Creeping Fig (Ficus pumila, Climbing Fig)

Climbing Fig, Creeping Fig

Creeping fig (Ficus pumila) is a plant species native to China, Japan and Vietnam. Creeping fig has been naturalized in parts of the United States. It can be cultivated as a houseplant. The FDA lists this species in its Database of Poisonous Plants due to the plant’s toxic sap, which causes inflammation.

I. Appearance and Characteristics 

Ficus pumila, commonly known as the creeping fig or climbing fig, is a species of flowering plant in the mulberry family, native to East Asia (China, Japan, Vietnam) and naturalized in parts of the southeastern and south-central United States. It is also found in cultivation as a houseplant. The Latin specific epithet pumila means “dwarf”, and refers to the very small leaves of the plant.

Ficus pumila is a woody evergreen liana, growing to 2.5–4 m (8 ft 2 in – 13 ft 1 in). It can grow up to 9–12 m (30–39 ft) tall if it isn’t regularly pruned. The juvenile foliage is much smaller and thinner than mature leaves produced as the plant ages. The leaves are oval, cordate, asymmetrical, with opposite veins. It is creeping or can behave like a liana and also climb trees, rocks, etc. up to 4 m in height or more. The aerial roots secrete a translucent latex that hardens on drying, allowing the sticks to adhere to their support.

Like other plant species in the family Moraceae, contact with the milky sap of Ficus pumila can cause phytophotodermatitis, a potentially serious skin inflammation. Although the plant is not poisonous per se, F. pumila is listed in the FDA Database of Poisonous Plants.

As the common name, “creeping fig” indicates, the plant has a creeping/vining habit and is often used in gardens and landscapes where it covers the ground and climbs up trees and walls. It is hardy down to 1 °C (34 °F) and does not tolerate frost. Therefore in temperate regions it is often seen as a houseplant. It is fast-growing and requires little in the way of care. It can be invasive when environmental conditions are favorable. Its secondary roots or tendrils can cause structural damage to certain buildings with fragile mortar or structures made of fragile materials.

It has gained the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit.

The plant requires the fig wasp Blastophaga pumilae for pollination, and is fed upon by larvae of the butterfly Marpesia petreus.

II. How to Grow and Care

Sunlight

Creeping fig prefers bright, indirect light. When used as an indoor potted plant, its leaves may burn in blazing sunlight, high temperature, or poor ventilation, so shade it properly. In winter’s weak sunlight, placed it in a site with relatively strong sunlight to ensure brighter colored leaves. It can tolerate shade and grow in places with low light, but a long period of sunlight shortage will stop its growth and cause leaves to fall.

Temperature and Humidity

True to its tropical heritage, creeping fig prefers a warm, moist environment. Temperatures indoors should be kept between 65 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit, and never allowed to dip below 55 degrees Fahrenheit. The plant prefers above-average humidity levels as well, so consider keeping it in an already-humid part of your home (like a kitchen or bathroom), or invest in a space humidifier.

Watering

Creeping fig in gardens tends to have well-developed roots and requires little watering, except during drought. Water potted creeping fig only when the soil surface is dry. It can be watered every week during spring, summer, and fall. Avoid excess accumulated water in the soil to prevent its roots from rotting.

Creeping fig grows vigorously in summer. If temperatures are high and water evaporates quickly, watering frequency and amount should be increased appropriately. When the temperature drops in winter, it needs less water and can be watered once every two weeks. If the air is dry, increase the air humidity by spraying.

Soil

Creeping fig plants can grow in myriad soil types, so long as they’re well-draining. Typically, you can opt for any store-bought, commercial potting mix.

Fertilizing

Creeping fig planted in a garden does not require much fertilizer; apply compound fertilizer 2-3 times a year. For potted plants, in addition to the base fertilizer in planting soil, apply compound fertilizer once two weeks to support growth. Use fertilizer with lower concentration more frequently to avoid burning the roots.

Apply fertilizer in the evening of a sunny day to aid its absorption. Reduce fertilization in winter, as growth slows or stagnates in low temperatures. For mosaic or variegated varieties, use less nitrogen and more potassium fertilizer once a month to keep the variegation.

Planting tips

If your potted creeping fig outgrows your home, transplant it to the garden. Seedlings bought in a garden center can also be planted directly in the garden; the best time for transplanting is late spring. If the garden soil is not fertile enough, you can add some organic fertilizer to the planting hole.

When transplanted to the garden, roots should be level with the ground and not buried too deeply. After transplanting, water thoroughly and slowly to prevent water from dispersing the soil. Water new plants twice a week to keep the soil moist.

