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Ficus benjamina (& most other commonly grown tropical Ficus)

posted by: tapla on 08.03.2005 at 10:42 pm in House Plants Forum

I conducted a bonsai workshop for a club last year or the year before using Ficus benjamina "Too Little" as the material. I wrote this as a hand-out to the participants. There are soo many here that grow this species (and other Ficus), that I thought I'd post this:

From the family: Moracea (relative of mulberry)

Native: India, other tropical - subtropical regions

Ficus benjamina is one of the species of Ficus commonly referred to as a strangler fig. It often begins its life in the crotch of a tree, or on a branch as a seed deposited in the droppings of an animal. After germination and as it grows, it does not actually parasitize the host plant, but uses it as support while it produces thin aerial roots that dangle or attach themselves to the host trunk, gaining nutrients and moisture from the air, leaf litter, and the bark of the host. This relationship is termed epiphytic, or the tree an epiphyte. Those familiar with the culture of orchids and bromeliads will recognize this term. When the aerial roots reach the ground, the tree begins a tremendous growth spurt, sending out more and more roots and a canopy that eventually shades out the host at the same time the roots compete for nutrients in the soil and compress the trunk and branches of the host to the point of stopping sap flow. Eventually all that is left where the host tree once stood, is a hollow cavity in the dangling roots that have now become the trunk of the Ficus. It is easy to see how many of the trees in the genus have come by the name strangler figs. The roots of some species are so powerful they can destroy concrete buildings or buckle roads and can be measured in miles, as they extend in search of water.

The Ficus genus, with more than 800 known species, is undoubtedly the number one choice as a subject for indoor tree culture. It tolerates the "dryer than desert" conditions actually found in many or most centrally heated homes reasonably well. Benjaminas fairly thick and leathery leaves, with a waxy cuticle, help to limit moisture loss, although it much prefers humidity levels well above 50%. Its preferred temperature range is from 60 degrees f. to near 100 degrees. It should be noted; however, that extended exposure above temperatures in the mid 90s will slow or stop growth, and below the recommended limit, the tree will decline slowly, with the damage and loss of vitality being very subtle and probably not apparent until later, when the cause may well be forgotten.

The number one cause of Ficus decline and subsequent death is without question over-watering. When we consider the young tree and its ability to obtain sufficient moisture from the air and bark surface of the host, we can extract the very important lesson: My Ficus will not tolerate wet roots!; or wet roots = rotted roots. Ficus b. will tolerate very dry soil, well. Allowing the soil to completely dry; however, will result in leaf loss and undue stress. I have grown various cultivars of Ficus b. for many years and usually check my trees twice daily when they are putting on new growth. I have found that waiting until emerging or new leaves lose turgidity and just begin to wilt, is the best time to water. If you feel the new leaves often, you will soon be able to tell when wilting is about to start and can water accordingly. (This might be a little too risky for the casual grower, especially in the summer heat/sun) I never water my Ficus with cold water. I allow tap water to set overnight to help dissipate the chlorine and come to room temperature before using. In summer I do the same or use water from the hose that has been warmed by the sun.

The roots of Ficus are very vigorous and the tree will concentrate much of its growth potential on root development. A quick review of the growth nature, particularly how the tree is programmed to develop the all important first aerial roots, serves to reinforce this assertion. When in pot culture, development of trunk and branches will lag root development substantially until the container has been well-colonized by the roots. Ficus b. does not mind being pot-bound and can thrive with a root to soil ratio approaching 90 /10. In bonsai culture such ratios are not realistic and can create watering problems, not to mention aesthetic considerations. I am not advocating you maintain this ratio, but this knowledge can be a useful tool in deciding when a repot is in order or in answering the question: "Why are my trees trunk and branches developing so slowly?".

Ficus roots need air. Again, returning to the epiphytic nature of the tree, we see the roots of the young tree thrive in just air. For this reason, we should always use a soil mix with large particles, still in relation to the size of the tree, but perhaps larger than you might normally use. Soil particle size must be balanced with the amount of time you can spend on the trees needs. Large soil particle size = healthier tree, but there is a qualifier: you must be prepared to water more frequently as particle size increases. I have not tried this method, (no need, as I always row in a highly aerated soil mix) but I have read that you may aerate the soil of potted Ficus by inserting chopsticks and rotating to create air pockets. It makes good sense, and because of the vigorous nature of the roots, I believe the practice would present little danger if some slight wounding of roots should occur.

The ideal time to repot a Ficus, in our area, is from July 4th to the first week of August, but I have repotted them at all times of the year in emergencies with ill effect limited to the tree sulking for extended periods. Repot during the hottest months to minimize recovery time. Bottom heat, such as a propagation mat, along with high light levels will fractionalize recovery time after a root prune and repot.

