How to Revive a Dying Ficus Houseplant

Why is my ficus dying

I love a ficus houseplant for its glossy leaves and elegant looks, but I am always mystified when I see them described as “low maintenance” or “easy to care for” as even as a seasoned horticulturist, I find ficus houseplants notoriously fussy customers that seem to drop their leaves in the face of even the slightest sign of stress!

Luckily, I’ve had experience over the years and gained key insights into keeping ficus plants happy and, more importantly, saving them when they drop their leaves or show any signs of dying. In this article, I share my knowledge and retail step-by-step on how I revive ficuses.

The reason for a dying ficus plant is usually because of underwatering, overwatering, or a sudden change in temperature. If the leaves turn yellow and drop off in Winter, this is a normal seasonal cycle and does not mean your ficus is dying.

Here are some of the most common symptoms and causes that I encounter of dying ficus plants:

Symptoms:Causes of a Dying Ficus:
Leaves Falling Off:Sudden fluctuations in temperature outside of the preferred range of 65ºF to 75ºF (18ºC to 24ºC). Overwatering, underwatering, low humidity, low nutrients, and not enough light all contribute to falling leaves.
Leaves Turning Yellow:The ficus’s leaves often turn yellow before falling off which can be due to low nutrients in the soil, pots that are too small, too much sun, and because of overwatering or underwatering.
Leaves turning Yellow and Falling off in Winter:Ficus leaves often drop off in Winter due to lower light intensity, fewer hours of light, and cooler temperatures. Overwatering in Winter whilst the ficus is not in active growth can cause root rot with yellowing/falling leaves.
Leaves turning Brown and Crispy:Low humidity and soil that is too dry between each bout of watering, which causes the leaves to transpire too much water, results in brown crispy leaves.
Ficus Dying After Moving or Repotting the PlantFicus plants are extraordinarily fussy about the consistency of their growing conditions and any change to their environment can cause the leaves to drop with a dying appearance.

To revive dying ficus houseplants, I replicate some of the conditions of its native environment with higher humidity, a temperature range of between 65ºF to 75ºF (18ºC to 24ºC), bright indirect light, and only water when the top inch of soil feels slightly dry.

Keep reading to learn how to implement the solutions to save your ficus…

Why is My Ficus Plant Dropping Leaves? (Overwatering and Temperature Fluctuations)

  • Symptoms. Ficus suddenly drops all of its leaves; sometimes, the lower leaves drop. Leaves can turn yellow before dropping.
  • Causes. Sudden temperature change, repotting, humidity and light levels change, overwatering, and underwatering.

As you probably have found out, ficus plants are extraordinarily sensitive to any change to their environment and drop their leaves at the first sign of stress, which can be for a variety of reasons (this makes it difficult to diagnose the exact problem).

However Usually the reason I see for a ficus dropping its leaves is because of overwatering or a sudden fluctuation in temperature. It is important to know that ficus plants need well-draining soil and prefer a consistent temperature range of 65ºF to 75ºF (18ºC to 24ºC). If the temperature changes suddenly or the soil is too damp, the ficus drops its leaves.

I should also highlight that the leaves of ficus plants such as ficus benjamina and ficus lyrata (fiddle leaf fig) often turn yellow and drop their leaves in Winter in response to lower levels of light and cooler temperatures. This is a normal part of the life cycle of ficus plants when grown indoors and is not a serious cause for concern.

I can assure you the leaves regrow in Spring when the hours of daylight increase.

Fluctuations in Temperature, Humidity, and Light Causing Leaf Drop…

To know how to save our plants, it is important to understand how they grow in the wild so we can replicate these conditions in our homes.

Ficus plants such as ficus benjamina (weeping fig) or ficus lyrata (fiddle leaf fig) are native to tropical South Asia and thrive in warm, humid climates.

Ficus Lyrata (Fiddle leaf fig)
One of my favorite ficus plants is Ficus Lyrata (Fiddle leaf fig).

My indoor ficus plants thrive off consistency in temperature (with a preferred daytime temperature of between 65ºF to 75ºF (18ºC to 24ºC) with a nighttime temperature of between 60°F and 70°F (15°C to 21°C) and moderately high humidity.

