Questions on: Ficus

Ron Smith, Horticulturist, NDSU Extension Service


Q: I found your Web site while searching for answers to ficus problems. I hope you can help because I'm afraid my tree is about to die. It's a ficus benjamina corkscrew and is rather large. I purchased it at a reputable nursery in January. When I brought it home, it kept losing leaves. Our house is fairly cool (mid-60s) and the plant is in a drafty location, so I put a humidifier under it and ran it almost nonstop. I also misted it with water almost every day. It seemed to improve and I thought I was out of the woods. About two months ago, I noticed that there were tiny, white bugs crawling all over the top of the soil. The nursery told me they were blind mealy bugs and sold me Safer to get rid of them. They told me that I should apply the Safer only on top of the soil after watering because there were no signs of bugs on the leaves. They said it might take two to three applications to get rid of the bugs. However, I still have the bugs. In addition, about two weeks ago, lots of little brown centipedes came out of the soil after I watered. The tree seems to be drooping, losing lots of leaves and the center of the plant seems dead. I pruned away the dead interior branches and shaped a few of the healthy ones. The runoff water is dirty and filmy and the top of the soil looks white. Is there anything I can do to save the tree? Thanks for any advice you can give. (e-mail reference)

A: Drag the plant outside and dump the contaminated soil. Wash the container with soapy water and rinse well. Wash all the soil off the roots and replace the soil with pasteurized or sterile potting soil. Keep it outside for the rest of the summer in dappled shade. Monitor the plant for any insects that may be considering residency. Most likely, the tree was planted in a nonsterile or nonpasteurized media, which caused all the insect problems.


Q: I have three new ficus trees that are outside in 30-inch planters. They were transplanted after they were delivered. They have been doing very well since they arrived two months ago. I have been watering them once a week 20 minutes with a slope-drip hose. The temperature has been between 70 and 80 degrees. All was going well up until this week. The temperature has been in the 90s for the past two days. Some leaves dropped yesterday. I watered, but more leaves dropped today. The nursery said to water them two to three times a day, so I really doused them today. They said the water isn't getting to the roots, but I am concerned about overwatering. These plants were expensive and I feel like I am getting mixed messages on watering instructions. I need your advice. (e-mail reference)

A: Stick your fingers into the soil, but not at the edge of the planter, to see if the roots are getting wet. Sometimes the water flows along the side of the planter and out the bottom without soaking the roots completely. Try plugging the holes when you water and keep them plugged for 30 minutes after you've given the container a good soaking. The tree probably will recover because they are pretty tough, but ficus doesn't appreciate the sudden shift in temperatures.


Q: Help! My ficus tree froze. How can I save the poor thing? It was healthy and green, with abundant leaves, when I moved it to a covered porch for fresh air and sun during some uncommon 80-degree spring weather. I was away from home and couldn't rescue it when freezing temperatures hit. My thought is to prune it back to the braided trunk and hope it survives. What do you suggest, other than tossing it out? (e-mail reference)

A: Wait to see if new growth begins in four or more weeks. If new growth does begin, then prune out anything that isn't showing new growth.


Q: The town we live in is graciously giving away trees. Our choices are hackberry, oak, maple, linden, pear, hornbeam or London plain. The trees must be planted on the front lawn. We have a pin oak on our front lawn, but realize it will take some time for this type of tree to mature. Last year it had less than two dozen leaves. We are considering a hackberry because we heard it is quick-growing and drought-tolerant. How long does it take a hackberry to provide shade? Should we consider planting it and then removing it in 10 or so years after our pin oak matures? Should we let both trees grow or forget about planting the hackberry? (e-mail reference)

A: I would stick with oak trees, even if the oak trees being given away are not pin oaks. I'm not in favor of moving trees in the landscape once they have been planted unless it is absolutely necessary. The rate of growth is about the same for all of the species you are being offered.


Q: I am writing about an indoor ficus tree that I own. I’ve had it for 12 years. The ficus is in need of trimming. Do you have any advice or can you direct me to a Web site that will guide me through the process? (e-mail reference)

A: Sorry, I don't. However, I would advise you to do the trimming using common sense. Think twice before cutting. Don't leave any stubs, try to cut back no more than 20 percent to 25 percent of the tree's volume and don't let the bleeding latex upset you. The tree will not bleed to death, but it will be messy. Wear rubber gloves in case you may be allergic to the sap.


Q: I have two large, healthy ficus trees. I have had them for 26 years. They appear to be root- bound, but are too large for me to repot. They are very healthy, but I'm wondering if there is anything I should do for them. Any advice you can give would be greatly appreciated. I'd really hate to lose them. (e-mail reference)

A: There are plenty of plants that are root-bound and happy with the care they are getting. I would suggest that you continue doing what has brought you such success. Any attempt to repot at this stage likely would set them back or possibly kill them. You can trim them to keep the size manageable and continue on the fertilization program you have been following. You also might consider air-layering a branch or two to start new growth in case the plants begin to go into a slump.


Q: I planted a ficus in a cement box with drainage. The box is made of cement blocks and every hole also is filled with cement, so it is solid. I left drainage holes in the bottom, which is also cemented. The tree is solid, has green leaves and is growing fine. Will the cement barrier hold the roots or will the roots eventually break the barrier? If it will break the barrier, then I need to move it. Can you help? (e-mail reference)

A: You didn’t say how large the cement box is, so I cannot give you a timeline on its durability. Usually, containerized woody plants will survive eight to 10 years before succumbing. It varies among species, location and other factors. Generally, when the root tips hit the cement blocks, they will follow the inside of the box down to the drainage holes. Unless the cement box is a weak structure, it should not break. The tree probably will die before any breakage happens. You can prevent this from happening with some careful root pruning every year or two, which is more work than most people want to go through. It also puts the tree at more risk. I am assuming you live in a frost-free area of the country. What you could do is allow the tree to grow in the container for a few years. When it begins to look a little stressed, move it to a permanent, noncontainerized location and replace it with a smaller tree.


