Most of us who keep houseplants have struggled to keep a weeping fig healthy. Ficus benjamina is cousin to some of the most fascinating trees in the world. Ficus religiosa, the Bodhi tree of the Buddha and ficus benghalensis, the mighty Banyan tree, are two examples of this ancient family. Although the weeping fig, fiddle-leaf fig and rubber plant may be more familiar to indoor gardeners, there are other members of this
large family that can be grown indoors.
Ficus, or figs, are a large family, or genus, of plants that include over 800 varieties of soft-wooded trees, shrubs and vines. Fig trees are often multi-stemmed plants that may drop aerial roots or use other plants as supports for their growth. They are native to the tropic and warmer temperate zones and have been cultivated widely for their fruit, which is a source of vitamins A and C and contains enzymes that work as a natural laxative. The trees prefer sandy, medium-dry soil and enjoy high humidity. Fruit-producing trees generally yield fruit one or two times a year for about 15 years. Longer-lived varieties live for hundreds of years.
The fig first appears in the Bible, and proof of cultivation of the common fig has been found in ancient Mesopotamia about 5000 B.C. Figs were traded around the Mediterranean and by Roman times, more than two dozen varieties were known. Greeks carried the fruit east, where it figured prominently in the history of India and Southeast Asia, occupying a central position in the development of Hinduism and Buddhism. By 1550, figs were being cultivated in most of Europe and Asia and were brought to the New World with colonists. The fig moved indoors when the Victorians, inveterate indoor gardeners of the north, brought the fig indoors to grow it in the winter. Today, dozens of varieties of ficus are grown as houseplants.
From archaeological evidence, ficus seem to have been indigenous to western Asia and to have spread east throughout the Mediterranean and west through tropical climates in south Asia, with temperate varieties developing somewhat later and spreading to northern Europe and the New World. Today, figs are cultivated on every continent in tropical and temperate zones.
Ficus plants decorate homes and offices but also make impressive specimens in parks and green spaces. Many varieties provide edible fruit. Ficus trees are also valuable members of rain forest and tropical ecosystems, providing food and shelter for animals.
Of the over 800 varieties of ficus, dozens are grown indoors as either full-sized plants or are trained as bonsai trees. Even the common weeping fig can be trained to be the same sort of multi-stemmed, graceful tree as its more exotic cousins, f. microcarpa, f. pilosa and f. religiosa. Bonsai share the horticultural needs of larger specimens and most enjoy a summer outside, providing they do not get too much sun or too little moisture.