ficus altissima

How to Grow and Care for Ficus Altissima

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The Ficus altissima can be either an indoor or outdoor plant, but due to the massive size that it grows outside, it’s more commonly kept as a houseplant. With minimal fertilization and pruning needed, it’s quite an easy plant to maintain. 

In China around the Buddhist temples are forests of Ficus altissima that are considered sacred and no one may cut them down. This also ensures that the frugivores have an ample source of food when other sources become scarce.

This plant is a perennial evergreen that prefers bright, indirect sun and well-draining soil. It is easily propagated. Overall, it’s a great plant for all levels of plant growers to own and maintain because of its benefits.

Plant Facts

Scientific nameFicus altissima Blume
Common namesFalse banyan, council tree, lofty fig, banyan tree
FamilyMoraceae
Plant TypeHouseplant
Height and Width4–6 ft. tall (indoors), 1–3 ft. diameter (indoors)
OriginTropical Asia
Flower colorsYellow
Foliage colorGlossy green 
Sun ExposureBright but indirect sunlight
Soil Type & pHWell-draining, slightly basic pH
Special featuresEasily propagated, Grows in most soil types

How to Grow Ficus Altissima

The Ficus altissima can be grown either as an indoor or outdoor plant. When grown outdoors, it can become enormous and will need a large area to expand across as it grows. It will need significant sunlight and well-draining soil.

If you don’t accommodate for the root expansion, you will have a problem as your other outdoor plants will be impacted by their growth. They will easily travel far beyond the canopy of the tree. Additionally, the tree will shade out anything growing beneath it.

When you plant it inside, you can use almost any container as it will accommodate even small containers. You’ll want to ensure that you have drainage holes in the container so that excess water does not become trapped in the soil. 

Once you have the ideal container or pot, you’ll want to get the soil, fill the bottom of the pot, and then place the plant inside. Next, gently fill in around the plant with the soil so that it is loosely covered. You want to make sure that there is still plenty of room for airflow.

After you have successfully planted your Ficus altissima, you will need to find a spot where it gets bright, indirect sunlight for the majority of the day. You want to avoid any windows with a glaringly bright light that will burn the leaves of your plant.

Propagation

As a Ficus, this plant may be propagated from seed, cuttings, layering, and grafting. The conventional propagation method is by seed, which can take a very long time. Germination and early seed development are lengthy and difficult.

Growing a F. altissima from seed will take at least 18 months. Most will not be ready to be planted until the second planting season following germination.

Propagation by cuttings can be slow and unreliable. Root-promoting chemicals are often used and many contain Indole Butyric Acid. 

You’ll need to keep your cuttings upright in glass containers of water with the root-promoting chemical until roots form roughly an inch long. Then you can plant them in your soil of choice and watch them take root.

Layering is a process where the Ficus altissima’s still-attached stems from roots of their own when they have a rooting medium applied. Once this occurs, the stem can be severed from the original plant to make a completely new plant.

While there are several types of layering, the one used for the  F. altissima is air layering. You’ll need to slit the stem below a node and then wrap it with wet sphagnum moss. 

Then you’ll wrap foil or plastic around the moss until roots pervade it, at which time you will cut the plant off below the root ball.

To graft a  F. altissima, you will need two pieces, a scion and a rootstock. You will line up the two pieces at the wound sites and healing will occur, mending the two pieces together. Once this is done, you will be able to plant the mended pieces.

Soil

This plant will grow well in most well-draining types of soil. A common soil mix that growers use is sand, peat moss, and bark. You can also just use regular potting soil and be fine, just make sure you don’t pick up a brand that has an acidic pH.

Coco coir and perlite are great additions to add to the drainage capabilities of whatever soil you choose. Whatever soil option you choose, it needs to be loose, fertile, and slightly basic in pH.

When grown outdoors in pots, the potting medium is often composed of 10-20% coarse sand by volume to prevent the pot from tipping in the wind. You will also have to ensure there is no excessive root growth beneath the container so that the plant is not shocked when moved.

Pruning

Pruning must be done at the appropriate time or you risk damaging your plant or causing further dieback. Do not prune in the wintertime as this will cause you to lose the next year’s crops. You will want to wait until the following February or March at the absolute earliest.

For your indoor  F. altissima, you’ll want to prune as needed to keep it from taking over the entirety of your home. You’ll also want to ensure you’re removing any damaged or dead leaves, looking for the root cause as you prune. Repeated pruning will cause loss of crop.

At any point in time during the pruning process, you should try not to take more than 10% of the leaves in one session or you will risk sending the plant into shock. If you do need to remove more than this, remove some now and wait at least a week before removing more.

Repotting and Transplanting

When it comes to repotting, you will need to check the roots of your plant to see if the roots look like they are compacted in the container. If they are, you will need to repot as they are rootbound. If you want your plant to continue growing, choose a larger container.

You will need to water the plant and let it rest for one hour, then remove it from the pot, gently teasing the roots so they no longer encircle the rootball. Fill the bottom of the container with potting mix, add the plant, and fill in the remaining space with potting mix.

You will need to plan to repot your Ficus altissima once a year to ensure it does not become rootbound. When it comes to transplanting, like all Ficus species, this plant is very finicky and does not always react well.

How to Care for Ficus Altissima

Caring for  F. altissima is surprisingly easy. You will need to maintain the appropriate levels of water and sunlight for optimal growth and health. Temperature and humidity will need to be kept at the appropriate levels to keep the plant thriving.