Q: I have a ficus tree that I started from a cutting about eights years ago. During the last few years, the tree has produced very few leaves. Leaves drop off and new ones grow, but the growth is sparse. Any ideas? (e-mail reference)

A: The plant probably is not getting enough light. Try putting it on a 13-hour plant light cycle for a few months. This should be enough of a stimulant to produce new growth that will flourish. If you don't start seeing results in 90 days, dump the plant.

Q: I have a ficus that was planted outside about five years ago. It started growing in an 18-inch pot. Now it is as tall as our two-story house. We live in Houston, Texas. The weather service has warned us about a hard freeze and four to five days of ice. Should we worry about the tree freezing? I don't think there is any way to cover it up. (e-mail reference)
A: Sorry to be getting back to you this late. No doubt the tree was damaged by temperatures that got below 40 degrees for any length of time. Unless the temperatures got down to the freezing point and stayed there for hours, the tree should recover. I would suggest getting an evaluation from a local International Society of Arboriculture arborist. There should be several in your area.

Q: I have two benjaminas (ficus). Both are 20 years old. One is about 5 feet tall and is spindly. For the first 16 years of its life, it was in a bathroom with a west facing window. Now it is in a south to southwest room. The larger ficus is 8 feet tall and in a room with floor to ceiling east and west windows. The plant is located next to a west window. For the past three summers, I have put the larger tree outside in the summer. It grows a lot of leaves. However, in the winter the leaves turn yellow and fall off. I would say that 20 percent to 40 percent of the leaves fall off. This problem started about nine years ago. I use a water meter and fertilize. How can I get the smaller tree to leaf out more? What can I do to prevent the yellowing and leaf drop problem? How long do these plants live? (e-mail reference)
A: I would encourage you to move both plants outdoors during the summer. This will help the smaller of the two plants overcome its spindly characteristics. When you bring them indoors, they are going to go through some leaf shedding because of the major environmental change. For example, typical outdoor summer days can register a 10,000 foot candle reading easily and frequently. Indoor lighting is no more than 1,000 foot candles at best. With so little light, the plant cannot support the sun- or high light- developed foliage, so it sheds a significant amount. You can lessen the impact by investing in a plant light or two during the winter months. The lights are inexpensive and can be put on a timer for 12 to13 hours a day. The plants will remain more stable in appearance and have a better chance of shedding off any stresses from insect, disease or cultural practices that may come up. As to longevity, ficus potentially can outlive a human being when given proper care. For more information on ficus care, go to my Web site at http://www.ag.ndsu.edu/pubs/plantsci/landscap/pp744w.htm.

Q: I have a concern about my 25-year-old ficus. It looks like it may have some sort of insect infestation. There are tiny, black dots on the back of the leaves. Many of the leaves are spotted. The spotting is light yellow in most places. On the leaves where the spotting is more advanced, it is grey on the back of the leaves. Some of the leaves are dying, starting at the leaf tip. Does this sound like an infestation? I normally would treat this with a light solution of detergent. Would that work? Is there a better treatment? (e-mail reference)

A: This sounds like it could be a leaf spot fungus known as cercospora spp. Please go to http://www.ag.ndsu.edu/pubs/plantsci/landscap/pp744w.htm to see if the symptoms match what is in this publication. If so, follow the recommended control procedures.


Q: I have had a ficus for about a year. When I got it, the leaves were full and it was growing well. About five months ago, I noticed the center of the tree was losing its leaves. It almost seems like the center of the tree died. I noticed later a large number of dead centipedes on the top of the soil. I figured they may have eaten the roots to the center of the tree. Can I revive the tree so that it will grow in the center? It does have new growth on the tips. I have pruned it once. I also give it plant food once a month or so. What should I do? (e-mail reference)

A: If you have dead centipedes on top of the soil, then it wasn't them who caused the problem. They are animal feeders, not plant eaters. From what you have told me, I cannot make an accurate evaluation. Generally, ficus responds the way you describe from overwatering, underwatering, poorly draining container or soil, and drafts of cold or hot air from a forced-air furnace. If the plant is not putting on active growth, you shouldn't be fertilizing it. I would suggest knocking the plant out of the container. If the container is not a free-draining type, replace the pot and use fresh potting soil. It might be easier to dump the plant and begin again.


Q: My indoor ficus is beautiful, but continues to leak sap. I trimmed it before the cold weather started, but I don't think that has anything to do with the sap problem. Please help. I'm getting tired of the sticky mess. (e-mail reference)

A: The sticky sap is caused by feeding insects or spider mites. Examine the plant carefully. Look for signs of webbing and white or brown scale insects attached to the stem or leaves. It is one or the other, but, in a worst-case scenario, it could be both! There are many products on the market that can provide control, if the problem population hasn't gotten out of hand. If the infestation is overwhelming the plant, then you would be better off dumping the plant and starting new. If you don’t fix the problem, the plant will die eventually.


Q: We inherited a ficus tree from the previous owners of our house. It was doing well outside. However, after we moved it inside, the leaves fell off and the branches became brittle. The bark is green underneath, so I don't think it is dead. Prior to all the leaves falling off, my friend pointed out that there was a white substance underneath the leaves which indicated overwatering. He told me there is a spray that I could buy to help. Any advice about this spray (my friend didn't know the name of it) or advice on how to save my tree would be appreciated. (e-mail reference)

A: The white that you see probably is a scale infestation, which has nothing to do with watering.

There is a catch-all spray called Schultz's Fungicide 3. The product is a fungicide, miticide and insecticide. Also, the tree could be dropping its leaves because it was moved to a lower light situation. If that is the case, it should releaf in a few weeks after adjusting to an indoor environment.


