An immense tropical shade tree, the weeping fig (Ficus benjamina) quickly grows in frost-free landscapes into a billowing, cascading foliage on muscular, smooth branches. It appreciates a moist, humus-rich soil with lots of warmth. It needs ample outdoor space in a large park or campus setting away from sidewalks and buildings in USDA Hardiness Zones 10 and warmer.
This tree hails from the humid tropical forests of southern Asia from southernmost China southward to Indonesia, the Philippines and northern Australia. It is closely related botanically to edible figs and mulberries as both belong to Moraceae, the fig family.
Potentially reaching a mature height of 200 to 265 feet in the wild, in garden settings the weeping fig usually attains a height of 50 to 70 feet with a canopy spread of 60 to 75 feet wide. Its tapering and pointed oval leaves remain year round, glossy green and sometimes wavy edged. The flowers occur inside a fleshy receptacle that looks like a little fig. A specific wasp species crawls into the receptacle, lays her eggs and as they hatch the young wasps mate and pollinate the flowers before breaking out. It then develops into a berry-like fig that is orange to pinkish red. It is not tasty to humans, but birds like them for a meal.
In the tropics, the weeping fig is unparalleled as a magnificent ornamental shade tree. Even though fast growing, trained gardeners make some into small, picturesque bonsai specimens. This tree species also lends itself to widespread use as a dense evergreen hedge requiring repeated, frequent pruning across the year to prevent it from becoming more tree-like. If ample light is provided in interior offices, homes or commercial lobbies and atriums, weeping fig decorates as a potted house plant.
The milky sap that oozes out of cut leaves, stems and branches irritates the skin, especially when mixed with sweat and exposed to sunlight. Either a contact dermatitis develops, or an individual can succumb to an allergic reaction with scratchy eyes, reddened skin, coughing and respiratory wheezing.
The tree itself, through its aggressive, fibrous matrix of roots causes physical disruption of roadways, building foundations, swimming pool cores, sidewalks and other utility conduits, especially if they physically block access to or provide a source of water. These extensive roots are wiry and rusty red. The dropping fruits limit walking safety on hard surfaces, leading to tripping and falling.
Several cultivated varieties, or cultivars, of weeping fig gain favor in gardens or as more ornate house plants because of their attractive foliage. Creamy white and green variegated leaves grown on selections Variegata and Jacqueline while Spearmint grows grayish green leaves with ivory edges. Variably toned green leaves with either more wavy edges or pendent twigs grow on cultivars Monique, Emerald Green and Green Gem.