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I have had this fiddle leaf fig tree (ficus lyrata) for about a year and it has grown a lot of new leaves along three of its branches, but not on any others. In fact, many small, dry leaves have fallen off of the other branches.

The three branches are getting a bit long now so I was planning on chopping them back about half way to the trunk. Will the tree cope with this? Is there a good time of year to attempt it?

Ideally, I'd like to encourage a few other branches to grow, but they look rather dead. Is there any way to get other branches to grow, particularly to grow upwards rather than sideways?

Thanks for any advice! :)

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Ficus lyrata is native to West Africa and widely grown as a house plant. They are great indoor plants as they are long lived, tolerant of a wide range of conditions and not subject to too many pests due to the hard waxy leaves. This plant has no problems dealing with hard pruning cuts as you can see on the old growth on the central stem. From the picture below (Credit wikipedia) you can see that when grown as a specimen away from other plants and not pruned it ends to be wider than taller:

Ficus Lyrata

For pruning you can go by a few ideas:

  • plants grow towards the light
  • they are more likely to bud out of new growth

I am going to go out on a limb here and guess that you live where the ceilings are around eight feet tall (~2.5 m). So you have as much room to go up as to continue going out.

You could certainly cut the new growth back a foot from the tips with a sharp pruning tool. Watch out for the white sticky sap which is an identification key for the Ficus species.

Or you could do something different. Seeing as you want it to stay at this width and new growth will likely come from the stems growing out at the sides why not wire the growth in the direction you want it to grow? If you have or can get common PVC coated electrical wire used in houses it has sufficient stiffness that you wind around the branches and use it to direct the new growth up. Wind the wire around the more supple new growth and leave it on for a few months. The stem should be set and you can remove the wire for reuse.

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  • Amazing to see it like that! I've only ever seen it as a potted house plant before. The wiring idea sounds interesting. I'll definitely look into it. Thanks! – Katie Jun 27 '16 at 18:58
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Plants exhibiting what is called "apical dominance" grow continuously from an "apical" bud (at the end of the shoot), and suppress outgrowth from "axillary" (lateral) buds. Removing the apex (cutting the end off) stops the production of suppressant hormone and will promote the outgrowth of lateral branches. Pruning is done for several reasons, in this case you are pruning to achieve a desirable shape. Therefore think about what shape you want the tree to assume, and cut back the main two branches to a point where you can see a healthy apical bud (in the armpit of one of the leaves) that will result in the desired shape.

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If this was my tree, I would definitely prune it back pretty hard right around the end of spring/start of summer (when the plant growth is nearing maximum momentum for the year). It would be even better if you could place it outdoors in bright shade for a few months; it would really branch out.

I'm just guessing but it also seems like maybe you don't rotate the tree very often? (it will be easier after you prune it!) If you give it a 1/4-1/2 turn every time you water you will most likely see more vertical growth as the tree adjusts to the changing light directions.

I'm sure you've learned loads since the OP but I hope that this helps someone else out there, at least!

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