Everyone’s Favorite: The Fiddle Leaf Fig - Ficus lyrata

Ficus Lyrata, also known as the Fiddle Leaf Fig Tree have been an indoor plant standard for many decades. They have recently enjoyed a strong resurgence in popularity due to the elegance of their form and the lushness of their large leathery leaves. With this surging popularity we have found that there are a number of commonly asked questions and concerns. We will address many of these as we take a closer look at this indoor giant.

Ficus Lyratas are a tropical tree native to western Africa. They are closely related to other Ficus trees, many of which also make excellent indoor plants. When young they grow as skinny saplings with a single woody stalk that has leaves sprouting off from soil to tip. When mature they are often sold in the nursery standard form which consists of a thick trunk at least 3 feet high that branches out with leaves sprouting only from the branches. The leaves can get quite large and are rigid with a leathery feel. Young stems are bright green and may have dark splotches and some woody bumps. Older stems and the trunk have a thin woody bark. New leaves form at the tips of the sapling or at the tips of the branches of a mature plant. These leaves are covered by a protective papery bract that shrivels and dries once the leaf fully emerges.

Given that the Ficus lyrata is a tropical tree that grows below the forest canopy it is therefore looking for conditions that mimic life in the mid canopy of a tropical forest. To that end here are some guidelines for indoor growing to get your Ficus on the road to success.

Light: It is of primary importance to find the right place in your home where the tree will receive very bright, but indirect light all day; an hour or so of direct light will not harm the plant but it will need time to acclimate to it. Unfortunately Ficus lyratas are not very tolerant of low light conditions; if the space you want your Ficus to grow in does not have the proper light levels your Ficus will not survive there for the long term.

Placement: Once you have found a spot with adequate light the next step is to make sure that your tree will be protected from physical abuse. High traffic areas such as entry ways and hallways can cause bruises to the rigid leaves of the Ficus and will lead to an unattractive display.

Planter and Soil: As we recommend for all potted plants a pot with a drainage hole is best. If you need guidance on choosing the pot type or size see our previous post on repotting houseplants. As a tropical plant a Ficus lyrata doesn’t want to have it’s soil go completely dry but on the other hand they are susceptible to root rot; for this reason we suggest using a standard potting soil such as Edna’s Best mixed with a bit of pumice (5:1) for some extra drainage. 

Watering: As we mention in our post about watering houseplants, the watering schedule for any plant is entirely dependent on the light, temperature, and airflow it experiences in it’s current environment which varies from house to house and can also change throughout the year. When potted in the above recommended soil mixture you should be waiting to water your Ficus until the top 1-2 inches of soil are dry. This could be once every 5 days to once every 2 weeks depending on your conditions. When you do water it is best to give your Ficus a thorough watering as we describe in our plant watering post.

Fertilizing: Ficus lyrata can benefit from regular doses of a good fertilizer during the growing season (March-October) We recommend using Maxsea all purpose fertilizer (20-20-20) every other time you water at the recommended indoor dilution of a ½ tablespoon to 1 gallon of water.

Each plant has it’s own set of specific things to look out for in their care and maintenance. One of the biggest things to be aware of with a Ficus lyrata, and any other thick, rigid leaved plant is that their leaves are very easily bruised when bent. This leads to most Ficus lyratas developing large dark brown/black spots on their leaves and even dropping a number of leaves within the first 3-6 months after they are brought home. Many first time Ficus owners panic as the bruises develop slowly and the leaves drop and think that this is a sign of disease but it is a part of the trauma of a tree being moved and rigid vascular tissue breaking as a result. Given the proper care the Ficus will settle in over those 3-6 months and any new growth will be bruise free. As it is settling in any leaves that develop particularly large bruises can be trimmed off. It is best to leave leaves with minor damage on the tree to maximize it’s photosynthetic surfaces for a faster recovery.

Due to the unavoidable trauma that comes with moving these trees around, especially for the larger specimens, we highly recommend purchasing a Ficus lyrata in late winter or early Spring. In temperate areas such as ours the ficus pause their growth through the darker and colder periods of the year (October to February) and generally have their largest spurt of growth in the early spring (March-May). If you bring your plant home in February, as the older damaged leaves start showing bruises from the move, a large number of fresh new leaves are developing to keep things looking happy. If you bring your plant home in October chances are no new leaves will form until spring and you will be left looking at a large number of bruised leaves. Early spring is also the time to repot your ficus as it will be growing new roots quite readily at this time which will help it recover quickly from any transplant shock. We’ve found that pruning a Ficus is best done in mid to late winter; around early February is best here in the bay area. This allows your plant to use it’s many leaves to capture what little light is available in the winter months. If you wait too long into spring however you run the risk of cutting off developing growth points and setting back the spring flush of stem and leaves.

Once established in a good indoor environment the Ficus lyrata is a hardy and beautiful plant that will give many years of enjoyment. If you like indoor trees like this we suggest checking out it’s cousin the Ficus ‘Audrey’ (Ficus benghalensis), it has a similar look but with subtler coloring and velvety leaves.