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Ficus Alii Care - Dropping leaves, brown spots

August 15, 2018
last modified: August 15, 2018

Hey everyone, I hope this isn't a repeat post as my wifi cut out. We were gifted a Ficus Alii and we have some questions on caring for it. It's about 3' tall and has a braided trunk. When it came to us, many leaves had fallen off, which is causing the tree to look pretty thinned out. A lot of the leaves have brown, crispy edges. Each morning we wake up to several more leaves that have fallen off, I'm sure some due to shock. I haven't watered it as it still moist knuckle deep.

I'm wondering if we should be changing the soil now, or waiting. It's still in it's soil from Lowes, which I'm sure is heavy in peat. If we should change the soil now, what do you recommend, and do you recommend I keep it in the same size pot or go up? What about fertilizer? I have fertilizer we use successfully with our Fiddle Leaf. If I'm to use this, when should I start and how often? It's in a bright room with south and west facing windows. I have attached a few pictures to see the brown edges in hopes someone can offer advice. Thanks in advance.

Comments (10)

  • Dave

    How are you watering?

    It needs to be placed right up in front of your brightest window.

  • cefandl

    I have only had it three days, it hasn't been watered as it is still moist knuckle deep. It is right up against the brightest window which is very bright. It's south and west facing.

  • PRO

    Use a 'tell' to check moisture levels. I'll leave something about using a 'tell' below. The necrotic leaf tips are from over-watering or a high level of solubles (salt) in the soil. You should be flushing the soil when you water. If you can't, for worry that the soil will remain wet for an extended period, you should consider a more appropriate medium and/or learn how to mitigate the effects of excess water retention via the use of ballast, wicks, or other effective measures that help control the amount of water your soil can hold.

    AFTER you flush the soil thoroughly, you can start fertilizing regularly. If you start fertilizing now (before flushing), and all or part of the necrotic leaf tips are attributable to a high level of salt in the soil solution, you'll only add to the problem. 3:1:2 ratio fertilizers are probably the best bet. The best I've found in that ratio is Foliage-Pro 9-3-6. I use it for everything I grow, though I do 'doctor' it for a couple of plants like hibiscus and tomatoes.

    Appropriate Medium

    From my perspective, an appropriate medium is a
    medium that allows us to water to beyond the point of saturation at
    will, so we're flushing the dissolved solids (salts) that are present
    in tapwater and fertilizer solutions. These dissolved solids are left
    behind and accumulate in soils whenever we're forced to water in
    sips, which is commonly employed as a strategy in order to avoid the
    sogginess that limits root function and wrecks root health. It's
    important to realize that a healthy plant is not possible w/o a
    healthy root system. If you have established goals that include
    healthy and attractive plants, it's critical that you have a plan to
    avoid the limitations imposed by over-watering and an accumulation of
    dissolved solids (salts) in the soil solution.

    Not every grower fully understands the dilemmic
    issues associated with inappropriate soils that force the plant to
    pay a vitality tax resultant of an unhealthy amount of water being
    retained for extended periods when we water correctly – which is to
    say, when we flush the soil to limit salt build-up. On one hand, we
    have the potential for over-watering, and when we act to avoid it by
    offering dribs and drabs of water here and there, we have high salt
    levels to deal with. It's easy to see how we all might benefit from
    use of a soil that allows us to water so we're flushing away excess
    salts without limiting our plant's vitality via waterlogged soils.

    Flushing Soils

    Water-retentive soils that can't be flushed during
    our regular water applications need to be flushed regularly to ensure
    salts from tap-water and fertilizer solutions aren't accumulating in
    the soil and limiting the plant's ability to take up water. To flush
    the soil of a planting: Water with room temperature water until the
    soil is completely saturated. Allow the planting to rest for 15
    minutes to an hour to allow as much of the salt accumulation as
    possible to go into solution, then pour a volume of room temp water
    equal to at least 10X the volume of the pot the plant is in slowly
    through the soil. This will remove most of any accumulation of
    offending salts and resolve any skewing of nutrient ratios.

    It's a good idea, no matter what time of year, to
    fertilize most plants immediately after flushing the soil. Try to be
    sure you're using a fertilizer that has a ratio as close as possible
    to the ratio at which the plant uses nutrients. The NPK % listed on
    fertilizer packaging is not its ratio. 7-7-7 and 14-14-14 are 1:1:1
    ratios. 9-3-6, 12-4-8, and 24-8-16, are all 3:1:3 ratios. Container
    growers should try very hard to avoid use of fertilizers advertised
    as 'bloom-boosters', or any number with a middle number (Phosphorous)
    higher than either the first or third numbers (Nitrogen or
    Potassium). These fertilizers can badly skew nutrient ratios with
    even the first application). On average, plants use about 6x as much
    N as P, so there is NO potential for a positive outcome when
    supplying many times as much P as the plant requires. I, and a large
    number of other members, use Dyna-Gro's Foliage Pro 9-3-6. It's
    designed to closely mimic the uptake ratio of the average plant, and
    has many other attributes not commonly found in other fertilizers. It
    also has ALL of the nutrients essential to normal growth. Summarized,
    it makes fertilizing as easy as it can be, and from 1 container.

