By: Mary Ellen Ellis
To get a creeping fig growing on walls doesn’t require much effort on your part, only a little patience. In fact, many people find this plant to be a pest, as it grows quickly and takes over all kinds of vertical surfaces, including other plants.
If attaching creeping fig to a wall is your desire, the first year of growth can be slow, so have patience and use a few tricks to get your fig clinging to the wall in subsequent years.
Some vines need a lattice or fence to cling to and grow, but creeping fig can attach to and grow up any type of wall. They do this by secreting a sticky substance from the aerial roots. The plant will put out these little roots and stick to anything in the vicinity: a trellis, a wall, rocks, or another plant.
This is why some people consider creeping fig to be a pest plant. It can potentially damage structures when the roots get into cracks in walls. But creeping fig on a wall can be manageable if you trim it back and grow it in a container to manage its size. It also helps to fill in any cracks in a wall before growing a creeping fig there.
Initially, in the first year, creeping fig will grow slowly, if at all. In year two, it will begin to grow and climb. By year three you may wish you hadn’t planted it. By this time, it will grow and climb in leaps and bounds.
Attaching creeping fig to a wall shouldn’t really be necessary, but you may want to take some steps to encourage growth in a particular direction. For instance, you can attach eyehooks in the wall using masonry shields. The downside to this is damage to the wall, but hooks make it easy to direct growth.
Another option is to attach some type of trellis or fencing to the wall. Use floral wire or even paperclips to hook the plant to the structure. This will allow you to determine the direction of its growth as it gets bigger.
To grow creeping fig on a wall takes a little time and patience, so just wait a year or two and you will see more growth and clinging than you ever imagined.
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The creeping fig grows best in warm climates and likes the sun, although it can survive in the shade. The creeping fig grows relentlessly, covering everything it encounters with blanket of vines and foliage. Once it grows as high as it can, it spreads horizontally, smothering everything with leathery, dark green leaves about 2 inches wide and 3 inches long.
Maintaining the creeping fig is a chore. It can be difficult to control if you let it over-run the space that you allot for it. If you grow it on the side of a building, you will have to prune it several times a year to prevent it from smothering windows and growing into the cracks around them. It can continue upward from windows to cover roofs. It is especially difficult to remove from walls. For example, its strong, sticky aerial roots will cling to concrete block, brick, wood or stone surfaces where it will grow into every possible crevice and crack. They can even burrow into the mortar between blocks and bricks. If you pull the vines from a painted wood wall, the sticky substance can peel off paint and damage the wood. If you let it, creeping fig can cover and smother a small tree. It can also crack and lift up the foundations of patios and buildings and spread over adjoining lawn areas.
Creeping fig is often planted to cover trellises, posts, walls or rock outcroppings. In warm climates, it is sometimes grown on concrete abutments to dampen the noise of freeway traffic, but in those instances, its aggressive growth is controlled by professionals. The same of true of Disney World in Orlando, Florida, where it is grown as topiaries managed by groundskeepers.
Q: We planted creeping fig along our back fence in May and it’s done absolutely nothing all summer – it looks exactly the same as the day we planted it. I thought it was a fairly quick-growing plant, no? Should we give up on it?
— Erin Newman, Simi Valley
A: Of creeping fig and similarly aggressive ground covers and vines, it has been said: “The first year it sleeps, the second year it creeps, the third year it leaps.” You have no reason to doubt that your creeping fig (Ficus pumila) will eventually perform as advertised. In fact, it may do so all too well.
I must confess to holding a grudge against creeping fig, having had to maintain it in certain impossible situations, such as when it has to be constantly trimmed to keep it from covering windows or when it grows into cracks and crevices in walls, causing all sorts of damage. Creeping fig adheres to paint and stucco so it is a given that, sooner than later, your creeping fig fences and walls will need resurfacing.
