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Help w/ Ficus Tree Dying branch by branch

13 years ago

Hi! I have a 20 year old Ficus tree that is dying branch by branch. Its leaves turn yellow and drop and then it begins with new growth. The new growth shrivels up and dies. I have waited until I am sure the branch is dead before pruning. At first it was the main lead branch, and I was hoping it had stopped, but have lost 1 more large branch and now another has started to do the same thing. The other branches seem to be doing fine and are actively putting out new leaves. This started in December.

Any ideas? It isn't root bound, it has been fertilized, no bugs I can see (unless they are in the soil), and its care hasn't changed. Since "parts" seem to be healthy, I am at a loss.

Really hate to lose this one!

Comments (11)

  • 13 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    Favored by odds: Unless you've actually done full repots, in which you've removed all or almost all of the soil, and pruned the roots regularly, the plant is severely root-bound, which is the first thing I would suspect in a plant 20 years old. It also sounds like a high level of soluble salts has accumulated in the soil.

    In addition to shedding individual branches, I'll make a guess that the plant is also extending very slowly, lacking any significant interior folige, and carrying most of the leaves in tufts near the ends of branches?


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  • 13 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    To Josh

    Where is it located? Indoors or out? Outdoors on covered porch in same corner it has gone for 14 years

    What is the light exposure like? Does it sit right next to a large, sunny window? Filtered afternoon sun

    Or is it far from a window in deep shade? It sit right next to the outer edge of the screened porch (west but filtered light)

    You say it isn't rootbound, so you must have re-potted recently (last 1 - 2 years)? We gently pulled it up and the soil was very loose around it so figured not rootbound

    Now, perhaps the most important question, what kind of soil is it in? Eek! I don't know!

    And how large is the container? What kind of drainage, too? 14 x 14, rocks in bottom to allow drainage, never sits in water if I overflow

    This will get the ball rolling.

    To Al,
    I do a full flush of the soil each spring and fall while it is outdoors, and it probably gets a full flush once in the winter, would that be enough?

    I just looked carefully and it actually has alot of interior growth as well as new leaves at the end of the lower branches.

    I have thought about repotting it entirely, but was afraid it would go kaput since it is already stressd. I guess at some point either way I go is a risk?

    Thanks, Jennifer

  • 13 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    Hey, Jennifer!
    Well, the situation sounds better this morning... ;)
    Outdoors is good. I think your Ficus will be able to handle some work.

    Al can provide some of the best advice to get your Ficus back on track.
    I can tell you right away that more frequent soil-flushing is recommended;
    or, rather, a soil that can be flushed more frequently is recommended.

    Depending upon the size of the rocks, the thickness of the rock layer, and the particle size of
    the upper soil, the rocks at the bottom could actually be impeding drainage.


  • 13 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    I would still bet, if you're losing individual branches, the roots are in really bad shape. I just did a severe reduction of a Ficus benjamina 'Too Little' and can post the pics if it will give you courage. FWIW - if you don't decide soon, it would be better to pot-up and wait until next year to repot. There's no question, if you haven't repotted & root-pruned that the plant is in dire need. I'd likely tell you the same thing Josh will, and I know you can trust his advice, so let me know if you want to see the pics. I'll be following the thread with interest. I really would love to see you summon the courage to go for it. Once you become familiar with building or selecting good soils and maintaining roots - you'll be very surprised at how easy it is to maintain your plants at or near the peak of vitality - indefinitely.

    BTW - the species or common name of the tree?


  • 13 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    It is F. Benjamina. Pruning the roots sounds scary! If I do that, do I cut back branches too? I can't find much on it except for large yard trees.

    This may sound like a silly question...but pot-up vs repotting? Means the same thing to me. When it is repotted, do you mean replace more of the soil around the roots than potting up?

    On the soil, it there a combination I am looking for? I don't have a "recipe" I use when repotting, just make the mix look "right" and hope it isn't too dense to impede drainage and throw some rocks in the bottom to keep the holes from getting clogged.

    Even if I have had it for 20 years, it was mature when I found it at a yard sale. What is a lifespan for these?

    I would really love to see pictures.

    Thanks so much for all the advice.


  • 13 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    Potting up is simply removing the plant from the pot, adding a little fresh soil on the bottom of the new pot, adding the plant, and filling in around the edges with more soil. Potting up, as opposed to repotting, ensures your plant cannot grow to its genetic potential, within the other limiting factors. Repotting includes removing all or nearly all of the soil and pruning roots. All the plants I work with in Moraceae (the Ficus family), which includes many species of Ficus + mulberry get bare-rooted at every repot and a complete change of soil. This guarantees the plant does have the opportunity to grow to its genetic potential within other limiting factors.

    I'll kind of narrate what I was thinking and describe what I did.

