Ficus lyrata problem

keltic_pickleJuly 5, 2008

I bought a ficus lyrata about a month ago. It is sitting right by a window that gets lots of sun in the morning, and good indirect light the rest of the day. It has been dropping leaves quite consistently and at this rate will be totally bare within another month. The leaves just turn yellow and crispy and fall off (or come off easily in my hand).

I've heard these plants are sensitive to changes in environment. Is it possible that it is still adjusting to the move from the nursery to my apartment? Should I just wait this out? I'm afraid it's going to lose all of its leaves.

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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

How often are you watering it? Are you allowing the soil to dry down considerably before watering again? Did you fertilize it when you brought it home? With what and what strength if a yes.

Like all Ficus - they're not sensitive to CHANGES, per se, but they are sensitive to cultural changes (usually light and temperature) that go from what they are used to, to something less favorable.


    Bookmark   July 5, 2008 at 8:49PM
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keltic pickle, the condition you describe suggests inadequate watering. Observe carefully the lowest leaf on each stalk and compare it with the leaves immediately above it. Look for any hint of yellowing and increase the amount of water you apply without changing anything else.
The objective is to stop the yellowing in its tracks. The all-green leaves must remain so because, after all, a fiddle leaf plant without its full complement of leaves is comparable to the Andre Rieu Orchestra with its strings section missing a fiddle or two.
You might not be able to save all the leaves but you will minimise the loss.

    Bookmark   July 6, 2008 at 7:27AM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

From observation, I think the 5 most common causes of defoliation (including partial defoliation/shedding) in Ficus (and several other genera) species in order of likelihood are:
1) A decrease in light levels
2) Over-watering
3) Nitrogen deficiency
4) Under-watering
5) Sudden chill

I think you might be able to reverse the positions of 1 & 2 in many cases because people often tend to over-nurture/over-water new plants. Over and under-watering cause the same drought response, but I put under-watering 4th because the plant tends to remain very tolerant of dry conditions before defoliation as a drought response.


    Bookmark   July 6, 2008 at 10:23AM
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I have been letting it dry out completely between waterings. Using a moisture meter to help know when it is completely dry.

So I am getting varying opinions on whether I am under watering or over watering... What to do?

    Bookmark   July 6, 2008 at 12:32PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

Well - you KNOW you shouldn't let the soil dry completely, and you can't keep it soggy. Water when the soil at the drain hole first appears dry to the touch. You can determine this by inserting a wick into the drain hole (This is a very effective tool to allow you to water copiously each time you water and still not worry too much about over-watering. Let me know if you need more information.), and only watering when it feels dry right at the point the wick exits the pot.

The inexpensive moisture meters are pretty much of no value. They measure EC (electrical conductivity), which is more nearly a measure of the concentration of fertilizer salts than it is moisture levels. If you doubt what I said, take a reading by inserting the probe into a cup of distilled water. It will read 'DRY'. Add a teaspoon of salt and dissolve - read again, and it will read all the way to the moist side.


    Bookmark   July 6, 2008 at 2:50PM
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Very interesting! Not sure I entirely understand what you mean about the wick. I'll search around to see if I can get a more detailed description, but if you care to elaborate, I would certainly be appreciative. Thanks very much!

    Bookmark   July 6, 2008 at 5:00PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

You can use a wick to drain water from the saturated layer of soil at the bottom of the container. Adding a wick & allowing it to dangle below the container "fools" the water into "thinking" the container is actually deeper than it is. The water moves down the wick in search of the deepest part of the container. When it gets to the bottom of the wick, the water moving down behind it "pushes" it off the wick.

That is the simplified version. If you want the technical explanation, read this.


    Bookmark   July 6, 2008 at 7:29PM
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Lots of good info there - thanks, Al.

    Bookmark   July 7, 2008 at 12:32AM
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I have a follow up question: I have had the same problem with a ficus lyrata I bought - the 5 canes in the pot now only have leaves at the top, though the leaf drop has stopped.

Will the leaves regrow along the stems/canes?

