The Diversity Of The Ficus Plant

The diverse ficus plant at a Southern California garden center.

By Richard Flowers, ACCNP-Green Thumb Nursery-Ventura

What is a Ficus? Is it a tree, a vine, a hedge, a houseplant or a fruit? The answer to the question is a surprisingly yes. The Ficus is an extremely diverse group of plants. The fruiting types of Ficus are known as the incredible, edible Fig like Black Mission, Brown Turkey, and so many more. There is a vine called Creeping Fig that does not produce edible Figs. Don’t forget the numerous types of houseplants : Weeping Fig, Rubber Tree, and Fiddleleaf Fig.

The Ficus group of plants contains 900 species of trees, shrubs, and vines, many of which are commonly known as Figs. They are native primarily to tropical areas of East Asia. Nearly all types of Ficus produce a fruit called a Fig but there is only one type of Ficus and its cultivars that has the type you can eat.

One major player in the Ficus family is the ever popular (Ficus lyrata) or Fiddleleaf Fig. Fiddleleaf Fig is effectively used for its attractive, erect, and irregular branching pattern to break up a large blank wall and to purify the air. Though known to be impressive grown as a potted houseplant with large, waxy, and stiff leaves, Fiddleleaf Fig can also be grown outdoors in a very mild frost-free location where it can possibly reach over 20 feet tall if left unpruned. All members of the Ficus group of plants exude a white latex when the stems are broken and sometimes they are an irritant or stain. 

Most Ficus species are evergreen, although there are deciduous members in non tropical areas, most notably they are the fruiting Fig trees (Ficus carica), the edible Fig and like all other Ficus they are related to the Mulberry. Fig fruit can be used in many ways as far as food consumption. There is nothing like the unique taste and texture of fresh home grown Figs. They are lusciously sweet with a texture that combines the chewiness of their flesh, the smoothness of their skin, and the crunchiness of their seeds. They can be grilled on the barbecue and served as part of the main course. They can be used in breads and cakes or stuffed with various cheeses. In the landscape however, Fig trees are a handsome addition to the garden. With their large, shapely leaves and graceful form that makes a beautiful architectural  masterpiece.There are so many varieties of edible Figs, it is mind boggling. Some varieties to consider are White Genoa, Black Jack, Kadota, and Violette de Bordeaux .

The mot common member of the Ficus is (Ficus benjaminia). The Weeping Fig grows as a large broadleaf evergreen tree in tropical and subtropical climates, but it is more often grown as a houseplant in homes, offices, and is a popular feature in interior commercial landscaping. It is a tree that has a good tolerance for the limited light conditions of indoor environments. Like that of  Fiddleleaf Fig it does well as a beautiful potted plant and in sheltered areas, it has the ability to thrive outside. Weeping Fig is an elegant plant with slender branches that arch gracefully from a light gray trunk, with dense, glossy, and dark leaves that may shed when the plant is stressed. When grown indoors, the plants are normally pruned to keep them in the 3 to 6-foot range or taller, and trunks are sometimes braided for decorative appeal. 

Another Ficus of great importance is (Ficus elastica) or Rubber Tree. Rubber Tree is a popular houseplant that showcases waxy leaves and larger-than-life appearance. As a domesticated houseplant, it grows anywhere between 6 to 10 feet tall. Both Rubber Tree and Weeping Fig also come in an attractive variegated forms as well.

Primarily grown outside this vine (Ficus pumila) or Creeping Fig is an evergreen that attaches itself to almost any kind of material for a seemingly endless distance creating a curtain of dense  growth. The juvenile dainty heart-shaped leaves develop into 2 to 4 inch long leathery leaves with age and after vertical growth has reached its limit. It is hardy to about 20 degrees. Creeping Fig is also used as an attractive hanging basket plant. Creeping Fig can either be offered green or an interesting variegated version. 

And last but not least is the well known to Southern California residents, (Ficus macrocarpa nitida) Indian Laurel Fig. Indian Laurel Fig contains thick dark green leaves that cover the upright branches of this fast growing evergreen tree. Most commonly people grow Indian Laurel Fig as a large “screen” hedge. It’s perfect for providing year round privacy or to block unwanted views. When planted for this purpose, it is important to provide at least 4 ft. to 10 ft. spacing for the ideal hedge. Then trim it up to as much as 10 ft. to 20 ft. tall. This subject also makes a superb patio container plant in frost-free areas.

Please note, when considering to plant any member of the Ficus plants, be aware the roots are shallow, greedy, strong, and invasive. When using Ficus it is wise to select a site where the roots will not cause damage.

Whether it is a Ficus or a Fig, your favorite Green Thumb carries a wide variety of these common and versatile plants. Please call ahead to be sure the specific one is on hand.


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