Q: I have a braided ficus that I got about six years ago. I used to keep it in my living room until I had to move it outside by my front door. It is outside, but it is under the front ceiling. Can ficus live outdoors? Does it need special care? (e-mail reference)

A: If the temperatures stay above 50 degrees during your winter months, the ficus can stay outdoors. It should be covered with a sheet if the temperatures start to get close to 50 degrees. If there is a threat of the temperatures dropping below 50 degrees, bring the plant in for the night.


Q: I have a young ficus that seems to be growing just fine. However, there seems to be some type of fungus growing that is clogging up the braided area. The consistency of the fungus is similar to a hard fruit, such as an apple. Any idea what this could be? (e-mail reference)

A: Even with all of the proper equipment, plant pathology is difficult enough to practice in a lab, let alone through an e-mail message. Please send a sample to the land-grant university in your state to get an accurate analysis.


Q: Are the leaves of a ficus tree poisonous? I have three cats and a dog, so I am concerned that the leaves are not good for them. (e-mail reference)

A: It is not considered a poisonous plant. However, I still would discourage your pets from eating the leaves because they are probably not good for your pets!


Q: I've had a braided ficus tree for about 15 years that has done well. This past week I noticed it was growing fruit. Is this normal? Is the fruit poisonous to pets or children? Thanks in advance for any information you can provide. (e-mail reference)

A: It is not normal on a houseplant, but it is not poisonous. However, it is not a good idea to allow children or pets to nibble on the fruit because it may cause tummy aches or other problems. If you are concerned, I'd suggest picking the fruit as it develops.


Q: My wife and I have a ficus tree in the dining room that seems to be doing well and is at the size we want. My wife says we will need to repot it to a bigger pot because she does that with other plants each year. Otherwise, she says the plants will develop a rootball. We don't want a bigger ficus tree and there are no roots climbing out of the pot. It was repotted a year ago after we acquired the plant from our daughter. If we repot to a larger container, won't that just stimulate or provide more room for growth? Can we leave it in the same container and enjoy the size tree we like? (e-mail reference)

A: I promise you that you do not need to repot a ficus tree in a larger pot every year, unless you want one to build a hammock in! There are many ficus trees that are doing quite well, but have been in the same container for up to 10 years. Keep the tree watered and fertilized as it ages. If your wife has the unrelenting desire to repot, she should use fresh potting soil, do some root and top pruning and place the plant back in the same pot.


Q: I recently found a bottle of Miracle-Gro liquid houseplant food under my kitchen sink that I don't even remember buying! I'm guessing it's probably at least five years old. Is it still good to use on my houseplants or should I toss it? On an unrelated note, I received some cuttings of a variegated creeping ficus from a friend. Do you have any information about how to care for this plant? Most of the information I can find about ficus plants discusses the large, upright varieties. (e-mail reference)

A: The Miracle-Gro will be OK. The ficus you have is F. sagittata. Caring for it is the same as with other ficus plants. Ficus need bright light, but not direct sun. Water it moderately in spring and summer, but sparingly in winter. Mist the plant mostly while the central heating system is being used. Fertilize lightly while new growth is taking place.


Q: I purchased a very sad-looking ficus at a garage sale. The branches and leaves are very dry and brittle, but I’m not sure how to tell if they are dead. After reading your Web site, I immediately canceled my plan to douse it in water, fertilizer and then transplant it. I gave it a little water and will let it sit until I find out what to do. Should I cut off the dry branches and leaves or is that too much? Will the branches grow back if trimmed too much? Any suggestions would be appreciated. (e-mail reference)

A: Before you go too far, take your thumbnail and scrape off some of the bark to see if there is any green tissue beneath. If there is, then a chance exists for the plant to recover. If there is no green tissue found under any of the bark scrapings, then you might as well dump it because the plant is dead. Assuming it is not dead, follow the basic pruning guidelines you would with a fruit tree. It should be OK. Stop pruning at the point where you have cut back about a third of the total canopy. You can take off more later after the plant recovers.


Q: My neighbor moved and gave me several indoor plants. One has a braided trunk and long, slender dark green leaves. I believe it to be a ficus, but can't find any photos to confirm this. It is about 4 feet tall and umbrella-shaped. It was almost dead when I received it, but is now doing well. It seems to love a bright, southern exposure. Can you help me identify this plant? (e-mail reference)

A: Gladly. It is usually the ficus benjamina that is grown in this fashion. It is commonly called the weeping fig. You are correct, the plant likes a bright location and warm, humid environmental conditions.


Q: I have a ficus tree with a braided trunk. Ever since I brought it home it has dropped leaves and not flourished. The ficus has now stopped dropping leaves, but the leaves still are shriveling. There is new growth at the lower part of the trunk, but the top is dying. I have cut off many dead branches, but nothing helps to get the top back to life. Help! (e-mail reference)

A: Most ficus trees are given preferential care in the greenhouse, nursery or flower shop. The homeowner unwittingly brings a ficus home into a 10 percent to 15 percent relative humidity environment, doesn't mist to compensate, fails to pour off the excess water in the saucer, waters with cold tap water or doesn’t give the plant enough water. The plant drops leaves in response, with crown thinning or dieback taking place. Many houseplants are at their low ebb at the end of the winter months. Most will begin showing new growth as daylight increases and the use of centralized, indoor heating decreases. All you can do is cut out the dead, woody tissue. Encourage and nurture anything that shows life with tender, loving care. Mist with distilled water and lightly fertilize as new growth commences. When summer sets in, move the ficus outdoors for several weeks to a protected location to give it a shot of energy before moving it back inside.


