The genus Ficus contains hundreds of tropical trees, shrubs and vines that fill interior plant-scapes across the United States. Outdoors, ficus is hardy in USDA hardiness zones 9b to 11 -- in southern Florida, southern California and some parts of New Mexico and Arizona. Weeping fig (ficus benjamina), the popular choice for hedges in south Florida, is treated as a nuisance rather than a welcome guest.
In semi-tropical Florida and Southern California, ficus hedges succeed easily; newly planted ficus require moist, rich soil and enough water to establish roots. They grow vigorously with little further care. Larger varieties make impressive screens and attractive architectural forms on estates and properties where there is plenty of space for their roots to spread unimpeded by pavement and other structures.
Few ficus varieties are native to southern U.S. growing zones; Florida developers planted fast-growing, shrubby trees in the 1970s as inexpensive landscaping to take the place of failing coconut palms that an earlier generation of developers had planted in the 1930s. Weeping figs branched prolifically when pruned. Unfortunately, weeping figs also grew to heights over 20 feet and developed extensive, destructive root systems that tore up pavement and drain tiles. As a result, several figs are now controlled. Ficus carica, edible fig, is listed as an invasive plant in California, as is Florida’s native Ficus aurea. Florida prohibits planting Ficus microcarpa, or Indian laurel.
Ficus hedges require sharp shears and plenty of spare time to keep trim. Tender green growth must be repeatedly pruned before it ripens. Ficus planted as a property screen requires cooperative neighbors, because the owner of the hedge is obligated to regularly trudge next door to tidy up the neighbor’s side.
State natural-resource departments, municipalities and homeowners' associations often require or recommend replacing older, labor-intensive ficus hedges. This often involves removing not only the plant and multiple stumps but also the extensive, resilient root system. Several ficus varieties, including Ficus microcarpa var. crassifolia Green Mound and Green Island and Ficus salicaria C.C. Berg, are small enough to use for ground cover and low hedges. Frequently, alternative plantings, such as native wild coffee or Florida privet, replace ficus.
Ficus hedges have several pests including mealybugs and scales. The most recent addition to the list is the ficus whitefly (Singhiella simplex) which originated in Latin America and entered the U.S. through South Florida. The ficus whitefly feeds on foliage and can defoliate branches if left unchecked. Because the life cycle of the insect is one month, several generations can seriously damage a plant before they become noticeable. Several natural predators -- lacewings, parasitic wasps and beetles -- can control small populations. Soil drenches containing nenonicotinoid compounds provide the most effective chemical control, according to Catharine Mannion of the University of Florida’s Tropical Research and Education Center.