    Bookmark   January 15, 2009 at 1:48PM
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pirate_girl(Zone7 NYC)

I doubt it, but I'll let Al (Tapla), our resident Ficus maven address this. (Waving, hiya Al).

    Bookmark   January 15, 2009 at 5:22PM
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I don't know whether you go along with the "wick" method of watering, but you are the judge whether you believe the plant has been overwatered.
Given that plants must be watered, and therefore, its the roots that must receive the water, we assume from our watering habit the roots are receiving what water we give it.
The easiest way of telling is by watering so that it exits the bottom of the pot into a holding vessel, usually a saucer, and there let it drain fully before dumping such excess.
To leave it there invites the water that has just been gotten rid of, to re-enter back up to the roots that just got rid of it.

Yellow leaves, usually at bottom, because that's the leaf closst to the problem, is caused from either over or underwatering. But, when it is the lower leaves that are yellowing, and possibly falling off, its due to the light levels not being sufficient. Move it so that it receives the best light available. That speaks for a southern, or western exposure.

If you've been fertilizing, the plant, at this time of season, is probably not using it. Its not growing. The food is being force fed to a plant it cant use.
You would be the judge here also.

Hopefully you don't really mean the plant is allowed to dry down completely. When soil dries out, it shrinks. Sometimes the soil shrinks away from the sides of the pot.
This causes any watering to slide down the sides, to the drainage holes. In the meantime the water doesn't get to where it is intended....the roots. When the water is seen in the saucer, the thought is the plant has been watered when in fact, it hasn't.

Never let a plant's soil dry out completely. Dry down..yes, but use your finger to test whether there is dampness below and if not, water. If there is, let it go another couple days, and test again.
Or use a viable humidity tester which can be bought at any garden center.

It is common for plants to lose some leaves; usually the bottom ones due to a change in environment.
Your heated air is different, your water from the tap, might be quite different that what had been given;
Hopefully you have not given the plant water that is on a softening system. That will cause a plant to have problems most definitely. Water given plants should be allowed to sit overnight, to gain room temperature and not be too from a tap which can cause it stress.

Usually the cause of dropping leaves is because the air in your home is quite different. Your furnace is on and you problably keep the temperature at about 68º = 72º...or maybe higher. Plants usually like lower temperatures during nighttime the 60º - 65º range.

    Bookmark   January 15, 2009 at 5:34PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

It's a somewhat complicated answer, but YES, you can make them grow there (back-bud).

Trees will back-bud with no help from us when light intensity is high and penetrating to the interior of the tree ('interior' part probably doesn't apply in your case), nutrition is in the adequate to luxury (a real term) range, there is good air movement around the tree, and soil structure is conducive to good root function/metabolism.

If one or more of these requirements is suspect (and on your tree they must be - because of your description) you can still force back-budding by tip-pruning either selectively or over the entire plant. For Ficus, simply remove the growing tip and the last leaf that emerged from each branch you wish to increase branching on. This causes changes in growth regulators/hormones that stimulates latent buds in leaf axils, and above old leaf bundle scars, if the plant was growing robustly at the pruning. The end result is more branching and branches that grow densely instead of overly long.


    Bookmark   January 15, 2009 at 5:38PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

Hi, Pirate Girl. I was too busy typing to see you waving. ;o)

BTW, Xanthoria - I should have mentioned that it's not normal for there to be foliage only @ branch ends on this plant. There is something causing that condition, and the most likely cause is lack of light - being severely undernourished could also cause it, but it's unlikely it's an over/under-watering issue, unless the existing foliage is exhibiting symptoms you didn't mention. Hopefully you'll be able to ID and correct the problem.

Your tree likes a fast soil that doesn't stay soggy, weak doses of a 1:1:1 or 2:1:2 ratio fertilizer, bright light, and temperatures consistently in the 65-80* range. You can allow the plant to dry to the point where the soil first feels completely dry at the drain hole with no ill effects, and you SHOULD allow the planting to dry down considerably between generous waterings.

