The Fiddle-Leaf Fig: A Headstrong Houseplant

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Photo by Unsplash/Mark Marquez

The fiddle-leaf fig is the outlaw of the houseplant world: tough to tame, hard to understand, difficult to love. Yet, we try to keep it and love it.

The fiddle-leaf fig’s columnar, complicated physique makes it among the most photogenic of trees; its likeness is printed, etched, and painted onto countless pieces of décor and works of art. Fiddle-leaf figs have been central to thousands of interior designs in the past decade; the focus of dozens of websites, giveaways, chat rooms, and weekly newsletters; and the muse for a seemingly endless stream of Pinterest galleries. Even The New York Times called the fiddle-leaf fig the new “it” plant. And no matter what houseplant trend comes up, nothing has budged this tree from its pedestal.

“The fiddle-leaf fig is the hardworking hero of houseplants,” says Emily Henderson, host of HGTV’s Secrets From a Stylist. “It’s graphic, dramatic, and always gives life and a big moment to a room. I love using them to soften the corners of rooms, as well as to bring a little bit of greenery to the space.”

Greenery for Good Health

Houseplants, such as the fiddle-leaf fig, are beautiful, but more importantly, they offer a host of environmental, physiological, and psychological benefits.

“Houseplants help city folks and all folks reconnect with nature,” says Christopher Satch, former plant science lead at The Sill — an online plant store with two brick-and-mortar locations. “There’s a larger world around us, and some of us tend to forget that.”

Claire Akin, a writer, teacher, and plant lover who runs an online fiddle-leaf fig resource, has found that houseplants offer incomparable bonding opportunities between loved ones.

Photo by Stocksy/Trinette Reed

“My grandmother loved houseplants and actually had a fiddle-leaf fig before they were popular,” Akin says. “She taught me how to care for houseplants, and my mother taught me about outdoor gardening, specifically growing hybrid tea roses. To pass on the tradition, I gave my daughters the middle names Rose and Fern.”

Houseplants have also been proven to boost productivity, mood, and creativity, and they may even purify the space around them. Outdoor plants have shown an ability to actively remove particulate matter from the air. And on a chemical level, plants have been found to filter benzene, formaldehyde, and more out of enclosed spaces under laboratory conditions. While these precise conditions likely aren’t at work in your home, the more sunlight and attention you give your plants, the more positively they’ll affect your health.

Fascinating and Fussy

The Ficus lyrata, or fiddle-leaf fig, first cracked from its seed along the coastline of western Africa. On home turf, it grows into a tree, flowers, and even fruits — not that those fruits are edible. As a banyan fig and lover of hijinks, this evergreen’s preferred method for growth is to hatch atop another tree, gobble up as much sunlight as possible, and drop roots down over the host tree, inevitably strangling it in the process. Outlaw, indeed.

Unencumbered by city apartments or human touch, a fiddle-leaf fig tree may grow 100 feet tall, with violin-shaped (or fiddle-shaped) leaves that are 1 foot wide and about 18 inches long. Indoors, it keeps to a more modest 6 feet or so, although it can grow as tall as 10 feet. In exchange for being well cared for in captivity, the plant has been known to grow as much as a foot in a single year.

I decided to get my own fiddle-leaf fig in the spirit of intrepid journalism. After striking out at three garden centers, I ordered my plant by post. The diminutive, 8-inch fiddle-leaf arrived in a black plastic pot filled with dirt, wrapped in a bag, and concealed by cardboard. It didn’t look like much — just a shadowy sliver of the robust trees dotting the glossy pages of design magazines. I unfurled the plant and promptly transplanted it into a clay pot on my front deck.

Photo by Stocksy/Trinette Reed

I stepped back to admire this new charge, and, in spite of its size, I suddenly understood the public fascination. My eyes followed the fig’s sturdy, textured base and cartoonish leaves: a bit of pomp and personality set atop a crooked pillar. This plant is neat.

What would happen next was anybody’s guess. I watered it, made sure plenty of sunlight was hitting those strange leaves, and headed back inside.

The lovely fiddle-leaf fig is high-maintenance, which may be a part of its bad-boy appeal in the plant world. People want to understand it, want to love it, and end up having their hearts broken again and again.

