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I've had a 3-foot variegated indoor Ficus tree (F. Benjamina to be exact) for two months now. The first month was uneventful, but over the course of the last month (November) it has lost most of it's leaves (about 80%). Is this normal? Is it dead? I understand that Ficus is very sensitive to change and it's normal to lose a few leaves, but this seems extreme.

Here are the conditions:

  • I water it once every two weeks, until water flows through the bottom--about two cups.
  • The indoor temperature has been somewhat stable, dropping from 23C to 21C over the course of November.
  • The plant is not near any radiator or drafts, except for the balcony door that is only ever opened momentarily and quite infrequently (0C outside)
  • The plant gets some partial direct sunlight, but only during a short period: about 4 hours in October, closer to 2 in November. That being said we've only had maybe 5 sunny days all November.
  • There are no signs of yellow leaves. About half that fell off still looked green and healthy. Furthermore, I didn't find any signs of disease or pests. The leaves are fully intact. Some where a bit dried out, but these were mostly leaves that got caught in branches and hadn't been cleaned up.

Has anyone else had a similar experience?

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I suspect its been going short of water - you've not said what size pot its in, and a photograph would have been extremely useful, but 2 cups (unless each cup is a litre or so) every fortnight doesn't sound like anywhere near enough water for a plant that's three feet tall. The trouble with potting soil is, if it dries out, its quite difficult to get it nice and moist again, so when you pour your two cups of water over it, it runs straight through and you think that's enough because its draining out.

I have one of these, in somewhat cooler temperatures (average 19deg C) in a 9 inch pot, and that needs watering weekly, with about a litre, sometimes a litre and a half in summer. The trick with watering is to do it when the surface of the potting soil feels dry to the touch, but not so dry its shrunken from the sides of the pot, water well, then empty out any tray or outer pot 30 minutes later, if there's any left in it.

Otherwise, the way you describe what happened to the leaves sounds like transition shock due to a change in seasons, or being moved from one place to another, being near a door (internal or external door) or window which opens frequently, or sudden temperature change, although the only one of these which might be relevant given your explanation is the original purchase and installation of the plant, when it would have gone through various changes. Certainly, my own plant tends to lose some leaves most noticeably in spring and particularly in autumn - at times when the heating is either first switched on, or, in spring, switched off.

You can check how dry the rootball actually is by turning the plant out of its pot and inspecting it - if it is really dry, and you think its worth trying to salvage the plant, put it back in the pot, half fill a bucket with water, sink the pot and plant into it, so the pot is underwater, weight it down with something and leave it in there for a couple of hours. Then remove it, allow it to drain down completely for an hour, and from then onwards, check it weekly and water well when you do water. You may need to cut back (best done in spring) to reshape the plant - if you do this, it will take a long time to recover, but will look better when it does. Be aware too that Ficus bleed white sap quite profusely when cut, so you should cover the floor round the pot with newspaper or something disposable till it stops bleeding.

  • Yup, Bamboo, really stuck out, this 2 cups for a 3' ficus every two weeks is not enough. The drier atmosphere esp. indoors during cooler months can suck the water out quicker than high temperatures. So the change in location with bare minimum watering...and these Ficus bens can become unhappy and shed most of their leaves, would send this plant into survival mode. Drafts need to be defined better. Blowing air from a fan is different than a draft. Consistency versus once in a while air temperature change somewhere in there is a better definition... – stormy Dec 9 '16 at 20:24
  • @stormy - This question is pretty reasonable in comparison to one I remember from years ago on another site - the asker wanted to know what their 'quaking plant' was called - every time a door was opened or shut, the plant 'quaked' and some leaves fell off, which is why they called it the quaking plant. It was Ficus benjamina, stood next to a radiator, between the door and the open window.... but the lady would not believe it wasn't meant to do what it did.... – Bamboo Dec 9 '16 at 21:08
  • It's a 9 inch pot. I'm going to try to soak the earth to try to get it damp again, then change my watering habits. See if I see any improvement after a couple of weeks. I'm still learning the ins and outs of indoor plant watering. I suspect I was stopping too early when I saw, as you point out water rushing out the dry soil. I'm just afraid of over watering it. – SkyNT Dec 10 '16 at 0:32
  • Give it the bucket treatment, as described, then... – Bamboo Dec 10 '16 at 1:12
  • Just to give an update, the Ficus has recovered and is doing great and is not showing the same symptoms as its first winter. I've roughly doubled the watering, but otherwise no problems. It seems that it really was a transition shock. I expected some, but not that drastic. – SkyNT Feb 25 '18 at 22:46

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