Ficus Fig Houseplant Dying

zoewolfDecember 12, 2007

I have a really large Ficus Fig houseplant that is dying. Don't what to do. It's leaves are turning black/drk brown - some start in the middle of the leaf, some are around the leaf. I haven't been able to see any insect with a magnifying glass. At the rate that it is dropping huge leaves, the tree will be dead within a month.

What can be done to save this huge indoor plant?

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saucer(10 SF Bay Area)

Zoewolf, it sounds like it might be a case of overwatering. How frequently are you watering the plant? Re you keeping the soil soggy? In what temperature range are you keeping your ficus?

    Bookmark   December 12, 2007 at 9:25PM
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OMG, I am so glad you answered me Saucer, and that you also live in the SF Bay Area. This poor plant is dying even as I type this. I usually water it only once a week, and don't let the soil get soggy.

It is now 2:19 p.m., and the temperature in the house is 62 degrees where the plant is. We rarely turn on the central heat, but use the pellet stove almost continually when cold. However, the stove is not even in the same room and/or near the tree. (is it maybe too cold???)

I checked to see when we bought it (10/05) at a cost of $170.00, so it has survived at least two winters. I doubt that it will make it through this one though.

Anything else you can tell me, Please??????

    Bookmark   December 15, 2007 at 5:29PM
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dampflippers(Tyne & Wear UK)

If there are still some healthy shoots, you could try taking tip cuttings. Just a couple of leaves, in a tiny bit of water and you might have a back up plan!
The web page below tells you to let it dry out slightly between waterings in winter.

Sorry I can't be more help- maybe someone else can.

Here is a link that might be useful: info sheet

    Bookmark   December 15, 2007 at 6:35PM
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sweetcicely(S7 USDA9 No.CA)


Something you said about your Ficus rang an alarm:

"It's leaves are turning black/drk brown - some start in the middle of the leaf, some are around the leaf."

Before going on, let me say that it is normal for some Ficus (and I'm assuming, here, that yours is some variety of Ficus benjamina) to drop a noticeable number of leaves with changes of season and use of indoor heat. Experiencing leaf drop for the first time, people often assume that the plant needs more water or watering more often. It is important to go slow, here, to change things carefully, and to pay attention to the plant.

Now, to the point: What rang the bell in what you said was "some start [turning black/drk brown] in the middle of the leaf,..."

When Ficus leaves turn black along and around the midline of the leaf, it implies that these cells carrying water to the leaf have burst and died. The cause of this is over absorption of water, and results from letting the plant stand in water OR incomplete draining of water, which allows excess water to pool inside the bottom of the pot.

When over watered, many plants will just suffocate (drown), but Ficus benjamina doesn't seem to have the same "shut-off" valve to stop water from coming into the plant when it has had enough. It will continue taking up water until the leaf cells burst. Often, the first thing you see is that the center vein and the area around it will become bright green, then blacken within about 24 hours with the death of the leaf.

To avoid this kind of problem, periodically check the soil surface of your Ficus. If it is damp 1/2 to 1 inch into the soil it doesn't need water. This can change in just 24 hours, especially with indoor heating in winter, so check again, until you get a sense of Your plant's water usage.

When you do water, water Thoroughly, allowing plenty of water to flow out of the bottom of the pot (removes accumulated mineral salts). Never "soak" your Ficus or allow it to stand in water. Remove ALL water in the drainage pan within 5 minutes. (I have read that some people use "15 minutes" as a guide, but if I did that, I'd have a dead Ficus on my hands in short order.) This can be difficult with very large trees, but you may be able to tilt the pot to aid in complete drainage.

Hope this will help with your Ficus.


    Bookmark   December 16, 2007 at 3:14PM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

Sweetcicely - I think your advice is great, but I've seen you post the information about burst cells in Ficus leaves a number of times. I've never mentioned anything, but I can think of nothing I've read or seen after a good number of years raising a substantial number of Ficus in a wide variety of species. Plants have mechanisms in place to prevent things like that from happening. If turgidity (pressure) gets too high, it's relieved by a process called guttation.

Most often, black leaves are caused by chill injury when sudden chill causes phenolic compounds to leak from cells. Would you happen to know of a source that validates the idea of bursting cells? I'd really be interested in reading it.


    Bookmark   December 16, 2007 at 5:38PM
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Black leaves is a defiinite sign of overwatering.
Watering as you do, on a schedule, every Saturday is giving the plant far more water than it can use.

