Monday, December 17, 2007

Basket Case (Ficus benjamina)

I'm going to attempt something in the next several plant profiles, which is possibly too cute for words and therefore not really worth doing, but you know me, always pushing the envelope. So this is going to be the first of a series of five plant profiles constructed around the movie The Breakfast Club. Why? Well, it sort of had to happen sooner or later. I mean, how perfect, for a blog built on archetypes/stereotypes, is a movie full of pretty people who are all fictional examples of five arche-/stereotypes? I mean, come on. It's so perfect.

So there will be, in some order, an Athlete, a Brain, a Princess, a Basket Case, and a Criminal. This may take a while to get to; I'm having some difficulty coming up with much to say about the plant I was going to use for the Brain. So there may be the occasional non-Breakfast Club profiles until I can get it together. And we'll see how that goes.

Because Ally Sheedy is my favorite (except at the end of the movie where Molly Ringwald pretties her up: she was waaaaaaaay more interesting before and should have been left the hell alone. But I still like her best, even after.), we're going to start with Basket Case, which means Ficus benjamina, which you knew because it's written a few inches above this in big letters and you read it already.

Why Basket Case? Well. Ficus benjamina is famous for dropping tons of leaves at once over minor changes, or major changes, or because it's Tuesday, or whatever. And everybody thinks that this is a totally arbitrary thing, that this is just how they are, or whatever, but this is not really true.

My own personal Ficus benjamina 'Midnight.'

'Cause, I mean, think about it. This was a plant growing just fine in the wild at one point, right? Still is, even, as far as I'm aware. So what use could be served, if you're a plant in the wild, to just drop tons of leaves all at once over nothing in particular? Nothing. It's a slightly different thing to drop leaves in preparation for the winter, and it is my understanding that F. benjamina is in fact naturally somewhat deciduous,1 though it never actually drops all the leaves at once and the drop is not arbitrary: it's driven by the seasons and moisture levels. Arguments from incredulity are dangerous: any time you start a sentence with, "It's difficult to imagine why," you're leaving yourself open to contradiction by someone who has a better imagination, which will make you look stupid. But I don't see a way around it. It's difficult for me to imagine a way it serves the plant to do what everybody says it does.

And if we take that as a given, then we're left with the question, well, does it even do what everybody says it does? Does it really drop all its leaves just because it's Tuesday?

The answer, as I suspect you're suspecting, is no. Of course not. Garden Webber The Great Tapla the All-Knowing and All-Seeing, Destroyer of Worlds,2 says that massive leaf drop on an indoor plant is almost invariably due to a decrease in light intensity (or some other decline in conditions)3, and happens with nearly perfect predictability if you watch for it. And bless me, he seems to be right. I bought a F. benjamina 'Midnight' recently, and when I brought it home I had to put it in a spot where it was getting light from one side but not the other: I think every leaf it dropped was on the dark side. This has also tended to be the pattern with plants at work: the largest ones drop leaves at a slow but steady rate regardless of what else is going on, but the smaller ones pretty much only drop leaves when they're moved from a light spot to a dark one.

So that solves that problem. Pretty much. It's not like they won't drop leaves for other reasons, and if you have one that you've had for a long time, and you swear the light level hasn't changed, then there are other things to look for, but if you're seeing leaf drop on a plant that is established and undisturbed, then the things to check are the sorts of things you'd check for any other plant, and consequently not really newsworthy.4

Ficus benjamina lineup. (L-R) 'Too Little,' 'Spearmint,' 'Monique,' 'Midnight'

Ficus benjamina, as you may be figuring out from the above picture, comes in a lot of different cultivars5, and we have at least four of these at work, with one more ('Exotica'6) coming at the end of the month.

'Too Little'

'Too Little' is mainly used as a bonsai specimen, as far as I can tell: I can't say I've ever seen it grown into a floor-sized tree, though I suppose that doesn't mean it never happens. I'm not a big fan, personally: they're messy, and although the desired effect is a bushy plant, they don't actually grow that way: one has to trim back the leaders as they form, which means that they don't maintain a rounded, outdoor-tree form for very long. That said, I may be being unfair. It's entirely possible that they're awesome if they're well-treated. Most of our bonsai is in pretty lousy shape at any given time, primarily because neither WCW or I like bonsai particularly well, or know anything much about it, and so the whole bonsai collection kind of lurches from crisis to crisis.


