Ficus

The figs make up a huge genus and, despite coming from tropical and subtropical regions, are well known to UK gardeners and houseowners.

Image: Floramedia
Image: Floramedia

The common and edible fig is widely grown in greenhouses as well as outside in warmer areas - and many ornamental figs make excellent houseplants.

There are more than 800 species of fig, taking the form of trees, shrubs and woody vines. Only a few species may be grown outside in the UK. The best known is Ficus carica, the common fig, which provides excellent fruit once or twice a year.

F. carica and its many varieties can be grown in pots to be brought in over winter but will grow outside in warmer counties. Once established, they should be able to stand lower temperatures. Read’s Nursery owner Stephen Read says his orchard of F. carica varieties has coped down to -12°C with no damage.

They are often seen growing against a warm wall, particularly in traditional kitchen gardens. I have seen them used as excellent tall wall shrubs in historic gardens where their main feature is the attractive foliage rather than the fruit and the tall, spare form left in the winter when the leaves have dropped.

Only a few others can be risked outside. Creeping figs F. pumila Award of Garden Merit (AGM) and F. sagittata can be grown outside in sheltered corners in milder districts but are more widely grown in hanging baskets and on low walls in conservatories. F. afghanistanica is a very rarely-seen species with nicely divided leaves that is said to be hardy down to -13°C.

Many well-known houseplants are also types of fig. The foremost of these is probably F. benjamina AGM, known as the "weeping fig", which is often grown as a standard with decorative twisted stems. It copes with a good degree of neglect, but overwatering and regular moving can lead to leaf drop. It is a good idea to give plants a burst outside in summer, when they can really rejuvenate with higher light levels and fresh air.

Other good houseplants include F. elastica, the "rubber plant", with its thick, shiny leaves; F. lyrata AGM, with glossy leaves that are shaped like fiddles; F. binnendijkii, with its unusual lance-shaped leaves; and F. microcarpa, which looks similar to a bonsai tree with a contorted trunk and distinctive succulent leaves.

The houseplant types generally prefer a position in bright but indirect sunlight. They should be regularly watered during the growing season but allowed to dry out between waterings. They appreciate some humidity so mist them, particularly in hot weather. They can be pruned back into shape if necessary and new growth will soon cover the bare patches, but be aware that figs exude a milky sap that can be a skin irritant.

This is also the case with the edible fig, F. carica, which also has rough leaves that can irritate. Tips for producing a good crop include planting the fig in a sunny, sheltered position in a well-drained medium. They produce the best fruit, and lots of it, if their roots are restricted, so planting in a pot is ideal or in a small border next to a wall.

Give them a balanced fertiliser in the spring and a weekly potash feed when the fruits begin to appear. Water plants regularly during the growing season but do not overwater or water them erratically while the fruit is ripening because this may cause the fruit to split.

What the specialists say

Stephen Read, owner, 
Read’s Nursery, Suffolk

"Figs provide exotic succulent fruit and exciting architectural shapes. Established figs are quite hardy, although further north some shoots may be damaged in severe winters. However, those in pots can be protected in a shed or greenhouse and those on garden walls can be covered with fleece or shade netting. A few varieties may be grown as bushes in the open and because of this ripen their wood earlier and survive frost quite well.

"Figs planted in the garden will produce one crop each season. Those planted in greenhouses, or pots taken into greenhouses in August and kept there until April, can produce two crops when the season is sunny and warm. Figs require the best possible site in the garden to take advantage of the sun and will crop regularly for centuries if looked after.

"Root restriction is often recommended in fertile soils to prevent excessive growth. Lack of feed and water are the two main causes for fruit drop in summer. Minimal pruning is necessary and it should be remembered that figs are produced on the tips of the previous growth flush — any remaining unripe fruit at leaf fall will not overwinter on the tree and are best removed."

In practice
David Anderson, manager, Seven Hills Garden Centre, Surrey

"Ficus can be evergreen or deciduous trees, shrubs or climbers, with often leathery, simple, entire or lobed leaves. The edible varieties such as F. carica "Brunswick" and the more common F. carica "Brown Turkey" form tiny flowers within a hollow receptacle that enlarge to form the fruit. We stock both these varieties in various sizes.

