Ficus benjamina (& most other commonly grown tropical Ficus)

tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)August 3, 2005

I conducted a bonsai workshop for a club last year or the year before using Ficus benjamina "Too Little" as the material. I wrote this as a hand-out to the participants. There are soo many here that grow this species (and other Ficus), that I thought I'd post this:

From the family: Moracea (relative of mulberry)

Native: India, other tropical - subtropical regions

Ficus benjamina is one of the species of Ficus commonly referred to as a strangler fig. It often begins its life in the crotch of a tree, or on a branch as a seed deposited in the droppings of an animal. After germination and as it grows, it does not actually parasitize the host plant, but uses it as support while it produces thin aerial roots that dangle or attach themselves to the host trunk, gaining nutrients and moisture from the air, leaf litter, and the bark of the host. This relationship is termed epiphytic, or the tree an epiphyte. Those familiar with the culture of orchids and bromeliads will recognize this term. When the aerial roots reach the ground, the tree begins a tremendous growth spurt, sending out more and more roots and a canopy that eventually shades out the host at the same time the roots compete for nutrients in the soil and compress the trunk and branches of the host to the point of stopping sap flow. Eventually all that is left where the host tree once stood, is a hollow cavity in the dangling roots that have now become the trunk of the Ficus. It is easy to see how many of the trees in the genus have come by the name strangler figs. The roots of some species are so powerful they can destroy concrete buildings or buckle roads and can be measured in miles, as they extend in search of water.

The Ficus genus, with more than 800 known species, is undoubtedly the number one choice as a subject for indoor tree culture. It tolerates the "dryer than desert" conditions actually found in many or most centrally heated homes reasonably well. Benjaminas fairly thick and leathery leaves, with a waxy cuticle, help to limit moisture loss, although it much prefers humidity levels well above 50%. Its preferred temperature range is from 60 degrees f. to near 100 degrees. It should be noted; however, that extended exposure above temperatures in the mid 90s will slow or stop growth, and below the recommended limit, the tree will decline slowly, with the damage and loss of vitality being very subtle and probably not apparent until later, when the cause may well be forgotten.

The number one cause of Ficus decline and subsequent death is without question over-watering. When we consider the young tree and its ability to obtain sufficient moisture from the air and bark surface of the host, we can extract the very important lesson: My Ficus will not tolerate wet roots!; or wet roots = rotted roots. Ficus b. will tolerate very dry soil, well. Allowing the soil to completely dry; however, will result in leaf loss and undue stress. I have grown various cultivars of Ficus b. for many years and usually check my trees twice daily when they are putting on new growth. I have found that waiting until emerging or new leaves lose turgidity and just begin to wilt, is the best time to water. If you feel the new leaves often, you will soon be able to tell when wilting is about to start and can water accordingly. (This might be a little too risky for the casual grower, especially in the summer heat/sun) I never water my Ficus with cold water. I allow tap water to set overnight to help dissipate the chlorine and come to room temperature before using. In summer I do the same or use water from the hose that has been warmed by the sun.

The roots of Ficus are very vigorous and the tree will concentrate much of its growth potential on root development. A quick review of the growth nature, particularly how the tree is programmed to develop the all important first aerial roots, serves to reinforce this assertion. When in pot culture, development of trunk and branches will lag root development substantially until the container has been well-colonized by the roots. Ficus b. does not mind being pot-bound and can thrive with a root to soil ratio approaching 90 /10. In bonsai culture such ratios are not realistic and can create watering problems, not to mention aesthetic considerations. I am not advocating you maintain this ratio, but this knowledge can be a useful tool in deciding when a repot is in order or in answering the question: "Why are my treeÂs trunk and branches developing so slowly?".

Ficus roots need air. Again, returning to the epiphytic nature of the tree, we see the roots of the young tree thrive in just air. For this reason, we should always use a soil mix with large particles, still in relation to the size of the tree, but perhaps larger than you might normally use. Soil particle size must be balanced with the amount of time you can spend on the treeÂs needs. Large soil particle size = healthier tree, but there is a qualifier: you must be prepared to water more frequently as particle size increases. I have not tried this method, (no need, as I always row in a highly aerated soil mix) but I have read that you may aerate the soil of potted Ficus by inserting chopsticks and rotating to create air pockets. It makes good sense, and because of the vigorous nature of the roots, I believe the practice would present little danger if some slight wounding of roots should occur.

The ideal time to repot a Ficus, in our area, is from July 4th to the first week of August, but I have repotted them at all times of the year in emergencies with ill effect limited to the tree sulking for extended periods. Repot during the hottest months to minimize recovery time. Bottom heat, such as a propagation mat, along with high light levels will fractionalize recovery time after a root prune and repot.

The light requirements of Ficus in general varies little by species, but a good generalization might be; that although most Ficus begin life as an understory tree and are generally fairly shade tolerant, they actually spend their life striving to reach the canopy where they find full sun. For this reason we should give Ficus all the sun they will tolerate. I grow all varieties of Ficus in full sun, although I am as yet unsure of how much sun Ficus b. "Midnight" will tolerate. (Since writing this, I have grown two plantings of "midnight" in full sun for two summer growing seasons.) I have often read that Ficus defoliates at the slightest change in light level or temperature. I have found this to be only partly true. Any trees I have moved from a location with a lower light level to a brighter location have not suffered leaf drop (abscission). If the change is reversed (from bright to dim) leaf loss is probable. It might be interesting to note that trees that are being grown out, or allowed to grow wild (unpruned)are most likely to suffer loss of interior leaves when light levels are reduced. Trees in bonsai culture, where thinning has occurred to allow more light to the trees interior are less affected. Indoor supplemental lighting is a broad subject, but if you have the ability to provide it, your trees will definitely show their appreciation. Brighter light = smaller leaf size, shorter internodes. and superior ramification, not to mention a marked increase in overall mass. Concerning leaf loss due to temperature fluctuations: It should be noted even fairly short exposure to cold drafts will cause leaves to fall. The cool temperatures trigger an increase in abscissic acid, a growth regulator (hormone) that plays a major role in leaf loss. It follows then that it is prudent to select a location free from cold breezes.