Sudden temperature and humidity fluctuations that result in your ficus dropping leaves can be because…

  • Indoor heating can often raise the temperature at night compared to the daytime temperature which is in contrast to the ficus’s preferred temperature cycle.
  • The use of air conditioning, forced air, or draughts from open windows and doors can lower the humidity and cause the leaves to lose too much moisture which causes them to fall off as a sign of stress.
  • Suddenly moving the ficus from one area of the house to another which may have a slightly different micro-climate can be enough to cause the leaves to drop.

Ficus plants also prefer bright indirect light. Too much sun can cause the leaves to turn brown or drop off whereas with too little light, the ficus does not have the energy to support the leaves, which causes the leaves to drop off.

Overwatering and Underwatering…

Ficus prefers a balance of a well-draining potting mix that dries slightly between each bout of watering.

If the soil stays damp consistently or is perhaps overly compacted then this can exclude oxygen from around the ficus’s roots which interferes with the root’s ability to draw up nutrients and moisture.

If the roots cannot draw up moisture and nutrients the leaves turn yellow and fall off.

The most common culprits that I find are responsible for too much moisture around the roots, is caused by:

  • Watering too often, causes the soil to be boggy.
  • Slow draining or compacted soil.
  • Saucers, trays, and decorative outer pots cause excess water to pool around the base of the pot which results in constantly saturated soil.

However,if the ficus is watered too lightly or not often enough it can also lose its leaves (I told you they were fussy!). A common problem is that the soil has been allowed to dry out to such an extent that the soil becomes hydrophobic and repels water off the surface of the soil, without infiltrating and reaching the roots where it is required.

Leaves Dropping After Repotting or Moving the Ficus

Ficus plants are so fastidious about the consistency of their conditions that they can even drop their leaves after repotting or just being moved to a different spot in the house. (This has happened to my ficu plants more than once).

Even if the conditions are all within the favorable range for ficus plants including humidity, temperature, etc. the leaves can drop due to the contrast of conditions.

Sometimes a change in the potting soil after repotting can also be responsible if the new potting soil retains moisture for longer than the ficus is used to.

Larger pots also contain more soil and therefore dry out more slowly, so avoid repotting to a much larger pot and use a pot that is just one size up.

Now we have listed all the reasons they can drop the leaves, lets see how they can be saved!

How I Revive My Ficus That is Dropping Leaves

To revive a ficus with falling leaves, I recreate the conditions of its native environment with high humidity, temperatures between 65ºF to 75ºF (18ºC to 24ºC), bright indirect light, and watering when the top inch of the soil has dried. New leaves can emerge in the Spring.

  • I Mist the ficus as often as every day in dryer climates or to counteract dry air currents. Mist any of the remaining leaves and branches, even if all the leaves have fallen off as the goal is to create a humid microclimate that replicates the conditions of the ficus’s native environment. I personally used a humidifier when I lived in my apartment in New York which I actually found worked much better then misting the leaves as the humidifier creates a more stable, higher level of humidity which was key to stimulate the regrowth of the leaves. Grouping other houseplants that have a preference for humidity close together can also help to create the right environment.
  • Maintain a room temperature of ideally between 65ºF to 75ºF (18ºC to 24ºC) and avoid any sudden temperature fluctuations. Commerical grows always tell me that consistent temperatures are the most important factor in reviving ficus with dropping leaves, so avoid any draughty areas from open doors or windows and locate the ficus away from air currents such as air conditioning or any other source of heat.
  • Always water the ficus so that the potting soil is evenly moist. I cannot emphasize enough the importance watering generously, so that excess water trickles from the base of the pot, to ensure the moisture has infiltrated the soil and reached the roots where it is required. If the soil has dried out completely it can repel water so I would scratch back the first inch or so of potting soil and use your finger to detect if the soil has moistened or not. If the soil feels dry then I submerge my ficus in a basin of lukewarm water for 15 minutes or so to properly rehydrate the potting soil and address the drought stress that has caused the leaves to drop off.
  • I advise to wait until the first inch of the soil has dried before watering the ficus again. I must caution that there is no universal advice for watering ficus as the frequency of watering can depend on a number of factors such as climate, size of the pot, and the maturity of the ficus. To ensure the optimal balance of watering, I feel the top inch of soil with my finger periodically after watering and time how long it takes for the first inch of soil to feel somewhat dry before watering. This method helps you to establish the right frequency of watering for your ficus in your environment that works reliably.
  • Place the ficus in an area of bright indirect light or find a way to shade the ficus from direct light. Too much sun scorches the leaves and contributes to them falling off whereas too little sun denies the ficus of enough energy to support its leaves and also results in the leaves dropping (find that happy medium!) Moving the ficus can also contribute to the leaves falling off due to shock, but if it is not getting the light it requires the ficus eventually dies back, so find a nice bright area for your ficus. I personally recommend moving your ficus to a bathroom. My bathroom is humid, has bright light, yet the sunlight is diffused with frosted glass so that it does not scorhc the leaves.
  • I use a half-strength all-purpose houseplant fertilizer in the Spring to revive the ficus. Once you have adjusted the conditions and created the optimal environment for the ficus the leaves can regrow. However, it takes a lot of energy and nutrients to regrow leaves. I recommend Using a fertilizer at half strength (ficus can be sensitive to too much fertilizer so always use half strength) in the Spring to provide my ficus with all the nutrients it requires to regrow its leaves. Do not use fertilizer at any other time during the Spring or Summer as ficus can enter a state of dormancy in Winter and fertilizer is likely to be harmful to the plant.

