It’s a jungle thing

Hector Manuel Sanchez

No houseplant is trendier now than the fiddle leaf fig (Ficus lyrata). Named for its large, leathery, glossy green leaves shaped like violins, it fills the niche of “big-ole indoor plant” like no other. Oh sure, you can grow a small one on a tabletop for a while, but that obviates its true value. It’s meant to be an evergreen tree 6 to 8 feet high (or more) that you stick in the corner of a large room next to a window when anything else would look puny and ridiculous.

It makes an impact.

Fiddle leaf figs are slow growers indoors, which is why prospective buyers often stroke out when they glance at the price tag at the garden center. “A hundred and forty dollars?” they wail. “That’s almost a quarter of what I paid for my last handbag!”

Still, they buy it, place it the appropriate corner of a room, and feel fulfilled. For a while, anyway.

Soon, the thing starts dropping leaves. “Fine,” the owners say, “all figs do that when you move them from a greenhouse to a regular house. We’ll be patient as it adjusts.” The next adjustment tries their patience. Ugly, brown or black patches start on the margins of the leaves and grow bigger and bigger. The tree looks like it was set it atop a campfire. “Glorioski!” they scream. “What is wrong with our one-quarter-of-a-handbag fig?”

Steve Bender

The answer is really very simple. Fiddle leaf fig is native to the rainforests of west Africa. It rains a lot in rainforests. When it’s not raining, it’s still very humid. Days often get hot, but never chilly.

Does this sound like the inside of your house?

Modern folks who remember sticking to their bedsheets at night when they were kids detest humid air, as do women who prefer their hair not remind others of a loofa sponge. Thus, we crank up the AC in summer to cool and dry the air. In winter, we light up the furnace, which warms and dries the air. In both instances, we lower the humidity to a level that we like, but fiddle leaf fig does not. That’s where the black patches come from.

Now, unless you live in some place like Key West (or my favorite island, Isla Nublar, off the coast of Costa Rica), you have to grow fiddle leaf fig indoors during the winter. It’s tropical and won’t take frost. During this time, you can mist the foliage several times a day to raise the humidity around it. However, this is just a stopgap measure.

To really restore a fiddle leaf fig’s joie de vivre, you need to take it outside for the summer where it can bask in warmth and oppressive humidity. You won’t believe how quickly your plant will improve its appearance. I just did this with mine and noticed the difference in 48 hours. Instead of its leaves scrunching together fighting for light like commuters piling into a subway car, they spread out naturally. They look healthy, plump, and very happy. Grant your fiddle leaf fig parole for the warm months, too.

Place it in the shade, as hot sun will burn the leaves. (Mine sits on a screened porch.) Watch how it responds when it gets the first drink of rainwater that it’s had in years – or maybe ever. I collect rainwater in buckets and water a couple of times a week. Water until the excess runs from the pot’s drainage hole, then empty the saucer beneath. Fertilize a couple of times in summer with a slow-release, organic product, such as Espoma Plant-tone or Happy Frog All-Purpose Fertilizer, according to label directions. Don’t go nuts with quick-release fertilizer! Too much will burn the leaves.

In less than 700 words, I have once again instructed you how to avoid or correct a common gardening problem. Grumpy doesn’t fiddle around.