Ficus lyrata problems since move.

kellyinsfJune 3, 2010

My fabulous ficus lyrata, my pride and joy, seems to be suffering in my new apartment. It's a big one: About 7' tall and 6' wide with several branches covered with leaves. Several leaves toward the center of the tree have been turning brown and falling off in the past month. Also, some new leaf growth is stunted and curled. (I took photos but don't see a way to post here.) I'm not sure what's causing these problems and would love feedback from experienced ficus lyrata owners.

It received direct light about half the day at my old apartment and I turned it every two weeks. It's in the corner of my new place, which is way too small to turn it, and the window receives somewhat less direct light. However, I supplement it with a grow-light placed underneath and shining upwards into the non-window side. I wonder if this lighting situation is a cause of the problems.

Also, it's very root-bound, but I've been afraid to repot because I'm worried it would get much larger, and at that point it wouldn't fit into a San Francisco apartment. I noticed that most water I pour onto the soil seems to run straight through into the tray lately. I wonder if this could also be causing problems.

I dust the leaves regularly. I can't find any pests.

I'm considering trimming the branches considerably and repotting to give the roots more room while making it small enough for me to turn. I don't want to shock the tree too much, so would probably do one of these things, give it a month to recover, then do the other.

Does anyone have any better ideas? Dire warnings? Seasoned advice? I would be heartbroken if I killed it. Thanks in advance for any feedback.


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If water is running thru the pot then the soil isn't absorbing any. You stated rootbound so probably pot is full of roots and not much soil left.

I don't grow any ficus but it seems they are rather tempermental at times depending on the variety.
Hopefully someone else will come on and give you advice about root and branch pruning.

    Bookmark   June 3, 2010 at 9:56PM
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rhizo_1 (North AL) zone 7

I'm afraid that you'll need to tend to that root problem whether you want your plant to grow or not. Many of us find that root PRUNING a plant before adding fresh soil to the same pot is a perfect compromise, along with some judicial top pruning.

    Bookmark   June 4, 2010 at 8:08AM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

Dori is right that the roots need attention asap, and now is a really good time to bite the bullet and get after them. I'm not speaking critically, rather from the perspective of someone who has been where you are many hundreds of times and has learned that the primary keys to success for your indoor trees are the condition of the roots, and the choice of soil. Light levels are extremely important as well, but I tend to emphasize the issues you have to get right the first time, not something that is easily changed - like light.

Once a plant has become root-bound to the degree that you can lift the root and soil mass from the pot intact, growth and vitality begin to be affected. Usual symptoms are reduced branch extension an d loss of older and interior foliage, until your plant has that 'poodle cut' look, with foliage in tufts of growth at the ends of branches.
From my perspective, it makes no sense to allow a tree you wish to keep[ ...... forever, to languish in a state of subdued vitality because of a poor soil or because it's extremely root bound. These trees take to root-work well, so if you're interested in learning how to tend to the roots (set aside several hours for the first time), let me know and I'll walk you through it.

I bare root and root-prune all my old Ficus every 2-3 years. I'm of the philosophy that if I keep the tree at maximum vitality and let it grow like mad - I can EASILY keep the size in check by pruning. That the tree is healthy means it will back-bud willingly and grow lots of branches - especially if I pinch regularly (which I can also help you with). All these extra branches provide myriad pruning opportunities which I can take advantage of to keep the tree looking great.

Experienced bonsai practitioners are able to keep trees alive and perfectly healthy and compact in very small containers for hundreds of years - the same trees many of us grow as houseplants. The reason these trees thrive while many of (the collective) yours languish is primarily the soils and attention to roots.

Finally, some of your leaf loss might be due to the reduction in light intensity, and you're probably also dealing with a very high level of soluble salts in the soil

..... ball's in your court. ;o)


    Bookmark   June 4, 2010 at 9:18AM
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Thanks so much to each of you for your responses.

Root issues do sound like the clear culprit. Al, I would love to be walked through the root pruning process. I'm not lazy and have plenty of time; I just lack the knowledge.

Also, I want to go ahead and buy what I'll need, so could you indicate what sort of soil is best, whether it will need a larger pot or can keep the same after pruning, and whether my small pruning shears (3/4") will be sufficient for the job?

Thanks so much for taking the time to help.

Meanwhile, I posted the photos to Flickr. Hopefully they're viewable at this link.

Best wishes,

Here is a link that might be useful: Flickr photos of ficus

    Bookmark   June 4, 2010 at 2:13PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

Let's talk about the soil first. Do you live somewhere where you think pine bark would be available to you; and are you willing to do a little looking for the materials to build your own soils, or would you rather work with something from a bag? Do you have a lot of other houseplants aside from the tree?

Here's a little more reading about F. lyrata, for when you get a sec.


    Bookmark   June 4, 2010 at 4:02PM
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I'm in San Francisco, and we have such a huge variety of plants and so many gardeners here that I'm sure there's little I can't obtain. Everything grows here, and many things bloom and fruit all year and never go dormant.

I have lots of other houseplants and the rest are very happy except for a bromeliad I got for Christmas and am still learning about.

I've always used bagged soil and never thought about building my own. Sadly, cost is a factor - I'm a student and underemployed. Space is also an issue - if I can buy small quantities, that's fine, but there's no storage for anything in bulk.

I'll check out the link you sent. Thanks for taking the time to talk to me.


    Bookmark   June 4, 2010 at 5:46PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

OK - let me know if/when you're ready to repot & I'll walk you through it.


    Bookmark   June 4, 2010 at 7:01PM
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