Most Ficus b. have a fairly large leaf, but respond well to the bonsai leaf reduction techniques of properly limiting water and nutrients. Complete defoliation is a useful tool in reducing leaf size and improving ramification and is superior to the practice of removing only apical meristems, but does cause more stress to the tree and slows development. It should be considered only after the tree has reached good development and only then on trees in good health, growing vigorously and in need of leaf reduction. Branch pruning should be undertaken after 5 or 6 leaves have formed . You can then cut back to 2 leaves.

Ficus b. is suitable for most bonsai styles, although I cannot imagine it as a literati. Since they air layer so easily, a very nice bonsai can be started by buying a standard type tree at a nursery or discount store, then air layering the top. IÂve seen plants with larger than 2 inch trunks for around $20. Air layered trees will exhibit more basal flare and more even roots than those grown from cuttings. Pot selection can be important. Shallow pots will also encourage basal flare. Always select pots that will drain well.

Fertilizer recommendations vary depending on the trees state of development. Since I am able to maintain high light levels in my indoor growing area, I am able to use a hi-nitrogen fertilizer all year. A more balanced blend of soluble 20-20-20 might be a choice for good light conditions indoors, but only when the tree is actively putting on growth. A torpid tree, or one that is weak, should not be fertilized. Wait instead, until the tree shows signs of new growth. In most winter indoor settings without supplemental lighting in zones 7 & below, Nitrogen would best be eliminated or greatly reduced in winter. N applications under low light conditions consistently produces weak growth with long internodes. Use something like a soluble 0-10-10 instead.

Ficus trees can suffer from some pests. Most common are scale, followed closely by mites, then mealies. I have always had good luck with neem oil as both a preventative and fixative. Scale and mealies can be picked by hand, and a 50/50 rubbing alcohol/water spritz with a few drops of dishsoap will kill them in the crawler stage as well. Malathion and Isotox should not be used on any Ficus (severe damage or death), and if root mealies are the problem, a systemic insecticide is in order. (follow your personal feelings)I have not had to combat soil insects, but neem oil, used as a soil drench, should be effective here as well.

Ficus leaves can tell you much about the condition of your tree. I will close with a little chart of how leaves often respond to some common problems:

stunted, black, or deformed buds..................................................................need more light

limp leaves...........................................................................................................need water

buds fall off................................................................................too much water or too cold

leaves turn pale green, then yellow...................................................severely under-watered

yellow leaves..............................................................................dry roots, needs more light

falling green leaves..........................................................too much water, insufficient light

pale leaves.....................................................................................................needs fertilizer

yellow leaves with green veins......................................................................iron deficiency

brown or transparent spots...........fertilizer burns (flush soil, allow to dry before watering)

mottled yellow color.....................................................................................pest infestation

Al Fassezke

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Wow... thanks so much for posting this. It was a wealth of information. I'm saving it to my favorites!

    Bookmark   August 4, 2005 at 3:46AM
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nanw_4wi(4/SW WI)

Great should add this to the HP forum's FAQ.

    Bookmark   August 4, 2005 at 12:28PM
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karen715(z5 IL)

I've printed this for future reference. I've never owned a F. benjamina, though I've always liked them, because I've never had an appropriate place for one. But I hope to have a sunroom a few years down the road--and I'll have this info at the ready.

    Bookmark   August 4, 2005 at 3:22PM
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GrowHappy(z7 MD)

I'm printing it as I respond to this post. I'm saving it in my plant journal. I lost a Ficus Monique recently due to improper care. Now, I have a Ficus Lyrata that I ***refuse*** to make the same mistake with. I may even bend a little and buy F. benjamina soon. (grins)


    Bookmark   August 4, 2005 at 5:02PM
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garyfla_gw(10 Florida)

I have several of these that I use as semi-bonsai and later became interested in the incredible ability to survive. I can't grow them in the ground because they grow into monsters in this climate.(s Florida)
I frequently hear that they can't tolerate overwatering.
I have a varigated form of Ficus benjimina that has been growing in nothing but a bucket of water since 1980!! It has outlived 3 buckets. Another of the green form was accidently covered with cement rubble during a drive way overhaul. It actually grew in reverse and sprouted through the drainage hole!! I was so amazed I set it on the cement patio after removing the rubble. It is still alive after 15 years and is actually potted in cement. At one time I would give it some water but became intrigued at how much it could take. It is still less than 2 feet high. These specie get several diseases in Florida which cause the leaves to curl. This specimen has every leaf effected by this disease and has for years,
Recently I found the true bonsai one I had in the shadehouse Was knocked off the shelf and ended up upside down beneath a garbage can. Last week i found it during a yard cleanup.It had actuall reversed its growth and grown around the can upside down.!! Could not have received more than one hour of filtered light per day.
I'm always amazed when I hear people say they kill them!!
lol gary

    Bookmark   August 8, 2005 at 2:28AM
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I have had a beautiful ficus benjamina that has lost all its leaves because of the cold (I moved a couple weeks ago). Is there any way to tell if the branches and roots are still alive? If so, what can I do to revive my ficus (trim it or something else)? This plant has been with me since my teen years and I would hate to say goodbye...

Thanks a lot!

