Forget fussy figs: These plants are tough

Anyone who's ever grown a weeping fig (Ficus benjamina) knows how finicky it can be: Just look at it crosswise, and it's likely to shed most of its leaves.

So imagine what would happen if you tried to transport a trio of these temperamental plants from one side of the US to the other.

That's why I didn't have high hopes of success when I was given ficus plants while on the West Coast, knowing that I would have to get them back to my home in the East.

But these were supposed to be "unfussy" ficuses, easy to grow. So I put them to the test. I watered the small plants, enclosed each in a clear plastic bag, and crammed them into a padded carrying case I'd brought along for my laptop computer.

From hotel room to airport and into the overhead storage bins of several different planes they went, getting jostled all the while.

After being crowded in darkness for more than 24 hours, the houseplants were removed from their plastic prisons and placed on a sunny windowsill in my kitchen.

I waited for the inevitable yellow leaves. There weren't any. I looked anxiously on the floor for dropped foliage. A total of four leaves fell from the three plants.

Two years later, after receiving only cursory attention, the ficuses continue to thrive. No wonder they've been named Plants of the Year for 2000 by the Florida Nurserymen & Growers Association (FNGA).

Ficus Too Little is a tiny gem of a plant that's covered with slightly curled leaves that are about the size of a woman's little fingernail. Although it makes a cute bonsai, it's also ideal for anyone who likes Ficus benjamina, but doesn't have room for a large tree.

In contrast to the airy look of a traditional weeping fig, Too Little has seven to 10 times more foliage, says Heather Nedley of FNGA.

Expect a young plant to reach about a foot tall and eight to 10 inches wide after a year. And it doesn't crave the high light levels usually required by weeping figs, which can be so difficult for indoor gardeners to provide unless they have a sunroom. Too Little manages just fine in low to medium light.

Ficus Midnight also flourishes in medium indirect light, and, as an added attraction, it doesn't demand constantly moist soil.

At first glance, you might not notice much difference between it and other Ficus benjaminas. But look more closely and you'll see that the leaves, while the classic shape, are very thick and an attractive deep-green color that borders on being blue-black.

In my experience, Midnight is quite a vigorous grower, more compact and upright than other weeping figs I've grown.

"What is it?" is a typical reaction to Ficus Alii (pronounced ah-LEE).

With long, thin leaves that have a slight burgundy cast to their underside, Alii looks nothing like a weeping fig. And for good reason; it isn't. But it is a member of the fig family (Ficus binnendijkii) and reaches indoor tree size while growing in medium light.

Alii is practically indestructible, says Lee Goode of Agri-Starts II in Apopka, Fla. "If anybody abuses plants, it's fast-food places," he notes. Yet a Burger King near his office has had an Alii for at least six years. And it's not just hanging on - the plant has grown so much that it recently had to be pruned.

All of which goes to show that ficus plants can survive indoors without fuss - providing you pick the right ones.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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