Thursday, January 24, 2008

Mister Right (Ficus maclellandii)

I don't know what I can say about Ficus maclellandii:1 it's one of those few plants that I think is pretty much perfect (others would include Yucca guatemalensis, Haworthia retusa, Euphorbia grandicornis, Anthurium andraeanum, and Aglaonema spp.). This makes for a wonderful houseplant, and kind of a boring writing topic.

I bought my plant almost exactly a year ago, not without some trepidation; I knew that F. benjamina was touchy about being moved, and assumed that the same would be true for F. maclellandii. That was my first pleasant surprise with this plant: I think over the first six months or so that I had it, it lost all of like three leaves. Can you expect the same? Well, not necessarily, but it is supposed to be exceptionally good about leaf retention, and I have yet to see any of these plants have a serious leaf-throwing fit over anything. So there's that.

I haven't really done anything terribly special for mine: it's sort of off to the side of a large north-facing window, and the window itself is close to a white wall, so there's a lot of light there but it's all reflected. The spot in question also happens to be very close to a heat & air conditioning vent, but that is apparently not a problem. My plant really took off this summer, when I moved it from a 6-inch pot to an 8-inch; the extra soil was good, but I give some of the credit to a little bit of incidental root pruning: I also spent some time raking through the roots to loosen up the root ball and permit them to penetrate the new soil I was adding.2

Care is pretty typical for a houseplant, and shouldn't be terribly difficult for anybody: I water mine when I can stick a finger into the soil as far as it will go and not feel anything damp, though it does seem to take over- and underwatering somewhat in stride. Underwatering, I'm told, is more dangerous.

I don’t do anything to supplement humidity, but I have it on pretty good authority that they do like a humid environment, even if they don't insist on it. They are tropical plants, after all.

The biggest pest problem mentioned in association with this plant on-line is scale: I don't know if they're necessarily more prone to scale than to other pests, but I could see how scale might be harder to see: the stems do get woody when relatively young, and the right species could sweep in and set up shop for quite a long time before anybody noticed, by virtue of imitating the natural bumps of the stem. I personally am just pleased that they seem to be fairly resistant to spider mites.

Somewhat bright light is helpful, though I don't think they necessarily have to have it: a lot depends on whether you want the plant to grow or just maintain itself. Actual growth requires, unsurprisingly, brighter light. The situation is similar with temperature: the plant will tolerate high temperatures well, but cold can slow or damage it.

Propagation is possible, but not particularly easy, in my experience: a lot of them have failed on me for each one that's worked out. I suspect that taking a cutting from a woody stem and rooting it in wet perlite would probably work better than what I've tried in the past, just based on the fact that I've had good luck lately with that method for F. benjamina and F. microcarpa. Bottom heat is also nice if you can get it: it's seemed to help some of the cuttings I've tried to start at work.3

The only real issue I've ever seen them have is one that I also can't really explain or fix: we had a couple very tall plants on the center of some of the tables for a while, and they have all, at one point or another, dropped a lot of leaves at once and/or had a bunch of leaves develop dead gray zones of varying sizes. Only the ones on tables did this, it came on suddenly, and it's still going on to some degree though it's happening much more slowly than it was a couple months ago.

My best guess is that they probably either got some blasts of cold air from the top of the greenhouse that they didn't like, which affected them disproportionately because they're the only plants that had leaves up that high, or else they lost leaves because they happened to be in spots where water was condensing and falling on them.

The condensation thing drives me nuts, though it's pretty much unavoidable: we maintain a warm and humid environment in the greenhouse, water condenses when it hits the ceiling, and then when the drops get big enough they fall back to the floor. This would be just fine except that the drops are also freezing cold. Not only is it bad for the plants to be tapped over and over by drops of cold water, if one happens to be under an especially drip-prone spot, but it's kind of annoying for people, too. I can't count the number of times I've been in there doing one thing or another and suddenly had a freezing cold drop of water smack dead center on top of my head. You never get completely used to it.

As previously noted, Ficus maclellandii may, in moments of exceptional happiness, produce figs:

though my guess would be that they're probably not edible, and I'm not sure how far they could develop indoors. (Even if they did develop, they're not likely to produce viable seeds without pollination. Sorry.)

There are a few cultivars, though I haven't seen them personally yet, and I'm a little confused about which are which: as usual, it's tough to sort out which plants are genuinely unique things and which are renamed versions of old things. The various sources I've run across don't seem to agree particularly on any of this either. So. 'Alii' appears to be the default cultivar, probably the one that is pictured here. There's also 'Amstel King,' which is (maybe) a more vigorous 'Alii,' with larger leaves and reddish-colored new growth. 'Amstel Queen' is presumably from the same people who gave us 'Amstel King,' but I couldn't track down anything that explained how it was different. 'Amstel Gold' is said to have yellow-margined green leaves, though the pictures I've seen of it looked to me like the leaves are entirely yellow, save for occasional patchy bits of green along the midrib (example picture #1, example picture #2). I saw a couple references to an 'Alii-Baba,' but no descriptions or pictures, so your guess is as good as mine as to how this might be different.4

A lot of these are produced as standards (in fact, I think the only 'Amstel Kings' I've seen have all been standards), which is to say, as a poodley ball of foliage on top of a straight four- or five-foot trunk. I don't mind the look, though I prefer the bushy look of several stems planted together, with foliage from top to bottom. Just personal preference thing. Care would be the same in either case.

