Houseplants Interior decoration

Ficus: Perfect Little House Trees

By Julie Boudreau

It’s great to grow lots of small indoor plants, which can be placed on coffee tables and on window sills. But these spaces fill up quickly! Thus, the interest in larger plants, which can be placed directly on the floor. New spaces to conquer! What about apartment trees? Even better! From floor to ceiling!

There aren’t a ton of trees capable of growing in houses! However, the Ficus genusis very interesting, because it offers species that are quite different from each other. We are therefore spoiled with choices! However, I must admit that they are both the angels and the demons of our horticultural aspirations. Either we excel in their culture or they give us a hard time. All the same, we constantly run to their feet, captivated by this dream of growing beautiful, tall trees, as if we were in the forest!

Small Family Portrait of Ficus

Also called fig trees, Ficus form a very large group of more than 875 species. The entire southern hemisphere of the globe is the domain of Ficus! These are generally plants of tropical or subtropical origin, including many trees and shrubs, but also climbing plants. Many species develop long adventitious roots that extend from the branches down to root in the ground.

Although it is quite rare among the “houseplant” versions of ficus, the flowering of this genus is quite unique and continues to fascinate botanists. In fact, the flowers are contained in a sort of urn, called the syconium. Eventually, the flowers are trapped by this growth. To be pollinated, fig trees have developed a very close partnership with tiny wasps, which are fond of the sweet nectar of fig trees. These wasps are also the rare ones that can sneak inside the syconium! And yes, they actually remain imprisoned, reproduce and lay their eggs in the ovaries of fig flowers!

In this cross section, we can clearly see the flowers trapped inside the syconium. We also see the entrance door for the little wasps who will come and pollinate the flowers. Photo: Gubin Olexander on Wikimedia Commons

And now, let’s discover some interesting varieties for growing as a small tree indoors.

The Weeping Fig Tree Is Not a Sad Tree

Despite its name, the weeping fig tree (Ficus benjamina) is not a plant with a drooping habit. This is the most popular fig tree and easiest to find in garden centers. With its small, shiny leaves, this fig tree truly takes the shape of a small tree and can quickly reach the ceiling of any well-lit room.

The plant is relatively easy to grow. In summer, we place it outside and provide it with generous watering. In winter, water just enough to keep the soil slightly moist. There is no need to mist this plant and it tolerates the normal humidity of our homes well. The only phenomenon that may seem sad about this plant is its significant leaf drop in fall and early winter. It is mainly due to the drastic drop in light during the winter season. The plant can also begin to lose its leaves if it is moved or if it is bathed in a saucer filled with water. But there’s no need to worry, because as the days get longer, the leaves will come back!

A single sideway glance is enough for the weeping fig tree to start losing its leaves. I’m hardly exaggerating! Photo: Feey on Unsplash

In general, the weeping fig tree likes direct sun in the morning and indirect light the rest of the day. The plant grows well in regular potting mix. It likes to have a well-packed root system inside the pot, but you still have to repot the plant regularly, especially if you start with a small plant in a 6” pot! Large specimens are often repotted in the same pot, just to refresh the soil. Maintaining a temperature difference between day and night is also favorable to the growth of weeping fig trees. Finally, as soon as growth resumes in spring, apply fertilizer on a regular basis, because the plant is quite greedy.

Unfortunately, the weeping fig tree is quite susceptible to spider mite infestations. Luckily, this is a fairly easy issue to control. It can also be visited by mealybugs, whiteflies or thrips! Regular inspection is therefore necessary to prevent infestations.

The Real Rubber Plant in Your House!

Yes, this pretty plant with large, thick leaves is truly the plant that gives rubber (Ficus elastica)! The slightest wound on the stem or on a leaf will release a thick white latex.

In ornamental horticulture, we can now enjoy many very interesting varieties, including one with very dark foliage, called ‘Burgundy’. Generally, the green-leaved variety is called ‘Robusta’. For leaves marbled with creamy white and pink, we will look at the ‘Tricolor’ or ‘Red Ruby’ varieties. The ‘Yellow Gem’ variety captures attention with its leaves with almost fluorescent yellow margins. In all cases, the rubber plant easily reaches 2 or 3 meters in height (and more if the ceiling clearance allows it).