The best use of creeping fig is to cover and soften plain, cinder block or concrete walls. Plant at the base of partially shaded walls. Some gardeners, while planting, bend their creeping fig plants so that they are prostrate upon the ground, since roots will grow wherever stems touch the earth and, in this way, plants will establish more quickly.
Actually, creeping fig is delicate when it is planted and needs regular moisture to stay hydrated. Eventually, though, once roots are established, it is water thrifty.
Creeping fig roots can be highly invasive, cracking and lifting up patios and foundations. Root diameter can reach 4 inches and creeping fig will eventually cover shaded, adjoining lawn.
Provided with a root barrier, it actually makes an exotic lawn alternative for shady areas where grass won’t grow. Creeping fig is also a favorite plant for topiary as it obediently grows over wire-framed shapes of all kinds. Although native to tropical East Asia, it survives temperatures down to 20 degrees or colder.
As long as it remains in a juvenile state, creeping fig shows off small, oval to heart-shaped foliage. If planted against a wall, all growth will initially be vertical. However, when creeping fig matures from juvenile to adult after several years of growth, it sends out horizontal branches. Upon these branches, dainty, clinging leaves give way to considerably larger, floppy adult leaves, which are accompanied by plum-sized fruit. Although this fruit resembles edible figs, it is not fit for consumption, even while its juice is made into jelly in Taiwan and Singapore. A vining hybrid between creeping fig and conventional tree fig, however, has yielded a vine with comestible fruit. To prevent creeping fig from transitioning to its adult stage, snip off all horizontal growth.
While the transition of creeping fig from juvenile to adult is marked by a change from vertical to horizontal growth, the opposite process is at work with ivy, the most widely planted ground cover. When ivy is in its juvenile stage, it wants to grow horizontally, even while it will veer skyward when given vertical support. Upon reaching adulthood, however, ivy stems shoot straight up, creating shrubs and even small trees where once there was a flat expanse of ground cover. Adult ivy foliage loses its sharp edges and triangularity as leaves become ovate and there is proliferation of chartreuse flower spindles.
Creeping fig and ivy share at least one regrettable trait: They love to clamber up tree trunks.
On a number of occasions, I have seen ivy suffocate and kill a tree. This usually happens in a side yard or toward the rear of a property where a small ornamental tree, such as a flowering pear, is neglected and, after a few years, completely engulfed by ivy.
Two palm trees that are not often seen are worth consideration in select microclimates where topography is sloping and humidity is higher than what you would expect in our area. The trees in question are fishtail palm, with fronds composed of fishtail shaped leaflets (Caryota mitis), and triangle palm (Dypsis decaryi), named for their three-sided trunks. I noticed these palms growing on Beverly Glen Boulevard and on Roscomare Road, transitional zones between the Valley and West Los Angeles, just south of Mulholland Drive. It is worth noting that these byways are protected on both sides by hilly terrain, so warmth on cold nights and humidity on hot days is somewhat conserved.
Epidendrum orchids are among the longest blooming plants. They do well in nearly any type of soil but prefer it to be fast draining. They respond well to fertilizer and seem to be in flower, to one degree or another, in every season. They thrive in container confinement, whether perched on fence pedestals or displayed on patios or balconies. There are more than 1,000 Epidendrum species and you will see them in pink, purple, red, yellow and orange. Reed stem Epidendrums, the tallest types, are favored for flower bed and container plantings. Another excellent container candidate that blooms at this time of year is montbretia (Crocosmia hybrid). This corm (similar to bulb) forming plant from South Africa flowers in yellow, orange or red. There are many types, ranging in size from 2 feet tall with slender leaves and delicate flowers to 5 feet tall with strappy foliage and highly ostentatious floral displays. Montbretia is cold hardy, its corms withstanding freezes. Both Epidendrum and montbretia are clumping plants that may be divided and spread throughout the garden.
Joshua Siskin’s column appears every Saturday in this section. He welcomes questions from readers and will answer them in his column. If you have a question, please send email to [email protected] Include your full name and the city you live in.