37yr old Ficus dropping green leaves like crazy

DCrezJuly 26, 2011

Hello all, I have thoroughly read as much as I could on this topic and have found this site to be a wealth of info. Thanks to all contributors. My family has had a Ficus Benjamina for decades now and it has moved around from house to house and climate to climate as various caretakers lives have evolved. Through thick and thin it has survived and needless to say I love this tree!

2 months ago it moved back in with me and all was well. New leaves sprouting, looking very healthy until roughly 3-4 days ago when green leaves started falling bunches. About 50 healthy looking leaves have shed in a few days.

Now I know that I've severely over-watered it and have risked root rot. The tree's pot sat in about 2 inches of overflow water on 5-6 different occasions and now roughly 3 inches of the trunk above the soil line is darker than the rest of the bark.

My questions are....are there any measures I can or should take to help this tree? Or is my best course of action to simply let the soil dry out and then begin watering properly? If I should just let it dry out, should it be watered when the top few inches of soil are dry again? Or given that it was over-watered, should I allow all the soil in the pot to completely dry before re-watering?

Any advice is greatly appreciated.


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Hi DC. Sorry about your Ficus..37-years is a long time keeping a plant.

Does the pot have drainage, and when was it last repotted?

You can let it dry, and hope for the best, but if there's still sitting water, your best bet would be to haul your Ficus outside, remove from its pot, and get to work.

Check and trim dead/dying roots. If possible, leave the rootball outside until they dry..In the meantime, 'if the pot is adequate size,' wash and dry pot. Toss excess water and old soil.
If the pot has enough room for new root growth, use the same container in fresh, well-draining soil.

As for re-watering, if the rootball is moist or wet after placing in its container, wait a few days to a week, then water.

BTW, if the container doesn't have drainage holes, replace with a pot that does.

There might be a little more leaf drop, so be patient. Once your Ficus settles, add half-strength fertilizer.

Is your Ficus kept indoors?

It wouldn't hurt to spray/mist leaves daily.

One other thing. Have you ever heard of a product called Superthrive?
Superthrive contains hormones and 50 vitamins. It works great, particularly with stressed plants.
Add 10 drops of ST to a gallon of water. It can be used with regular fertilizer; in fact it's recommended.

You'll soon see baby leaves, and hopefully, your Ficus will again be beautiful and full.

You're probably aware Ficus aren't crazy moving from one spot to another. If your tree has been in the same location since you've first acquired it, 'sunny with air circulation,' keep in the same place. Good luck, Toni

    Bookmark   July 27, 2011 at 4:20PM
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Thanks for the recommendations. Here are some photos...there are some new leaves growing along the interior of the tree, but another 10-15 green leaves fell today. Now that I haven't watered the tree in 3 days and it's hopefully drying out, can I expect the leaf shedding to slow down soon? I'm just wondering at one point it becomes clear more than just time is needed for the tree to be ok.

    Bookmark   July 27, 2011 at 6:51PM
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DC...what size is the pot? Measure one side of rim to the other side, 'diameter' to get pot size.

It looks small in the picture, but pics can be deceiving.

What is the spotting on the trunk? Water?
Also, what do you mean by new growth on the 'interior' part of the tree? What do you by interior? Toni

    Bookmark   July 28, 2011 at 1:48PM
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Hi Toni, thanks for your response. The pot is 15" in diameter at the top. I am guessing it's been in the same pot (and healthy) for 10 years. The tree is roughly 8' tall. The darker section of the lower trunk appeared after the tree had been over-watered consistently for about a month. I assume it's moisture migrating up from the over-saturated root ball?

Here are some photos of new leaves that started growing along the trunk. Incidentally, that is what caused me to overwater. The tree was sprouting new growth all over, dozens of new leaves over the course of a few weeks and I thought it was from increased watering. Another 15 healthy, green leaves have already shed today. It's making me sick! Thanks for your recommendations.

    Bookmark   July 28, 2011 at 2:45PM
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pirate_girl(Zone7 NYC)

Hi DC,

I'd give it a bit more time here, for others to respond. The person regarded as the Ficus man here hasn't chimed in, I'm sure he'll be helpful if he's around.

Hey Toni,

(PG) Karen here, hope you know I mean no disrespect to you, but this sounds like a job for Al (Tapla).

    Bookmark   July 28, 2011 at 4:46PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

D - is the tree now largely defoliated, other than the newly emerged small branching shown above - can we get a look at the rest of the canopy? Where do you live? I'm looking for some reference to a large city near you or something that will indicate what your weather patterns are likely to be for the next 2 months.

You're probably going to have to unpot and inspect the roots. I can say that if the tree is already largely defoliated, I'd strongly encourage you to get after the roots and reset the clock back to the point where your tree again has at least the opportunity to grow at near it's genetic potential. If you leave the plant/roots to their own devices, you actually ensure a slow and steady decline.

It's important to realize that the growth and vitality of plants are negatively affected by root congestion at about the point where the root/soil mass can be lifted from the pot intact. Once the planting has reached that stage, potting up has less and less rejuvenating effect on the plant.