    Bookmark   December 28, 2005 at 8:44PM
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Nonez, don't toss it..
There are two ways to check a tree for life.

Gently bend branches..if they snap off, then that branch may be dead..if flexible,it's spring it should sprout new leaves.
2nd, W/a sharp knife, remove a little bark, (not too much) If there's green, another sign it's alive.

I truly think your ficus just had cold shock which is why leaves dropped. Cold and the move..Ficus are fussy about relocating even from one window to another. I've talked to ppl who lost leaves when moving their ficus from one side of a room to the opposite side.
Place in the brightest light, mist daily, and withhold ferilizer. Once you see new growth start fertilizing with an all purpose food or one a bit high in nitrogen. Like 10-5-5 eg. First number should be higher than middle and last. Once you find the perfect spot, keep your ficus in place. Try not to move it around.

Al, I've got the Too Little Ficus. The main trunk is thick and has a fair amount of branches. How do I train these branches? It's still a young plant..Thanks, Toni

    Bookmark   December 28, 2005 at 9:24PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

I wouldn't prune anything yet. Are there buds that appear green & viable? Dead tissue will become evident as new leaves appear. After a month or so, the dead branch tips will be devoid of growth & begin to get a darker color and a shriveled look as they dry. Bending branches can crack the cambium - not too big of a deal on trees that are growing well & moving lots of moisture to the canopy, but a certain problem for stalled trees as it can kill otherwise viable branches. Give your plant as much light as you can. Keep the soil quite, but not completely dry, - barely moist at the bottom of the container is what you should shoot for, so check for moisture at the drain hole(s) instead of sticking your finger in the soil. It will need very little water & no fertilizer until it begins growing. Placing the plant on a propagation mat (if you have one) to warm roots would also be helpful. No way to tell from here if your plant will revive. Much depends on the duration of exposure & how cold it actually got. I hope it comes around. Good luck to you.

Toni - 'Too Little' is probably my favorite cultivar of benjamina & responds very well to clip-n-grow pruning, which essentially is removing everything that looks awkward - branches growing back toward the center, crossing branches, thinning congested areas to allow light to the plant interior - the same pruning practices you'd use on a garden specimen. I'll take a picture (tomorrow?) of a plant I started this year. It shows a neat way to use short pieces of wire between two branches to better position them w/o wiring (as in bonsai).


    Bookmark   December 28, 2005 at 10:07PM
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Thanks to everybody who answered my message. It seems there is hope after all! The branches are flexible and it's still green under the bark. I got worried because this particular plant had never been fussy when I moved. On the contrary it was quite adaptable. But moving at minus 20 in an unheated truck was just too much for it. I'll never move in winter again!

    Bookmark   December 29, 2005 at 10:24AM
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Al, I'd appreciate it..right now my Too Little is growing freely, without wire, but I'd like to someday shape it.
Shaping is another class I'd enjoy taking along w/grafting. I've books, but they're not very to see it done in person..thanks, Toni

    Bookmark   December 29, 2005 at 7:10PM
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flash14756(z6 Boise, Idaho USA)

I want to get a ficus b. but I cant find a good specimen at the stores that doesnt cost $10 or more. What is everybody's favorite cultivar, besides "too small", what would make good bonsai?

    Bookmark   December 29, 2005 at 11:14PM
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Flash, go to Click on ficus, scroll down and check out their plants..I love this nursery. This is where I got my too little, but they've other small bonsai-like ficus, too..Toni

    Bookmark   December 30, 2005 at 12:46AM
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andy_e(SF Bay CA 9/14)


Great article - thank you for the info.

A couple of years back at a private garden showing the owner was giving away a bunch of extra rooted cuttings, one of which was a Ficus benghalensis (this is a Banyan tree for those not familiar with it). Needless to say I grabbed it. I've been growing it in a pot outdoors and like benjamina, it makes an attractive container specimen. And no, I don't plan to put it in the ground. Although I doubt it could reach the massive size it achieves in zone 10, I really don't want to test that theory. :-)

    Bookmark   December 30, 2005 at 12:17PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

Toni - your 'Too Little' photos:

Whips I grew from cuttings & then tied together to make approach grafts that will form one trunk within a few years. Cuttings started spring of '04, planting established summer of '05.

Same planting. These plants have not yet been wired. If you look closely, you might be able to see the short pieces of wire I'm bracing against larger branches to move some awkward-looking branches into a more attractive position.

A forest planting, from cuttings. Established this summer ('05). These plants were severely reduced before bringing them in for winter & are pretty much resting now. They will be able to remain in the training container this summer & should put on a huge amount of foliage.

Two looks at a young root-over-rock 'Too Little'. This plant has not yet been wired for shape, but has promise.

This plant was air-layered off the top of a standard about 48" from floor and separated in summer of '04. It's recovering well & I should be able to start working on it in late July.

Hope it helps some.


    Bookmark   December 30, 2005 at 2:29PM
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flash14756(z6 Boise, Idaho USA)

Thanks, Toni, I never know what sites to order from (I'll add it to my favorites). But does anybody know a site with cheaper stuff, at least with cheaper shipping :o]

    Bookmark   December 30, 2005 at 9:33PM
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mrbrownthumb(z5 Chicago)


You could try searching for a place in Florida. When I worked in a bonsai nursery we used to order from a place in Florida and the LARGE ficus Nanas were about 2 feet tall from the pot and the crowns were just as wide if not double. They used to cost about 20-40 dollars. The smaller trees were about as thick as a toddlers arm. Do you have any GW friends that live in FLA? They may be able to find you one down there. I'd suggest an on-line bonsai shop but the prices are crazy.