    Three or four years ago, I conducted a workshop with Ficus b 'Too Little' as the subject material. This tree was exceptionally ugly, and no one wanted it, so I took it home & set it on the grow bench. I cut it back hard as soon as I brought it home to establish some sort of future branch structure. I know I repotted it at least once, because it's in the gritty mix, but I didn't remember anything in particular about the tree because I only looked at the roots once & regarded it as pre-bonsai material.

    The pots are by Sarah Rayner, and I intended to put the plant in one of them after the work, but it took more than I thought it would to straighten out the root nightmare, so I wanted a larger pot with a greater soil volume to allow the plant a year to recover.

    The tree before starting:

    This is how the roots looked after I had removed a small amount of soil from the perimeter:
    There were a LOT of roots.

    A closer look, confirming that there is a mess under the soil that will need some work:
    If the roots are ugly, it won't matter to you because you'll bury them. In bonsai, the root base and exposed roots are a very important part of the composition because they are a very important part of the illusion of great age.

    This doesn't really tell you much, other than there are a LOT of healthy roots to be dealt with:

    As noted, I bare root Ficus completely. As I work, I submerge the tree in a tub like this, or I use a spritzer if the tree is too large for that kind of treatment. The important part is to be sure the roots don't dry out as you work on them:

    Sorry for the detour. I snapped this because it was close to where I was working and thought you might like it:

    Back to work now. The roots are still a mess, but you can see that I really whacked them hard. I didn't leave much in the way of any large roots. Normally, I don't cut the top back at the same time I work on roots, but the tree had so much foliage that the remaining roots could never support it. This means that the tree would have shed weak branches that might be important to the end composition. By cutting the tree back hard, it should prevent random die-back because I selected the branches to be 'shed'. Treatment this harsh should only be undertaken on healthy trees with plenty of reserve energy.

    You can see how large some of the roots I removed were:

    A look at the roots on the other side:

    The pot I settled on, a Tokonome ceramic training pot, prepared with a screen & a wick (wick, to facilitate drainage until the plant is well established & roots have colonized the entire soil mass). I did too much work on the tree to put it directly into one of the bonsai pots. The larger soil volume of the training pot will help it to recover faster:

    After potting. I'll cover the scar with waterproof wood glue to keep the cambium from drying & dying back. It's a large scar, but should heal over by the time the tree is fit to show, in 4-5 years:

    The other side:

    After the repotting work:

    The last is after the top is cut back hard and the tree has been secured to the container. I often prefer this method of securing plants instead of wiring them into the pot. It IS important though, to secure the tree so it can't move in relation to the pot. Jostling the tree or the wind, breaks many tiny roots and greatly extends recovery time. The wound has been dressed. The tree actually looks much better than the picture shows because you can't get any perspective on how the branches are positioned. Branching looks messy in the photo, but it doesn't when you're in front of the tree. A few days in the shade & then back on the bench until night temps start dropping below 50*. It comes in at that time after a couple of applications of neem oil about 2 weeks apart:

    That's about it - can't think of anything else at the moment. I hope it was helpful and hope even more that it bolstered your courage. ;o)

    Take care.


  • 13 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    Great photo's and details! I'm amazed at how much can be cut back and the tress do fine!

    The glue~
    Does it wear off on it's own, or do you remove it at some point?

    Do you water them well after putting it in the new pot? or do the cuts on all the roots need a few days to heal, like with succulents.?

    And about that detour..;)

    Beautiful Plants!!
    What is the one in the lower left corner? I love that one!

  • 13 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    Glue - the trees heal the wounds with a tissue called callus. It grows toward the center of the wound from all sides at the same time, covering the glue. How quickly that occurs depends on the growth rate & the size of the wound.

    With trees, you can't wait for a callus to form, like you do with most succulents. You need to pot them immediately, and ensure the fine roots don't dry out while you're working on them. I usually soak the entire pot and soil mass in a weak solution of Superthrive and water until the soil is thoroughly saturated, then I try to keep in mind where the roots are located in the pot, so I can be sure that portion of the soil is always at least damp.

    I've done a number of experiments with loose controls in place using Superthrive with different plant material. Though I found it does help promote root initiation, it doesn't do a thing when used regularly as a tonic.

    The plant with the feathery foliage is Cotula squalida 'Platt's Black', common name > black brass buttons, a plant native to New Zealand. It grows so well in a pot, I'm afraid to let it loose in the garden. I should look to see if it travels by seeds, too. It's a clump former & expands via its stolons.


  • 13 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    Thanks Al!

    For the help with the tree's..:) and the neat plant!

    I'm going to look into that plant in a bit.. I love it!


  • 13 years ago
    last modified: 9 years ago

    Great tutorial pics, Al!
    very helpful, indeed. I love progress photos.