Q: I have a ficus tree that is more than 21 years old. I had it on a porch during the summer months and brought it in for the winter. I have noticed that it drops leaves, which is probably due to the move and temperature change. Some of the leaves that drop are yellowed and some are green. Also, I have noticed a black, spotted substance, as if dirt was splattered on it. I'm wondering if that is truly dirt from the porch or a type of insect residue. As soon as the weather warms, I plan to take it outside and hose it off and treat it with Safer soap before putting it back on the porch. Any other suggestions? (e-mail reference)

A: Leaf drop is normal with ficus after just about any move. The spotting, assuming it wipes off, could be insect droppings. I encourage you to closely examine the plant to see if you can find evidence of insect activity or the insects themselves. Your procedure sounds like a good one to follow and a good one to initiate before bringing the ficus in for the winter.


Q: I have a ficus tree that I'm afraid will die if I don't figure out what to do. The tree was healthy while it was outside. Last fall I had to bring it inside because the temperature was going to drop below 50 degrees. Since that time, its leaves have dropped and the few that remain have a sticky substance on the top of the leaves. Also, it looks like there are dead, black leaches stuck to the branches. There are about 100 of them. I have no idea how to save my ficus! I have another ficus tree in a different room that is not having problems. (e-mail reference)

A: I think your ficus picked up some scale when it was outside this past summer, but that’s just a guess based on your description of the problem. I have some possible solutions, but first, don't get your sick tree anywhere near the healthy ficus in the other room! There is a material called Fungicide 3 put out by Schultz Co. It is a neem product that has fungicidal, insecticidal and miticidal activity. It may work to reduce or eliminate whatever the pest is that is debilitating your plant. Cut the plant back severely to where the stock appears clean and just above a lateral branch or bud and don't leave a stub! If that solution doesn't appear to be working, get a fumigation strip or "No-Pest" strip, if they are still on the market. In an isolated, warm room, hang one of the strips on the plant and seal it with a large garbage bag for a weekend. This will get fumigant to penetrate the insect egg tissue and kill the insects. Be sure to follow label directions carefully. If these solutions don’t work, you have no choice but to dump the plant. There is a lesson to learn from this problem. Always check your plants for insect and disease problems after summering plants outdoors.


Q: I have three ficus trees that we inherited with the house we bought. They have done well until recently. Two of them seem to be dying. One is very large and is forked into two main trunks about 18 inches above the pot. The branches of the trunk are about 2 1/2 inches in diameter. One of the branches is dead and the other is not doing well. Where do I cut off the dead portion of the trunk? The other troubled plant has three trunks growing up out of the same pot. One has died. Do I cut it off above or below the soil? I will probably cut one of the other trunks out as well, leaving only the tallest and best one. There is a dark discoloration from the soil up the trunk of each tree about 6 or 8 inches. (e-mail reference)

A: Cut the dead trunk of the first one back to the other trunk, about a quarter inch out. On the other tree, cut the dead trunk back as close to the soil as possible. The dark discoloration you refer to could be some superficial mold. See if you can wipe it off with a soapy cloth. It is probably a saprophyte (nonparasitic) growth.


Q: I have a question about my ficus plant (weeping variety rather than a rubber plant). It's an indoor plant and is in a bright, but north-facing room. Over the last couple of months, the plant has started to get yellow spots on its leaves. Otherwise, it seems healthy and there's plenty of new growth. It isn't losing an undue number of leaves. I've had the plant for about 15 years, so it really is part of the family! What could be the problem? (e-mail reference)

A: A number of things can cause yellow spots on leaves. It could be caused by water splashing on the leaves or watering with hard water. Underwatering often causes yellow spotting.
The problem could be aerosol "burn" from spraying insecticides, etc. Cold drafts may cause yellowing. Perhaps, just the older, mature leaves are turning yellow. Sort of like humans losing hair, but not going completely bald!


Q: I have a ficus tree that I've had for several years. It was my grandma's for 15 years before that. It has been very healthy until recently. I moved in October and put the tree in my sunroom. It was fine until last week. The leaves are drying and falling off. The leaves are not changing color. What could be the problem? I had forced-air heat in the old apartment, but now have radiator heat. The tree is not near a radiator. Could it be a moisture problem in the house? Do I need a humidifier? Could it be bugs? What can I do to save my tree? I don't want to lose the tree because it has a lot of sentimental value. (e-mail reference)

A: It sounds like it could be dry air causing the problem. I would suggest a room humidifier. Wait six to eight weeks to see if any new growth emerges. Ficus plants are extremely fussy about being moved, pouting from a little difference in humidity, air movement, temperature or light. Have patience; chances are it will recover after going through this fit of defoliation.


Q: We recently let our ficus get too dry (maybe 10 days without water). It has lost tons of leaves. The branches that have lost leaves are dry and brittle. One nursery told us the branches would re-sprout leaves over time. What is the best way to save the tree? Do I need to simply water it correctly and be patient or do I need to remove all the dry branches? How long will it take to come back? (e-mail reference)

A: Be patient and prune out the branches that obviously are dead. Dead branches will not send out new growth. Establish a regular watering regime based on season of the year and rate of visible growth. As to the length of time it will take to recover, I have no idea and neither does anyone else. It all depends on the care it gets, its location and the vigor within the plant.


Q: I have a ficus plant that is healthy except for the knots it has grown on the trunk and branches. On some of the leaves there is a “spray” that is clear, but sticky. Do you know what this is and how to treat it? (e-mail reference)

A: The knots could be anything from galls to just natural formations that will not hurt the tree. Insects or mites that are feeding cause the sticky spray material on the leaves. Most likely mites, as aphids, scale or mealybugs, would be very evident. Determine what the exact cause is and take appropriate action. See if you can locate a neem product, such as “Fungicide 3,” which is a miticide, fungicide and insecticide all in one. Something such as that should control whatever this pest may be.