    Bookmark   December 30, 2005 at 9:59PM
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Baby G (Z10, 300?CH, SoCal-LA)(10)

I have rescued a ficus that i think was once beautiful; it has lots of branches, like a sad winter portrait. I snatched it when it had one small new growth near the bottom, and a few leaves, but they have fallen off. Is there hope for this plant? Can I prune it? Cultivate it? Talk it back in to the land of the living?

The rootball is the size of a basketball. Should I trim it to the ground (everything is brittle) water it ever so slightly and put it in direct light?

Or should I throw it away?

    Bookmark   March 23, 2006 at 5:05PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

Any clue as to what caused near demise?

Check branches & trunk for living tissue. If any new branches occur from the trunk, there is an excellent prospect for a great tree down the road. Often, when trees die back and a branch, growing off the trunk, is selected as a new leader, the change in taper from the old trunk to the new eventually helps create the illusion of a very old (and often beautiful) tree.

Allow the roots to remain intact, unless you determine rot is the culprit. Your plan is the right one, but it would be wise to try to determine why the tree is/was failing. Too dry? Insects? Root issues? Fertilizer burn/salt build-up? etc.


    Bookmark   March 23, 2006 at 5:51PM
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I discovered 3 feet of roots on my Ficus benjamina tree when I was moving it to a slightly larger container. I don't want it to grow much taller (it's about 7ft. tall now and it's an indoor tree). Should I cut off the excess roots and will that stop it from growing taller?

    Bookmark   June 2, 2007 at 4:36PM
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Mek, it won't stop Ficus from growing altother but will slow it down..Also, the more you repot, (in larger pot) the taller/wider it'll get. If you want to slow it down, keep semi potbound, and if you fertilize cut back, a LOT.
I bet your tree is gorgeous..7' Toni

    Bookmark   June 2, 2007 at 5:08PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

Mek - Ficus b. is a genetically vigorous plant. The only way to contain its size while maintaining continued vitality is through judicious pruning. Pruning roots generally only slows the tree for a very short time while it regroups & gets its feet under it. The o/a effect of root pruning is a general reinvigoration of the plant. If you root prune now, the plant will, by summer's end, actually show increased biomass over what it would have shown, had you not pruned. The problem is, the tree will grow with continually decreasing vitality if you don't prune roots or pot-up as roots become tighter.

Even though fertilizer is not food, withholding adequate amounts of nutrients to slow a plants growth is kind of parallel to withholding food from your Great Dane because you wish to keep him puppy size. Plants need us to supply them with a dozen or so nutrients in favorable amounts or they grow under stress. Stress eventually leads to strain, which results in the death of the organism if uncorrected. The proper way to maintain the size of your tree is, as noted, by judicious pruning.


    Bookmark   June 2, 2007 at 6:02PM
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I wish you had written this three years ago. But, through experience, I got there. I couldn't kill it, it just wouldn't die - my Ficus benjamina (I have a dwarf variety, don't know which) is a survivor.After three years, I finally understood its basic needs, little water, a lot of sunlight and a bit of iron.

    Bookmark   June 3, 2007 at 7:35AM
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I can't believe this post is almost two years old and it is still active and ppl are posting to it. Must be some kind of record.

Of course, the main post has got to rank as a classic piece of work.

Thank you.

    Bookmark   June 8, 2007 at 11:10PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

I'm kind of smiling at the thought that this post is anything special. If you review the post @

you'll see that it was terminated @ 150 replies. Then, it was reposted by others @

It also was terminated at 150 posts & reposted a third time @

where it's still active after 411 replies. I'm pretty sure that's my longest running post. ;o)

Take good care, Gombei. Thanks for the kind words.


    Bookmark   June 9, 2007 at 8:32PM
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watergal(z6/7 Westminster, MD)

You oughta get a "GardenWeb Academy Award" or something. Or at least write a book. Nice work, Al.

    Bookmark   June 10, 2007 at 5:48PM
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I found this post by googling Ficus "Too Little". Most of the other results are for various online places that have a "Too Little" for sale as bonsai. Precious little information about "Too Little".

What information I have been able to gather is:

1) It is a mutation of a Ficus Benjamina. Atchisons Exotics, Inc in Daytona Beach Florida calls itself the "Home of the Too Little". Is "Too Little" really patented?

2) The strain (if that's what it's called) is about 35 years old. (The September 2003 issue of Southern Living said it was a new hybrid.)

3) They grow no more than 5 ft planted in the ground. (Altho I saw and have pictures of one that is at least 7 ft tall.)

4) They are not easily or cheaply acquired. (Not easy to find where I live, but I bought a couple of 6" pots with multiple trunks for less that $10 each.)

6) Some misinformation. "The leaves of the "normal" fig are leathery and about five inches long and two inches wide, while the ficus benjamina "too little" leaves are more or less half as long and wide, there as perfect for bonsai use."

8) Too Little, is a miniature that is ideal for indoor bonsai: It has tiny recurved glossy leaflets on twiggy branchlets. (An interesting description I had to record.)

9) There is a Ficus Benjamina smaller called the "Kiki".

10) There is a Ficus Benjamina "Dutch Treat" that is described as, "Extremely wee fig with lovely tiny shimmery lvs more twisted & petite than those of 'Too Little'; heavily branched selection for those mame creators for whom 'Too Little' is simply too big. Always a great favorite with bonsai trainers, newly popular for inclusion in terrarium landscapes as its scale is very miniature.

I have references of web pages where the information came from. I don't know the policy on posting page links.

If anybody has any more information please share it with us.

Curious minds want to know.

    Bookmark   June 14, 2007 at 10:21PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

1) Yes, it's patented by the owner of AE. I buy from them regularly & just received 48 'Too Little's' of varying sizes. They are wholesale only & you'd need to buy by the box - 30, 12, or 6 plants, depending on size.

