Can this ficus be saved?

Several months ago I inherited a large ficus benjamina plant from a coworker who left the company. It stood on a bookshelf on top of his desk and leaned over into his space. It looked miserable. One evening after work, Eric and I came to my office armed with a new, larger pot, fresh potting soil, and a tarp.  The after-hours office was dark, with only a few emergency lights on. Why I didn’t find a light switch, I don’t know, but the dim light seemed appropriate for masterminding an escape, which, in fact, we were. It truly was a rescue operation.

Leaves of ficus benjamina (weeping fig)

Ficus Benjamina [Source:]

We cut the ficus from its mooring: It had been shackled to the cubicle wall with a coat hanger and a chain of paper clips. Then we removed the outer pot … which revealed an inner pot … and yet another inner pot. I had never seen this technique before, but I’m pretty sure repotting a plant doesn’t mean throwing it, pot and all, into another pot. Twice. I hoped the smell of rot and stagnant water would dissipate by morning.

I wish I’d been able to take photos of the operation, but cameras aren’t allowed where I work. Eric and I elevated the newly repotted tree on a step stool in the corner of my cubicle, behind my computer monitor, so it would have enough height to rise above the cube walls. When I came to work the next morning, the tree thanked me for saving it by relaxing its graceful six-foot canopy over the corners of four adjoining cubicles. Suddenly I had the garden cube of the third floor. And—I got to work under a tree! Who gets to do that?

Drafting table and stool on a patio under a large tree

Not my desk or tree!

Unfortunately, my garden-cube days were to be short-lived. A few months later I was reassigned to another project, and had to move to a different building a mile down the street. When I saw my new digs, I knew the ficus wouldn’t work out. There wasn’t a good place to put it, and the light was too dim to support plant life. Eric and I loaded the tree into our utility trailer and brought it home, where it took up residence on the dining room table and proceeded to drop leaves everywhere to show me how unhappy it was.

Ficus trees are finicky plants: Moves (much less trailer trips down the I-5) and changes in environment throw them into a leaf-shedding tizzy. As its limbs drooped in defeat and it cried leafy tears all over my dining room, I saw that the tree was still very unbalanced from its time chained to the wall.

Ficus tree growing in one direction

Leaning to the right

I decided to attempt a fix. What did I have to lose? Out came the coated wire and stakes. I really had no idea what I was doing … all I knew was that I’d successfully encouraged a limb of our Mt. Fuji cherry tree to change directions by wrapping it with wire, bonsai-style. So I would wire around a few ficus limbs and used Velcro gardening tape (awesome stuff) to secure the limbs to stakes.

Ficus limb wound with wire

Grow this way, please.

Ficus limb wound with wire and staked

I said THIS way!

Ficus with wire-wrapped limbs attached to stakes

Resistance is futile

I even taped a couple of pennies to one limb to convince it to hang in a certain direction. My two cents, if you will.

Two pennies taped to ficus branch

My two cents

I imagine the poor plant feels like a kid with new braces. Ouch! I gingerly pruned a few branches on the heavier side, but it was hard to make myself chop off good foliage when so many leaves were already on the floor. You can see that its silhouette is slightly more balanced now.

Ficus with limbs repositioned with wire

A little improvement

Eric brought the schoolhouse desk up from downstairs. For some reason, I have always envisioned it as a plant stand … and so it has become one. It’s in rough shape and could use some love, but that’ll be another project for another day.

The ficus is in the north-facing dining room window, where it will like the light. It might not like the breeze from the nearby furnace vent. I hope it will gradually become accustomed to our coolish house, which we keep in the mid-to-upper 60s during heating season. Ficus benjamina is the official plant of Bangkok, Thailand, but our house is distinctly un-Bangkok-like. My previous office, on the other hand, was a nap-inducing, tropical 74 degrees. I think it will adjust eventually, because another, much smaller, healthy ficus thrives just a few feet away.

Ficus tree sitting on old-fashioned schoolhouse desk

The schoolhouse desk finds its calling

Our dining room is large, but this tree, which was my protective buddy at work, really feels like a bit of a monster now that it’s in our house. It’s lost so many leaves in the month that it’s been with us that it looks visibly skimpier than when we brought it home. Hang in there, ficus … work with me. I’m doing the best I can for you.

View of dining room from outside at night

It’s a jungle in there

Green ginkgo leaf with 1913 - 2013 below it


12 thoughts on “Can this ficus be saved?

  1. Nine Dark Moons

    i think it will continue to adjust itself by dropping leaves and then totally reboot itself and love living in your house 🙂 great job of saving it! i hate to see plants suffering in other people’s care.

    1. D'Arcy H Post author

      A ficus reboot! Love it! Yeah, it made me sad to see this well-meaning but clueless guy torture his plants. The other was a palm that he fed too much and it got really leggy. You can’t cut those back.

  2. curt

    Hi D’Arcy- Loved the story. I have a Ficus bonsai that has set by the south facing entrance of our gallery for 25 years. It gets a blast of winter air each season and warm in the summer – love it. Hopefully yours will too. If it’s too big just tart making it smaller – Bonsai style. You already have the wire training going on.

  3. Karen B.

    I love your ideas for “making” the branches balance their growth with wire and pennies! Here in Southern California I’ve rarely seen a healthy ficus tree indoors. I had one that got plenty of indirect, natural light and while it didn’t drop its leaves, it did not thrive. I hope your tree fares better. It’s pretty in your dining room.
    Enjoy the upcoming weekend.

    1. D'Arcy H Post author

      I read that ficus like it outside when it’s warm. Next summer I might try that. Too late now! The leaf drop MAY have slowed a little … I hope!

  4. Jessica@CapeofDreams

    At least it has a friend nearby for comfort. I had no idea you rescued ficuses (fici?) as well as cats, but it doesn’t surprise me. I hope your loving attention will turn it around. I am experiencing something similar at home with several plants that are struggling after they were neglected this summer. It can be hard to revive dying plants. I have never had much success but am always hopeful.

    1. D'Arcy H Post author

      It’s true, I am sometimes a plant rescuer, too! Some of the biggest plants in my gardens started as bargains who needed TLC. I bet your houseplants will perk up now that you’re there to care for them. Good luck!

  5. Jo

    I, too, had a ficus that I moved from outside in the Maryland summer where it thrived to inside in the winter where it dropped most of its leaves. Now I’m nursing olive trees with much the same M.O. I wish I knew the answer. Jo @ Let’s Face the Music

    1. D'Arcy H Post author

      I think mine’s facing a double whammy of being shocked by the move plus going into winter when they normally shed leaves. I’m optimistic it will adjust and flourish by spring. Good luck with your olive trees!


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