"They are not very inspiring once the leaves turn yellow in late autumn and you end up with just twigs. This year we have displayed them on the middle of a table surrounded with skimmia — the red flowers contrast well with the thick, furry, textured branches of the ficus.

"During summer when the deeply lobed large leaves have returned, it’s easy to form an impressive, almost tropical display. Try a simple idea of using purple pots scattered and placed on the display table. This gives the clever interpretation to your customers of those dark-purple/black ripe figs that they can enjoy during the long summer months.

"Although figs can cope with dry conditions, drought can cause fruit to drop prematurely. We recommend customers water their plants regularly during summer, but not to give them too much or water them erratically while the fruit is ripening, as this may cause the fruit to split.

"We also stock several ornamental figs. These make very resilient houseplants and they will tolerate a degree of drought. The best known are the larger tree types, such as 
F. benjamina (weeping fig) and 
F. elastica (rubber plant)."

Species and varieties

F. afghanistanica does not appear to be sold at the moment in the UK but is said to be a relatively recent introduction with distinctly shaped leaves. They are more divided than 
F. carica, reminiscent of papaya leaves. Grown more for foliage effect than for fruit. Reportedly hardy down to at least -13°C.

F. benjamina AGM (H1c) is an evergreen shrub or tree with pendulous branches, earning it the name "weeping fig". It can be kept as a house/office plant but appreciates standing outside in warm spring and summer months. It produces a mass of stems, sometimes intertwined, and plenty of glossy, slender-pointed ovate leaves. Height: 3m.

F. benjamina ‘Starlight’ AGM (H1c) is a striking form of the weeping fig with leaves that are heavily margined with white, with inner blotches of dark green. Becomes a large, evergreen shrub. Height: 2.5m. Spread: 1.5m.

F. binnendijkii ‘Alii’, or the "long-leaved fig", is grown as a houseplant like F. benjamina. As its name suggests, it has nice strap-like leaves that make it look a little like a bamboo. Its foliage is dense, with new growth sometimes tinted bronze, later maturing to a deep, rich green. They like being pot bound and tolerate lower light levels and more erratic watering than F. benjamina. 

F. carica ‘Brown Turkey’ AGM (H4) is probably the best-known fruiting variety. Said to be reliably hardy in most parts of the UK, it has lush, lobed leaves and can be grown against a wall or as a free-standing tree. It produces large pear-shaped brown fruits with the occasional purple tinge.

F. carica ‘Brunswick’ produces a much larger pear-shaped fruit than ‘Brown Turkey’, with a greenish-yellow skin becoming brown in the sun. The flesh inside is red and yellow. It also produces elegant, deeply lobed, palmate leaves. Reportedly very hardy.

F. carica ‘Panachée’ has unusual striped green and yellow fruits that resemble mini hot-air balloons. Inside, the fruits have sweet red flesh. The variegation is also seen on stems and new growth. It is a late-season cropper and does not ripen well outside in the UK, so best grown in a greenhouse or conservatory.

F. elastica ‘Bali’ is another well-known houseplant variety. It has thick, leathery leaves that are so dark they appear almost black and bright-red leaf sheaths. Prefers to be grown out of indirect sunlight. Prune in winter if required.

F. lyrata AGM (H1c) has large glossy leaves shaped like a fiddle or lyre, with a broad apex and narrow middle. They grow in a whorl up the long straight stem. This houseplant type benefits from occasional misting and regular watering in the growing season but being allowed to dry out slightly first. Leaves may start to drop because of dry air or overwatering. In its native habitat it can grow as a strangler fig or as a free-standing tree on its own.

F. microcarpa is another species grown as a houseplant. It is quite a character, with a contorted trunk and succulent leaves. It grows naturally like a bonsai tree. Keep in a warm place, regularly watering during the growing season, but allow to dry out between waterings.


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