Troubleshooting Your Ficuses

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Ficus, or fig trees, are a very popular easy-care houseplant. There are over 850 different species in the ficus family, including trees, shrubs, vines, epiphytes, and hemiepiphytes. They are native to tropical regions of the world. Generally, the ficuses sold as houseplants are ornamental and fall into the tree or shrub category. The variety of cultivars sold as houseplants have quite diverse appearances. 

Ficus are generally easy plants to care for and are popular for their simple glossy leaves and elegant appearance. Some of them can grow into huge plants, great for atriums or sunrooms. They also last for a very long time, upwards of 20 years. 

There are a few issues that your ficus may face in its lifetime. Here’s how to identify, troubleshoot, and care for common ficus problems.

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Leaf Drop

Leaf drop might be the most common care issues that owners of ficus benjamina have. If your plant is dropping many leaves but doesn’t seem to have any other problems, you’re most likely just dealing with leaf drop. Usually, this looks like leaves turning yellow, drying up, and falling off. 

Leaf drop is most commonly caused by inconsistent care. It happens when your ficus is experiencing low humidity and water stress from over or underwatering. You might be surprised how much water these plants can use up, especially a large one!

Check how the soil feels with your finger more often; give your ficus a little more frequent care. Water when the top half-inch of soil feels dry, and soon enough, your ficus should stop dropping all of its leaves. Adding a humidifier nearby or a pebble tray underneath can also help raise the humidity in the tree canopy.

Mealybugs and Scale Insects

This family of plants can be prone to mealybugs scale insects. Scale are tiny immobile insects that cluster on the underside of leaves, stems, and shoots. They are very small and look like little yellow or brown bumps. Mealybugs are similar in size but are protected by fluffy white threads. 

Both mealybugs and scale can be tackled using horticultural oil or coating bugs in rubbing alcohol with a Q-Tip. These methods will need to be repeated consistently for several weeks. You can also use a soap spray and a systemic insecticide, which poisons the bugs when they feed on the leaves. There is a wide variety of treatment products available at the garden center. 

It can be challenging to get rid of both these types of bugs, so if you have a large infestation, your best bet may be to destroy the plant and keep a close watch on your other houseplants to make sure they don’t have them as well. If you pay close attention to your plant care, you may catch these pests early enough to eliminate them quickly. 

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Anthracnose is a fungal disease that can affect many plants, including ficus. On ficus, it looks like dark, sunken blemishes with yellow borders on leaves and twigs. The spots may start yellow and darken to brown as they get worse. On fruiting ficuses, the figs may develop soft spots that turn pink in the middle. Eventually, the plant will start to drop affected leaves. 

The disease is spread by fungal pathogens, usually through water, and is most prevalent during rainy seasons. This disease is less common on indoor plants than it is in outdoor fig trees because homes are less likely to have conditions that spread fungal pathogens.

If your ficus does appear to have anthracnose, remove and destroy any infected leaves and twigs. Avoid splashing water on the leaves, and take care not to overwater your plant. You can apply a fungicide if you have a significant outbreak of anthracnose.

Bacterial Leaf Spot

Bacterial leaf spot is most common on ficus benjamina but occasionally occurs on ficus elastica as well. On F. elastica, it appears as circular lesions, and on F. benjamina, it appears as angular lesions on the leaves. They may start as yellow spots that turn brown. 

Leaf spot is more common in high humidity and warm temperatures during the summer. Be careful when watering because it usually shows up where water has been splashed on the leaves. 

You can apply bactericides, but your safest bet is to dispose of the affected plant so that it doesn’t infect any other plants. Be very careful to keep it from touching other plants when removing it from your home; make sure you wash your hands well and change clothes before touching other plants after you’ve disposed of it. 

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Branch Dieback

Branch dieback more commonly affects ficus benjamina than others, but it still isn’t common in houseplants. This disease is also sometimes called branch or bot canker. A type of fungi causes it. It can kill a tree within 2-3 years if left unchecked. 

Leaves on an infected branch will wilt and drop, and the branch itself will become brittle as it dies back. The wood underneath the bark will then turn black. There may be visible cankers on the branch.

To avoid canker or branch dieback, check your plant care routine. Make sure to water your ficus consistently so it’s not experiencing watering stress. 

If you see branch dieback, prune off limbs at least 6 inches below any visible cankers and destroy the infected pieces. Ficus should only be pruned during dry weather, and you should disinfect pruning tools between cuts. 

Crown Gall

Crown gall is a bacterial disease. It appears as swollen stems, leaf veins, and roots. The swollen areas will change in texture over time. 

Crown gall is unlikely to kill your ficus, but it can cause deformed limbs. You can spread it to other plants via dirty cutting tools, so be careful and make sure to disinfect any pruning tools you use if your ficus has crown gall. 

Cold Injury

Most ficus are tropical plants, and they will suffer if exposed to temperatures colder than 40º. On ficus elastica, large brown blotches will appear on mature leaves. Young leaves may pucker or distort and turn brown, so do your best not to let your ficus get cold! If you have an air conditioner, take care to move your plant away from direct cold drafts before turning it on.


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