With the preferred conditions, my ficus typically recovers and regrow its leaves in the Spring and Summer in response to more hours of bright light.

My top tip is that consistency is key for ficus plants so avoid moving, repotting, or changing the environment in any way (creating air currents from air conditioning or open windows for example) whilst the ficus is regrowing leaves.

If the roots have been in damp soil for too long or it has been exposed to extreme cold, the ficus is unlikely to recover.

Why are my Ficus Leaves Turning Yellow and Dropping Off?

  • Symptoms. Ficus leaves turn yellow and eventually fall off.
  • Causes. Usually, the potting soil is low in nutrients, the pot is too small, cooler than preferred temperatures, too much sun, or because of overwatering. Contributing factors to leaves turning yellow is underwatering, low humidity, or too much airflow from indoor air currents.

In my experience with the ficus plants that I have treated with yellow leaves, it is almost always because the ficus roots have exhausted the potting soil of nutrients or due to overwatering. Ficus needs the first inch of the potting soil to dry slightly between bouts of watering. If the potting soil is consistently boggy, the ficus leaves turn yellow and eventually drop off.

Low nutrients soil, small pots, and too much sun cause ficus leaves to turn yellow

In my experience, ficus growers keep their indoor ficuses in the same pot, and in the same place for a long time to avoid disrupting the notoriously sensitive ficus which is a sensible precaution.

However, if they are in the same pot for a very long time, the roots can completely exhaust the potting soil of available nutrients which results in drooping, yellowing ficus leaves with poor growth.

It is also worth scratching some soil back to check if the roots are pot-bound (I do this every Spring), in which case the ficus may also be struggling with a lack of moisture in the soil, which can compound the problem of yellowing leaves.

All ficus houseplants tend to grow best in bright indirect light. If they are in direct sunlight, particularly in Summer, the leaves can scorch yellow.

Temperatures below the optimal range can contribute to yellowing leaves…

Ficus plants are native to tropical South Asia and prefer warm and consistent temperatures of 65ºF to 75ºF (18ºC to 24ºC) and around 10ºF cooler at night as this replicates the natural cycle of temperatures in their natural environment.

If your house is on the cooler side of these temperatures, then the ficus leaves can start to turn yellow as a sign of stress. This happened to me when i lived in a cold climate. My indoor heating would come on at night and the ficus quickly dropped its leaves in distress.

If temperatures decrease suddenly then the ficus is more likely to drop its leaves entirely.

Overwatering and slow-draining or compacted soil can cause yellowing ficus leaves

Ficus plants are particularly sensitive to too much moisture around the roots due to overwatering or slow-draining soils. If the first inch of soil does not have a chance to dry between watering this can cause root rot which causes the ficus’s leaves to turn yellow.

Ficus plants need porous aerated potting soil (I typically amended with some grit or perlite) to allow for oxygen to reach the roots so they can respire.

