ficus burgundy (rubber plant) leaf spots & drop

greentoe357July 10, 2013

I bought a very bushy ficus burgundy (rubber plant) in a 10' pot about 6 weeks ago. It has many stems with many leaves all over (you could not see the soil at all without some serious parting of the leaves, and many leaves were probably not getting any light on the inside). With time in my apartment lower leaves started dropping a bit - which I understand it is partially a normal process of going from ideal nursery environment where I heard they treat these plants with hormones to encourage bushiness to my relatively low light environment.

What worries me is that some leaves get these unhealthy looking spots and discoloration on them before dropping. The spots are brown to tan colored, the leaves thin in those spots, the veins become more pronounced to the touch and sight, the spots feel like very fine dry sand paper rather than the usual thick smooth leathery feel of a healthy leaf. Is this normal for leaves about to be dropped, or is is a bug or some sort, or perhaps it's in the care I provide?

The plant is in the original nursery soil - I have not repotted it. The mix seems rather fluffy with some bark, what looks like peat and controlled release fertilizer added in. I have not seen the soil compact too much between waterings, which is one of the reasons I have not repotted.

The plant is in front of a west-facing window with no direct sunlight because of tall buildings and trees around.

I water when the soil becomes dry, then soak and dump the saucer water. In practice that meant:
5/25: first watering after bringing it home. I also gave it a good shower because the leaves had whitish residue on them, perhaps fertilizer, pesticide or hard water marks. I wiped the leaves with a soft cloth trying to get rid of the residue, too.
6/14 (20 days later): another shower and leaf wipe. I also fertilized at that point.
I have not watered again till now (26 days later), as the soil is still a tiny bit damp.

Fertilizer (only once so far): weak Foliage-Pro solution (quarter teaspoon per gallon) - and that water also had vinegar added in, as my water is alkaline.

Any advice to prevent these spots and to minimize leaf drop?

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this is how the underside of the latest dropped leaf looks like:

    Bookmark   July 10, 2013 at 3:06AM
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and this is to compare how a healthier leaf on the left looks next to one that is starting to change color on the right - it's a different shade of green, as you see. No pronounced spots yet, but this is how it starts.

    Bookmark   July 10, 2013 at 3:09AM
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it looks fungal. like its may be rotting? for the plant this size and vigor it is more normal to water every 7-10 days. the fact that soil stays damp for 3-4 weeks is not a good sign. smth is wrong. can you just pull it out of the pot and look at the rootball?

    Bookmark   July 12, 2013 at 10:27AM
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Here is the root ball. It is very wet because I gave the plant a shower and fertilized two days ago.

    Bookmark   July 12, 2013 at 1:02PM
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Here is the bottom of the root ball. Don't know how root rot looks like - is this it? The picture is fuzzy but the root color is true.
I decided to repot it right away even though my gritty mix is not ready yet. A few pics will follow.

    Bookmark   July 12, 2013 at 1:05PM
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now I see that it's not that big, thought it was twice the size. for what you have I think the pot is way too large. and the soil is very dense and mucky. I'd trim off 1" of soil all around and 2" all around on the bottom - to conical shape and pop it into a smaller pot until you get some new soil mix to plant it in.

    Bookmark   July 12, 2013 at 1:12PM
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The mix on the outside was fluffy and uncompacted, but then I got to this hard-feeling core. Apparently, the nursery did not bother to do repotting correctly and just dumped the root ball from a 6 inch pot intact into a larger pot. You can see what happens then - the outline of the old root ball is clearly visible. The inner soil was much much harder and of different composition that the outer newer mix. It felt drier to the touch, too.

    Bookmark   July 12, 2013 at 1:13PM
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When I dug in there, one hard cluster of old soil revealed a clump of controlled release fertilizer concentrated in a small area of the root ball. This can't be good, but how bad is it?

Overall, the mix contained surprisingly a lot of fertilizer, I thought. It is visible in some of the pictures. But it does look like the CRF was put on the surface of the mix and made its way around and under the root ball - rather than the CRF being mixed into the soil.

    Bookmark   July 12, 2013 at 1:18PM
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bare roots before puning

    Bookmark   July 12, 2013 at 1:20PM
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Here's how I pruned the roots. I do not have much experience, but I cut off thicker roots, those that were circling back to the ball, those that were wrapping around and strangling other roots, and I trimmed a bit of length.