'Spearmint' I like. We have a very large, floor-sized plant that is pretty well-behaved, and I've managed to get some cuttings from it to take (though not very many: maybe 10-25%), plus it's pretty. The 'Spearmints' were the worst about dropping leaves when they arrived off the truck, but 1) there were more of them to begin with, so my perceptions may be skewed, and 2) they were still not very bad about it, considering that they'd been in boxes on a truck for about a week.


'Monique' is, according to its tag, bred to be more resistant to leaf drop than most other varieties, and also has a more weeping habit. The leaves have wavy edges on them as well, which is nice if you like that sort of thing, I guess. Allegedly, the leaves get more ruffly in lower light (probably because Ficus tend to get larger, thinner leaves when grown in low light, and more leaf area means more opportunity to ruffle, though I'm told that in very bright light, plants will grow cupped leaves to shade themselves, which is kind of remarkable if you think about it). I haven't seen one all grown up yet, to my knowledge, so I don't know if the "weeping habit" business is hype or reality. They were pretty good about hanging on to leaves when they arrived.

'Midnight.' There is a 50-50 chance that this is the same exact plant pictured above, because I bought mine after I took this picture, and we only had two come in on the truck.

The main draw here is, as the name implies, the darker leaves, but it's really not that the leaves are dark as that they start out normally-colored and then become dark, so the effect on a large plant is of a big dark mass with brighter specks at each of the growing tips. Big specimens can be quite pretty, and unlike the variegated cultivars like 'Spearmint,' they're actually prettier from further away than they are close-up, which is rare. This cultivar is also supposed to be relatively resistant to leaf drop, and maybe it is, but I wasn't exceptionally impressed with mine on that count, once I got it home. Granted that it had had a kind of rough time, getting shipped up from Florida, with all the acclimation that that involves, and then going from the work greenhouse to my apartment, which means another round of acclimation, but the Ficus maclellandii I bought last winter lost way fewer leaves.

Maybe that's not a fair comparison. I don't know. I will say that after six weeks, 'Midnight' seems to have stopped dropping leaves and is putting on new growth. It seems like it's going to be okay here. 'Midnight' also seems to grow more readily from cuttings than most of the other Ficus types I've tried so far, though that could be more a matter of me getting better at doing it, not anything the plant is contributing, and the cuttings in question are hardly done yet, so that could change.

There are other varieties out there, but those are what I could get pictures of, and they're pretty much representative of the variation out there. Care for any of them is pretty close to the default plant: bright indirect light (though this is flexible: they can survive in a range from moderate light up to full sun), high humidity is nice but average or even dry indoor levels are acceptable, room temperatures (or warmer), water when about half-dry, or a little before. (Overwatering seems to be worse than underwatering, though they can adapt to a range of conditions, given enough time. Don't let them stand in water, whatever watering schedule you end up with: that never goes well.) They are supposed to be especially pleased if you can give them a summer outside, though of course this means that in the fall when you bring them back in, they're going to drop a bunch of leaves over the light-levels thing, so don't say you weren't warned.7

They're not especially prone to any particular bugs; we have trouble with spider mites at work, but we lean to having problems with spider mites on everything at work, because until recently, we had a gigantic F. benjamina that shaded an area maybe 20 feet in diameter, that had mites, which would fall off and get on everything else. The plant was far too big for effective pest management, and it was also tall enough to be interfering with air circulation and the shade cloths, and it was basically unsellable because it was planted into the ground under the greenhouse, so it was kind of a problem. To deal with the first few problems, I cut it back (as I was told to), and then somebody didn't like the way I did it, so it got cut back more, and then a third person thought that was kind of lopsided, and cut it a bit further, and then finally the boss said, you know what, we can't sell it anyway, so just cut it back to about eight feet tall and if it wants to come back from that, let it, and if not, we can get rid of it and stick something else there? And so it was:

The spider mite situation in that area has improved since, though the sudden increase in light was a problem for a few plants. The tree has elected to come back, though as you can see from the below picture, the new growth is laughably out of proportion so far:

It's not the easiest plant in the world, though like Ally Sheedy ("Allison"), it's not particularly difficult, either. It just doesn't want to be ignored. Why would you want to ignore it anyway?

(More photos of more cultivars, including the intriguingly-named 'Exotica,' can be found at the follow-up post here.)


Photo credits:
Ally Sheedy: from
Ficus pictures: me

Other credits:

Special thanks to Al / tapla for reading an early draft of this and suggesting corrections. For the record: the "The Great Tapla, tAKaASDoW" joke was in the version I sent to him, and not something he himself suggested.

