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Introduction to Ornamental Figs in Cultivation

By Geoff Stein (palmbobDecember 13, 2012
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This article is designed to give the reader an introduction to some of the more common Ficus species in cultivation, bonsai and general ornamental use. The edible fig, Ficus carica, will not be discussed in this article as one could write several articles on that species alone.

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(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on December 4, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)

The genus Ficus is a large one with over 100 species, and consists of a large variety of plants--from vines and small shrubs to gigantic Banyan trees. It is just one of many genera in the family Moraceae, whose primary members are the figs, breadfruits and mulberries. This article will only cover some of the more common species of Ficus but should provide at least some idea how useful this genus is for landscaping or ornamental container culture.

Most people think of the fruit when they hear the name "fig", and indeed all the Ficus species make figs, though most are not considered all that edible by humans. But in the Tropics, the fruits of these figs are one of the most ecologically important sources of food for many species of animals, from monkeys to tiny insects. Figs are an excellent source of many vitamins, Calcium, sugars and fiber; many animals seem to survive comfortably eating this fruit as the bulk of their diet. So though most of these species do not make what we would call edible fruits, they are all indeed eaten by some animals.

In terms of landscaping, many species are used frequently throughout the warmer climates of the world, including much of the Southern and Coastal regions of the U.S. Just wandering about a few city blocks in Los Angeles, I counted no fewer than ten Ficus species growing in both private gardens and as part of public plantings. Some species easily numbered among the most commonly planted trees and vines throughout these neighborhoods.

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(left) Ficus elastica is a common street tree. (middle) Ficus benjamina can be seen all over city landscapes. (right) Ficus lyrata covering the side of a building.

Some species perform excellently as indoor plants, most notably Ficus benjamina (Weeping Fig). You can hardly enter any mall or large department store anywhere in the U.S. and not see one of these in a pot somewhere.

Image Ficus benjamina as an indoor and patio plant

Some species of Ficus also make excellent bonsai plants and develop wonderfully fat, smooth and intricately gnarled roots that can be raised up above the soil level for a fantastic ornamental effect. Most of these species are also quite drought-tolerant and easy to grow, making them good species for beginning bonsai growers to try.

Image Ficus petiolaris is a popular bonsai species

If you are lucky enough to live in a tropical climate, you may recognize several larger species of Ficus as Banyan trees. These amazing monolithic trees can grow so large that they can cover an acre of land with a single tree! Banyan trees are known not only for their immense size, but also for their aerial roots that are sent down from horizontal branches as thin, yarn-like roots. But once these roots make it to the ground (or sometimes just to a branch below) they quickly begin to grow, absorb water, and develop into massive root-trunks themselves. Eventually these Banyan trees can grow many hundreds of root-trunks. As these enlarge and are able to support more weight, the trees can grow laterally in all directions and may eventually take over huge areas of land. Few trees are more impressive than a massive Banyan.

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(left) Ficus microcarpa Banyan Tree in Hawaii. (middle) Ficus aurea showing aerial root/trunks (photo by ginger749) (right) Buttress roots of a Banyan Tree.

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(left) Small, fibrous aerial roots slowly grow towards the ground. (right) They then develop into massive structures.

Here in Southern California where the climate is far from humid/tropical, most of these Banyan trees grow to a massive size, but they don't ‘banyan' (if that can be used as a verb) as prolifically unless grown in shade and kept very moist. In a drier climate, most of these trees usually have just a single large trunk, though they have those cool, twisted roots. All the Banyan tree species can develop massive and invasive root systems that tear up sidewalks, plumbing and basically cause mayhem in the landscaping, so be careful and plan ahead before planting one of these species in your yard.

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(left) Roots of common Rubber Tree (Ficus elastica). (middle) Moreton Bay Fig (Ficus macrophylla). (right) The super common Indian Laurel Fig, Ficus microcarpa.

ImageFicus species have fantastic twisted branches as well.

Some species of Ficus have unique survival strategies; for example, one species grows as a vine and is a very popular plant in cultivation. Several other species begin life as parasitic trees and are called strangler figs, literally killing other trees that they use initially as nutritional and supporting structures.

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(left) Creeping Fig (Ficus pumila) climbing up a wall. (right) Strangler Fig (Ficus aurea) surrounding space where a tree was before being killed (photo by ginger749)

Figs have a milky, latex-like sap that is known to be an irritant. It can cause mild to severe dermatitis on exposed skin, and is extremely irritating if ingested or if it enters your eyes. I have not found this to be the case personally, but many people vary in their sensitivity to plant saps.