Pruning

Without timely pruning, the main branches of creeping fig tend to grow quickly, but axillary buds cannot sprout side branches due to long-term restrained state, which greatly reduces the ornamental value since the plant has only one tall main stem. Therefore it is necessary to pinch it in time, that is, to cut off the terminal buds of creeping fig when the plant grows to about 60 cm in height.

After that, the axillary buds will sprout quickly, and 3-4 side branches in different directions can be retained and cultivated as the lateral main branches of the plant while other excessive axillary buds should be cut off. When the plant grows to 80 cm in height after 1-2 years, it is necessary to pinch it again and cut off the small buds on the top of all branches, with the length of the side branches not exceeding 60 cm. 3-4 small branches can also be retained on each side branch of the plant, and the shape of the plant will become round and look better when they grow up.

As the tree grows many branches, air ventilation and light transmission become poor, so pruning is important. Regular pruning also produces more new leaves. When cut, the branches of creeping fig leak milky sap, which eventually hardens and seals the wounds, so wear garden gloves when pruning.

Propagation

These plants rarely flower indoors, so collecting seeds for propagation is not practical. However, creeping fig is easy to propagate through stem cuttings. Here’s how:

  • In early spring when the plant begins active growth, take a 4- to 6-inch cutting from a fresh growth tip.
  • Plant the cutting in a small pot filled with sterile potting mix. (No rooting hormone is necessary.)
  • Move the pots to a warm location with high humidity and bright but indirect light. Enclosing the pot in a clear plastic bag may help hold in humidity.
  • When new growth begins to emerge, you can relocate to a more permanent container.

Potting and Repotting 

Creeping fig normally grows well in any well-draining pot filled with standard commercial potting mix. Any pot material will do, though lightweight plastic is a good choice for hanging plants. Repot the plant whenever roots are evident growing through the drainage holes—this may be necessary every year. These plants grow well if they are somewhat root-bound, so rather than potting up to a larger container, you can simply prune back the root ball and pot it back into the same container with fresh potting mix.5

Overwintering

Feeding should be withheld during the winter months, when the plant enters a semi-dormant stage. Even indoor potted plants slow their growth during the winter. Watering should also be somewhat reduced—but not so much that leaves drop.

Pests and Diseases

Common Pests

Creeping fig is vulnerable to a variety of pests common to the indoors, including aphids, mealybug, scale, and whitefly. If possible, identify the infestation as early as possible and treat the plant immediately with a horticultural oil like neem oil. It’s also wise to move the plant away from your other houseplants as a precaution until all signs of infestation are gone.

Creeping fig is not prone to any significant diseases.

Common Problems 

Creeping fig is a largely problem-free plant, but several cultural problems may be noted, both with indoor and outdoor plantings:

Damage to Exterior Walls

When creeping fig is grown in the garden and allowed to climb up walls, the suckering discs by which the plant attaches itself can damage stucco, brick, or wood surfaces. The mortar between bricks can be dislodged, for example, loosening bricks. Even if the vine is successfully removed, unsightly stains from the adhesive discs often remain.

This can be avoided by giving the vine a trellis or other structure to support it, keeping it well away from building walls.

Leaves Are Scorched

Plants growing in exposed outdoor locations can be scorched by drying winter winds. While this doesn’t really injure the plant, it is unsightly. Dead leaves can be simply brushed off by hand. To avoid the problem, plant creeping fig in a protected location.

III. Uses and Benefits 

  • Ornamental uses

The creeping fig is often used outdoors as a ground cover, on stone walls and outcroppings, and indoors as a houseplant. It is prized for covering fences, walls, and topiary forms and is well suited to pollinators and rain gardens. Companion plants of the creeping fig include the crossvine, passion vines, Indian hawthorn, and crape myrtle.

  • Culinary uses

The fruit of Ficus pumila var. awkeotsang is used in cuisine. In Taiwan, its fruit is turned inside out and dried. The seeds are scraped off and a gel is extracted from their surface with water and allowed to set and form a jelly known in Taiwan as aiyu jelly (or aiyuzi 愛玉子) and in Singapore as ice jelly (文頭雪).

Creeping Fig (Ficus pumila, Climbing Fig) Details

Common name Climbing Fig, Creeping Fig
Botanical name Ficus pumila
Plant type Houseplant
Hardiness zone 8a, 8b, 9a, 9b, 10a, 10b, 11a, 11b
Growth rate Fast
Harvest time Spring
Height 8 ft. 0 in. - 15 ft. 0 in.
Width 8 ft. 0 in. - 15 ft. 0 in.
Sunlight Dappled Sunlight (Shade through upper canopy all day)
Soil condition High Organic Matter
Leaf color Green