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The Ficus genus of plants includes more than 800 woody species found mostly in tropical zones, with a few extending into warmer temperate regions. The ficus species are commonly known as figs; they are part of the mulberry (Moraceae) family of plants. The figs include many broadleaf evergreen and deciduous trees, as well as shrubs and lianas. They are generally fast-growing, very vigorous plants that can be invasive when growing conditions are ideal.
In areas where fig trees cannot survive outside climates, they are common houseplants. Weeping figs, rubber trees, and fiddle leaf figs are especially popular as for indoor growing. They are also used in creating bonsai.
Many species of Ficus have aerial roots and are epiphytes (plants that grow on other plants) or hemiepiphytes (plants that begin as epiphytes, but send down roots that eventually reach the ground). These species often smother their host trees.
The sap (latex) of some ficus species can cause allergic skin reactions. Avoid contact with the eyes, and if picking fig fruit, make sure to wear gloves.
Here are nine fig tree types to consider for your garden.
Indian Banyan (Ficus benghalensis)
The traditional banyan tree commonly seen in landscapes is the Indian banyan, though the same name is also applied to other species of fig trees. Banyan trees are one of the species sometimes called strangler figs because of the way they grow—they can sprout in the holes and cracks of an established tree and over time grow around the trunk, gradually strangling it. Other common names for this plant include Bengal fig or Indian fig.
These trees are epiphytic—they absorb moisture from the air. The trunks are massive, fluted structures with smooth light-gray bark. The dark green, leathery leaves are elliptical, 4 to 8 inches long. The branches form roots that stretch towards the ground to penetrate and take hold, forming alternate trunks. This effect can make the tree spread out over quite a large area; some specimens are among the largest trees in the world in terms of canopy coverage, covering several acres. This is a common street plant in tropical Asian countries, occasionally grown as a interesting specimen tree in large private landscapes.
Native Area: India, Sri Lanka, PakistanUSDA Growing Zones: 10 to 12Height: Over 100 feetSun Exposure: Full sun
Chinese Banyan (Ficus microcarpa)
The Chinese banyan is another species known as a strangling fig. This tree is commonly used as a street tree in tropical areas, and it is also a common specimen in bonsai gardening. As the Latin species name tells you, the fruits are small for figs. The Chinese banyan has smooth oblong leaves 2 to 2 1/2 inches long. Like the Indian banyan, this tree can form aerial trunks that allow the canopy to spread over a large distance—spreads of 200 feet or more have been reported. This tree has naturalized in some regions of the tropical U.S. and is regarded as invasive in some parts of Hawaii and Florida, as well as in Bermuda and Central America. Regionally, it may carry different common names, including Malayan banyan, Cuban Banyon, and Indian fig.
Native Area: India and MalaysiaUSDA Growing Zones: 9 to 11Height: 50 feet to 60 feetSun Exposure: Full sun to part shade
Red Leaf Fig (Ficus congesta)
Ficus congesta is a smallish rainforest fig tree. The fruits of this Ficus species grow in clusters on the trunk as well as on the branches—another common name for this plant is cluster fig. New leaves are reddish in color when they unfurl. This ficus is rarely grown in ornamental landscape applications, but it serves as a parent species for several useful hybrid ficus varieties.
Native Area: South pacific, tropical AustraliaUSDA Growing Zones: 10 to 11Height: 10 feet to 50 feetSun Exposure: Full sun to part shade
Common Fig (Ficus carica)
This is the ficus species that produces the edible figs sold in most stores—unless you live in the tropics where other figs are common. The fruit of the common fig is notably rich in vitamins and minerals, and many of these trees, especially some cultivars, are able to produce fruit even without pollination in a process called parthenocarpy.
This is a deciduous tree or large shrub with smooth white bark and 5 to 10-inch-long lobed leaves. It forms the same wide, dome-shaped canopy found in banyans and many other ficus species. In landscape applications, the common fig is often positioned in areas with run-off ravines and gullies, since it has an extensive root system that can seek out water while stabilizing banks and slopes. This plant will do very well in any climate consistent with the conditions of the Mediterranean or Middle Eastern region. It can survive in some more temperate regions if planted in a sheltered south or west location.
