(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on November 11, 2010. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions.)
This leaf shedding is not necessarily a sign that your ficus is sick or unhappy, but simply that it is adjusting to a change in temperature, light and humidity. The weeping fig’s leaf drop is actually a survival mechanism in its native habitat of south and southeast Asia, where it is adapted to two seasons, dry and rainy. Ficus trees grow rapidly during the rainy season, filling out their leaf canopies. During the dry season, they survive by shedding foliage. So be patient with your weeping fig as you rake up its leaves; provide it with lots of light as it adjusts to being indoors, and it will soon recover and resume growth.
When you bring a ficus houseplant into your home, remember that it can grow quite large and shrubby, so be sure you have enough room for the plant. The ficus plant is sensitive to cold temperatures, so site it away from doorways and drafty windows. The ideal location for your weeping fig is where it will receive bright medium light or lots of indirect light throughout the day. During the dark winter months, it will appreciate full sun in a south window.
Both over- and under-watering your ficus can cause leaf drop, so aim to keep the soil moist but not soggy. In general, the ficus requires more water during times of the year when it is receiving more light, and less water during the winter. Wiping its leaves of dust keeps the ficus looking its best and also allows it to take in the maximum amount of sunlight. Fertilize ficus during its active growing season, but forego feeding throughout the winter. During the summer months, ficus benefit from being placed outdoors in a shady spot. Just be sure to bring it indoors before nights begin to get too cold.
Ficus trees grow rapidly and can quickly become potbound, so it’s a good idea to check the plant’s root system periodically. The root system can become so dense that water goes right through without penetrating the roots, in which case you will want to replant it in a slightly larger container. Once a ficus is in a very large pot, it can become impractical to repot. When you weeping fig reaches this stage, you can keep it healthy by top-dressing it annually in the spring or early summer. Scrape off as much of the old potting soil as you can, replacing it with fresh. I keep the soil surface of my large ficus covered with sphagnum moss, which serves to discourage my cats from jumping into it.
Mature plants are best pruned and shaped to control for growth in the spring. The ficus will quickly respond to pruning with new growth. Be sure to protect carpeting and clothing when you are pruning a ficus, because it releases a sticky white sap from cut branches. The weeping fig naturally assumes a vase shape, so it’s best to give the plant its head while keeping it in bounds. Remove weak and dead branches first, then any branches that cross another branch. Removing some of the inner branches will open up the canopy and allow more light in. Always prune branches back to their juncture with other branches.
Ficus As An Air Cleaner
Did you know that your ficus is not just a beautiful houseplant, but an air purifier? A NASA research study included the weeping fig as one of 15 popular indoor plants which were discovered to be especially useful for removing the air of noxious household chemicals. Gases such as benzene, formaldehyde and trichloroethylene are released from household items like synthetic carpeting, fabrics and laminated counters. Through their everyday process of photosynthesis, houseplants absorb these indoor pollutants and render them harmless.
For more information about the many different ficus varieties and uses as a bonsai specimen, see Geoff Stein’s excellent articles The Weeping Fig, Ficus Benjamina- Indoor and Out and Introduction To Ornamental Figs in Cultivation.
Ficus Bejamina "Green" photo courtesy of PhotoGraham