Fertilizer is an option to improve growth. Most importantly, you will have to watch for diseases and pests and immediately deal with them when you find them.

Water

The soil should never be soggy as the  F. altissima hates being in this condition. Keep the soil moist between waterings and never become completely dry. It’s acceptable if the top few inches dry out as long as the lower level soil does not. Too much water can harm the delicate root system of these plants. 

It’s also a great idea to use a pot with drainage holes so that any excess water will not be trapped in the soil and issues like root rot will be avoided. When it’s time to water, you’ll want to add water just until it starts to run out of the drainage holes and no more. 

Avoid overwatering and consider placing your plant on a pebble tray to ensure it gets the humidity it needs without too much water.

Sunlight

While in nature, the  F. altissima thrives in full sun, when planted inside, it will need to be acclimated to reduced light intensity. Too much direct light indoors can be detrimental for this plant. However, if you cannot provide bright indirect light, you will need to arrange for artificial lighting.

Consider an east-facing window that will allow for a good bit of morning light as well as bright light throughout the rest of the day but not direct sunlight after the late morning. 

You can also place your  F. altissima near a south-facing window but the light must be filtered by a curtain. This will protect the leaves of the plant from burning or getting unsightly brown spots that will not fade. It can also give it the light it needs for new growth.

Temperature and Humidity

Your Ficus altissima will enjoy a temperature of 68℉ to 85℉ during the daytime. The humidity needs to be at least 25%. Any cold and drafty temperature ranging from 40℉ to 50℉ will stunt the growth of your plant. Avoid drafts and ensure high humidity at all times, as you would for the standard houseplant.

That being said, you’ll want to keep your plant away from air conditioner vents, heaters, and fireplaces to prevent freezing and scorching of its leaves. If you have trouble keeping the humidity level up in your home, you can opt to run a humidifier near your plant. This is great for producing the humid environment your plant needs.

Fertilizer

When grown indoors, a Ficus altissima will require little to no fertilization. This is because indoor plants grow slower and require less food. When you do need to fertilize, any 20-20-20 organic fertilizer or organic matter will work to maintain growth. A slow-release fertilizer is best.

For outdoor growth, regular fertilizing is typically only needed for potted  F. altissima or those grown in sands. Too much nitrogen will cause the encouragement of rank growth at the expense of fruit growth. Any fruit that does grow will often develop improperly.

Typically you’ll need to fertilize the plant if its branches grew less than a foot in the last year. It will require a total application of ½ to 1 pound of nitrogen that is broken up over three to four applications that begin in late winter or early spring and end in July. 

Pest and diseases

Several major diseases and pests will affect your  F. altissima. You will need to periodically inspect your plant for signs of these problems and insects to make sure that you catch them quickly to prevent serious damage to the health of your plant.

Crown Gall

This disease is easily recognized by the formation of galls resembling tumors on the surface of or internally within stems. It starts as swelling and then turns into an irregular shape that turns black or brown due to the death of the plant cells on its surface.

Pseudomonas Leaf Spot

This version of leaf spot forms angular lesions that are randomly spaced on the leaves and water-soaked. 

Xanthomonas Leaf Spot

The first sign of infection is small, angular lesions that are water-soaked on the leaves. These become bright yellow, eventually turning brown. When the infection is severe, leaf drop will occur.

Anthracnose

This disease causes the formation of necrotic spots on the surface of the leaves. When it’s humid, brown masses of spores form concentric rings inside the spots. The necrotic spots eventually turn dark brown, potentially causing the leaves to fall off.

Myrothecium Leaf Spot

With this disease, circular, dime-sized brown lesions form on the leaves. Within the lesions, concentric rings of dark-black spore-containing structures form. These structures contain thousands of spores.

Rhizoctonia Root Rot

Young, tender stems become waterlogged and can no longer support the weight of the plant with this disease. This is typically referred to as damping off.

Southern Blight

With this disease, mycelia grow on the surface of the plant and the soil, eventually forming small, circular, brown sclerotia, which are seedlike structures that help the fungus survive unfavorable conditions. Sclerotia are impenetrable when it comes to fungicides.

Mealybugs

Mealybugs look like white cottony growth on your plants but they’re little bugs that are sucking the sap out of the leaves of your  F. altissima. They can even stunt the growth of your plant if left unchecked.

Aphids

Aphids also suck the sap out of your plant and in large numbers can do quite a bit of damage. They can reproduce quickly so you’ll want to deal with these soft-bodied bugs as soon as you see them.

Scale Bugs

Scale bugs feed on your  F. altissima much like mealybugs and aphids; however, many also excrete sticky honeydew which supports the growth of sooty mold. These bugs can be disastrous for your plant if you do not find them fast enough. Spider mites are also common pests of the plant and can be eliminated in the same way.

Common Varieties and Cultivars

The most common cultivar of the Ficus altissima is the yellow gem. Instead of having just the traditional glossy green leaves, it features a yellow edge around its leaves. This is the most popular version of this plant and the one you will most likely find online or in a store.

Similar ficus trees related to F. altissima include Ficus elastica and Ficus audrey.

Conclusion

The  F. altissima  is a plant that is very easy to maintain and offers simple beauty to brighten your home. While it can be grown outdoors, it is more commonly kept as an indoor plant due to its astronomical size in nature. 

If you are looking for an easy starter plant, this is it. While it is prone to many diseases and several pests, as long as you find them early enough, you won’t have a problem maintaining the health of your plant.

*image by jukree/depositphotos

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