Least Favorite Plant: Ficus benjamina

Photo by Elon Schoenholz

While Ficus benjamina, a.k.a. “weeping fig”, is one of my least favorite trees, my most favorite photographer, Elon Schoenholz is currently posting a series of ficus tree images on his blog. Schoenholz, wisely, takes a neutral stance on this hot button tree describing Ficus as,

“L.A.’s favorite underappreciated, unheralded, unfavorite curbside flora. I have no real love for these trees, per se, no sentimental attachment. They just express form and mass and scale and human intervention in a way that I enjoy, like nothing else in the urban landscape as I encounter it.”

He’s wise to be neutral. A civil insurection broke out in Santa Monica over plans to replace ficus trees with ginko trees in the downtown area. Hunger strikes were threatened and activists chained themselves to their beloved Ficii. In the end 23 Ficus trees were removed by the city.

In colder climates Ficus benjamina is strictly a houseplant. Here in Southern California it can leave the 1950s era office buildings and public access TV sets that are its normal habitat and wander the great outdoors. Once outside Ficus goes about lifting sidewalks with its massive roots and creating canopies so dense that the public space beneath them is as dark as the depths of the Amazonian jungle.
Ficus also seems to inspire what I call obsessive-compulsive topiary, so nicely chronicled in Schoenholz’s photos. Just as when you’re holding a hammer everything looks like a nail, when you’ve got a gas powered trimmer in your hand, and a Ficus tree in front of you, well, you just gotta go at it. Geometrical topiary that looks great in the gardens of Versailles, does not necessarily translate well on the sun-baked asphalt-lined traffic sewers of the City of the Angels. But Schoenholz’s photos do make a persuasive case for what could be termed “outsider topiary.”
To be fair, Ficus benjamina is not without some benefits. It’s one of the plants NASA studied for its use in improving indoor air quality. But as the horticultural equivalent of the Nagel print, perhaps it’s time to replace a few of them with its edible cousin Ficus carica.

Ficus fans and foes alike should visit Schoenholz’s Etsy store for some handsome photos of what city employees can do with those power trimmers.

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  1. Argh, ficus trees. Here they are indoor only, and notoriously finicky — look at them wrong and they drop all their leaves and die.

    Except for Olivia. Olivia was a ficus tree that a college friend of mine received as a housewarming gift, and Friend HATED the tree. Heard that they don’t like to be moved, so she would put Olivia in the car and drive her around. Poured the used mopwater into the planter, or stale beer. Olivia refused to die, and thrived with this horrible treatment. My friend eventually carted her out to the curb for someone else to adopt and take care of.

    I like to think that Olivia was then treated with kid gloves and probably proceeded to immediately die.

  2. “Just as when you’re holding a hammer everything looks like a nail”!!! Hilarious!So true! Aw man that’s a good one.

    Yeah these Ficus are bad ones. There’s one stubbing toes and tripping up the neighbors in the sidewalk median right in front of my house. Oh, and there’s a HIDEOUS little bugger, what was probably the house plant variety overgrown into this little bridge troll of a ficus you want to drop quarters on to make sure he doesn’t put a curse on your journey home, in front of the Oven.

    Finally, I’m gonna take some shot’s of my least favorite plant, which seems to be all up and down sunset just West of Santa Monica, in front of the community garden on the stairs…the ghetto palm

  3. I have been known to (frequently) refer to Ficus benjamina as Ficus pyookus, because it is so freaking ubiquitous! It is a water sucking weed and it should most certainly NOT be a street tree anywhere in Southern California. They ruin sidewalks and their roots adore plumbing pipes. When there are so many other choices for drought tolerant (including many California Natives!) why do we continue to plant THIS tree? In pots, in the privacy of your own home, I don’t care what you do. Just don’t plant it in the ground and use your own water ration to keep it alive.


  4. I have always thought, and have shared it to no avail at community meetings with Cal Trans and others of the like …

    Why can’t all unwanted Ficus benjamina be gifted to plant alongside our freeways?

    To me, they would be perfect there. They can grow as they wish, fat and fluffy and wonderful sanctuary for birds. The freeways would be tres greener, no pruning needed because they could, with their density, serve as sound barriers also for the communities dangerously close to the freeway system (asthama?).

    Eventually, left to their own devices, their roots would be lovely natural sculpture perhaps.

    As for their water needs, I suspect less than some of what is now being bought and planted.

    I just think they would be lovely along the freeways and the community at large could be offered the opportunity to donate once they are over them, if they are still containerized of course. And they can see their tree grow and benefit us. A cost savings to Cal Trans could happen, not to mention cool community relations.

    Just saying.

    All trees rock! I love to hug them, yeah!

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