Image Sap oozing from a woodpecker's hole in a Banyan Tree trunk.

The following is a brief discussion of some of the more common Ficus species you might encounter in cultivation:

Ficus aurea, Strangler Fig. Though several species of Ficus are strangler figs, this is the most well-known species. This is a native to the Americas, including south Florida. It starts it life germinating in the crown of another tree, usually deposited there by a bird or another fruit-eating creature. As it grows, its roots travel down toward the earth. Once rooted, it quickly grows into a large, sprawling Banyan tree and literally grows around its host, strangling the life out of it. As you might guess, this is an aggressive, invasive species with powerful roots that can do serious damage to the landscape.

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Strangler Fig choking a palm (photo by Floridian); another shot of that fantastic Strangler Fig Banyan by ginger749

Ficus auriculata, Roxburgh Fig. Though this species is not commonly cultivated, you can find Roxburgh figs growing in many botanical gardens and occasionally in private and public landscaping in the Coastal regions of the U.S. It is an extremely attractive, low growing, sprawling tree with large, deeply grooved roundish leaves; they are about one foot or more in length and nearly as wide. New leaves are pinkish to orange-red. The leaves are definitely the prominent feature of this tree and tend to hide the trunk and all the branches. Figs are relatively large, flattish and grow in dense clusters along the larger branches, not near the branch ends as in the common edible fig, Ficus carica.

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Ficus auriculata in Southern California

Ficus benghalensis, Banyan Tree. Though this tree's common name is Banyan tree, it is only one of many species of Banyan tree. However it is one of the best ‘banyan-ing' species here in California where most of the Banyan species do not produce aerial roots successfully. Supposedly this is also commonly grown as a houseplant though I haven't seen one grown as such. In its native India and in other tropical areas around the world, it grows into a massive tree up to 100 feet tall and can cover several acres. Leaves are ovoid, large and shiny with prominent veins.

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(left) Beautiful example of Banyan Tree (Ficus benghalensis) in Hawaii. (right) Banyan roots of tree in Southern California.

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(left) Typical look of Ficus benghalensis in California. (right) leaf and fruit (fig) details (photo by bermudiana)

Ficus benjamina, Weeping Fig Tree. This is probably the most widely grown ornamental Ficus species throughout the U.S., if not the entire world. It performs well as a landscape tree (it is one of the huge Banyan species), and as a potted tree and even a bonsai specimen. It is a popular indoor tree in the U.S., often sold in garden outlet stores as three trees in one pot with their roots braided together. Eventually these trunks merge into one. This melding of branches and trunks is a common characteristic of many Ficus species and never ceases to amaze me. Here in Los Angeles it is one of the most commonly landscape trees, though it has some sensitivity to cold. A cold snap two years ago wiped out a large number of Ficus benjamina trees around Los Angeles (including my own tree) and defoliated all the trees growing in zones 9b and colder. Many eventually grew back, but it was a good reminder that this is a tree from a tropical environment in Asia and tropical Australia. This is also one of the species that is infamous for developing destructive root systems.

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(left) Typical indoor Ficus benjamina plant. (middle) Massive Banyan Tree (Ficus benjamina) takes up an entire city block in Honolulu, Hawaii. (right) Leaf and fruits.

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(left) Weeping Fig commonly used as a living wall. (middle) Same wall after freeze in southern California (all grew back in a year). (right) Typical landscaping use for Ficus benjamina.

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Two popular Ficus benjamina cultivars: variegated (left) and 'Monique' (right)

This tree is often confused with Ficus microcarpa, another popular and common landscape species. F. benjamina is a somewhat smaller species with thin, smooth drooping two-inch leaves (hence the common name) with a central vein, and a shape that comes to a narrow point at the very tip. Ficus microcarpa leaves are thicker, lighter green and have no fine tip, nor do they droop, though they are about the same size (two inches long). There are many cultivars of this species, including several variegated forms, used primarily for indoor and container culture. As an indoor tree this plant is quite adaptable, tolerating low light situations and, somewhat inconsistent watering strategies. However it can be a bit sensitive and won't tolerate severe abuse. Just moving the tree around in the indoor landscape, changing from one lighting situation to another, or forgetting to water it, will often result in leaf loss. Overwatering it in cold weather may result in root rot. But it also has an amazing ability to recover if given the proper attention.