There are some statements that are simply not true in the above post:

Yellowing leaves low on the plant are not unequivocally water related. Mites and a macronutrient deficiency (particularly N) are both very common causes of yellowing/loss of older leaves.

You cannot "force feed" a plant or make it "eat" too much fertilizer. Plants take what they need and leave the rest. You must, however, be careful about not applying so much fertilizer that it makes it difficult or impossible for the plant to take up water and the nutrients dissolved in it.

The inexpensive moisture meters you buy at plant stores are useless for determining moisture content. They measure electrical conductivity - not moisture. To prove this, dip the probe in a cup of deionized (distilled) water. The meter will read 'DRY'. Dissolve a tsp of salt or fertilizer in the same water and it will read 'WET'. Inexpensive moisture meters are better at reading fertility levels than moisture levels.

I hope you've found my offerings at least somewhat helpful. Take care.


    Bookmark   January 15, 2009 at 6:14PM
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I live in hot Houston, TX., and my ficus lyrata, which I bought a month ago and put in my outdoor atrium open to the sky, has a problem with its TOP leaves. They first turn brown from the outside ends, then gradually white, and are as dry and the same color as parchment. This plant is about 5 feet tall, and has now lost 6 of the top leaves. I was told this plant loves direct sunlight, which it can only get about 3 hours a day at most, but it appears that these leaves are burned, as though something is literally burning the plant at the top, and all I can think of is the sun. I repotted the root-bound plant when I got it but didn't separate the roots as it was too hot here. It's in good potting soil, and I saturated it with root stimulator when transplanting it. For a month it's looked fabulous, and now in the last week it's looking awful. If I sprayed it with Miracle Gro on a hose-end feeder, do you suppose that's what's causing the top leaves to burn? I moved the plant to where it gets only filtered light today, to see if that helps. HELP, I LOVE THIS PLANT!!!

    Bookmark   May 1, 2011 at 2:21AM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

Lyrata likes bright but not direct sunlight, so it's possible you're seeing photo-oxidation (sunburn). You could have easily skipped the "root stimulator" at repot time as it unnecessarily adds to the TDS/EC (salt level) of the soil solution and makes it difficult for plants to absorb water. The best and most efficient pathway for nutrients to make their way into the plant is roots, especially when the plant's foliage is as thick and rich in cuticular waxes as that of your fiddle leaf fig.

There are two ways to look at how we deal with troubled plants. One is to try to isolate the problematic issue and treat it on a per case basis, the other is to learn to make cultural conditions as conducive to robust growth and good health as possible so these issues never arise in the first place. Everything starts with the roots, the heart of the plant. If you can make the roots happy, and get a good nutritional supplementation program in place, the rest is really pretty easy and 3/4 of the heavy lifting is already done - the plant can generally do the rest, as healthy plants that are growing well & showing good vitality are far less prone to issues like disease and insect predation because their natural defenses are armed as a byproduct of their normal metabolism.

There is nothing we can do for/to plants to get them to grow better than they are genetically programmed to grow - nothing - it can't be done. Our job is to eliminate to the greatest degree possible those influences that ARE limiting so plants can grow as close to their genetic potential as possible.

It may be helpful to read the info at the link below. If you have other questions, you can ask there or here. I have more than 30 Ficus covering about 10 different species growing as bonsai or as pre-bonsai, as well as hardy figs (carica), so I'm very familiar with the genus as a whole.


Here is a link that might be useful: More about Ficus.

    Bookmark   May 1, 2011 at 12:17PM
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Hi there,

We bought a ficus lyrata about 4 weeks ago and the first two weeks it looked great, and we haven't been overwatering, also: nice light-exposure but not too much. Now the leaves are starting to "curl/wave" along the edges. On two leaves near the mid-section I'm seeing crater-like buldges... no browning/yellowing yet. Our gut-feeling is saying to give it more water since it has lost some of its amazing fierce greenness it had when we just bought it, but we don't want to drown it.
I'm a bit sad about its state actually, hope someone can help.
Greetings from Europe!
(I've attached a picture)

    Bookmark   September 7, 2013 at 7:56AM
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