Q: Some leaves on my ficus tree have a shiny, sprayed look to them. They look like someone opened a soda pop and sprayed some leaves. The leaves do not feel sticky to the touch, but I can feel some texture. I’m trying to be as descriptive as possible. I hope it makes some sense. Can you tell me what may be going on with my tree? (e-mail reference)

A: In the past, your ficus probably had a spider mite or scale infestation. The pest’s secretions caused the shiny appearance on some of the leaves. I would suggest wiping those leaves off with a damp rag to prevent other problems from developing. Clean up any remaining critters that still may be hanging around, so carefully inspect the branches. Remove them with your fingernail or by wiping them off with an alcohol-soaked rag.


Q: I have an 8-foot ficus tree that has been in the house since it was only a few feet tall. Can this tree be planted outside? (e-mail reference)

A: If you mean permanently, only if you live in a frost-free zone, such as south Florida, southwest Texas or southern California. Any houseplant will benefit by being moved outdoors for the summer. Be sure to check for bugs before bringing it back inside.


Q: I am so appreciative of your Web site. I am hoping that you may be able to help me. A couple of weeks ago, my new puppy pulled a branch off my ficus tree. Now the leaves are starting to turn yellow and die. The area where the branch was torn off is green underneath. What can I do to save my beautiful little tree? (e-mail reference)

A: Cut the tree back to where it is not damaged. You should see new growth in a few weeks if you treat it as you normally would. This time keep the puppy away from the plant! Good luck and thanks for the compliment.


Q: My ficus plants tend to ooze a sticky substance. It’s not particularly visible, but I can feel the stickiness on the floor surrounding the plants. Can you tell me what is causing this? Is there anything I can do? (e-mail reference)

A: The problem is caused by spider mites. If you look very carefully at the leaves, you might see fine webbing between the leaves at the base. You also should see very small stippling on the foliage. If none of this can be verified, then the problem has to be scale insects, which often blend in with the stems of the plant. They produce a small shell over their bodies after they insert their stylets into the plant tissue. This covering makes it very difficult to control them with insecticides. You can try using Fungicide 3, which is a neem tree product. It has fungicidal, insecticidal and miticidal properties. Be sure to follow the directions on the label.


Q: We take care of a ficus tree at our school. Recently, the leaves stated falling off. They are turning yellow at the tips or around the whole edge of the leaf. It is developing new leaves, but they are curling up and turning brown. We have noticed little brown spots on the branches of the tree. We picked most of them off. They look like a little, brown wart. The tree also has been leaking sap. We have tried spraying it with a general insecticide, but it isn’t working. We have changed the potting soil. It was doing great until we took it outside to water it. Since then, it has had these spots. (e-mail reference)

A: It sounds like an infestation of San Jose scale, or scale of a similar characteristic. Once infested, these pests are very difficult to control. Try to locate where these pests are attached to the plant. If they are concentrated in the upper part of the tree, you can control them by cutting off and destroying the branches. If the entire tree is infested, then it would be wise to dispose of the plant.


Q: I rescued my ficus about six years ago from a personal injury lawyer who never watered it. (I am an employment lawyer and have much more compassion.) It was all spindly and had six leaves. I brought it back and it became a full-fledged tree with hundreds of leaves. The tree is now about 9 feet high. I moved my office a year and a half ago and repotted the tree. The plant is in front of a big window with east and southeast light. I turn it every few months. Last November some leaves turned yellow and then dropped off. At any one time there are maybe 12 leaves turning yellow. I water it once every two weeks by flooding the pot, but the water drains down in three minutes. I never have fertilized it. What’s up? (e-mail reference)

A: It is great to communicate with a compassionate lawyer! Obviously, the plant doesn’t like something in the environment or it has a scale infestation on the stems. Read my circular on houseplants and their care at www.ext.nodak.edu/extpubs/plantsci/landscap/h1260w.htm. After reading the information, examine the plant closely to find out what is wrong. It could be the amount of light it gets, overwatering, too much salt, scale or other insect infestation or a draft from the heating units.


Q: I would really appreciate your help on an issue I am having with my ficus. It is an indoor plant that I’ve had for four months. I have noticed about 30 thin, small black bugs on the leaves. I also discovered some leaves curled over themselves and over several of the bugs. The infestation seems to be concentrated on one side of the plant. Is there anything that I can do? (e-mail reference)

A: Carefully prune off any leaves with the cocoons rolled up under it. Then get some Insecticidal Soap (do not make up your own solution) and spray it over the plant. Be sure to spray the undersides of the leaves. The material kills soft bodied insects on contact by dehydration. Next, I would suggest that you repot it in the next nominal size container. Gently knock the present soil off the roots and wash with tepid water. Replant in the container using fresh potting soil. Make sure the container is freely draining and pour off the excess water within 30 minutes of watering. Fertilize only when new growth is evident. Water it well, but only after the top inch is dry.


Q: My ficus looks healthy, but some leaves are gooey with a film created by tiny, brown spider mites. The film is falling on my furniture under the tree. If using an insecticide is advised, can I order it by telephone or Internet? (e-mail reference)

A: Purchase a miticide, not an insecticide. You can order it over the Internet if you wish. Before doing that, I would suggest using an insecticidal soap such as Schultz's or Safer's. Insecticidal soaps are less toxic.


Q: I have a ficus tree that I have had in my upstairs bedroom for about five years. I repotted it about four months ago with fresh soil and a bigger pot. Now there is sap running down the walls beside the tree and the leaves that fall off are sticky. It sits close to a window for indirect sunlight and is near a vent in the ceiling. Suggestions?
(e-mail reference)

A: Sounds like a bad infestation of spider mites. Move the plant outdoors as soon as possible. Visit a local garden center and pick up a miticide that is safe for ficus plants. Treat according to label directions.