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(left) Ficus benjamina leaves. (right) Ficus microcarpa leaves.

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(left) Ficus benjamina variegated leaves. (right) Ficus microcarpa 'Hawaii' leaves.

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(left) Ficus benjamina as a street tree. (right) Ficus microcarpa are generally larger and more robust trees.

The fruits of this species are fairly small and yellow to red. I have never tried to eat one and I doubt they taste good, but they are not toxic.

Ficus dammaropsis, Dinner-plate Fig. Few Ficus trees have greater ornamental value than this, with its dinner-plate size, nearly circular pleated leaves and bright red to purplish fruits. From New Guinea, it's a bit tropical in its needs, but most growers in the warmer, protected areas of southern California are able to grow this plant fairly well. However it does seem happier in more humid, tropical climates. The fruits are edible although few would elect to eat them.

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(left) A young Dinner-plate Fig in southern California. (right) Mature plant in southern California.

Image Image Leaves and fruits of Ficus dammaropsis

Ficus deltoidea, Mistletoe Fig. This is a small shrubby species with curiously deltoid leaves (flattish at the tips and triangular at the base) with subtle venation. This plant can be confused with Ficus natalensis subsp. leprieurii, which is also called the Mistletoe fig and has even more strikingly deltoid leaves. However the leaves of this latter plant have only a central midrib and a bit thicker and completely flat. This Malaysian native is sometimes referred to as a Banyan, but it only grows to about six feet in height and is certainly not Banyan-like. It makes a good indoor plant and you can sometimes find it in nurseries (you can sometimes find the other Mistletoe Fig as well.) The name Mistletoe fig presumably refers to the large number of very small berry-like figs spread throughout the branches of both these species that look a little like mistletoe. This is a cold-sensitive species and cannot be grown outdoors in California except in the warmest microclimates.

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Ficus deltoidea (photos by getrich and sladeofsky)

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The 'other' Mistletoe Fig, Ficus natalensis subsp. lepieurii (photos by cactus_lover)

Ficus elastica, Rubber Tree or Indian Rubber Tree. This is another very popular landscape and indoor tree. Here in Los Angeles you can see these growing in nearly every neighborhood. These trees tend to look healthy and grow quickly no matter what sort of care they get. They tolerate low light, full sun, are drought-tolerant and fairly resistant to most insect damage. Though they can develop into a very large tree it does not appear to ‘banyan' in tropical climates, and the trees generally have only a single trunk. The leaves of this species are large (they average 6 to 8 inches but can get up to 15 inches), ovoid, stiff, smooth with a central midrib, are somewhat rubbery and are typically green, though there are cultivars with variegated leaves, and a dark, burgundy-colored leaf variety.

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(left) Ficus elastica in nursery for sale as indoor plant. (middle) Mature Rubber Tree in arboretum. (right) Close-up of leaf.

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(left) Underside of leaf and fruits. (middle) Variegated form growing outdoors. (right) Unusual variegated color form at nursery.

Ficus lyrata, Fiddle-leaf Fig. Yet another common house plant found in just about any garden center. I find this plant is a bit tough to keep happy, and it is not hardy outdoors, being quite cold-sensitive and somewhat intolerant of intense summer, winds and drought. It grows to a tall tree--over 30 feet tall--but is much slower growing than many of the other Ficus species, and it does not ‘banyan'. The leaves of this species are large, have prominent veins, and are ovoid to nearly circular, shiny and with pronounced wavy, irregular margins.

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(left) Ficus lyrata in a nursery for sale. (middle) In a fast-food restaraunt. (right) Close-up of the leaves.

Image Image Large trees in Hawaii and Southern California

Image a reminder that this species is NOT cold tolerant (Southern California, photo by WebInt)

Ficus maclellandii, Narrow-leaf Fig or Banana Leaf Ficus. One of the best indoor and patio Ficus for ornamental use, with several similar-looking cultivars, including 'Alii' and 'Amstel King'. In the wilds of Southeast Asia and Northern Australia, this tree can grow up to 50 feet or more. But the cultivars available in most nurseries are mere dwarfs of this species and are relatively small trees, up to about 12 feet tall. Narrow-leaf figs have lanceolate leaves that are thick and plastic-like, up to six inches long (resembling elongated, thick Ficus benjamina leaves) and one inch to two inches wide depending on the cultivar.

