Ficus Wears Many Hats

Ficus benjamina 'Starlight'

Ficus benjamina ‘Starlight’

A Ficus tree means different things to different people. For the office employee, a Ficus is an indoor tree with downcast, yet glossy leaves. For the homeowner, the word “Ficus” conjures up either a tightly trimmed hedge growing down a property line or an unruly arboreal monster. For the orchardist and biblical scholar, Ficus is a carefree provider of sensual fruit.
“Ficus” (FY-kiss) is the Latin name for the common edible fig. It is also the genus name of more than 600 species of tropical trees, a number of which are routinely used in both exterior and interior Los Angeles landscapes.
The one indoor plant I remember from my childhood in the Midwest is a rubber tree (Ficus elastica) that stood in the dining room with imperturbable strength. Afternoon sun streamed through a picture window, and that rubber tree, which stood against an opposite wall, seemed to grow hardly at all from one year to the next, yet it was the embodiment of botanical health with its leathery, viridian leaves. At one time, this species was used in the tropics as a source of rubber. Varieties with colorful leaves, streaked or marbled with white, yellow and pink, are occasionally seen.
I am frequently reminded of the durability of the Ficus as an indoor plant by the impressive fiddle-leaf fig (Ficus lyrata) specimens that stand in the showroom of a car dealer in Sherman Oaks. For the 20 odd years I have been observing them, these trees have towered unflappably over the shiny automobiles below. Thinned out every few years, they never display the least amount of stress, despite having long ago reached the ceiling of the showroom, which is a good 20 feet high. The fiddle-leaf fig is appropriately named, its violin-shaped leaves growing 10 inches wide and 15 inches in length.
If you work in a bank or office with a tall, sunny window, there is a good chance that the tree growing next to it is a weeping fig (Ficus benjamina). It is indeed the indoor tree of choice for bright light locations. Called “weeping fig” on account of its foliage, which hangs at right angles from the stem, it projects a distinctive air of dressed-up elegance nonetheless.
The weeping fig may be grown either indoors or outdoors in the Valley. Indoors, it absolutely requires good ambient light. Placed in a poorly lighted corner – in an spot that should be reserved for Dracaena species – the weeping fig will turn yellow and defoliate. Outdoors, however, the conditions for optimal growth are almost opposite to those required indoors. Outdoors, it must be protected from direct sun or it will burn; placed in a shady location, it will grow vigorously.  Variegated weeping figs, with cream and green foliage, are widely available.
In the tropics, individual weeping fig trees may cover several acres of ground. They do this through spreading by means of gigantic, tentacled aerial roots that grow out from their trunks. If you cultivate a weeping fig outdoors for long, and if it is a robust specimen, you will eventually see roots begin to emerge from its trunk. Do not be alarmed. This is merely a sign that the growing conditions you have created are to its liking. If you wish to display a somewhat offbeat Ficus representative, consider planting the variegated weeping fig variety that has gray-green and cream- yellow leaves.
Don Kephart sent an e-mail asking about the identity of “those two magnificent trees in the short-term parking area at the Van Nuys FlyAway” just north of Saticoy on Woodley. Those trees are Indian laurel figs (Ficus microcarpa) and demonstrate remarkable strength for having survived hundreds of graffiti carvings on their magnificent white trunks. They have captivating chartreuse leaves blushed with pale red. A sub-species of this tree, Ficus microcarpa nitida, is used as a hedge or privacy screen. A word of caution: Indian laurel figs, when grown as individual trees, will tear up adjacent paved surfaces with their robust and aggressive roots.
Finally, we reach the edible fig (Ficus carica). Rashi, the famous Biblical commentator from 11th-century France, identifies the fig as the fruit plucked by Eve from the Tree of Knowledge. This makes sense since figs are native to the Middle East, unlike apples – which originate in the Caucasus – that are commonly mistaken for the forbidden fruit. In any event, the fig tree is probably the easiest of all deciduous fruit trees to grow in the Valley. Proof of this is found in the fig tree seedlings that come up as volunteers in everyone’s garden, their minute seeds having been dropped by birds. Trees that grow wild in our gardens, be they California fan palms, Shamel ashes or figs, are eminently suited to our natural growing conditions.
The best-tasting fig for the Valley is the “Black Mission” variety, while “Brown Turkey” probably gives the heaviest crops. These trees, as well as most other fruit trees that grow well in the Valley, may be found at Gardenland Nursery in Sylmar. After the fig loses its leaves, it can be pruned back. Pruning of figs should not be severe; it is sufficient to remove dead wood, crossing and low-hanging branches.
TIP OF THE WEEK: After your fig loses its leaves, detach foot-long shoots and stand them up in one gallon containers with fast-draining soil. By next fall, if not sooner, they should have be rooted deep into the containers and be ready for transplanting into the ground.

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