I've been an F. maclellandii fan pretty much as long as I've known them, and have only gotten more so as time has passed, but until pretty recently I've seemed to have trouble communicating this to the customers: there's one poor plant there who I think came in at the same time as the one I own, and is still there over a year later. I show it to people, I wax enthusiastic about it, they say it's nice but they want something that flowers, or they don't like the long leaves, or whatever. So maybe it's only the perfect plant for me, and the two of us have a special thing. I dunno. But in any case: very highly recommended.


Photo credits: me.

1 Or F. alii, or F. binnendijkii, or whatever. Though I like the way binnendijkii sounds in my head better, maclellandii appears to be the correct name at the moment. 'Alii' appears to be a cultivar name, of whichever species this is, and – bonus language content! – means "king" in Hawaiian. 'Alii' should not be confused with the weight-loss drug "Alli," by the way, even though the two names look really really similar.
2 Some plants handle this better than others, but I do it with anything I’m repotting. Ficus species seem to be the only ones that really take off after this, but most of them at least show no particular ill effects, provided that they're otherwise healthy.
3 The bottom heat isn't there for the benefit of the Ficus cuttings: we've started a bunch of seeds, and they seem to do best with bottom heat. The Ficus just got to play because there was some room left over.
4 Attn. marketers: coming up with a clever cultivar name does absolutely no good for anybody if nobody knows what this cleverly-named plant looks like.


Sarah S said...

I also think this is a gorgeous variety of ficus - for sure my favorite, although I definitely appreciate a healthy, growing benjamina (must make that disclaimer, don't want any of the trees at work overhearing and staging a jealous revolt) as well. I think the alii looks especially good in really swanky offices - you know the ones with a desk the size of a twin bed and plush carpeting two inches thick. One problem I keep having with them though (and this occurs in both the poshest and most modest of settings) is a browning and yellowing of the leaf ends. I know this is from overwatering, and it's very sad - not to mention really tedious trimming off all those tiny leaf ends....So, while alii never really drops leaves, it does react to overwatering in ways that benjamina doesn't.

sheila said...

This is one of my favorite plants used in client's offices. It rarely drops leaves. I've been having problems with only one of them, getting the brown and yellow tips, but I think I overwatered it.

The brown part of the tips was pretty big, so I just removed the leaves, and it's growing new ones to fill in, even in January in not the brightest light.

An awesome plant that deserves to be seen much more than it is!

Italian mathematician said...

Hi Mr. Subjunctive,

My 2 cts. for the pronounciation:

"binnendijk" ("inner dyke", not as in "closet female gay" but as in "dyke to stop water coming and flooding the polder") is a Dutch family name, prounonced "binnendyke", so I venture the correct pronounciation is "binnendykee" (in Latin: "of Binnendijk").

Now we only have to figure out just who Miss or Mr. Binnendijk is...

Great blog, my favourite stopping spot for mental beauty farming!

No Rain said...

I had one of these until last year's hard freeze. I got it 10 years ago from a nursery in a 15 gallon container. It was really cheap because it had outgrown the pot and they wanted to get rid of it. It had been braided, and looked like a small tree. I kept it on the patio all those years and it looked great, over 6 feet tall and lush, when it succumbed to the freeze. I couldn't get it in the house because it was so big, and covering it just wasn't adequate to protect it from our record 18 degree temperatures for three nights.
I agree with you that this is a wonderful plant. I wish I could find another large one.

nancey said...

I just bought one after seeing a big beautiful one at a friend's house. It's big, it's gorgeous and I love it more than I should. One thing, quite a few full yellow leaves, that when touched, fell off. What is that a symptom of? Also I'm sort of an idiot when it comes to plants, but I try, I really try, should I water it say once a week? Also I have had the best luck with my Ficus that is a rubber tree plant, it grew like a weed!

mr_subjunctive said...

I'm not sure on the yellow leaves: mine didn't drop a bunch of leaves last fall, but this fall it has, and a lot of the plants at work (though not all) are dropping a bunch of leaves now too, or just finished dropping a bunch of leaves.

By best guess so far has been to assume that the plants are going semi-dormant, and that they're telling me to slow down on the watering for a while. This has at least seemed to help, whether it's the actual reason or not.

Anonymous said...

This Ficus binnendijki tree grows into a towering tree here in the Philippines! In fact I think it is one of the figs which produce the most aerial roots which like to stick on the trunk. The network of roots love to stick on the trunk giving the tree an enchanting appearance. The roots look like ropes braided on the trunk. We have one species growing in our park. The whole tree slanted a little after a powerful typhoon but still continues to grow, the slanting trunk grew more aerial roots which are now taking root on the soil. Ficus binnendijki is the narrowest leaved fig as far as i know and the species which grows here has reddish new leaves.

Anonymous said...

I've actually been very successful with rooting cuttings just in water. I take the tips of pliable branches and put them in water and just walk away for a few weeks to a month. I do this every spring and have had 75-80% success each time.

I did have some failures early on, where cuttings would start to develop roots but then suddenly shrivel or turn black. They didn't seem to appreciate any movement or disturbance until the cutting developed multiple root sprouts and 1cm or so of length.