Here is a copy/paste job that uses a sliding scale to illustrate the difference between what happens to trees/plants left to their own devices (no root work - only potting-up) vs trees where root maintenance is a regular part of the maintenance program. You can read the full thread here, but here is the part I referred to:

In plants that are potted-up, rootage becomes entangled. As root diameters increase, portions of roots constrict flow of water and nutrients through other roots, much the same as in the case of girdling or encircling roots on trees grown in-ground. The ratio of fine, feeder roots to more lignified and perennial roots becomes skewed to favor the larger, (practically speaking) useless roots.

Initial symptoms of poor root conditions are progressive diminishing of branch extension and reduced vitality. As rootage becomes continually compressed and restricted, branch extension stops and individual branches might die as water/nutrient translocation is further compromised. Foliage quality may not (important to understand) indicate the tree is struggling until the condition is severe, but if you observe your trees carefully, you will find them increasingly unable to cope with stressful conditions - too much/little water, heat, sun, etc. Trees that are operating under conditions of stress that has progressed to strain, will usually be diagnosed in the end as suffering from attack by insects or other bio-agents while the underlying cause goes unnoticed.

I want to mention that I draw distinct delineation between simply potting up and repotting. Potting up temporarily offers room for fine rootage to grow and do the necessary work of water/nutrient uptake, but these new roots soon lignify, while rootage in the old root mass continues to grow and become increasingly restrictive. The larger and larger containers required for potting-up & the difficulty in handling them also makes us increasingly reluctant to undertake even potting-up, let alone undertake the task of repotting/root-pruning which grows increasingly difficult with each up-potting.

So we are clear on terminology, potting up simply involves moving the plant with its root mass and soil intact, or nearly so, to a larger container and filling in around the root/soil mass with additional soil. Repotting, on the other hand, includes the removal of all or part of the soil and the pruning of roots, with an eye to removing the largest roots, as well as those that would be considered defective. Examples are roots that are dead, those growing back toward the center of the root mass, encircling, girdling or j-hooked roots, and otherwise damaged roots.

I often explain the effects of repotting vs potting up like this:

Let's rate growth/vitality potential on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the best. We're going to say that trees in containers can only achieve a growth/vitality rating of 9, due to the somewhat limiting effects of container culture. Lets also imagine that for every year a tree goes w/o repotting or potting up, its measure of growth/vitality slips by 1 number, That is to say you pot a tree and the first year it grows at a level of 9, the next year, an 8, the next year a 7. Lets also imagine we're going to go 3 years between repotting or potting up.

Here's what happens to the tree you repot/root prune:
year 1: 9
year 2: 8
year 3: 7
year 1: 9
year 2: 8
year 3: 7
year 1: 9
year 2: 8
year 3: 7
You can see that a full repotting and root pruning returns the plant to its full potential within the limits of other cultural influences for as long as you care to repot/root prune.

Looking now at how woody plants respond to only potting up:
year 1: 9
year 2: 8
year 3: 7
pot up
year 1: 8
year 2: 7
year 3: 6
pot up
year 1: 7
year 2: 6
year 3: 5
pot up
year 1: 6
year 2: 5
year 3: 4
pot up
year 1: 5
year 2: 4
year 3: 3
pot up
year 1: 4
year 2: 3
year 3: 2
pot up
year 1: 3
year 2: 2
year 3: 1

This is a fairly accurate illustration of the influence tight roots have on a woody plant's growth/vitality. You might think of it for a moment in the context of the longevity of bonsai trees vs the life expectancy of most trees grown as houseplants, the difference between 4 years and 400 years, lying primarily in how the roots are treated.

There is also a thread on this forum that addresses the care and cultural preferences of Ficus trees in containers that you may or may not have seen. I hope you find it helpful and that you reply with additional questions or concerns in addition to the info I inquired about.

Thank you for the kind words, Karen.


    Bookmark   July 28, 2011 at 8:04PM
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Honestly, I think if you move your tree closer to a window where it will receive more brighter light and some direct sun as well, that it will eventually recover.
It's almost guaranteed that when a ficus benjamina tree is moved to a different intensity of light, you will get on and off leaf loss (green leaves) which can go on for up to 2 to 3 months in some instances, but still growing new leaves at the same time, that is with the right watering and soil conditions along with good light.
I let the top half or so of mine pretty much dry down before giving it a good drink.

Billy Rae

    Bookmark   July 28, 2011 at 11:19PM
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First off, let me say thanks for the responses. This tree has been part of my family for 37 years and I can't overstate how much it means to me. Really appreciate all your advice.

So when I took custody of the tree 2 months ago it was clearly under-watered and probably suffered from too much light. Thin foliage and yellowing, dry leaves dropping. I moved it into my house where it gets a good amount of indirect sunlight, it's about 10' from a southwest facing window which is the prevalent sun source in DC. Within a couple weeks of coming to my home the tree was gaining foliage at an impressive rate, started to look more and more healthy and thus I made the sin of upping and upping it's watering. At one point I was giving it about 3 cups every other day and believing that's why the tree was revitalizing. Now the tree has probably lost 120 healthy green leaves and they are still falling. Honestly I am afraid to attempt re-potting myself and am hoping that just watering properly will get it back on track. Here are some photos of the upper branches, still some nice foiliage despite the recent shedding...but I'd like to know how long the shedding can continue before I really MUST do something like re-pot or whatever. Thanks for all your recommendations!

    Bookmark   July 29, 2011 at 1:42AM
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