2) Not new - been around for a long time.

3) Not true - I have seen them more than 20 feet tall, chopped to 6 inch trunks & sold as "pigs" (fat bonsai stumps).

4) They're very inexpensive. $115 will get you 30 in 4 inch pots - delivered.

6) Leaves grown in bright light will be about 3/4 to 1" long initially & will reduce readily under bonsai culture.

8) True - watch for scale and mites

9) True

10) 'Dutch Treat' has never performed well for me indoors. It has always thrived outdoors in the brightest of light, but immediately wanes even directly under twin 40 watt fluorescents.


    Bookmark   June 15, 2007 at 12:32AM
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@ Al

Thank you for going thru my list and commenting. My interest in "Too Little" was rekindled after I saw a 4ft specimen growing at a nursery. It had been "abandoned" and was growing wild in a section of the nursery that was unused. I was able to get it for $15 altho I had to "dig" it up myself. I haven't decided what to do with it. It is doing nicely in a 20" short clay pot on our deck.

    Bookmark   June 15, 2007 at 3:21AM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

If you can't decide what to do with it, reduce it to a shippable size & send it to me. A find like that is every serious bonsai practitioner's dream. ;o) Good luck with it. They grow rampantly in the summer, so you'll be getting lots of pruning practice.


    Bookmark   June 15, 2007 at 6:50AM
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I have a ficus that has been slowly losing its leaves and dying back, I have new sprouts at the base but they're dying as well. When I water it there are tiny, skinny worms surfacing. I have the ficus in a room with the window closed so I don't know how those worms got in there. What should I do? Are the worms causing it to die?
Please Help, thank you

    Bookmark   July 10, 2007 at 6:33AM
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I recently purchased a Variegated F. Benji. It is very full and thick at the crown, but very sparse toward the bottom. How can I fill out the bottom trunk a bit? The leaves are healthy and variegated. Im hoping to avoid pruning it back.

    Bookmark   July 30, 2007 at 11:53PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

F. benjamina is very apically dominant, which means it tends to concentrate nearly all its energy at the top of the canopy or the growing tips of the branches. Your energy management strategy should include a thinning of the canopy to let light and air into the tree's interior to stimulate back-budding and to balance the energy. (This isn't too "New Age" sounding for you, is it?) ;o) If it was my tree, I would (and I regularly do) take a firm hand in reducing the upper reaches of the canopy aggressively to insure that energy goes to the lower branches & new buds, but I'm afraid you'd doubt me & find my approach too radical to suit you.

If you send/supply a picture, I can direct your pruning efforts so that you can achieve your goal of more strength in the lower branching. Maximizing sun exposure is an important part of the o/a strategy, but will only be marginally effective w/o combining it with pruning. I'm not sure of how much vitality your tree contains, but you should see noticeably favorable results of your efforts within 2 weeks and a much fuller tree by the time it's ready to come indoors. Oohh! - didn't I tell you we were going to site it outside in the sun to jump-start it? ;o)


    Bookmark   July 31, 2007 at 12:34AM
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Hi Al!

Can i send the pics thru your gardenweb address? Some people say they dont receive their mail...

    Bookmark   August 1, 2007 at 4:41PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

I'll let you know if they arrive w/o getting here. ;o)


    Bookmark   August 1, 2007 at 5:23PM
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@ Al

I come back to this post regularly to get Ficus lessons. I never thought about Ficus being "apically dominant". Would you post pictures of how you "... take a firm hand in reducing the upper reaches of the canopy aggressively to insure that energy goes to the lower branches & new buds ...".

I also acquired recently, at a drug store no less, a Ficus Benjamina Nina. Searching the web produced not results. Do you have any inforation regarding the Nina?

Thanks in advance.

    Bookmark   August 11, 2007 at 2:35PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

Well, I suppose I could provide a before/after pair of photos to illustrate what I mean, but you need only look to how tropical and subtropical trees of the Ficus genus grow to see what I mean. Branches tend to continue to elongate rather than break back at secondary laterals under all but excellent cultural conditions, and even then they exhibit some reluctance to back-bud unless you undertake the proper pruning technique.

Here is a picture of a Ficus nerifolia (narrow or willow-leaf Ficus) that has just been pruned hard to force back-budding and to keep the foliage compact:

Here is the same tree later in the grow season after it has leafed out. I hope the picture has enough detail. Note the compact growth and how close the foliage grows to the tree and branches:

Here is a group of F. benjamina 'Too Little' after a hard pruning that is fusing together:

and the same tree(s) a little later in the season:

Does it make better sense to you now?

Also, the cultural wants of 'Nina' are the same as all the other varieties of benjamina and are covered upthread.


    Bookmark   August 11, 2007 at 11:09PM
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Yes it makes better sense to me after seeing pictures. Thank you very much for the lesson. I recognize the "Too Little" from your previous post (Dec 30, 05) in response to Toni. It's good to see follow up pictures.

What I was asking about the "Nina" was any historic information regarding that variety of Ficus.

Thank you again for the lesson.

    Bookmark   August 12, 2007 at 2:23AM
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I have a Benjamina that is now up to my 7 foot ceiling. Yep, it grew right to the spot lights I keep on it for light, my room is VERY low light.

It is a sparse little tree, spindly trunks which I have wrapped around one another for support. My question is how to trim the top without killing the tree.

It knows it's a tree so I don't want to do that. Is there a safe way to shorten and let it bulk up?

Thanks in advance!

    Bookmark   August 12, 2007 at 9:36PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

Whenever you work on a tree, there are multiple considerations, the primary being how much energy does the tree have in reserve. A close second to that is how close to ideal will the cultural conditions I'll be able to supply during the recovery period be, after the work is done.