1 (deciduous = drops all its leaves in winter) Ficus benjamina is from India and Southeast Asia, a region with distinct wet and dry seasons. The plant may, therefore, drop leaves if it believes that the dry season is imminent, as for example if it gets, you know, very dry.
2 (He prefers "Al." I just call him TGTtAKaASDoW in my head 'cause it sounds cooler.)
3 (Other decline-in-conditions possibilities: lowering of temperatures, being over- or underwatered.)
4 I'd check for overwatering, pests (especially spider mites), underwatering, and temperature changes, in that order. There could be other reasons, like root rot, but it's more work to pull the plant out to look at the roots, so start with the stuff you can check easily, and work up to the rest.
5 A contraction of "cultivated varieties." Ficus benjamina cv. 'Midnight' is to Ficus benjamina as Holstein is to cattle, or basset hound is to dog. At least to a first approximation.
6 I haven't seen anything that explains what's so great about 'Exotica,' relative to the others: the info we got from the wholesaler just says small leaves and "open" habit, which could mean a lot of things. The pictures I've run across look pretty ho-hum. I'll let you know.
7 It's still probably better for the plant in the long run, and it will definitely grow faster and better. It's just that it's also going to crash once a year. Moving the plant into shade first, when nighttime temperatures start dropping below 50ºF (10ºC), will ease the transition and make for a softer landing. Pick whatever approach seems most appropriate to your level of emotional stability.


MrBrownThumb said...

pretty neat.

The funny thing is that I've always thought that F benjamina was deciduous in nature 'cause it was mulching itself in preparation for the dry season.

When I used to work with plants we used to order a lot of plants from FLA and our "too little" supplier grew the best plants. They were in like 10 inch shallow pots, the trunks were often as thick or thicker than my wrist and the canopy about two-three feet in diameter.

Tracy said...

Wonderful post!! I can't wait to see the rest......I too loved that movie. I can't wait to see which plants the characters get placed with. My mother had a huge ficus when I was growing up, and she could not change that room around because if she did, the leaves would drop. She finally ended up moving it to a different corner, and after it dropped it's leaves, she hung small Christmas bulbs on it to spice it

Sarah Sedwick Studio said...

I actually spent two hours today just shaking ficus trees and picking up all the leaves that fell. I told all the people working in the office that I was "artificial wind." I learned from your blog today that the leaves I was picking up belonged to some very large ficus benjaminas of the "midnight" variety, so thanks! :)

Anonymous said...

I spent a lot of time shaking and picking ficus leaves at work today too! I have two very large ficuses, probably benjamina, in pots in office lobbies. They are about 20 and 25 feet tall. They are usually very well behaved, but there is new building management, and they didn't realize they had to open the heat vents in the fall, so it's been very chilly in there for the last month. Just when I was getting them dried out finally in the cold, they cranked up the heat to superhot, and they got too dry. Needless to say, they are quite unhappy! But they put out lots of new leaves every spring, so I'm not too worried.

Anonymous said...

Great article....I sometimes forget about your blog, but it's always interesting when I remember, or a websearch brings it up...which is the case this time!
I've been looking for Ficus b. 'Midnight', so just want to say, if you should still be propagating and wish to trade, please let me know!
You can email me if interested @
(remove the word 'builder')or ignore me if not, and I promise I won't hold a grudge! (Ü)

See you on the GW HP forum!

Keep up the great writing!

PS...did your 'Breakfast Club' series continue?
PS2 - interesting theory mrbrownthumb....makes sense!

henni said...

Funny. I remember my mom had one when I was growing up and that thing, as you said, was a definitely a leaf dropper. I have them in my apartment now and I feel like they are one of the lowest maintenance plants I have here. Mine definitely don't drop their leaves like my mom's did so maybe I'm doing something right?

Anonymous said...

I grew up in Miami, where ficus are among the largest trees seen, in terms of diameter. Only the banyan outdoes them. Southern oaks don't grow as large there, I assume because they are slower growing, the soil is shallow, sandy and rocky (limestone bedrock between 1-3', generally, sandy soil above), and they don't weather hurricanes well. Miami is subtropical, and ficus are tropical. Once temperatures fall into the 60s and below, they thin out, quickly. They are not meant to experience 'seasons.' When temperatures are in the high 40s/low 50s, large sections of large trees die off, quickly. Offices are quite cold for them, and stress them continuously, but it certainly stunts their growth. Thank goodness!