The rubber plant deserves to be grown as a small indoor tree. In my opinion, this is the easiest fig tree to grow indoors. Photo: Olesia Bahrii on Unsplash

With tougher leaves than the weeping fig (F. benjamina), the rubber plant has better resistance to drought. In the case of varieties with green leaves, they tolerate less bright areas of the house better. On the other hand, as soon as the foliage presents a certain variegation, good light is required. It is a plant that likes to be packed in its pot. Since this plant is kept for years in the same pot, new soil is often applied to the surface.

It is a plant that can easily be found in small sizes and many gardeners grow it as a small shrub, cutting back the stems as soon as they gain too much height. Pruned in this way, the plant branches. In order to make a small tree, you simply have to select the stem which will become the trunk. Then, when it reaches the desired height, the end of the main stem is cut to encourage the development of secondary branches.

The Fig Tree With Leaves Shaped Like an Electric Guitar!

Who knows, this may be the argument you need to convince that “boyfriend who has too many pedals” that you don’t have too many plants! The lyre fig tree (Ficus lyrata) is unique due to the original shape of its leaves. It is also a surprisingly easy plant to grow. There should never be a complete lack of water, even if the soil on the surface can be allowed to dry out slightly. You should also avoid letting sit it in stagnant water. This fig tree is not very salt tolerant. This is why it must be watered abundantly from time to time, just to wash away any deposits that could accumulate. The lyre fig tree grows naturally in warm, humid places. Even if it tolerates normal humidity levels in homes well, it would be very grateful to coexist with the shower, as long as the bathroom is spacious and lit! It does well in a bright location, but of the three fig trees presented so far, it is the one that best tolerates lower light. From spring to fall, it will appreciate regular fertilization. It will also be very happy to spend the summer on the patio, in the shade.

Like almost all fig trees, it does not like drafts and excessive temperature variations. It is therefore a specimen that is installed far from doors.

The leaves of the lyre fig tree can reach more than 40 cm in length. Photo: Beazy on Pixabay

The ‘Alii’ Fig Tree Is to Be Discovered

It is also called the sword fig or banana leaf fig (Ficus maclellandii). Either way, it’s a plant worth discovering. A little more difficult to find than the three previous fig trees, it has proven to be much more tolerant and reliable than the weeping fig tree.

This fig tree is recognized by its slender leaves which resemble willow leaves. What it has in common with other fig trees is that it does not like drafts and should never completely lack water. It is also a fig tree that grows well in bright light, without direct sun.

It too can reach 2 to 3 meters in height and it has a habit that more closely resembles that of the weeping fig tree.

Ficus maclellandii. Photo: Stefano sur flickr

It would also be interesting to discover Indian laurel (Ficus microcarpa), with which bonsai are often created. It has all the potential to make an interesting little tree. The banyan tree, also called the Audrey fig tree (Ficus benghalensis), forms a small tree with rounded, thick and shiny leaves. Finally, we cannot ignore the real fig tree (Ficus carica) which can be kept indoors for the winter period, even if it is not easy to prevent it from losing all its leaves!

Julie Boudreau is a horticulturist who trained at the Institut de technologie agroalimentaire in Saint-Hyacinthe, Québec. She’s been working with plants for more than 25 years. She has published many gardening books and hosted various radio and television shows. She now teaches horticulture at the Centre de formation horticole of Laval. A great gardening enthusiast, she’s devoted to promoting gardening, garden design, botany and ecology in every form. Born a fan of organic gardening, she’s curious and cultivates a passion for all that can be eaten. Julie Boudreau is “epicurious” and also fascinated by Latin names.

3 comments on “Ficus: Perfect Little House Trees

  1. Ficus microcarpa ‘Nitida’ is likely the most common street tree in the Los Angeles region. The roots are horrid, but the evergreen canopies are excellent! All species of Ficus perform well outside there, so it is odd to grow them as houseplants. I brought back some Ficus benjamina that were part of a hedge in Los Angeles to be big houseplants in my dining room. The spread out onto the ceiling splendidly!

  2. Informative post. Do you know of any dwarf lime or lemon trees that work indoors? Thanks.

    • Maryl discuillo

      It does indeed seem odd to have a focus (ribber tree) in a house. In my yard there is one about 20 ft tall and 10 feet wide. I guess any tree can be kept small if you prune enough!

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