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How to care for creeping figs: watering, repotting and where to position them

More usually found offering a helping hand to tropical forest animals, this climber is quite at home in London too

Alamy Stock Photo
By
29 March 2021
I

magine a houseplant that combines the tropical allure of a rubber plant (ficus elastica) and the climbing vines of an English ivy plant. It turns out that such a plant exists, in the form of the creeping fig, or ficus pumila.

If you’ve had the chance to visit Kew’s Princess of Wales Glasshouse or the Barbican Conservatory, you may have seen this plant hiding in the undergrowth or disguising a wall under a carpet of green.

It produces an abundance of small, dimpled, heart-shaped leaves that hug the surface it climbs on. Each new leaf unfurls a golden-bronze colour, before fading through many shades of green, increasing in darkness over time.

It’s charm, colours and growth pattern make it one of my favourite plants.

How to care for creeping figs

George Hudson, head of plants and education at Walworth Garden, London

/ Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd

Ficus pumila is a relatively easy houseplant to look after. In its native environment – the tropical forests of China, Japan and Vietnam – it is a plant that begins growing on the dark forest floor until it finds a tree trunk to climb. It rapidly ascends to the canopy and spreads itself wide, competing for light with the trees and providing a framework for forest animals to pass from tree to tree.

At home it’s not quite so dramatic in its take over of the kitchen, but these adaptations means it is happy in a range of conditions. It will tolerate low light and bright sunshine, dry and humid environments. Research this plant and you’ll learn it won't be able to survive outside in our cold winter climate.

But I will let you in on a little secret. London is different, and if you look carefully, you’ll find it growing happily outdoors at both the Chelsea Physic Garden and, of course, Walworth Garden, as well as a number of other London gardens where this has been discovered perhaps by accident.

There is one crucial factor to the success of a healthy creeping fig, and that is watering. They really don’t like to dry out. Your creeping fig will very quickly let you know if it's unhappy because it isn’t getting enough water. First the leaves will wilt and start to curl upwards.

At this stage, all is not lost: plunge the pot in a container of water for a few hours until the root ball is saturated, and allow it to drain. Left much longer, the leaves become crispy – at this point, it’s game over.

Propagating creeping figs

The creeping fig is one of the easiest ficus plants to propagate at home. Unlike many of its large-leaved cousins, its minute foliage and stems mean that it is less likely to dry out before they have rooted. Not only that, but the bushy nature of the plant means you get plenty of stems to practice with.

Start with sharp scissors or secateurs, and take a section of the stem with 4-6 leaves attached. This can be from any part of the plant, but works best with slightly older growth. You can root the cuttings in water or in peat-free organic compost, removing the leaves from the bottom half of the cutting, and inserting half the cutting beneath the ground or in the water. For the cuttings in water, pot once the roots are 2-3cm in length.

Your cuttings might not do much growing to begin with, as they get used to their new roots, but be patient. Once they are settled, you’ll have more plant than you know what to do with.