Trees growing under stress or strain should be brought back to good vitality before undertaking radical work, but there are things you can do now to facilitate what you'll need to do later. It's too late in the year to do anything major in your zone unless you're growing under very good lights. Since your tree is already, at a minimum, stressed (as evidenced by the spindly trunks and spare foliage), you need to try to maintain maximum photosynthesizing leaf surface area while still promoting some back-budding. You can do that by removing the growing tip of each branch, along with the last leaf that appeared on that branch (as long as the branch has at least 3 or more leaves on it). This will force back-budding & new branching behind the pruning cuts.

Can you move the tree outdoors until late Sep when temperatures force you to bring it back inside? It would do miracles for the tree. When was it last fertilized?

At this point, light, and to a lesser degree, perhaps soil/root conditions are the primary limitations your tree is facing. A picture would be helpful. If you cannot post pics here, you could mail to me direct.

I have no doubt that if you follow a horticulturally sound plan, that you could easily reduce the height of the tree by 1/2 by next Jun or Jul. This height reduction would also have the effect of strengthening the lower part of the stems by reducing the mechanical advantage the over-long upper portions have on the lower stems. (A short stick appears stouter than a longer stick of the same diameter even though the linear deflection is the same per given length in each.)


    Bookmark   August 12, 2007 at 10:55PM
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My all time favorite ficus is Ficus microcarpa aka Chinese Banyan. I must have at least two dozen of them in various stages of development. Some I have from seedling, others I've dug out of rock walls, coconut trees and other places the banyan has taken root. I also have two pots that contain cuttings from pruning. I just stuck them in a pot and mostly they root and join the "bush".

I noticed yesterday that one of the banyans in the bush has fruit. I've never had a Chinese Banyan that had fruit no matter how big or how old. Under what conditions does the Chinese Banyan develop fruit?

    Bookmark   August 18, 2007 at 2:57AM
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Thanks Al,

I will get a picture of it soon. I would be very leary of putting it outside here. We have such severe temperature swings. It can go from 80 to 35 in the blink of an eye. I have repotted it recently. Once two years ago and then just this month. There were no salt buildups. I have fertilized it a few times this summer but was told long ago not to fertize during the winter months, non growing season. Is that not correct?

I love this tree. I have had it for so long it is sentimental now and if I can bring it around with some gusto, that would super!

    Bookmark   August 19, 2007 at 6:14PM
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I have 8' benjamina's in 20 gal pots which have an infestation on the new growth that causes leaf to roll up and deform. Can see deposits of what may be eggs about the size of sand grains. Repeated applications of "diazanon" and "Seven" based products have little or no effect????????????

    Bookmark   September 21, 2007 at 8:12AM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

Are you using Diazanon & Sevin indoors?

I assume you're writing from TX? I thought at first it might be leaf rollers, as eggs should be appearing now, but they are pretty susceptible to topical treatments as you described. It sounds like scale.

First & foremost, you need to identify the insect problem & treat with an appropriate and the least noxious method that will bring the infestation to acceptable levels. Since topicals seem to be ineffective, I would consider applications of horticultural oil or pure, cold-pressed neem oil at 2 week intervals (if you fail at identification). Never use Malathion on Ficus, BTW.


    Bookmark   September 21, 2007 at 9:39AM
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karen715(z5 IL)

There is a relatively new (in terms of just now being seen in the houseplant trade) insect called Cuban Laurel Thrips(Gynaikothrips ficorum,) that causes the symptoms nevado describes. The rolled up leaves contain the eggs, larvae, nymphs and even adults.

    Bookmark   September 21, 2007 at 6:39PM
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I recently acquired a 7' ficus benjamina that was relatively cheap, primarily because it's in need of a bit of TLC. I drove the tree from Oklahoma to Illinois in my hatchback, so it's a bit beaten up from the journey. Lucky for me I'm starting a 6-week bonsai workshop next week and will be learning some basic techniques which should give me a few skills to aid in giving this plant a more desirable shape.

I've been pulling dead twigs off of it since I got it here and doing some gentle tidying up. I sadly don't have a picture, but I can say that it has reached an unruly height and is a bit spindly. I'm not quite sure what the intention was with the culture of this plant before it came to me. I suspect it was a ficus that was purchased for sale, never sold and just got left in a corner to grow in the greenhouse. I picked it up because it was interesting looking (lots of aerial roots everywhere, interesting roots in the soil, the remains of what was a nice dense canopy).

The top portion of the tree is growing out of a knot where a good hunk of the tree had died out and has since grown back. I'm thinking about air layering to sort of separate this very long vertical upper branch and create two shorter trees (which would make the trunks look more proportionate). Of course, I've never attempted to air layer anything. I don't intend to do this until the spring, the tree needs time to adjust to its new home. I'll be making use of my borrowing privileges from the Botanic Garden's library to do some resarch over the fall and winter to help prepare me for what should be some serious work for me.

What do all of you think of these sketchy plans? I see two separate trees here (sorry I can't send you a picture of it, I've lost my camera's battery charger), two trees that will look very different from one another in a few years, but I'm not certain that what I'd like to do is possible or that I have the requisite skills to do it.

Advice? Warnings? Ideas?

    Bookmark   October 12, 2007 at 1:11AM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

Whenever your plan is to do something stressful to the tree (like a trunk chop or air-layer), it is in every case, best, to try to maintain optimum vitality in the plant. Give the best light you can offer and fertilize according to the amount of light you provide and the growth you observe. If the plant is resting quietly - no need to fertilize except to maintain a minimal amount of nutrients in the soil at all times.

