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In 2016, The New York Times called the fiddle leaf fig “The ‘It’ Plant of the Design World.” You can see this tall, glossy, tree with its violin-shaped leaves all over Pinterest and Instagram and in various magazines and movies. People love it because it is so dramatic looking and so amenable to shaping. It just may be one of the most photographed plants around, just like the homecoming queen in your high school yearbook.
And like the homecoming queen, the fiddle leaf fig has its haters. Fickle ones, in fact. This year The New York Times said “R.I.P. Fiddle Leaf Fig.” What happened? Did she steal its boyfriend? No matter, Instagram still says the fiddle leaf fig is “the favorite houseplant.” So there. And we are still crazy about it here at Plants and Petals. However, it is a little on the persnickety side, so read on for the knowledge you need to get your fiddle leaf fig to thrive and make your living space feel a bit tropical.
Death in the African Jungle
What? That took a turn for the dramatic, didn’t it? Let us explain—the fiddle leaf fig, officially known as the ficus lyrate, is a type of banyan fig, which begins as an epiphyte. An epiphyte is common in jungles and rainforests, where plants compete for sunlight. Its seed lands on top of another tree, and then strangles the host tree as it grows downward. In western Africa, the fiddle leaf fig grows up to 60 feet tall, flowers and offers small green fruit. Its leaves are about 18 inches long and 12 inches wide. The fiddle leaf fig as most of us know it here in the U.S., grows indoors as tall as the room (and its caregiver) allows. It does not flower, however, nor does it produce any food in captivity.
In the beginning of its rise to “favorite houseplant,” the fiddle leaf fig was quite expensive. In recent years, however, it has become more available and a much smaller investment. You can find them readily in your local greenhouses and from online resources. Before you buy them, however, take a look at their leaves. You want them to be smooth, supple, and glossy. If the leaves are pale, spotty or sickly looking, choose a different plant. This could mean that the plant didn’t get enough light while it was waiting for you.
How to raise a fiddle leaf fig in captivity—mimic the jungle
As we mentioned above, the fiddle leaf fig can be very particular about growing indoors away from its natural habitat. Because of this, many plant lovers are scared away. This is a plant that knows what it likes and will not tolerate anything less than what it deserves. But armed with information and a willingness to experiment, you can have a gorgeous fiddle leaf fig to bring the jungle into your living space.
Temperature and sunlight: Before you even bring a fiddle leaf home, let’s think about where you live. The right temperature and sunlight levels are the most important factor to success with this plant. Fiddle leaf figs need a consistent temperature between 60 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit, free from drafts, heating vents, air conditioning, and radiators. Especially in the wintertime, if you live any place that gets cold, keep it away from drafty patio doors and windows. Your fiddle leaf fig will need bright, but indirect sunlight. If you think about the lowland tropical rainforests of Cameroon and Sierra Leone, you can well imagine the light filtering down through the canopy and the rarely fluctuating year-round temperatures. Placing your fiddle leaf fig in direct sunlight will cause its leaves to scorch and drop. Placing it in a dark room (say on the north side of your home), will cause a sickly-looking plant that frankly, won’t survive. Be sure to rotate it regularly to prevent it from leaning toward the sun.
Containers and watering: Obviously, you can’t mimic the space rainforest plants have to spread their roots, but you can imitate the water levels and soil. You will want a container that is raised slightly off the floor, and you will want to give your fiddle leaf fig at least 6 feet to grow. The fiddle leaf fig cannot tolerate sitting around in standing water, so the best container will be terra cotta with plenty of drainage holes, even if you drop it inside a larger decorative planter that also has a way for the excess water to escape. Try to get it out of the flimsy plastic pot they usually come in as soon as you can, and start with a pot about the same size as the one it came in (they like to keep their roots tight). Start by dropping about two inches of small stones in the bottom of your pot and top it off with a cactus/palm potting mix. Gently pack the soil around and over the roots. Water it about once or twice a week or when the top three or four inches of soil is dry. If possible, water it where it is. They don’t like to be moved. You can place a large bowl underneath it to catch any excess water.
Feeding: Be careful with the fertilizer. Too much will kill your fiddle leaf fig. Dilute a liquid houseplant fertilizer by half and use once in the spring. Wait until summer and start feeding it that 50 percent formula once a month. In September, cut it back to 25 percent and then leave it alone over the winter.
Jungle air: Since you may not be able to replicate the humidity of the rainforest, be sure you clean the leaves of your fiddle leaf fig regularly with a damp, soft cotton cloth. If the leaves get too dusty, the plant can’t breathe. It will also thank you for a regular misting.
Help your fiddle leaf fig stay in shape and get to know other people
In other words, repot, prune, and propagate.
Repot: Your fiddle leaf fig will want new digs every year until it grows as big as you want it to. Watch for the roots to start trying to grow out of the bottom of the pot. When this happens, it is time to upgrade to a pot that is just a few inches larger than the one its in. If your fiddle leaf fig is already big enough for you and your living space, you can trim the rootball, but don’t go more than 20 percent.
Pruning: Spring is the best time to prune your fiddle leaf fig. This encourages it to get a bit bushier. If it has gotten top heavy, this is especially important, as you don’t want it to fall over. Get a pair of sharp scissors or pruning shears. And cut the leaf off just above where it connects to the branch.
Propagate: After you prune these leaves off, stick them in some water and keep them in the sun for a few weeks. Change the water daily to prevent any bacteria from growing. When you see roots, plant it and give a bit of the jungle to a deserving friend.
Time to get tropical!
Now that you know how to raise a fiddle leaf fig in captivity, go out there and find the perfect one for you. If you want a plant that is already well-established and have the dough to drop on it, then go for the big guys. Just be very gentle with the move from greenhouse to car to home. If you’re still a little trepidatious about this wild thing, start small. Greenhouses sell all sizes, so talk to the employees, and get their help in choosing a good one. Remember, they really don’t like a move, so keep a close eye on your fiddle leaf fig and give your pretty, popular, particular friend what it needs.