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(left) Ficus maclellandii 'Alii' growing outdoors (photo by cactus_lover). (right) Growing indoors (photo by stellapathic).

Image Image The cultivar 'Amstel King'

Ficus macrophylla, Moreton Bay Fig. Few Ficus trees grow larger than this beast; even in California this species grows to immense proportions. One plant in Santa Barbara covers over an acre of a city block. This Australian native is one of the most ornamental of the Banyan trees, developing massive ‘propping' root-trunks, and its main trunk is often deeply grooved rising from a massive bed of twisted, snaking above-ground buttress roots that can cover hundreds of feet in all directions. Leaves are ovoid, large, shiny olive green up to eight inches long and have a single midrib. Despite its massive size this tree makes relatively small fruits. These purplish fruits rain down in large numbers in late summer and fall sometimes growing into new trees. This is one of the more invasive species of Banyan tree.

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(left) Ficus macrophylla in San Diego (photo by OregonCoastSeth). (middle) Roots of large tree in Florida (photo by islandjim). (right) African Banyan trunk (photo by Kylecawaza)

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(left) Moreton Bay Fig cv. 'Columnaris'. (middle and right) This large plant in the San Diego Zoo

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non-Banyan form in Los Angeles younger Ficus macrophylla leaf shape and color

Image Image immature and mature figs

Ficus microcarpa (syn. Ficus nitida), the Chinese Banyan, Indian Laurel Fig. Of all the ornamental figs, this is probably the most-used outdoor landscaping Ficus on the west coast of the U.S. It is an extremely adaptable tree, tolerating an amazing amount of pruning and shaping and always looking good. It is prized for its nearly white trunk, bright green shiny durable leaves (more resistant to bugs than the leaves of Ficus benjamina) and its ability to tolerate winds and drought. In non-tropical climates this tree rarely banyans unless grown in a somewhat shady, humid environment; landscape trees in California maintain a single stately concrete-looking trunk. However in tropical environments, this becomes a massive Banyan tree. This is also an excellent and oft-used species for Bonsai culture since it is so easy to shape, and has such wonderfully fat, caudiciform-like roots that can be raised above the soil. Here is a great article on using this species as a bonsai. It is probable that the commonly sold bonsai plants called Ficus macrocarpa in the nursery trade are actually Ficus microcarpa, though I cannot find verification of this hypothesis.

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(left) Ficus microcarpa Banyan Tree. (middle) Non-banyan form in California. (right) Bonsai Ficus microcarpa (photo by henryr10)

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(left) Leaves and fruit (photo by Xenomorf). (middle and right) Trunks formed by aerial roots.

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(left) Variegated form in landscape (cv. 'Hawaii) in Los Angeles. (middle) Ficus microcarpa used as hedging. (right) As a living wall.

Image Image Commonly sold as bonsai plants and identified as Ficus macrocarpa.

This is a native to much of East Asia and Northern Australia where it usually grows into a massive tree. It is on the major invasive species list for most other tropical countries since it is such a prolific spreader and so adaptable. There are several popular cultivars of this species in cultivation, primarily used in container culture.

Ficus palmeri, Rock Fig. I have to admit I have only seen this species of Ficus grown as a bonsai plant. It is quite drought-tolerant and develops a large, caudiciform-like trunk with twisted, fat, peeling roots that make a particularly fascinating if not terribly ornamental bonsai specimen. This species is very similar in appearance to Ficus petiolaris, another common bonsai Ficus, but has somewhat larger triangular leaves. Grown in the ground it becomes a relatively large, stately tree with thick, pale trunk and branches.

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(left) Ficus palmeri in desert garden landscaping. (middle) Wonderful old specimen along Caribbean coast (photo by Thistlesifter). (right) Bonsai plant

Ficus petiolaris, Rock or Lava Fig. As mentioned above, this is another species commonly used in bonsai culture, but also performs well as an interesting landscape tree with an exceptional ability to withstand drought. It has a thin, papery, peeling bark that covers a greenish trunk. Leaves are triangular with prominent veins that are often pink-colored. Trees grown in the ground grow slowly but eventually become low, spreading, attractive trees.

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(left) Ficus petiolaris growing in Southern California. (middle) Plant growing in Los Angeles in private garden. (right) Trunk detail of old plant.