Yes, the air-layer idea should go off w/o a hitch. I would prepare the air-layer when you're able to move the tree outdoors around Memorial Day. Move the tree to shade first & gradually acclimate it to full sun over about 10 days. Use chopped sphagnum moss (not to be confused with sphagnum peat) in the air-layer if you use the "bag" method, and a 50/50 perlite moss mix if you air-layer using a container and soil around the area you're layering. Keep either media moist but not sopping wet. Remove a ring of bark at least 1-1/2 X the trunk/branch diameter. Rooting hormone will not be needed, the plant will root readily if it is healthy. If you use the "bag" method, you'll need to cover the plastic bag with aluminum foil or something white & opaque to keep passive solar heat gain from cooking the roots.

I've successfuylly layered off the tops of several benjaminas & come up with 2fers each time. The tops were sort of 'instant' bonsai and the lower part of the tree was actually done in two phases. After severing the top, you'll train a low branch into a pleasing, near-vertical attitude and let it grow for a year or so. This branch will become the new top of the tree. When it is well along in develoipment, you'll sever the remaining trunk diagonally, with the top of the pruning cut beginning immediately above the branch collar where the branch emerges from the trunk. The cut should run diagonally across the trunk axis and end on the opposite side of the trunk, just below the imaginary line from the lower limit of the branch collar perpendicular to the axis and on the opposite side of the trunk.

Sounds pretty confusing, hmm? It's really not - all very simple. Once you get that far, stop back if you need help, or join the nearest bonsai club & make friends with one of the experienced practitioners. They'll know how to help you, too.

Good luck & thanks for reasking your question "on forum", Dave.


btw, 2fer = 2 fer (for) one ;o)

    Bookmark   October 12, 2007 at 2:18AM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

Oh hey, Dave. Actually, if you look upthread to my first group (not the second - there are 2 groups) of pictures, you'll see an air-layered tree. The last picture of the tree with some guide wires on it is an air-layer. Notice there is no basal flare at the soil line that is usually associated with where roots emerge from the trunk? That's because it's a layer. ;o)


    Bookmark   October 12, 2007 at 2:26AM
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I think I follow you, more or less. But I'm not quite sure I understand what you mean by "Remove a ring of bark at least 1-1/2 X the trunk/branch diameter."

As for the future care of the lower half of the tree, I think I understand what you're saying. Well, I follow you up to a point, and at that point I remind myself that the process you're describing is literally years down the road. Not many years, but 2 or 3 at least. By then, I should have learned a little bit about caring for trees, and have seen a few more people work on trees.

    Bookmark   October 13, 2007 at 3:14AM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

I would strongly encourage you to get involved with the bonsai group if you're feeling you're good with the commitment it requires. Even if you decide it's not for you, the group will be a storehouse of hort. knowledge.

"Remove a ring of bark at least 1-1/2 X the trunk/branch diameter."

This means that if the trunk/branch diameter is 1 inch, you should remove/peel all the bark (girdle) the tree entirely from between cuts that are longitudinally 1-1/2 inches apart - a 1/2 inch trunk calls for 3/4 inch between cuts, etc. Roots will mostly occur at the top cut. Surround this cut away area with damp sphagnum moss, wrap with plastic wrap & then something opaque to keep sunlight out.

"Years down the road" Yes, I often smile at myself when I realize it's really not in the nature of most people who tend houseplants to think along the lines of long term goals for their woody charges. They're all usually perfectly willing to patiently wait for attractive plants, as long as they can have them now! ;o) Of course, there's nothing wrong with that - it's just the way it is.

I'll wander here a bit now ........ In bonsai, you always have a few trees that are at their peak and spectacular looking, but they soon need to be pruned back & you start all over again to bring them to another peak a year or two down the road. I think the key here is to have enough plants to fuss over so you don't tend to overwork individual plants. They need to go through a recovery period after any major work and don't appreciate continual pinching & pruning.

Thursday night, I'll be leading a discussion about the role of growth hormones in pruning and developing trees for bonsai, but just because it's a talk directed toward bonsai development, doesn't mean that it can't be applied to all plants - houseplants included. There are many ways to manipulate and direct energy in the plant to keep it healthier and more beautiful than if left to its own (indoor) growth habits. I often share some of the info/tips in these forums.

I have soo many small plants like - several coleus varieties, snapdragon, artillery fern, geranium, calibrachoa, santolina, dwarf hibiscus, rosemary, rock rose, and many others - even Impatiens (repens), that I have trained to beautiful little trees. I find it personally very rewarding to have a kind of communion with my plants that goes beyond just tending them. It really is something of a symbiotic thing for me.

I know one thing. I really feel a horrid loss when something unknown takes a plant that I've been working with for several years. It's not like I can just go out and replace it with an equal. For me, bonsai is an intimacy with plants that kind of defines or distills individual plant personalities from the rest of the species or cultivar. I like that aspect - lots! ;o)


    Bookmark   October 13, 2007 at 10:17AM
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I would like to grow 4 ficus benjaminas in 24 inch square pots on my outside patio.

I would like them to be tall, about 14 feet high, with branches starting at about 6 feet, and full on top.

How do I keep them from becoming root bound?

    Bookmark   September 19, 2008 at 3:10AM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

In containers that size, you can go about 3-4 years between repottings w/o too much compromise in the vitality of the plants as you approach 3-4 year mark. At that point, you can simply depot the plant, saw the bottom 1/3 - 1/2 of the roots off, blast most of the soil from the root mass, and repot into a fast (free draining) soil that is built to last for the 3-4 years between repots. The soil is the most important part of the planting, so it's important to get it right.

You can read more about suitable soils for houseplants which covers a soil that would suit your application extremely well, and more about container soils in general by following these embedded links.

