The Q&A Archives: Knowing the name of my plant

Question: Dear Madam/Sir,

I have bought a plant for my office, but i don't know the name. Local florists have not the same opinion. Some say it is Ficus benjamina (but of course it is not), some say it is Ficus amster [!]. My plant sheds leaves heavily. May I send you a scan of its leaf to know the name of it before trying to treat it.

Thanks a lot,

Answer: I have no way of retrieving a scan of the leaf, but here are descriptions of some Ficus plants you may find at your local garden center or florist's shop:

Ficus benjamina or weeping fig:There are more sizes and varieties of weeping fig on the market than any other Ficus. You'll find them ranging from little table-top specimens to large "floor models." Weeping figs have lots of glossy, slightly wavy leaves.

These plants are notorious for dropping leaves when they're moved from one location to another; they also tend to lose them in autumn as days grow shorter. Luckily, they're capable of developing lots of new foliage fairly rapidly, as long as they get reasonable amounts of light.

Ficus elastica or rubber plant: You may find variegated as well as burgundy-colored versions of this old favorite. With large, stiff leaves and woody stems, this plant truly has the potential to become a "tree" indoors.

Ficus lyrata or fiddle-leaf fig: This is another woody plant with lots of potential. Its leaves are even larger than those of the ordinary rubber plant. Think of it as "living sculpture."

Ficus maclellandii 'Alii' really has no common name; people just call it Alii. Without a label, you'd probably never guess this plant is a Ficus. It's woody like the others, but its leaves are very long, narrow, and pointed--a bit bamboo-like.

Ficus retusa nitida or Indian laurel: This plant is similar to the weeping fig, but its leaves are slightly larger and stiffer. And, it's not quite so fussy about change in its environment. Though used extensively in commercial interior landscaping, Indian laurel is less common in the marketplace. If you find one, grab it.

Perhaps you'll recognize your plant from the above descriptions. In any event, the cultural requirements for all Ficus are the same. Though Ficus plants grow vigorously in full sunlight, they'll all thrive indoors in bright, medium light. Old-fashioned rubber trees are even quite reliable when grown in a north-facing window that never receives any direct sunlight.

Most Ficus we grow indoors are upright, woody plants. Many are single-trunk "trees", others, multi-stemmed "shrub" forms. You'll even find novelty versions where stems of several individual plants have been braided together. (These braids fuse as the plant grows older and each stem expands.) There's also a vining form, Ficus pumila or creeping fig, that has small leaves and clings to walls by means of aerial roots.

Left to their own devices, Ficus plants can grow much larger than you'd expect. Luckily, they may all may be pruned to control their size. In fact, pruning tends to encourage branching and results in fuller growth--assuming there's enough light.

Prune Ficus "trees and shrubs" as you would any woody plant, making your cuts just above a node, where a leaf is attached to the stem, or where another stem branches off. You can also prune just above a leaf scar, even though there's no leaf there any more. New growth should arise from the scar area.

Water Ficus thoroughly. Don't stop until you see water coming through the pot's drain holes, then remove the extra water after a few minutes. Use room temperature or lukewarm water to avoid shocking their roots. Tap water is fine, but try not to use "softened" water, if possible.

Except for creeping fig, which should be watered the minute the soil surface feels dry, allow Ficus plants to dry a bit between waterings. However, they do best when they aren't allowed to dry too much. It's important to retain some moisture in the root ball between waterings rather than letting the soil get bone dry so it cracks away from the container.

The practice of keeping soil too wet or allowing it to get terribly dry can each result in leaf loss. And while leaf loss is primarily a nuisance in a weeping fig, it can be quite disfiguring in large-leaved plants such as fiddle-leaf figs or rubber trees.

Tailor your fertilizing routine to the plant's growth cycle. When a Ficus is producing new leaves and growing actively, you can fertilize every three or four weeks, provided you mix your fertilizer ? the label-recommended strength. Taper off as growth slows in autumn. It probably won't be necessary to fertilize during the short days of winter, unless your plant continues to grow well due to its location or supplementary fluorescent lighting.

Best wishes with your plant!

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