The light requirements of Ficus in general varies little by species, but a good generalization might be; that although most Ficus begin life as an understory tree and are generally fairly shade tolerant, they actually spend their life striving to reach the canopy where they find full sun. For this reason we should give Ficus all the sun they will tolerate. I grow all varieties of Ficus in full sun, although I am as yet unsure of how much sun Ficus b. "Midnight" will tolerate. (Since writing this, I have grown two plantings of "midnight" in full sun for two summer growing seasons.) I have often read that Ficus defoliates at the slightest change in light level or temperature. I have found this to be only partly true. Any trees I have moved from a location with a lower light level to a brighter location have not suffered leaf drop (abscission). If the change is reversed (from bright to dim) leaf loss is probable. It might be interesting to note that trees that are being grown out, or allowed to grow wild (unpruned)are most likely to suffer loss of interior leaves when light levels are reduced. Trees in bonsai culture, where thinning has occurred to allow more light to the trees interior are less affected. Indoor supplemental lighting is a broad subject, but if you have the ability to provide it, your trees will definitely show their appreciation. Brighter light = smaller leaf size, shorter internodes. and superior ramification, not to mention a marked increase in overall mass. Concerning leaf loss due to temperature fluctuations: It should be noted even fairly short exposure to cold drafts will cause leaves to fall. The cool temperatures trigger an increase in abscissic acid, a growth regulator (hormone) that plays a major role in leaf loss. It follows then that it is prudent to select a location free from cold breezes.

Most Ficus b. have a fairly large leaf, but respond well to the bonsai leaf reduction techniques of properly limiting water and nutrients. Complete defoliation is a useful tool in reducing leaf size and improving ramification and is superior to the practice of removing only apical meristems, but does cause more stress to the tree and slows development. It should be considered only after the tree has reached good development and only then on trees in good health, growing vigorously and in need of leaf reduction. Branch pruning should be undertaken after 5 or 6 leaves have formed . You can then cut back to 2 leaves.

Ficus b. is suitable for most bonsai styles, although I cannot imagine it as a literati. Since they air layer so easily, a very nice bonsai can be started by buying a standard type tree at a nursery or discount store, then air layering the top. Ive seen plants with larger than 2 inch trunks for around $20. Air layered trees will exhibit more basal flare and more even roots than those grown from cuttings. Pot selection can be important. Shallow pots will also encourage basal flare. Always select pots that will drain well.

Fertilizer recommendations vary depending on the trees state of development. Since I am able to maintain high light levels in my indoor growing area, I am able to use a hi-nitrogen fertilizer all year. A more balanced blend of soluble 20-20-20 might be a choice for good light conditions indoors, but only when the tree is actively putting on growth. A torpid tree, or one that is weak, should not be fertilized. Wait instead, until the tree shows signs of new growth. In most winter indoor settings without supplemental lighting in zones 7 & below, Nitrogen would best be eliminated or greatly reduced in winter. N applications under low light conditions consistently produces weak growth with long internodes. Use something like a soluble 0-10-10 instead.

Ficus trees can suffer from some pests. Most common are scale, followed closely by mites, then mealies. I have always had good luck with neem oil as both a preventative and fixative. Scale and mealies can be picked by hand, and a 50/50 rubbing alcohol/water spritz with a few drops of dishsoap will kill them in the crawler stage as well. Malathion and Isotox should not be used on any Ficus (severe damage or death), and if root mealies are the problem, a systemic insecticide is in order. (follow your personal feelings)I have not had to combat soil insects, but neem oil, used as a soil drench, should be effective here as well.

Ficus leaves can tell you much about the condition of your tree. I will close with a little chart of how leaves often respond to some common problems:

stunted, black, or deformed buds..................................................................need more light

limp leaves...........................................................................................................need water

buds fall off................................................................................too much water or too cold

leaves turn pale green, then yellow...................................................severely under-watered

yellow leaves..............................................................................dry roots, needs more light

falling green leaves..........................................................too much water, insufficient light

pale leaves.....................................................................................................needs fertilizer

yellow leaves with green veins......................................................................iron deficiency

brown or transparent spots...........fertilizer burns (flush soil, allow to dry before watering)

mottled yellow color.....................................................................................pest infestation

Al Fassezke

NOTES:

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clipped on: 10.03.2007 at 02:47 pm    last updated on: 10.03.2007 at 02:48 pm

First Time Plant Owner Brand New Ficus Tree

posted by: ficusfellow on 10.02.2007 at 11:29 am in House Plants Forum

Greetings,

Just yesterday I purchased a beautiful 6ft tall Ficus Benjamina tree. It is currently in a plastic pot, but I have also purchased a 16 inch clay pot to re-pot it with. My question (s) is/are... should I re-pot it immediately? I have never owned a plant before, and I am thirty years old! But it really seems like it would like my nice large clay pot over the tiny plastic one that it is in... But I have no idea how to re-pot it, how much water to use, and what to do with the tiny stones I have purchased...

Is there possibly a book I should buy, or a good website with step by step instructions? I really don't want to kill this beautiful new tree... I am so excited to get good at taking care of it, I just don't know where to start. But somebody told me not to re-pot it right away and now I'm confused. I bought it at home depot, by the way, and the poor thing was so squished.

Thanks!

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clipped on: 10.03.2007 at 02:39 pm    last updated on: 10.03.2007 at 02:39 pm

RE: Where can I get glass balls like shown in Allison's picture - (Follow-Up #29)

posted by: allison0704 on 06.01.2007 at 05:55 pm in Home Decorating Forum

Thanks, Mari. It's an ivory travertine in the Versailles pattern. We used a sealer but not an enhancer on the stone. It runs from the garage hallway into the laundry room, kitchen, pantry, powder room, breakfast area and sunroom. We also used it in the main level bathrooms on the floor and on the shower walls (used the largest rectangle only).

It's a great floor - easy to keep clean. Doesn't show dirt/dog/cat hair like you think it would.

Here's a link with a wider view.

Here is a link that might be useful: Flooring

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clipped on: 06.01.2007 at 06:31 pm    last updated on: 06.01.2007 at 06:32 pm