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The many faces of Benjamin Fig

Sandy Lim

Sandy Lim

December 7, 2015

The Benjamin fig (Ficus benjamina) is one of my favourite plants. Before I knew what it was, I’d have many moments where I’d walk into a new place and think, “Oh, it’s that tree again!” It was just about everywhere and in a variety of settings – in waiting rooms, gardens, doorways; plonked near my desk at work.

My potted Benjamin fig

My potted Benjamin fig

Now, here’s my old boy. Bit of a sorry sight! At the end of winter, I gave him a good pruning, and removed old and tarnished leaves. I’m only just now seeing growth of new and darker foliage. This plant was no bigger than my finger when I bought it in 2012. After three years of intermittent neglect, and not enough sunlight followed by too much sunlight, it’s still growing strong. This tree has survived all my stages of pruning ‘study’ to date, remaining steadfast throughout.

Today, I’d like to share a little tribute to the many faces of this versatile and tolerant plant.

Ficus benjamina in Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney

Ficus benjamina in Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney

Ficus benjamina is an Asian and Australian native tree that has been naturalised in many other parts of the world. It’s often chosen for its shaggy tousle of shiny leaves drooping from smooth twigs, and you’ll see it outdoors, cultivated in parks and gardens, and in urban and suburban settings, left to grow naturally, or maintained in a variety of topiary shapes. In a natural environment, they can grow up to 30m in height.

Ficus benjamina Photo Starr

Ficus benjamina in a park in Lanai, Koele, Hawaii. Photo Forest and Kim Starr

Being somewhat easy to care for makes them a popular choice, but their resilience and vigour can cause problems when left unchecked. Growing them in suburban household gardens may be a risky endeavour as their roots are aggressive to the point of damaging walls, footpaths, sewer pipes, and even the foundations of houses. This behaviour is also seen in potted Benjamin figs, where their roots can grow through the holes in the bottom of their containers and invade surrounding ground.

If you’re intent on keeping this tree in your garden, ensure it’s planted at least 8-10m from your home and other structures on your property, and well away from paved and cemented areas. A highly resilient plant, the Benjamin fig can handle frequent pruning throughout the year, which you may need to do to control both tree size and root spread.

Don’t be fooled by its hardiness, though – this tree is also susceptible to frost damage. In areas with winter temperatures below -1°C, mulch the ground around the base of the tree to keep the roots protected.

A popular pot plant
Both indoors and outdoors, this plant can be kept at a manageable size in a pot. It looks great in gardens and courtyards, lining pathways, creating borders and boundaries, and decorating social spaces.

Ficus benjamina in Teneriffe

Ficus benjamina in Teneriffe

Inside, the ficus is a popular choice for offices, cafés and shopping centres, as a decorative slice of nature that tolerates indoor lighting conditions and being surrounded by busy people. Despite them being as low-maintenance as they are, you can still buy artificial Benjamin figs that require even less effort. Hilarious if you ask me, but certainly affirms how loved they are for their appearance!

Braided indoor fig

Braided indoor fig

On a practical note, the Benjamin fig was recognised in the NASA Clean Air Study for its effectiveness in removing formaldehyde from the air. The leaves absorb and metabolise this airborne VOC as they photosynthesise, while microorganisms in the potting soil degrade it into less harmful compounds.

Benjamin figs prefer humid conditions indoors, but are susceptible to overwatering. When using a water-filled pebble tray to increase humidity around the plant, ensure the base of the pot is kept above the water line. Water only when the top of the soil feels dry to the touch, but even then, you could get away with waiting a couple more days.

Bonsai treats and tiny worlds
A far cry from large, stately park trees is the darling bonsai, for which the Benjamin fig ‘Too Little’ cultivar is well suited. It can handle low light, a wide range of temperatures, and even being slightly rootbound. Horrifying as it sounds, a healthy plant can tolerate almost total defoliation when a denser bush of smaller leaves are required for a show.

Ficus benjamina 'Too Little' via Flickr

Ficus benjamina ‘Too Little’ bonsai cultivar via Flickr

Ficus benjamina wired for training into a bonsai

Ficus benjamina wired for training into a bonsai

Further to the miniatures theme is the practice of creating ‘tiny worlds’ and terrariums. A Benjamin fig can grow just fine with its sunlight, humidity and moisture needs met within a closed container. Maybe even too comfortably, as it does require frequent pruning to keep it from outgrowing its tiny home.

Ficus benjamina "Dutch Treat" cultivar in a fishbowl terrium

Ficus benjamina ‘Dutch Treat’ cultivar in a fishbowl terrarium. Credit: Photo by Karen Evans of Sporophyte. Used with permission

Why does my Benjamin fig drop its leaves?
It’s normal for a Ficus benjamina to replace its leaves when acclimating to a new environment – new lighting, new temperature, new humidity, etc. I’m expecting my tree to go completely bald at some point (though, it hasn’t yet, so maybe my home is just as wild as the backyard).

Generally speaking, a little leaf drop doesn’t hurt this hardy fig – it survives deliberate defoliation when it needs to, and it naturally loses older leaves and lower branches as it grows. However, major leaf loss can indicate stress caused by pests and disease, or simply improper care.

Wispy webs among the remaining leaves and branches, along with tiny red specks, suggest a spider mite infestation, which can be hosed off or treated with horticultural oil. Large brown bumps are more than likely scale insects; either pick them off by hand or prune and dispose of infested plant parts, or treat with horticultural oil. Go light on nitrogen fertilisers, especially in winter, as they may contribute to an environment where scale insects flourish. Visible cankers around pruned areas may indicate the parasitic Phomopsis fungus; control by pruning infected, dead and dying portions of the plant using disinfected tools – and remember to disinfect again after!

Ben figs are also known to lose leaves from the stress of root rot. If you can’t find any trace of pests and disease, unpot your plant and inspect the roots. Brown, mushy root parts are rotten and should be removed before replanting your tree in fresh, well-draining soil.

At the risk of sounding like a crazy plant lady, it’s not unusual to give your weeping fig a little holiday in the sun every so often on mild days. Just be careful not to leave it in full sun for too long during a notoriously hot summer, especially if your plant has become softened by gentle indoor climes.

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Catherine Stewart
8 years ago

Ah yes, this was one of my first plants too. I had 1 metre high Benjamin Fig in a pot and also ‘Uncle Fester’, a dwarf and very spiky Canary Island date palm. They got dragged around from share house to share house and I over- and under-watered them, never repotted them, didn’t feed them and generally gave them a terrible time. And yet they lived on and on.
BF was definitely a BFF.

8 years ago

A tough and forgiving plant, he certainly is! Do you still have your BF? How old is it now?

Catherine Stewart
8 years ago
Reply to  Sandy

No, sadly, I had to leave them both behind about 10 years later when I went overseas. I know that the recipient herself had BF for some years but then I lost touch with her. No doubt it’s still going strong!