You haven't said whether it drains well. The saucer below I assume is rather large as well and what do you do with the drained water there--does it sit in there for extended times. it should be dumped within minutes after allwing for a full drain.
If left there too long, it invites such water to be drawn back up to the roots that have just rid itself of.
Fertilizer: do you fertilize your ficus and how often.

By watering as you do, every week, chances are the soil never gets to dry down between waterings. You may notice the soil is not wet.....but I suspect the roots are very wet and if, as I suspect as well, this watering method has built up water around the roots to the extent they are drowning and beginning...maybe in the late stages of rotting.
When the process of rotting begins, the roots, surrounded by water, stops being able to take up nourishment. Even when surrounded by water, no water is being drawn up to the plant's tissue. The leaves soon die and turn black.

Sixty-two degrees poses no would rather like such temperature as long as the leaves do not touch the cold window glass.

The blackening of leaves would not appear so abruptly if it were ...say...near a window or door that is constantly being opened and closed.

If the majority of your plant's leaves are you say...then I am afraid there is not enough time to reverse the damage.

I don't know how you feel about tackling the job of unearthing it, inspecting the roots for damage.
This involves moving the plant to a place where it can be removed from the container. Many newspapers spread out or a plastic dropsheet might be used. The first sign of rotting will come from the smell. If this is the case, then you have no choice but to cut back as you have to to retain healthy roots. Soil there is undoubtedly soggy and must be replaced. Then you can examine whether the bottom of the container has what will keep the soil up away from the drainage holes when you water. Shards of clay works well.
A little bit of "No Damp" a fungicide,added to water will help kill any bacteria which is adding to the rotting of the roots.
Follow directions on bottle.
It is recommended that when using, warm water be used.
Standard potting mix is OK to replace soil with.
Back into the room that can provide good light. Usually Ficus likes bright light, no direct sun, but at this time of season it should be put in such direct light to achieve some sort of intensity. A southern or western exposure would be your best bet.

    Bookmark   December 16, 2007 at 10:51PM
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sweetcicely(S7 USDA9 No.CA)

Hi Al,

You are correct that plants have evolved survival mechanisms for managing water balance in their native habitats. Since habitats differ, these mechanisms can also differ. The problem I described arises for some plants in situations outside their native habitats. Though I do not have the information I originally read on this subject (quite a few years ago) the following articles may suffice:

University of Minnesota Extension
Horticulture ~ Yard and Garden Brief

Colorado State University
"Oedema of House Plants"

Utah State University Extension
"Edema (Oedema)"

Missouri Botanical Gardens

My first witness of this cell bursting and leaf death in Ficus sent me running for information. The article I found described exactly what I saw--the brightening green, bruised looking area around the midvein--explaining it so clearly that I thought it was a no-brainer and, sadly, didn't bother to save the article.

The gist of the article was that living on fast draining soil in a climate punctuated by drought and monsoon, Ficus benjamina, in order to survive, had developed a mechanism for the rapid uptake of water before it drained away. In cultivation, on the other hand, where water was provided at the discretion of the grower, this natural ability had to be taken into account. In other words, where climate and soil conditions did not match this tree's natural environment, care had to be taken not to provide too much water around the roots beyond a given amount of time.

I can't speak for other plants or species of Ficus, since F. benjamina is the only species in which I have seen this phenomenon (more than once, because of my carelessness). I can't say that I have ever seen the "corky" looking scabs of leaf undersides mentioned in the articles above. I have only seen the obvious green bruising. In my experiences with F. benjamina there were no halfway measures: cell burst and death of a good many leaves was always associated with standing in water and took place in rapid succession over less than 36 hours.

As dire as this all sounds, there is all kinds of hope. Ficus benjaminas are pretty tough and respond to corrections in care and a modicum of patience.


    Bookmark   December 17, 2007 at 2:14AM
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tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

SC - As much as I've studied Ficus culture, I'd never come across anything like that in my reading, and I'd never seen it in my plants. I know I've even left newly root-pruned repots standing in a solution of root stimulator overnight w/o problems, but obviously it's something that does occur. Thank you very much for the links - they were of great interest. ;o)


    Bookmark   December 17, 2007 at 4:39PM
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sweetcicely(S7 USDA9 No.CA)

Hi Al,

Glad to help. I never realized how obscure the information was. I guess there is still a lot to learn about this sometimes confusing species.

Your experience with root-pruned repots is a matter of curious interest. It may, on some level, relate to the fact that Ficus benjamina cuttings can live happily (or so they seem) rooting in water for months or years with no evidence of edema.

Many thanks for your gracious response.


    Bookmark   December 17, 2007 at 5:35PM
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