I did not trim anything off the top deliberately - because 3 or 4 leaves broke off unintentionally and the plant is shedding leaves anyway, so I thought I should not cut any more.

Any comments / suggestions to do things differently next time?

    Bookmark   July 12, 2013 at 1:26PM
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The end result.

    Bookmark   July 12, 2013 at 1:31PM
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>> now I see that it's not that big, thought it was twice the size. for what you have I think the pot is way too large.

Petrushka, I see you were posting at the same time. Thanks for your advice. I actually just made the pot even bigger (fingers were itchy to do something). But this is temporary until I get a better draining mix. The mix now is 50% leftover 511 mix and the old soil from the same plant (outer fluffier soil, not the inner dense old root ball soil). Far from ideal, I know.

Everybody who wishes, please comment and critique away. I am glad to learn here.

    Bookmark   July 12, 2013 at 1:39PM
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Tiffany, purpleinopp GardenWeb, Z8b Opp, AL(8B AL)

That root trim looks good to me, a little more conservative but similar to what I'd do if it's the first time for a big plant like that.

What a lot of fertilizer balls! I've never unpotted a plant with that much fertilizer in the soil.

    Bookmark   July 12, 2013 at 1:40PM
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50% 511 should make it much better. ficus can withstand up to 50% root trim. 30% is what you did approx?
it might still drop a few leaves, you know...transplant shock. that is to be expected. mist it daily. water sparingly.
do not feed it until new growth starts, which should be in about a month if all goes well.
i wonder if may be you have fertilizer burn. i don't know what it looks like on ficus. though spots are usually fungal or viral.
the fert granules inside the rootball might be old - they exaust themselves after a few months, but the empty shells remain. the green ones on bottom are proly newer and still active. i assume you got rid of all granules? that would be best for now.

    Bookmark   July 12, 2013 at 2:10PM
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Yes, 30% root trim is about right for what I did.

For the several weeks I've had it, new growth would come out seemingly in spurts - one new leaf at a time on almost every tip, then nothing for a few weeks, then a spurt again. This seems healthy to me.

Not feeding is probably a good idea - especially considering I put some of the old soil with the fertilizer balls right back in, eliminating the CRF would be too tedious, and I actually did not think to do it. What may have been a high concentration now is ~50% lower because my added 511 mix does not include a CRF. So it may be fine - but I will not feed any more till I see healthy growth again.

I wondered about fertilizer burn as well. Don't know how it looks on a rubber plant either. Although the seeming CRF overdose is not a new issue - it was sold like that weeks ago, and they probably do not sell freshly repotted plants but let them settle first.

    Bookmark   July 12, 2013 at 2:22PM
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I wanted to come back and report on the progress with my ficus burgundy, and it's a thrill to say the news is good!

11 days after my last post, I finally got all ingredients, screened and mixed my first batch of gritty mix, and of course this ficus was one of the first in line for repotting. It's been another 11 days since then, and NOT A SINGLE LEAF has dropped! The fungusy discoloration or whatever that thing was - it just STOPPED dead in its tracks right away after repotting. I cannot find any sign of the disease on the growing leaves now and I just shook the branches gently to see if any leaves would drop, and none did.

The jury on the gritty mix experience for some of my other plants is still out (some limited wilting issues - I am watching it), but I have to say, this ficus seems just perfectly happy where it is for now.

Thanks to all for your help in this journey!

    Bookmark   August 3, 2013 at 1:49AM
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i left my rubber plant outside and the weather changed on me. lets just say it got too cold , now my leaves are dead. what should i do?

    Bookmark   December 2, 2014 at 6:10PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

How cold is "too cold"? and for how long was it too cold?

Not all tissue types on a plant are equally (cold) hardy. Woody tissues are usually more resistant to chill than leaves and roots, so there might be some hope if killing low temperatures weren't reached.

Be patient, keep the plant warm (65* or above), and be very sure you don't over-water. The soil should be barely damp/moist at the bottom of the pot - never wet. If the plant is still viable, the issue most likely to throw a monkey wrench into the works would be over-watering/ a soggy soil. Don't be tempted to fertilize until you see new growth. Once new growth is in evidence, come back for more direction.


    Bookmark   December 3, 2014 at 3:28PM
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