Q: My daughter-in-law just gave me a darling ficus. At her house it was receiving some light from the west. It lost most of its leaves since she purchased it. The front has leaves while the back has none. I checked for bugs but didn't find any. The leaves are tender and green, none are yellow. Its trunk is braided. I've placed it in a corner that has northwest and east light. The only direct light will be from the northwest and then only in the late afternoon. It gets filtered light from the east during the morning hours. Is this enough light? The soil is not wet, but lightly damp. We keep the house at about 74 degrees. Can you please advise what I should do to make it happy, healthy and bring it back to full leaves? (e-mail reference)

A: Ficus have a bad habit of doing that after they are brought home. Give it about six weeks in that location and it should begin leafing-out with permanent leaves. They are quick to "pout" when they are moved from their perfect location (florist or nursery). They usually recover, as long as the owner doesn't overwater or fertilize.


Q: I have a ficus tree that is about six years old. It is doing well except on the root base and trunk where large brown knots are forming. Would you please let me know if these knots are a problem? (e-mail reference)

A: I have no idea what the brown knots could be. Have someone locally such as your county or state extension horticulturist look at it. If it is not harming the tree, then don't be concerned. It could be callus growth caused by a superficial injury.


Q: I've had a ficus for about four years. It was doing fine until about a year ago. I am starting to notice a lot of scale on the outer limbs. It appears like brown scale/tiny bumps. I've heard about using Volk or Neem oil on the entire tree, but I wanted to investigate further. I heard I should trim back the infected areas, but what should I use to get rid of the bugs? (e-mail reference)

A: It will have to be treated with Neem or Volk oil. You can do it by dabbing the scale with cotton dipped in the oil or simply by spraying it on. I would suggest the dipping method because using too much oil may cause a toxic reaction. If the scale are isolated to just a few branches and they can be removed without destroying the shape of the tree, then do so, but keep a vigil on the remaining branches for any future outbreaks.


Q: A friend of mine is moving to Canada and cannot take her very large and tall ficus tree with her. We recently transported it to my home, where it sits in an indirectly lit room. It was doing fine for about one week and then, over night, it went into shock. I'm sure the shock is due to some pruning she did so it would fit into my house, as well as the 20 minute drive to my home (lying down in the bed of a truck). I would hate to lose the tree. Is there anything I can do? I fertilized it with Miracle Grow diluted in water the day before it went into shock. (e-mail reference)

A: Ficus is a tropical plant so cold air drafts are not good for it. Make sure you don't over-water. It's a common tendency that kills plants. Get some artificial plant lights directed on the remaining foliage. Your plant is likely in a different light situation compared to where it came from. Ficus is typically raised on high intensity light (1000-foot candles or more) with a combination of artificial and natural light. When brought into a home, they are lucky if they get 250-foot candles of light. This major reduction in light causes the yellowing and dropping of the foliage. If it is too low, the low light intensity and duration will cause crown thinning (die-back of branches) until there is a balance of foliage to available light. Based on what you have told me, this is the best advice I can give you. (TW)


Q: I have a ficus tree that is very healthy. How do I take cuttings to start a few more? (Email reference)

A: Take terminal cuttings about six to nine inches in length. Stick them in moistened perlite, vermiculite or sand and keep moist. They should start to root in six to eight weeks. If you can find some rooting hormone powder, dipping the ends in the powder would help to stimulate the rooting a little faster.


Q: I have a ficus growing indoors that I’ve had for about five years. The past few months it has looked very droopy and has some yellow leaves. The drainage is very black, almost like strong coffee, when I water it. The tree does not absorb water. (E-mail reference)

A: Try repotting it and locating it outdoors when weather permits. Plant it close to the house on the east or north side. This usually revives most houseplants. Give it some fertilizer when you see some new growth emerging.


Q: I have a ficus tree that was given to me three months ago when I moved to my new house. It is about four feet high and was thriving when I got it. We have very large windows so it gets lots of light but it is dropping yellowed leaves like crazy. We got a kitten around the same time and I have caught him playing in the dirt two or three times but do not see any evidence that he has littered in it. Also, around that same time our outside temperature was subzero or in the single digits. Did the plant get too cold because it sits in front of a very large window? What is your advice on how I can save this plant? (E-mail reference)

A: I would find it difficult to believe (being an owner of three cats myself) that your kitten didn't use the containerized soil as a litter box unless you were very swift and severe in your correction. There is a draft of cold air that comes off a large window during sub-zero weather. Ficus is a tropical plant so cold air drafts are not good for it. Place aluminum foil over the container top after watering to deter the cat. You will be able to tell if he is trying to sneak in behind your back. Make sure you don't over-water. It’s a common tendency that kills plants. Move the plant back a couple of feet from the window and get some artificial plant lights directed on the remaining foliage. Your plant is very likely in a very different light situation compared to where it came from. They are typically raised on high light intensity (1000 foot candles or more) with a combination of artificial and natural light. When brought into a home, they are lucky if they get 250-foot candles of light. This major reduction in light causes the yellowing and dropping of the foliage. If it is too low, the low light intensity and duration will cause crown thinning (die-back of branches) until there is a balance of foliage to the available light. Based on what you have told me, this is the best advice I can give you.


Q: I just got a ficus two days ago, which I replanted in a larger pot. Now many of the leaves are turning yellow and some are falling off. I put some plant food sticks in the soil. What can I do? (E-mail reference)

A: Remove the plant food sticks immediately. Back off on the watering because you are probably overdoing it. Try to keep the plant away from any drafts of cold or hot air. The plant should stabilize in a few weeks with the leaves that it will be able to support with the available light.


Q: I have a three-year-old weeping ficus tree. I have never cut the tree back so it is now 5 1/2 feet tall. There are around 10 thin trunks at the base. Is this how a ficus tree normally grows? The tree looks full now. Will it start to thin out as it grows? Is it necessary to cut the tree back? (E-mail reference)

A: Cutting the tree back and possibly increasing the light intensity/duration will result in a thicker foliated plant. You are correct in thinking that those thin stems will eventually die out if more light is not provided. However, don't remove more than 25 to30 percent of the branches at one time.