Native Area: Western AsiaUSDA Zones: 8 to 10; depending on the cultivar, you may be able to grow these down to zone 5Height: 10 feet to 30 feetSun Exposure: Full sun
Creeping Fig (Ficus pumila)
This species is a fast-growing woody evergreen vine that can attach itself to the walls of buildings and can be hard to remove (it’s also commonly known as a climbing fig). Bright green, heart shaped leaves mature to an oval dark green. Fruits are inedible. This drought-tolerant plant can be trained around wire frames to create topiaries, and is often used as a houseplant.
Native Area: East AsiaUSDA Growing Zones: 8 to 11Height: 15 feet to 25 feet longSun Exposure: Full sun to part shade
Fiddleleaf Fig (Ficus lyrata)
This ficus species has large leathery leaves (up to 18 inches) similar in shape to a fiddle, inspiring the common name. This plant, too, acts as a strangler fig in its native habitat, often beginning life high in the crown of another tree, then gradually smothering the host tree as it sends roots down toward the ground. But it also can be grown as a free-standing tree; it is a recipient of the Award of Garden Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society. This plant needs a warm climate; temperatures below 50 degrees Fahrenheit can kill it. This is a very common species for growing indoors in pots.
Native Area: Western AfricaUSDA Growing Zones: 10 to 11Height: Up to 50 feetSun Exposure: Bright shade; does best in bright, filtered light, especially when grown indoors
Moreton Bay Fig (Ficus macrophylla)
Also commonly called the Australian banyan, this species of fig features huge, curving roots that form above the surface. This is the tree seen in the film Jurassic Park, and it has come to symbolize exotic rain forest locations. It has large leathery leaves, up to 12 inches long; the trunks are massive buttressed structures with rough, gray-brown bark. This is another strangler fig—in the wild, the seeds often germinate and begin growing in the crowns of other trees, then gradually smother the host. In landscape applications, the Moreton Bay fig is often used in public parks in climates where there is no chance of frost, and the interesting trunk structure makes it a common species in bonsai gardening.
Native Area: Eastern AustraliaUSDA Zones: 10 to 11; mature specimens can survive in zone 9Height: 100 feet or moreSun Exposure: Full sun to part shade
Rubber Tree (Ficus elastica)
The latex sap from this tree (also called the rubber fig) was once used in the rubber-making process, though these days most natural latex comes from the Para rubber tree (Hevea brasiliensis). Now, you usually find the rubber tree serving as a houseplant. When grown outdoors, it forms a very tall tree with large (up to 24 inches long) shiny-green oblong leaves. It may develop aerial roots that form buttresses to the ground.
Native Area: India and IndonesiaUSDA Zones: 10 to 11Height: Can be over 100 feet tall in the wildSun Exposure: Full sun to part shade; indoors, potted specimens require plenty of bright light
Weeping Fig (Ficus benjamina)
As a houseplant,the weeping fig is notorious for being finicky. It tends to drop leaves when moved or stressed in some other way, but new leaf growth will appear in time. Trunks can be braided or plaited, which causes the wood to grow together over time. When you hear someone talking about a ficus houseplant, this is usually the one referenced. It also carries the common name Benjamin’s fig. When grown outdoors in warm climates, this can become a large tree with glossy oblong leaves somewhat smaller than most figs (2 to 5 inches long). The bark is light gray and smooth. Weeping fig makes for a stately landscape tree in tropical climates.
Native Area: South Asia and AustraliaUSDA Growing Zones: 10 to 11Height: 60 to 70 feetSun Exposure: Full sun to part shade; indoors, it requires plenty of bright light
Growing Figs to Eat
Growing edible figs to easiest in warm climates with long, hot growing seasons (generally zones 8 and warmer). The common fig tree (Ficus carica) is the most popular species because its flowers do not require pollination to produce figs. Some hardy cultivars of F. carica can be grown in zones 6 and 7. In cooler zones, it is sometimes possible to get potted figs to produce fruit, but they will need plenty of light and regular feeding. Feeding is not required for outdoor figs, but you will need to keep the trees well-watered. Pinching off some of the figs when they are just developing will cause the remaining fruit to become larger. The figs are ready to harvest when they are fully colored and slightly soft to the touch.
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Son, Jin-Hwa et al. Five Cases of Phytophotodermatitis Caused by Fig Leaves and Relevant Literature Review. Annals of dermatology vol. 29,1 (2017): 86-90. doi:10.5021/ad.2017.29.1.86
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