The Street Where I Live

British by birth, New Yorker by nature.

Consider the Fiddle Leaf Fig Tree

Home and Design, New York CityAlexandra king4 Comments
Image via Design Sponge

Image via Design Sponge

Ah, the fiddle leaf fig tree, or ficus lyrata, beloved by interior designers and design mags and pinterest-ers around the globe; scourge of the black and green thumbed a-like.

It's safe to say that the FLF is the Mariah Carey of the plant world. Glossy, gorgeous and a total diva, these babe's riders include constant sun light (but not direct) warm temperatures (but not too warm) and an occasional dose of monsoon rain (very infrequently, and preferably in a rainforest in Guinea, ahem). Crucially, their favourite pastime, other than looking divine next to a stack of Herman Miller living room furniture in an architecture feature in Elle Deco, is dying. And they die, like they live- spectacularly. First, the leaves go spotty and brown and fall off.  Then the plant starts to droop entirely, curling in on itself with profound apathy and despair. Finally, all you have left is a sad little mono-leafed stump, like the christmas tree in Charlie Brown's Christmas, except Charlie Brown didn't get his tree from a fancy garden centre for 90 bucks.

Did I mention they are pricey as hell? I've seen little ten inch ones going for as much as 30 dollars and a 10 feet tree priced at 1200. Across the web, shouts and murmurs surface of them appearing, bewildered, surrounded by other plant proletariat, in Lowes and Home Depot and Ikea for as low as ten bucks a pop, though I have yet to have seen any evidence of this (having said that, my first plant was a cheap one from Whole Foods, more below). The overall verdict though, is that they are expensive, and finicky, and if you're laying down a hundo for a house plant, it better bloody well fulfil its part of the bargain and live.

They seem to do pretty well in warm places, like LA, where my sister-in-law has one that grows so prodigally she's worried about it breaking through the ceiling overnight, but in NYC the kind of conditions the FLF needs are super tough to create, particularly during the winter.

My first foray into the agony and ecstasy of fiddle leaf fig ownership was when I spied them being sold for a paltry 15 dollars in Whole Foods on Bowery, back when we still lived in The Tenement Museum, our faux-affectionate name for our old apartment in Chinatown. Thrilled, I bought one, but no amount of coaxing could convince the poor little mite to thrive under such hardship (virtually zero natural light, eau de noodle scented air, alternately freezing cold or super dry radiator heat). After a week, she was already giving up, shedding her leaves like a suicidal Salome. A mere ten days later it was all over, and I resigned myself to being a plant mother to only a carefully selected posse of hardy perennials. These guys could withstand nuclear apocalypse, FYI.

But then we moved to Brooklyn. To a charming parlour floor apartment in a south facing brownstone that is flooded with light. My first thought on walking through the door of the open house was "THINK OF THE PLANTS" and I ran to the Rite Aid ATM to grab that holding deposit faster than you can say ficus lyrata.

Just three weeks in to living in our new house, there she was.

fiddle leaf fig

This girl, who I named Anoushka (I needed a name that sounded sufficiently gorgeous and high maintenance, like an oligarch's girlfriend) has been going strong for about five weeks now. I found her, bizarrely, in a strange and wonderful little Polish grocery store on 5th Avenue in Sunset Park, looking both resplendent and somewhat baffled next to the sausages and bags of potatoes. She was a princely 45 dollars, but given her size and health it was a pretty good deal, and Isaac dutifully carried her home on the bus where she was admired by all the old ladies, and I felt alternately terribly smug and filled with trepidation.

Having finally found a living environment that I felt sure might be able to fulfil the many and varied needs of the FLF, I combed the internet for tips on how to keep Anouschka alive and content.  A heads up; googling fiddle leaf fig maintenance is to go down an internet rabbit hole of fear and anxiety. There are many stories of naughty FLF's exhibiting truly appalling and ungrateful behaviour, from dying after being moved just ten inches from their previous spot, to succumbing to a swarm of seasonal aphids to simply committing suicide for no reason at all, other than just to be capricious little bastards. Mariah. I'm telling you.

Below is Anoushka's routine. It seems to be getting her through the New York winter and she is doing ok. It's probably Stockholm syndrome.

1) Placement: She's in a south facing window where she gets sunlight for at least six hours a day. Crucially, because I have hanging plants in the window that take the main hit of that light, she isn't being pounded with DIRECT sunshine. The consensus seems pretty clear on this. FDF's need lots of light, but their leaves shouldn't be shining with it. The best placement is either slightly to the side of a window or in the middle of a sunny room, not directly in front of a bare window.

2) Temperature: She's close to the window but not so close to be feeling the chill of that icy winter air. Every Saturday, I give her a few hours with the humidifier, to try and convince her she's in a jungle, albeit an urban one. She's pretty, but dumb. So far, I think she's buying it.

3) Watering: I water once a week, in the shower. Yep. I put her in the shower, and spray her with room temperature water for about five minutes, so her leaves are good and wet, and the soil is damp. I then let her sit there for an hour or so for the water to drain. 

4) Leaf care: I occasionally wipe her leaves with a damp cloth to get rid of any dust or grime, and give her a mist with some water on drier days.

5) There's quite a lot of mention on the web about FLF's being poisonous to animals. I'm blessed in that our sweet little kitties are legitimately mentally disabled and, as such, far too busy being distracted by passing lint to be interested in chewing on plants. If you do have a pet that likes to nibble your house plants though, maybe check out this list from the ASPCA for the definitive guide to what's poisonous and what's not.

6) Don't repot until they really need it. They like to be tight and cosy in their pots, says the internet. Don't we all.

And that is that. If your Fiddle Leaf Fig Tree is truly on the blink, some useful tips on how to save it, here.

Courage, fellow plant lovers. The course of true love never did run smooth. Shakespeare wasn't talking about Fiddle Leaf Figs. But I was.