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(left-right) Leaf varieties of Ficus petiolaris, the Rock Fig

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Ficus petiolaris is a popular bonsai species

Ficus pumila, Climbing or Creeping Fig. This plant is unique among the Ficus in that is grows as a vine rather than a tree or shrub. It is another popular species in cultivation and a great plant for covering walls. I have seen entire buildings completely covered with this plant. It comes in several forms including one with small, thin, delicate, heart-shaped leaves that grow flat along rough surfaces, completely covering them with a dark green matte. Mature vines of the ‘normal' variety eventually develop thicker, somewhat shiny leaves about two inches long and grow into a thicker mass of vine that can completely cover a structure. This is one of the best species for topiary species, quickly and reliably covering most surfaces without growing into a messy, out-of-control shrub. This Asian species tolerates cold quite a bit better than most other Ficus species and is rated for zones 8 to 11.

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(left and middle) Ficus pumila growing along walls. (right) Immature (smaller) and maturing (larger and shinier) leaves.

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The Creeping Fig can be used to cover buildings, walls and just about any structures in the landscaping

Ficus neriifolia (syn. F. salicifolia), Weeping Leaf Fig. Though not terribly common in cultivation, it is a somewhat popular house plant and bonsai subject. It has lanceolate, drooping leavings that sometimes drop off in winters. This becomes a Banyan tree in the Tropics, but in cooler climates grows into a large shrubby plant that is not always that attractive. However it excels as a bonsai species by growing somewhat ‘banyan-like' even in a pot. This is a native of African and Arabia.

Image Ficus neriifolia (photo by udigg)

Ficus religiosa, Bo Tree, Bodhi Tree or Sacred Fig. This species is an Indian native and commonly grown around Buddhist temples where monks are known to meditate beneath its massive branches. This is another Banyan tree but one that does not ‘banyan' well in low humidity environments such as we have here in California. Here it grows like most other trees with a single trunk and fairly ‘normal' looking branches. This is another species of strangler fig though it does not do this in non-tropical climates. Leaves are a rounded triangular shape with a prominent narrow, protruding tip, are relatively thin, pale green and deeply veined. These leaves are about four to six inches long.

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(left) Old Ficus religiosa in Pakistan (photo by cactus_lover). (middle) Mature tree in Los Angeles. (right) Immature tree southern California.

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(left) Leaf shape of Ficus religiosa. (middle) Acting as a strangler fig around this palm tree (photo by cactus_lover). (right) Tree in Hawaii.

Ficus rubiginosa, Rusty Fig. This is an Australian Banyan species that grows quickly to a monstrous size. It is also a popular bonsai species. The name rusty-leaf refers to the red-brown fuzzy surface of the undersides of the six inches ovoid smooth leaves (no veins, just a midrib). There are variegated forms in cultivation as well.

 

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(left) Mature Ficus rubiginosa in Los Angeles. (right) Variegated form in southern California.

Ficus socotrana, Socotra Fig. As the name suggests, this is a native of Socotra, a relatively dry island off the coast of Arabia, home to numerous bizarre and unique plants. Surprisingly, it grows fairly well here in California and can grow up to 40 feet if watered well, or it can remain a small, horizontally oriented specimen tree if kept fairly dry. As one might expect, it is an exceptionally drought-tolerant species. It has deep green to maroon, veined leaves that are roundish to oval, measuring about eight by six inches.

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(left) Well-irrigated Ficus socotrana in forest landscape. (right) Flattened form of xeriscape plant

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(left) Fruits and leaves grown in mostly shade. (right) Leaves in full sun.

Ficus sycomorus, Sycamore Fig. This North African and Arabian Banyan tree is one of the largest trees in Egypt, growing over 50 feet tall and at least as wide. It is a prolific fig-producer with its larger branches sometimes completely covered in figs, all edible though not particularly tasty (I have not tried them myself.) It has ovoid, thin, veined leaves which are about five inches long.

Image Image Mature Ficus sycomorus, and leaves

Image Image fruits completely cover parts of branches in this species

For more about the Edible Fig, Ficus carica, see Wind's article coming out in a few weeks (end of December 08) 


  About Geoff Stein  
Geoff SteinVeterinarian and Exotic Plant Lover... and obsessive, compulsive collector of all oddball tropical and desert plants.

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Discussion about this article:
SubjectTopic StarterRepliesViewsLast Post
Some fig roots are mind boggling! wind 2 20 Dec 5, 2008 7:58 PM
Your article leeflea51 3 38 Dec 4, 2008 9:29 PM
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