastica ‘Decora’) or Rubber Plant as it is commonly known, has dark green oval-oblong leaves up to 15 inches (38 cm) long that stand at a 45° angle to the main stem.  The leaves have prominent midribs and the central stem tends to grow straight without branching or producing side-shoots.  Branching can be induced by cutting off the growing point.  F. elastica ‘Decora’ has a number of variegated-leaved forms including F.e. ‘Tricolor’ and F.e. ‘Schrijvereana.’

   In the home environment, Ficus can easily be kept to a height of 6 feet (1.83 m) or allowed to grow to ceiling height.  Ficus commonly lose their leaves for 3 reasons: (a) adapting to a new environment, (b) over/under watering, and (c) insects.

Proper Care

Light  Most of the Ficus do welleither in medium light or in a position where they get some sun each day.  The kinds with plain green foliage tolerate more shade than do the variegated ones such as F. benjamina Variegata’ or F. benjamina ‘Starlight.’  The variegated foliage Ficus must have a few hours of bright light each day or the leaves will be unlikely to retain their colouring and sharp contrasts.

Temperature  Most Ficus do well in normally warm temperatures. 

Watering  Water plants when the top half of the soil has dried-out.  Soil for both plants tends to dry out, but don’t overcompensate by watering too much.  Over-watering will cause the lower leaves to yellow and fall off.

Propagation  Plants are easy to start from semi-hardwood cuttings taken between May and July.  Ficus benjamina is one of the best plants for bonsai as it is very easy to wire and shape.  

Potting/re-potting. The plants like to be pot bound, and their size can be controlled by root pruning them and putting them back into the same pot. Stems can also be cut back to the desired height and will produce new, compact growth.

Feeding  Feed both plants regularly except in the fall and winter, and wash the leaves with warm water.

Special Problems

Sudden loss of leaves. Weeping fig.  The most likely cause is too little light or movement of the plant from one environment to another.  Rubber plant usually drops its leaves because of over-watering.  Other causes may be draughts, low winter temperatures, too little light, or too much fertiliser.

Bottom leaf drop.  Tree types often have their bottom leaves turn yellow and drop off due to age.  This is a natural process and some Ficus will become leggy after a few years.  When buying plants, look for pots with several stems planted in the pots.  You can also prune back the branches to force new growth.

   Ficus plants tend to become dusty overtime.  Spray leaves with water or wash leaves gently with a damp cloth.  When sponging off leaves of F. elastica, use one hand to support each leaf so as not to put too much strain on the stalk.