Thanks to its glossy, violin-shaped leaves and sculptural shape, the Ficus lyrata, more commonly known as the fiddle-leaf fig, has been a fixture in Pinterest-worthy homes for years. Unfortunately, the pretty plant is notoriously tricky to care for. We asked Darryl Cheng, the Toronto-based author of The New Plant Parent, and Dana Mistafa, a design consultant with the Winnipeg-based interior plant care firm Arboria, to give us the low-down on how to care for the finicky plant that’s taken Instagram by storm. Here’s everything you need to know to take care of your fiddle-leaf fig.
Why are fiddle-leaf figs so popular?
Beloved by designers for its good looks, the fiddle-leaf fig has been the star of its fair share of home decor magazine spreads over the years. Its thin trunk and lush foliage give it a stunning graphic quality that works just as well in warm boho rooms as it does in stark minimalist spaces. Over the past couple of years, the fiddle-leaf fig has also blown up on Instagram. According to Mistafa, people are drawn to its richly coloured deep green leaves, which photograph especially well. “They stand out and pop in any space,” she says.
Cheng also believes our fascination with plants in general—and, more specifically, the difficult-to-care-for fiddle-leaf fig—is a way to connect with nature in a way that also brings us a sense of pride. “When you bring the plant home and it’s actually growing, there’s something very rewarding about knowing that you’ve been able to give it a space where it can grow nicely,” he adds.
Why are fiddle-leaf figs so expensive?
If you’ve visited your local big-box store recently, you’ve probably seen small fiddle-leaf figs on sale for under $30. This might seem like a steal compared to the rather steep price tag you’ll often find at specialized nurseries (we’ve seen them priced at over $200), but Mistafa says there’s a good reason for the price difference. “When you purchase your plants from a big chain, they’re just sitting on the floor and nobody cares for them, [beyond watering them] once in a while,” she says.
Specimens sold in large retail stores are also typically smaller than what’s on offer in nurseries, which accounts in part for the price difference. “Specimens that are $200 or $300 have been growing in a commercial nursery for several years. Every month that it spends in a commercial nursery is a whole month’s worth of wages, of people going to take care of it, of space that you could potentially grow something else,” explains Cheng.
Though you’ll be able to find bigger (and, thus, more expensive) specimens in nurseries, where staff grow them for years in the best possible conditions, there’s no reason you shouldn’t give a big-box fiddle-leaf fig a good home. If you’re willing to accept that it will take years to grow to a wow-worthy size and commit to educating yourself on how to keep your new plant happy, you can score a deal and take pride in nursing your fiddle-leaf fig throughout the different stages of its life.
What should I consider before buying a fiddle-leaf fig?
A key thing to consider before heading to the nursery is whether or not you can offer your plant an environment where it will thrive.
The fiddle-leaf fig is native to west Africa, where it grows in lowland tropical rainforests. While you don’t need to recreate tropical conditions at home to keep your plant healthy and happy, it’s important to make sure it gets enough indirect sunlight and is kept away from drafty areas.
Another thing to consider is that fiddle-leaf figs don’t like being moved. Once your plant has settled in a warm, bright spot, it’s best to avoid moving it.
When it comes to picking a fiddle-leaf fig specimen from the nursery, it’s all down to taste. While Mistafa looks for a straight, sturdy stem with symmetrical branching at the top, you may prefer a slender tree with a single branch or a large tree with lush foliage, depending on the scale needed to fill out your space.
When is the best time to buy a fiddle-leaf fig?
The dead of winter might seem like the perfect time to get an indoor garden going, but Cheng advises against purchasing tropical plants like the fiddle-leaf fig in the colder months. While you’ll find fiddle-leaf figs in nurseries year-round, it’s best to wait until temperatures warm up to bring one home. “Even five minutes in the cold could potentially kill off all of its leaves,” he warns.
How much sunlight does a fiddle-leaf fig need?
The most important thing when it comes to caring for a fiddle-leaf fig is to make sure it gets plenty of sunlight. Both Cheng and Mistafa say the plant needs bright, warm and indirect light, meaning that the rays don’t shine directly on it (if the room gets direct light throughout the day, Cheng suggests using a white curtain to diffuse it). A south or west exposure is ideal, says Mistafa, though it doesn’t mean your plant won’t grow if your home only has north-facing exposure. The key, according to Cheng, is to pick a spot near a large, unobstructed window whenever possible—this ensures your plant gets as much light as it possibly can. Just remember, fiddle-leaf figs thrive in indirect sunlight.