The pruning part is no problem, but do not terminate the tree at the height you want it to be. If you want it to eventually be 14 feet high, terminate it at 9-10 ft so the top can develop from fine branching. It will look much more natural.

Your biggest challenge will be keeping the lower branches strong because of the trees marked tendency toward apical dominance. This means the tree tends to concentrate its energy at the tips of the branches and very strongly at the top of the tree. We can talk about a strategy to keep that tendency in check now, or you can wait until the tree is getting to the developmental stage where it's a concern.

Let me know if there are additional questions.


    Bookmark   September 19, 2008 at 8:20AM
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This thread is quite old, so I don't know if this message will go through, but I'll try...
I have a ficus given to me by a friend at least 6 or 7 years ago when she moved. I put it outside every year. It's about 6' tall, and pretty healthy except that it has some scale. Last winter it dripped so much sticky stuff I hesitate to bring it in this winter.

I saw little scale bugs at where the leaves meet the stem on many leaves. Now that it has been out all summer, I can't find them, but I'm still reluctant to bring it in. I'd like to leave it outside, but am concerned about how much cold it can tolerate. Would it be worthwhile to wrap it the way some people wrap fig trees in my area? I'm just outside of Philadelphia.


    Bookmark   November 9, 2012 at 4:53PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

It won't, doesn't have the ability to tolerate that sort of cold, Anne. It wants to be above 60* at all times, preferably above 65*, even if it will tolerate brief periods colder than that. All season horticultural oil is pretty effective against scale ......


    Bookmark   November 9, 2012 at 8:23PM
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Well, it's been between 35* and 50* for quite a while now (through hurricane Sandy and everything). But I guess I'll have to bring it in if you say there's no way for me to keep it outside.

If I don't know exactly where the scale is (I can't see any but I don't believe they've gone on their own), do I have to coat every bit of the tree (well, all the leaves, both sides) with the oil? I don't want to miss any and have them come back. It's a lot of leaves, though!!

I have just a few days to do whatever I do before it gets cold again...

Thank you for your reply, Al! I appreciate it.

    Bookmark   November 9, 2012 at 9:11PM
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Oh, one other thing - is neem oil just as good as the all season horticultural oil for scale? I saw it mentioned earlier. Thanks again!

    Bookmark   November 9, 2012 at 9:14PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

Your plant's surviving is different than its carrying on it's normal functions. Once your Ficus starts to see temps below 60-65* the plants ability to carry on photosynthesis is markedly curtailed. What that means to the plant is, it goes on battery power - starts to use it's stored energy to carry on it's day to day activities and keep its systems orderly. Since the amount of stored energy is finite, we know with certainty that houseplants exposed to these chills are continually declining for as long as the chill period lasts.

Temperate plants have a mechanism by which they can move water out of cells into surrounding tissues, leaving behind a high concentration of solutes, mostly sugar, in the cells that acts as antifreeze. Most people don't know that sugar is as effective as salt at keeping water from freezing, so the sugars and other dissolved solids in cells lowers the freezing point of the water in the cells, which is the primary mechanism by which temperate plants survive sub-freezing temperatures. Tropical plants don't have that ability, and can be damaged by temperatures as low as 50*, if the temperature falls fast enough; sop even though many of our houseplants will survive these temps into the 40s, even high 30s, it's much better not to subject them to these extremes. There are some exceptions, of course, but for the most part the guideline is a good idea across the board.

Neem oil is fairly effective against scale, especially if you're diligent about applying it at least 3 times at 2 week intervals. If you wish, I'll link you to more info about neem oil. Light/summer/perfect/all-season horticultural oil is a good choice for scale, and very safe. It IS important that all surfaces of the plant are covered. Pay special attention to the undersides of leaves and leaf axils (crotches). Bayer 3-in-1 spray with the systemic insecticide imidicloprid is also very effective against scale, especially when sprayed on, but any spraying needs to be done outside and the plant allowed to dry there. It also has a miticide and a systemic fungicide. As with any/all insecticides, follow label instructions carefully.


    Bookmark   November 10, 2012 at 9:16AM
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Thank you so much for the explanation of what happens to the ficus (and other plants) in cold weather. Fascinating! I've learned a lot I wish I'd known earlier from looking through this thread... I had to learn the hard way how the ficus reacts to sudden changes in temperature!!

Re applying oils: it will get cold again in a few days and I'll need to bring the tree inside (better to do when a little warmer). Would I be able to spray it once with the "light/summer/perfect/all-season horticultural oil", let it dry, then bring it in? Or will it need further applications? Would that - or the neem oil - be safe to use indoors?

I was glad to read a post further up that said lots of sun was good for the tree - I had been concerned that it might be too much for it. I have a room that's sunny in the winter, so I may put it there instead of my darker living room that it's really too big for anyway!

Sorry to ask all these questions; however, I really appreciate your replies!

    Bookmark   November 10, 2012 at 10:33AM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

The hort oil is usually petroleum-based, and the neem oil smells like old onions, so I'm guessing you'll probably want to avoid spraying them inside. If you get good coverage with the hort oil, only one application should be required. The neem oil will probably need 3 applications to finish the job. Strangely, where we live ficus benjamina appreciates full sun outdoors, but indoors it may not tolerate it. The reason isn't the photo load, it's the heat build-up that accompanies a lack of air movement. There are a lot of plants that won't tolerate full sun because of passive solar gain (heat). For those, a fan in the room will go a long way toward breaking up the 'boundary layer' of air surrounding the leaves and insulating them against heat loss.

You might find additional information you can using the link to a more recent thread, below. No need to apologize for the questions. We all enjoy helping where we can, and appreciate the opportunity to do just that. ;-)


    Bookmark   November 10, 2012 at 2:04PM
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