Q: I have an 8-foot-tall, 10-year-old ficus that is losing a lot of leaves. It has done this before in the fall or winter but not this many. I have the kids shake the trunk so the leaves fall and then, on a daily basis, rake the living room carpet. I transplanted the tree this summer into a larger, appropriately sized pot with good soil. Is it too dry or in need of fertilizer? Is this normal fall behavior for an indoor plant? I do not want to loose it after all these years! (SW Ontario, Canada)

A: The tree is simply responding to the drier air from the central heating. It will eventually stop dropping leaves or it may even drop all of them. Maintain your normal watering routine and the plant should come through for you like it has in previous years.


Q: My friend gave me a ficus tree about a year ago. Since then it has dropped nearly all of its leaves and the remaining ones are drying up and turning brown. While reading about ficus I recognized the brown shell bug description. I noticed it several months ago but thought it was dried sap. Now, looking at the tree, it has a lot of what looks like brown oyster shell scale. Is there any hope? Should I just dump it? (E-mail reference)

A: You will have to be the one to make that decision. If it is as bad as you say, then dumping it is probably a good idea. If the scale is concentrated on the upper branches only, then cut those back well beyond the infestation and spray the remainder of the plant with insecticidal soap to kill any crawling nymphs and see if it re leafs for you.


Q: I have a ficus tree that is probably 10 years old. I moved it to a different location in my living room and it started growing new branches and leaves. Now it is losing all of its leaves and new growth. It is almost bare, and not too long ago it was full and getting really pretty. The tree is more than 5-feet tall and planted in a large pot. Other than the leaves falling off, it looks perfectly healthy. (E-mail reference)

A: Check for scale or mealy bug infestations. It could be a difference in light intensity at the new location. If the cambial tissue is still green under the bark, the tree will very likely come back with new leaves that are adapted to the new location.


Q:  I have had my ficus tree for about two years. Last year it was almost dead because of mites, scales and other problems. I took it outside last summer, sprayed it with insecticide and by September it was flourishing so I brought it back in. It flourished all year but today I noticed sap on several of the leaves. I haven't lost any leaves or had any yellowing. Should I take it outside again and spray it or should I just wipe the leaves with rubbing alcohol? If it is spider mites, where did they come from? (E-mail reference)

A:  Try rubbing the leaves down with alcohol to see if that does the trick. If not, then take it outside and spray with Orthene, which has systemic action. Your guess is as good as mine as to how mites and other plant pests find their way into a home to infest a plant. Probably on your clothing.


Q: I was recently given a dying ficus tree. I repotted it and gave it tender loving care. The tree thrived but after six months I noticed leaves were starting to drop off. The dead leaves are a mottled yellow. I also found a drop of gummy white substance on the stem. I love this tree and don't want to lose it. (E-mail reference)

A: The gummy white substance on the stem is an insect that is feeding on the plant. It could be aphids, spittlebugs or scale. If you look closely you will likely see many of them, concentrated around the leaf petiole attachment to the stem. If the number is not overwhelming, you can remove them effectively with a cotton swab dipped in rubbing alcohol. If there are too many for that operation, then you will need to apply a systemic insecticide such as Orthene. This should be applied outdoors, not inside the house. After drying overnight, the plant can be brought back inside.


Q: I just bought a new ficus and was wondering where to place it. Right now it is across the room from a window and does not get direct sunlight. Should it be in front of the window or just leave it where it is and see what happens? (E-mail reference)

A: If you leave it where it is, most likely some leaf drop will occur and then it will stabilize. Depending on the light level, the plant may be able to survive, but it will do better if it can get more direct light.


Q: I have a ficus tree that I got in June at my father's funeral. All of the leaves fell off. Now there is new growth at the bottom of the dead part. I don’t know anything about plants but I really want to keep this tree alive. When you say cut the dead part away, how much do you mean? The entire top is dead. How often should I water it? How do I know when it’s time to water it? (E-mail reference)

A: If there is no green cambium tissue under the bark when you scrape it with your fingernail, the plant is truly dead, and there is nothing you can do at this point to revive it. If there is still some green tissue, then cut it back to about a 6-inch stub and water it normally in a bright location. It should send out some leaves in about six weeks if it is going to at all, otherwise, it is a goner.


Q: I am seeking info on how to save my medium-sized ficus tree as well as get rid of the small gnats that seem to be coming from its soil. It is in a window facing west and receives filtered sun. I try to let the soil dry out prior to watering each time and keep the topsoil free of debris and dead leaves. There are no spots or scales on the backs of the leaves but it has been dropping leaves steadily now for about a month. Is there a spray for the bugs that will not harm the tree? (E-mail reference)

A: The plant should probably be repotted with fresh soil that is free of insect activity. When you repot, look carefully at the roots to see if there is any evidence of root feeding from the larval stage of the gnats or any other insect that might be harbored in the old soil. Generally, potent insecticides are not recommended for indoor plant use. The ones that are suggested, such as insecticidal soap, are good knock-down types that are mostly ineffective unless direct contact is made with the insect. Check to be sure the plant is not in any drafts from the heating unit, or near a door that gives it a cold blast of air each time it is opened and closed.


Q: I have a weeping fig ficus that I've had for about 14 years. The leaves are dropping and are very sticky. I am also finding small dead branches. Could the stickiness be causing the problem? It has grown so that it has cracked the plastic pot it is in. When is the proper time to repot? I hate to lose it after all this time. (E-mail reference)

A: Stickiness is not good! The plant is likely getting hit by spider mites. Their feeding is causing the sap or stickiness you are experiencing and the leaf drop if you have not moved it to a new location. Repot now and wash the foliage while you have it out of the pot. Use tepid water to wash the little sap-sucking bounders off. After you have it in a new pot, spray the plant with Schultz's Neem which is an insecticide, miticide, and fungicide all in one. That will take care of the problem.


