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When Ficus Was King

by Bee Mohn

The lure of Ficus is bringing the outdoors in. Give a Ficus what it needs and this tree or large shrub thrives indoors. But the misunderstood Ficus drop its leaves, and branches and roots shrivel and die.

Once, homeowners and plantscapers had to discover the secrets of the ornamental fig, but new varieties, such as those grown at Kraft Gardens in Fort Pierce, Florida, survive in low light. Ficus 'Midnight' lives in the dim light of 150-300-foot candles. Some even withstand the swift temperature change of a cold winter night to a warm sunny morning.

Kraft Gardens grows Ficus mostly for the interiorscape business and homeowners. Its nine varieties are rigorously tested in Holland, where they are put in darkened chambers to simulate three-to-seven-day truck transport. Leaf drop is measured for a month.

“Monique, Midnight, Amstel are the top products on the list for indoor durability," says Kevin Kraft, owner and grower. “They are a proven, tested, better Ficus. They are bred to be a better tree."

Under Kraft's licensing agreement with Holland to breed patented tissue culture varieties in the U.S., cuttings from Holland are direct planted in a field nursery and sprayed, watered, fertilized and grown to eight feet tall. Nurserymen air-layer and harvest willowy, young branches and plant them four to a pot in a peat, hardwood, and rice hull medium, then braid them.

For four months the young plants get watered, fertilized, trimmed, and sprayed, then acclimated under shade with “fertigation" -- fertilizer and water through a tube.

“The key is the right amount of light in the houses," Kraft says of his new greenhouses with computerized retractable roofs that always let in just the right amount of light. “At night we open them up so the pants can breathe. They get nice early morning light and as the sun gets intense the shade covers them and with another layer of shade at noon if it's really bright. We create an even environment like in a home. Ficus is one of the few products in which the cells flatten themselves out and become wider to get more light. They form new shade leaves that are able to collect more light. We prepare this plant for its destination."

Linda Brey, president of Plants a la Carte, LLC, North Haven, Connecticut, doesn't use many Ficus on her commercial jobs. She says their high light requirements necessitate placement by a lot of glass that gets mighty cold on winter nights. The sun rises and quickly warms the leaves that need water. “But the soil is still cold and can't pump it fast enough to the leaves, so the leaves turn yellow. They don't like big swings in temperature."

She admits it's less of an issue with newer varieties, which each has its downside. F. benjamina, the old stand-by, “is more susceptible to reacting to temperature extremes. They drop leaves but put them out fast. Indigo and Wintergreen are a little better and have the same kind of look as benjamina.

"I really like the look of the Alli. One issue: it gets brown blotches on the leaves. When I asked growers, they didn't know why. It's a reaction of build up of salts in the soil and the roots growing out of the drainage holes. It's either the content of soluble salts or just plain drying out. Amstel King, a new cultivar of F. maclellandii, is gorgeous, but neither it nor the Alli put out new leaves as quickly as benjamina. You don't want them to drop leaves."

Brey doesn't have a greenhouse in which to acclimate the trees. “It's not cost-effective. Very few interiorscapers acclimate Ficus. It's too costly. If they're not shade grown, they're a mess. When they get here they drop over 30% of their leaves. Interiorscapers from small to big cannot hold on to Ficus a very long time. There is a long list of plants these days," she says of the arboricola columns, marginatas, and mings that easily steal the Ficus spotlight. “Ficus is looking kind of dated these days," she adds. Plants a la Carte maintains 75 accounts that range from 1,000 plants to six.

The Julius Roehrs Company, one of the largest tropical nurseries in the northeast, located in Farmingdale, New Jersey, has been growing old and new Ficus varieties among other specimen plants in its greenhouses for 130 years.

“Alli holds up very well," says Bob Hoffbauer, president. “It has more of a canopy and a little different bark structure than benjamina. The common benjamina has a very full lush canopy to prune. When we sell these, we need plenty of natural light because that's what they need, and they like it moist but not wet."

Roehrs uses the new F. 'Euroweave', a loosely braided standard, and the shrubby, multi-stemmed 'Spire' on commercial accounts, as well as the typical Benjamina, Alli, and nitida. Euroweave and Spire are simply two differnt shapes of Ficus benjamina. "Those are the basic varieties -- they all really need good light, otherwise they stretch and thin out," Hoffbauer says.

Linda Brey's Ficus Tips:
“I've made every mistake in the book and I've seen what the effects are. The big thing is not letting them dry out. The roots are usually right up to the top of the soil. They do get pot bound and they're better off. I do more root-pruning than repotting. When they're pot bound, the water just runs through, I put a layer of fine-textured top soil on top. It stops the water from going down through the root system. That really helps a lot.

Cold Soil-Warm Foliage. “If the soil mass gets wet and cold, it stays cold longer than foliage when they crank up the heat Monday morning. The roots aren't pumping water yet. We pull Ficus away from windows in winter so they're not getting as cold."

Kevin Kraft's Ficus Tip:
“For those who want a tree to put under a 16-foot ceiling, look for plants with a 'Professional Grade' label. It signifies premium ingredients, the best pot available, a superior product, patented, and the way they're grown."

Plants a la Carte:
Julius Roehrs Company:
Kraft Gardens:

* Main photo, Courtesy Plants a la Carte

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published March 19, 2007

Photos to enlarge

F. 'Midnight' Braid, Courtesy Kraft Gardens

F. 'Monique' Braid, Courtesy Kraft Gardens

F. 'Amstel King' Braid, Courtesy Kraft Gardens

F. lyrata 'Little Fiddle', a great plant in a mini size, Courtesy Kraft Gardens

12' Ficus in atrium, Courtesy Plants a la Carte

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