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Grow the iconic fiddle-leaf fig

26 January 2023
4. 1n9a4731

Notoriously picky, routine is the key to unleashing this ‘it’ plant’s star power. Words & Photos Liz Carlson

The current houseplant craze is synonymous with the fiddle-leaf fig tree. With its violinshaped leaves and iconic tree silhouette, the fiddle-leaf fig tree has long been a crowd favourite of houseplant aficionados of any – and all – experience. When American broadcaster Wendy Williams uttered that viral TikTok phrase, “She’s an icon, she’s a legend, and she IS the moment,” she might as well have been talking about the fiddle-leaf fig (FLF). Very much the ‘it’ plant of the design world for the past decade, Ficus lyrata is native to the jungles of western Africa, and hails from a climate very different from ours here in little old Aotearoa. Notoriously fickle, once you’ve figured out how to keep an FLF happy, it will never stop rewarding you.

When the houseplant craze really started booming in the lead-up to and during the Covid lockdowns here in New Zealand, it was often really difficult to get your hands on a fiddle-leaf fig; they flew out the door. Because of the demand, they were (and still are) often sold when they were very young, so they weren’t as mature as other specimens you see overseas. It takes years and years, often longer than a decade, for them to mature and develop the thick tree stem they’re known for. But there’s nothing quite so rewarding as nurturing a plant and watching it grow into something truly beautiful. When it comes to the fiddle-leaf fig, no matter what, they have the magical ability to completely transform a space.

The fiddle-leaf fig is notoriously a fickle mistress. I’ve watched new plant parents have a lot of success and veteran planties struggle. But don’t fret – it really depends on your space more than your skill as a houseplant connoisseur. So if you find your FLF declining rapidly, you probably should just move house. Kidding!

They don't like change

When it comes to growing a fiddle-leaf fig, it’s important to nail its care routine. The key word here is routine. FLFs are the homebodies of the tropical plant world – they don’t like change. Because they grow into literally a tree, I tend to use a large feature cover pot with the FLF planted in a smaller pot inside. I love concrete planters or tall white vase-shaped planters; nowadays, they’re often made in a lightweight material that mimics the look of stone or concrete. Often these large cover pots are actually too big for the roots of the plant, which you want to avoid, so it’s better to pot up in a smaller pot and place it inside the cover pot to achieve the same look.

Choose a healthy specimen

I often caution that plant care begins as soon as you pick out a plant at a shop. Don’t take home a plant that isn’t looking well or that might already be in shock. While plant shopping, do some on-the-ground research. First off, where is the plant placed? Is it getting good light, or is it smack in front of the doors of a shop where gusts of wind will damage it? How does the plant look overall? Is it dropping, or does it have bare spots from fallen leaves? Are there browning areas on the plant? In particular, what does the new growth look like at the top? Are the newer leaves looking healthy and deep green, or are they splotchy? Peer down into the woody stem along the node for any telltale signs of pests, like fine webs, tiny white dots moving around or, the worst, fluffs of white indicating the dreaded mealybug. Set yourself up for success by choosing a good healthy plant from the beginning.

Location, location, location

Let’s start with the location. This is key. Fiddle-leaf figs love bright light, as bright as possible but not direct midday sun, which is too harsh and will burn their beautiful leaves. So, they’re best suited for a big window spot – if it’s too bright, you can move the plant further away from the window, or you can always soften bright sunlight with sheer white curtains. Once you find an ideal spot for your FLF, plonk it there and don’t move it. They’re famous for not liking to be moved. If your plant spits the dummy and drops leaves right after you bring it home or repot it, don’t fret – sometimes they just experience a bit of shock from the change. If it continues after a couple of weeks, then the cause might be something else.

In addition to resisting change of all sorts, it’s important to remember that fiddle-leaf figs (along with most tropical houseplants) detest cold drafts and hot heat pump air (too dry). Be sure they are well away from these, which can also cause leaf damage. Once you find a spot they love, don’t move them. Just rotate a bit every few watering sessions so they don’t grow sideways, stretching toward the light source. While they don’t love being moved to different places, a secret tip to getting a thicker stem faster is to hold the stem and shake it for a few minutes every week to mimic it blowing in the wind. It works!

Consistent watering is critical

The best indication that your plant is unhappy is that it begins dropping leaves. Fiddle-leaf figs are unique in that they really like to be watered to a routine: same time of day, same number of days. Water once the top few centimetres of soil dries out, allowing the water to drain out of the bottom of the plant. If it’s a really big specimen, consider investing in a water meter that can reach further down towards the root ball. If you overwater, you will probably rot the roots and begin to see browning all over the edges of the leaves and veins. Something fairly unique to the FLF is if the new leaves emerge with brownish-red dots on them. This is called edema, and it occurs when the leaf cells burst due to inconsistent watering. It should go away if you begin watering correctly.

Once your FLF is tall, around 2m, has a thick stem and can support itself without a stake, you can start strategically notching the trunk to encourage stems to grow out. Just remember only to notch where you want the bottom, thickest stems to appear. Identify a space between two nodes at that height and, using sharp shears, cut in a notch about half a centimetre or so deep on one side of the st em. You might have to try a few times to get it to branch successfully, but once you do, that iconic tree shape will start to take hold!

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