Q: About what size planter and how much soil does my ficus need? At its thickest, the trunk is approximately 1.75-inches in diameter. I'm losing leaves like crazy and think I might have poor soil. (E-mail reference)

A: Move your ficus up to the next nominal sized container. Make sure it drains freely so you can collect and dispose of the excess water from the base. Use fresh potting soil that is commercially available at many retail outlets and make sure the plant gets good, strong, indirect light, no direct sunlight. Keep it away from drafts, water after the top third of the soil has dried using tepid water and fertilize monthly during periods of active growth.


Q: A few months ago I bought a 12- inch breaded ficus tree. I located it in front of my south- facing patio window so it should get enough sunlight. It lost a few leaves but I figured it was in an adjustment period. After a while it started to get some new growth but a few days ago I noticed that a lot of leaves are dropping. Some are yellow but even the new ones are falling. I have been keeping the soil moist and nothing changed in the caring routine (other than the weather outside). Can you please help me try to figure out why the leaves are dropping? (Edmonton, AB, Canada)

A: You live even further north than I do! Less sunlight during the day will cause the leaves to drop. Remember, this is a tropical plant where there is pretty much an even amount of direct sunlight on a year-'round basis. I would suggest getting it inside ASAP and letting it have the comfort and warmth of a cozy Edmonton, Alberta home. Also, the temperature fluctuations that occur between day and night can cause the leaves to drop. Again, being tropical plants, anything below 60 degrees F (15 degrees C) will be too cold for the plant. Once you get it inside, it should stabilize in about 6 weeks.


Q: I have a ficus that we are constantly cutting back. The other day as I was cutting off dead branches, I noticed that there were little black spots on the branches almost like bugs. They look like a small black bug sitting on the branch but it is liquid, almost like a mold, sap, or seeping. Can you tell me what this may be? (E-mail reference)

A: You have discovered oyster shell scale. It’s tough to get rid of. If the scales are confined to a few branches, cut them off immediately. If the tree is badly infested, dump it.


Q: I have a 14-year-old ficus tree which is "bleeding" where another branch comes out of the larger branch. In between two other branches I see some white stuff. The tree was outside and it got cold while I was on vacation. Can I apply medicine and wrap it or anything? (E-mail reference)

A: I would check to make sure that there are no colonies of insects that have taken up residence on your plant. I am especially suspect of the "white stuff" between the branches. That could be mealybugs or scale. Take a cotton sway, dab it in rubbing alcohol and wipe that stuff off, no matter what it is. As for the bleeding that is taking place, it should compartmentalize and cease very shortly, if the plant has not been irreversibly damaged by the cold. Wrapping will not help.


Q: I have a ficus tree growing outside of my home in Florida. We had a very bad frost this winter (bad for Florida) and my ficus tree looks to be half dead. The back of the tree (closest to the house) still has green leaves hanging from it, but the front of the tree and the top seem to be dead, no leaves and dry branches. I am wondering of I should cut back the tree, but I feel that this would make virtually half of the tree disappear because most of it is leafless. Please let me know what I should do. (E-mail reference, Fla.)

A: I suggest cutting the ficus back as best you can to green wood, trying your best to maintain as much symmetry as possible. There is a chance this will stimulate some new growth development that will result in an attractive looking tree. If the tree doesn't respond in about six weeks after this treatment, very likely you are not going to ever get a response, or you may get a response that you don't like; but it is worth the effort to see what will happen before making another expensive purchase.


Q: My ficus has been healthy until recently. Now the leaves are turning yellow and dropping off. Please help me save my tree! (White Lake, S.D.)

A: It is hard to know what is specifically wrong with your tree, but I can give you some ideas. One possibility is that you have root damage caused by insects such as mealybugs. You can apply a granular systemic insecticide or Orthene, a liquid systemic insecticide.

It could also be that the plant has been moved. Sometimes ficus trees can be sensitive to variations in light conditions and lose leaves easily if stressed by light, water or drafts. It can usually be acclimated to environmental changes within a few months.


Q: My 20-year-old Ficus tree is losing its leaves and I am wondering what I can do to save it? (Valley City, N.D.)

A: I would suggest getting it repotted with fresh potting soil, one that has some nutrients in it. You can obtain it at any garden supply store or discount chain.

Ficus do not like to be moved. If you've had it for 20 years, try and recall the location where it did best. They prefer strong, indirect light for best growth and being kept away from drafts.


Q: We have a ficus tree that we've had since July. It has four stems that are braided to form the one tree. We have beautiful healthy growth on the front and one side of the tree. On the other side, however, the leaves are simply drying, curling, and falling off. In fact I tried to cut some of the stems back and several branches are completely dead. It loses about 10 to 20 leaves per day. It has always tended to shed leaves but now it is really starting to look bare. Any suggestions on how often I should water it or what I should do to bring it back to a healthy life? (E-mail reference)

A: Your ficus is the weeping fig type, from your description. It could have a root rot disease, or it could be due to one of the following: A recent move to a new location, where the light conditions, temperature, drafts, etc. are just slightly different. This is known to cause defoliation. An excess of chlorine or fluoride in your water source. This could cause the leaf curling. Water too cold or watering schedule inconsistent; both can cause leaf curl and leaf drop. Failure to mist the leaves during periods of high central heating use can cause leaf curl, browning or "firing" of the leaf edges, and leaf drop. Do so with pure (distilled) water to avoid spotting. Make sure water is at room temperature.


Back to Tree Menu
Back to the Hortiscope Table of Contents