If you have a balcony, a porch or a sunroom, you can take your plant outside in the summer (taking care to avoid moving it too often) and hang a curtain to block out harsh sunlight. If you decide to let your plant soak in the sun outside in the summer months, Cheng says to look out for insects that may have burrowed in the soil when it’s time to bring your fiddle-leaf fig back inside your home.
How much water does a fiddle-leaf fig need?
Your typical once-a-week watering schedule isn’t going to cut it when it comes to the finicky fiddle-leaf fig. The amount of water it needs varies depending on a variety of factors, including the season, the amount of sunlight it gets and the environment in which it’s located. Things like indoor heating or drafty windows can also play a role in how quickly the plant absorbs water.
The best way to find out if your plant needs to be watered is to get your hands dirty—literally. “I recommend sticking your pointer finger in the soil, roughly about two-and-a-half inches,” says Mistafa. “If you feel moisture with the tip of your finger, wait a few more days,” she adds.
In the warmer months, she suggests allowing the soil to dry down anywhere from two-and-a-half to three-and-a-half inches before watering, while you should aim to let the soil dry down from three-and-a-half to four-and-a-half inches in fall and winter, when the sun isn’t as strong.
Is there anything else I can do to keep my plant happy?
Are your fiddle-leaf fig’s leaves looking a little lacklustre? Mistafa suggests dusting the leaves when you notice a build-up has formed. “Those leaves are porous and it’s good to clear them out, just like washing your face. It helps them take in oxygen,” she says. While you can buy pre-made foliage cleaners in nurseries to make the leaves extra glossy, water will do the trick. Cheng’s pro tip for dusting your fiddle-leaf fig is to simply use a moistened paper towel and to hold a big sponge behind the leaf you’re cleaning to provide support.
To help your plant thrive, using an all-purpose fertilizer once a month is also recommended.
When do I know it’s time to repot my fiddle-leaf fig?
While you can leave your plant in the pot it came in (or in a cute planter of the same dimension) for a while, a healthy fiddle-leaf fig typically needs to be repotted every one to two years to keep growing.
The best way to tell if your plant needs to be transplanted to a bigger pot is to look at the roots. “You should unpack the plant when it’s mostly dry and check the base to see if its roots have coiled up,” says Cheng. If the roots have circled the base of the pot, it’s time to move your fiddle-leaf fig to a new pot—pick one that’s no more than 5 cm (two inches) bigger in diameter than the size of your current pot as this ensures your plant has room to grow, but still feels settled.
If you can, pick a pot with drainage holes. Otherwise, make sure to add a layer of rocks at the bottom of the new planter to help protect your plant’s roots from water that accumulates there. When changing the potting mix or transferring your plant to a new pot, look for soil specifically made for indoor plants. Cheng likes soil with perlite, which helps improve drainage and aeration.
Mistafa also warns that you should only move your plant to a bigger pot if you have enough space to accommodate its growth. “Every time you [repot a plant], you’re giving it room to grow longer and stronger roots, so it will start to grow bigger,” she says. While fiddle-leaf figs can grow to up to 50 feet tall in the wild, they rarely grow bigger than 10 feet tall indoors.
Even if you don’t want your fiddle-leaf fig to grow bigger, you can still change the potting mix to give your plant fresh nutrients.
Brown spots are forming on the leaves. Is it too late to save my plant?
If you notice that your fiddle-leaf fig’s foliage is showing signs of illness, such as brown spots or yellowing leaves, it doesn’t mean it’s beyond help. You won’t be able to save leaves that have already changed colour (you can prune them to keep your plant looking its best), but you most likely can still save your plant.
The first step to saving your plant is identifying the cause of the problem. Leaves that are wilting or turning brown and crispy at the edges mean that your plant is slightly too dry and that you’re not watering it enough, while brown spots in the centre of the leaves are generally a sign that you’re overwatering it.
To get to the bottom of the problem, Mistafa suggests looking at the roots. If they’re white and fibrous, your plant is still healthy and strong. If they’ve turned orange, your plant is not in tip-top shape, but there’s still time to save it—your best bet would be to call on an expert at your local nursery to guide you through the process. If the roots have turned entirely black and mushy, it’s a sign of rot and, unfortunately, nothing can be done.
As your plant grows new leaves, you can expect to lose some of the older leaves at the bottom. According to Cheng, this is to be expected, no matter how good a plant parent you are—it’s just nature taking its course.