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Ficus benjamina has some cousins big-leafed, colorful, ceiling-scraping, compact.

Ficus benjamina has some cousins . . . big-leafed, colorful, ceiling-scraping, compact

Ask for a ficus at a plant shop and you'll probably be shown a weeping fig: Ficus benjamina. In recent years, the popularity of this one member of the fig family has obscured a number of other ornamental figs that make equally good house plants. Some of them have been quietly making news in their own right, while attention has been focused on their prima donna cousin.

All these figs, except for variegated weeping fig, are less sensitive to variations in water, light, and heat than Ficus benjamina. Rubber plant, the most invincible of the group, shrugs off most household perils: dim light, irregular watering, and warm, parched air.

As you can see on these pages, the foliage and form of this clan vary remarkably. While they are all members of the fig family, none of them bear the sweet edible fruit of the garden variety. Most are available in plant shops and nurseries, but you may have to search for mistletoe fig and fancy-leafed kinds of rubber plant.

Colorful rubber plants

Although nearly everyone knows of the old-fashioned rubber plant (Ficus elastica), it's rarely seen today in garden shops. Instead, the broader-leafed Ficus elastica "Decora' has virtually taken its place. The label doesn't always tell you; plants often are sold simply as rubber plant or Ficus elastica. Besides "Decora', you can sometimes find a compact, rounded-leafed version called "Robusta'.

Other kinds of rubber plants now offer quite a range of foliage colors. "Variegata' is a yellow-margined version of the common narrow-leafed rubber plant; "Doescheri' leaves are similar, but they're colored green, gray, cream, and pink. Variegated forms with wide, glossy, "Decora'-like leaves include "Schryveriana' and the newer "Asahi' (or "Tricolor') and "Honduras'.

Leaves of "Rubra' are outlined in red; "Burgundy' (also sold as "Abidjan') has very dark, wine red leaves and stems.

An indoor street tree?

Indian laurel fig (Ficus microcarpa nitida, often sold as F. retusa nitida), shown above right, is the tree you see frequently in shopping malls and skylit lobbies. It has glossy green leaves and a tan trunk similar to Ficus benjamina, but its branches don't weep, they stand up.

Because they're commonly sold to use as small, clipped street trees in San Francisco and Southern California, most of the plants you buy have dense, bushy crowns. To grow indoors, prune Indian laurel liberally to open up the canopy and expose inside branches; otherwise, it will shed inner foliage where light can't reach.

An uncommon weeping fig

If you already have Ficus benjamina, you can now add its variegated cousin (see it at lower left on the next page) to your collection. Although the plant is called Ficus benjamina "Variegata', some growers aren't sure it's the same species. It is stiffer and bushier than regular weeping fig. Its leaves are light green, outlined and streaked with ivory. Indoors, use "Variegata' as a foreground shrub; against darker green foliage of taller trees, its bright leaves really stand out.

Southern California nurseries sometimes sell variegated Benjamin fig in hanging baskets. You can encourage one to cascade this way by cutting upward-growing branches back to horizontal stems, and clipping vertical shoots off regularly to force supple side growth.

This fig is big

For bold texture and ceiling-scraping height, it's hard to beat fiddleleaf fig (Ficus lyrata). A multitrunked plant provides good visual balance or put three young plants in the same pot and prune them to different heights.

Give the tall-growing stems sturdy support. When fiddleleaf fig reaches the top of a room, its stems will bend and follow the ceiling if you secure the branches with plant-tie slings hung from above.

Fiddleleaf fig is easy to grow, but because of evaporation from the large surface area of its leaves, the plant needs steady moisture to keep leaves from drying and developing brown edges. Without greenhouse levels of humidity, the next best step is to use potting soil rich with peat or other moisture-holding material. Don't let salts collect in the soil: see watering recommendations at right.

A shape to admire

Lollipop leaves, decorative fruits, and angular branching make mistletoe fig (Ficus deltoidea, often sold as F. diversifolia) a conversation piece. Its waxy, rounded leaves are dark green speckled with tan. In a pot, mistletoe fig rarely grows taller than 3 to 4 feet. The one pictured at left shows its natural shape, but the plant can be easily pruned to give it a sculptural, bonsai-like appearance.

Mistletoe fig copes with low light by putting on almost no new growth; watch for red spider mite under these conditions.

Growers' guidelines

Fancy-leafed ficus need strong light (as in a sunroom or under skylights) to keep their red or variegated colors. For fullest growth, give all kinds of ornamental figs plenty of bright indirect light not direct, scorching sunlight. Plants near windows need occasional turning to grow evenly.

Improper watering is the most frequent cause of leaf burn and leaf drop. Drench plants thoroughly, then don't water again until soil is almost dry. Ideally, you should flood the soil when you water filling pots up and letting them drain several times in order to leach excess salts and renew oxygen in the soil. You can do this indoors if you put plants in gravellined containers that can be drained periodically.

Photo: Bushy Indian laurel (Ficus microcarpa nitida) needs assertive pruning to make an attractive small tree and let light penetrate foliage

Photo: Rubber plants come in different colors four kinds shown are common green Ficus elastica "Decora' (left); yellow-green marbled F.e. "Honduras'; patchy pink, green, white F.e. "Asahi'; dark-leafed F.e. "Burgundy'

Photo: Dozens of tiny cream-colored fruits dot waxy foliage of slow-growing mistletoe fig (Ficus deltoidea). Branches arch prettily or zigzag at angles for bonsai effect

Photo: It's dramatic. Big, viny fiddleleaf fig (Ficus lyrata) fills high-ceiling spaces. Leaves need regular cleaning

Photo: Variegated Benjamin fig is smaller, more erect than regular Ficus benjamina (behind it)
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Copyright 1984 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Date:Mar 1, 1984
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