“It’s finicky, and has many requirements for the indoor grower,” Satch says. “Interestingly enough, it seems that newbies tend to get pulled into the plant world by this plant, only to be disappointed, then be discouraged from trying houseplants again. It’s easy to get enticed by its large leaves, but there are plenty of other large-leaved plants that are easier and less demanding than the fiddle-leaf, such as the tree philodendron (Philodendron selloum) or the Swiss cheese plant (Monstera deliciosa).” He recommends only trying to grow the fiddle-leaf if you have large windows with plenty of southern sun, and if you have plant experience.

I can vouch for Satch’s caution, as I watched the fiddle-leaf fig I’d begun to care for suffer. Leaves that had appeared brown at their tips when the plant first arrived turned a deeper brown in different spots around the leaf after the plant’s first week in my possession.

Part of this comes from climate. The fiddle-leaf fig is designed for the tropics, not for being bagged and shipped across the country. To keep this tree content, you must first find its Goldilocks-esque sweet spot: not too little water, and not too much. I discovered that my plant had dried out too much while in transit, which I’d overcompensated for by keeping the plant moist instead of just giving it a good, single watering. As I reigned in my watering habits, my plant’s leaves regulated, became beautiful, deep shades of green, and sprouted a new leaf within a few days. 

Tips for Choosing Fiddle-Leaf Locale

Scope out your space. As a general rule: The bigger the leaf, the more sunlight a plant requires. The fiddle-leaf fig is no exception. With a lineage going back to the African tropics, you can be sure that your fiddle-leaf fig likes it hot and sunny. Keep the plant in a space that’s at least 60 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit. You can fake the proper climate with some indoor grow lights. And unless you live in warm weather year-round, the fiddle-leaf should be kept far from any doorways to the outside. These angular beauties ought to be within several feet of a south-facing window so they’re not getting scorched (indirect, full sun is perfect), not getting too much shade, and not succumbing to any drafts.

Pick the right pot. As with most houseplants, the needs of the fiddle-leaf include well-drained soil in which to thrive. And you’re not going to find that in the flimsy plastic planter so many houseplants come in. “Planter style and color are up to you,” Satch says. “Only drainage and size matter. Repot in a pot that’s 1 to 2 inches larger than the current size, ideally with drainage, but if you can’t swing that, then line the bottom of the pot with an inch of lava rocks.”

Photo by Stocksy/Trinette Reed

Experts agree that ceramic planters are best. Plus, they’re the most eco-friendly and always beautiful, and they’re going to give the most dramatic setting to these beautiful trees.

Stick to weekly watering. Fiddle-leaf figs need the opportunity to dry out completely in between watering; they thrive in semi-dry soil. Usually, you can get away with setting a weekly water reminder for yourself on a smartphone, but bear in mind that this may not suffice if the room the tree is in is very warm or cool. The folks at The Sill suggest watering every 5 to 10 days. “I find that the biggest mistake people make is overwatering,” says Claire Akin, who runs an online resource about the plant. “Fiddle-leaf figs are prone to root rot if they get too much water, or if they don’t have enough drainage. Lack of sunlight can make both of these factors worse.”

To test the soil, stick a finger a few inches deep and see if the dirt feels moist at all. If it feels totally dry and doesn’t stick to your finger, it’s safely time to water. Saturate the dirt completely, and then let it be.

Watch for signs of distress. Fiddle-leaf figs, for all the maintenance they require, are very good communicators — if their plant parents will only read the signs!

“They drop leaves at any sign of stress, so pay attention to your surroundings,” says Christopher Satch of The Sill. “The plant is more sensitive than you are. Never treat or think of your plants as just decorations; they’re living things that will respond to you and the care that you give.”

Noting where brown spots are on leaves, for example, can help you determine if the plant has been overwatered, or if it isn’t getting enough sunlight. Caught early, most irregularities can be treated by adjusting the temperature, light, or water that’s reaching the plant.

“Just like in sports, it takes practice to be good,” Satch says. “Anyone can grow plants. It just takes the right knowledge.”

Nicole Caldwell is the owner and co-founder of Better Farm, a sustainability campus, organic farm, and animal sanctuary in the Thousand Islands region of New York. Read more of her work at Nicole Caldwell Writes, or follow her on Instagram and Facebook @NicoleMCaldwell.

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