    Using a 'tell'

    Over-watering saps vitality and is one of the most
    common plant assassins, so learning to avoid it is worth the small
    effort. Plants make and store their own energy source –
    photosynthate - (sugar/glucose). Functioning roots need energy to
    drive their metabolic processes, and in order to get it, they use
    oxygen to burn (oxidize) their food. From this, we can see that
    terrestrial plants need air (oxygen) in the soil to drive root
    function. Many off-the-shelf soils hold too much water and not enough
    air to support good root health, which is a prerequisite to a healthy
    plant. Watering in small sips leads to a build-up of dissolved solids
    (salts) in the soil, which limits a plant's ability to absorb water –
    so watering in sips simply moves us to the other horn of a dilemma.
    It creates another problem that requires resolution. Better, would be
    to simply adopt a soil that drains well enough to allow watering to
    beyond the saturation point, so we're flushing the soil of
    accumulating dissolved solids whenever we water; this, w/o the plant
    being forced to pay a tax in the form of reduced vitality, due to
    prolong periods of soil saturation. Sometimes, though, that's not a
    course we can immediately steer, which makes controlling how often we
    water a very important factor.

    In many cases, we can judge whether or not a
    planting needs watering by hefting the pot. This is especially true
    if the pot is made from light material, like plastic, but doesn't
    work (as) well when the pot is made from heavier material, like clay,
    or when the size/weight of the pot precludes grabbing it with one
    hand to judge its weight and gauge the need for water.

    Fingers stuck an inch or two into the soil work ok
    for shallow pots, but not for deep pots. Deep pots might have 3 or
    more inches of soil that feels totally dry, while the lower several
    inches of the soil is 100% saturated. Obviously, the lack of oxygen
    in the root zone situation can wreak havoc with root health and
    cause the loss of a very notable measure of your plant's potential.
    Inexpensive watering meters don't even measure moisture levels, they
    measure electrical conductivity. Clean the tip and insert it into a
    cup of distilled water and witness the fact it reads 'DRY'.

    One of the most reliable methods of checking a
    planting's need for water is using a 'tell'. You can use a bamboo
    skewer in a pinch, but a wooden dowel rod of about 5/16” (75-85mm)
    would work better. They usually come 48” (120cm) long and can
    usually be cut in half and serve as a pair. Sharpen all 4 ends in a
    pencil sharpener and slightly blunt the tip so it's about the
    diameter of the head on a straight pin. Push the wooden tell deep
    into the soil. Don't worry, it won't harm the root system. If the
    plant is quite root-bound, you might need to try several places until
    you find one where you can push it all the way to the pot's bottom.
    Leave it a few seconds, then withdraw it and inspect the tip for
    moisture. For most plantings, withhold water until the tell comes out
    dry or nearly so. If you see signs of wilting, adjust the interval
    between waterings so drought stress isn't a recurring issue.


  • cefandl

    Thank you Al you are always so thorough. I believe you were the one who led me to buy the foliage pro fertilzer which worked wonders on my fiddle leaf that was chopped down to twigs. I do believe this tree came from a basic nursery where they saturated the soil each day.

  • PRO

    Having answers to common questions and brief tutorials saved as word documents makes short work of being thorough. ;-) I always figure it's better to have TMI than to remain in want of more. Thanks for the kind words.


  • cefandl

    Al, so we've been following advice but now the leaves seem to all be doing this (see picture). Turning a brownish grey in the center of the leaves and spreading out. Any clue what could cause this? Sorry for the poor quality, camera lens is still cracked.

  • PRO

    Looks like sunburn (photo-oxidation). Have you rotated the plant or exposed it to much brighter light than it's acclimated to within the last wk or 2?


  • cefandl


  • PRO

    Sunlight brighter than the leaf surface is adapted to excites molecules in the photo-receptors. As the receptors return to a normal state, they release O negative free radicals of oxygen, the same free radicals found in H2O2 (hydrogen peroxide). These free radicals attack organic molecules and oxidize them, which causes photo-oxidation, commonly known as sunburn. Foliage needs to be acclimated to bright light gradually, or you can use the go for broke method and simply plop the plant in full sun. The leaves will burn and drop off, and the new flush of pristine foliage will emerge perfectly adapted to the light levels where the plant is sited.


  • cefandl

    Lol I'll go for that last method. The new foliage that comes in is a beautiful healthy and glossy green.

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