If the soil is constantly saturated, then the water can exude oxygen from the soil which prevents root respiration. If the ficus roots cannot respire then they are unable to draw up moisture or nutrients to transport around the plant, which results in the leaves turning yellow and eventually dropping off.

Too much moisture around the roots can be caused by overwatering, slow-draining soils or saucers, trays, and decorative outer pots that cause water to pool around the base of the ficus’s pot which keeps the soil consistently boggy.

How to Save it…

This is what I do to save ficus plants with yellowing leaves due to low nutrient soil, small pots, and too much sun…

  • I Inspect the roots to see if they are pot-bound and re-pot the ficus if necessary. I scratch away the top inch of soil to check the roots. If they are all pressed against the side of the pot then the ficus has likely exhausted the soil of nutrients and there may not be enough soil around the roots to hold moisture (which also causes yellow leaves) properly. So I recommend repotting the ficus into a pot just one size up from the previous pot (another inch or so in diameter). If the pot is too large the soil dries out too slowly for the ficus to tolerate which causes yellowing leaves.

If it is Winter, I addvise waiting until Spring to repot as this is the time of year the ficus is more resilient to a change in conditions.

  • If the ficus roots are not pot-bound then I use a general houseplant fertilizer at half strength in the Spring and Summer. An all-purpose houseplant fertilizer contains all the nutrients the ficus needs to avoid any green leaves turning yellow. I have seen yellowing leaves due to low nutrients turn green again as long as the roots can access the nutrients before the leaves turn completely yellow and start to fall off. Dilute the fertilizer to half the strength recommended on the instructions as ficus roots are particularly sensitive to excess fertilizer.
  • Move the ficus to an area of bright indirect light if the leaves are in full sun. The individual scorched yellow leaves do not recover and are likely to fall off in the short term. Moving the ficus is also likely to cause the leaves to fall off, so maintain an even temperature range and I would mist the plant to create a more favorable environment to mitigate the stress of transplant shock.

I can tell you, scorched yellow leaves do not recover, but yellowing leaves due to a nutrient deficit can revive their appearance. Due to the ficus’s sensitivity, the ficus is likely to lose some leaves after any intervention that results in even a slight change to its environment.

As long as you follow the best practices of care for ficus plants with the right balance of light, watering, and temperature then I have personally care for ficus plants that regrow its leaves in the following Spring and Summer.

How I revive yellowing ficus leaves due to temperature stress

  • Ficus plants prefer a daytime temperature range of 65ºF to 75ºF (18ºC to 24ºC) with around 10 degrees cooler at night. The only way to save the ficus is to replicate its preferred temperature cycle by maintaining consistent temperature during the day and ideally a slight temperature drop at night. Practically speaking, what I do is locating my ficus on the other side of the room from any sources of direct heat and avoiding areas where there is likely to be a draught from air conditioning or open doors and windows.

How I revive a ficus with yellow leaves due to overwatering or underwatering…

  • Only water the ficus when the top inch of the soil feels somewhat dry. Ficus plants grow in well-draining soil and do not tolerate saturated potting soil around their roots. I always feel the soil to a finger’s depth to determine when it feels slightly dry, then give it a good soak.
  • Water ficus plants less often in Winter during its dormant period. Ficus plants need less water in Winter when they are not actively growing. With less light, the ficus is not actively growing, which means the roots draw up less water, and the soil typically stays moist for longer. I monitor the soil’s moisture to ensure that the top inch of soil has dried before watering and adjust my watering schedule accordingly.
  • Empty any saucers, trays, and decorative outer pots regularly to prevent excess water from pooling around the base of the pot. Good drainage is essential for ficus plants to avoid root rot and yellowing leaves.

I must warn, once the ficus’s leaves turn yellow they do not typically turn green again and usually drop off, even if you have addressed the environmental problem that caused the leaves to turn yellow in the first place.

However, given more favorable conditions the ficus should be able to recover and regrow new, healthy green leaves in the Spring and Summer when the plant is actively growing.

Why are My Leaves Turning Brown? (Low Humidity, Underwatering and Hydrophobic soil)

  • Symptoms. Leaves turning brown at the edges or drying out and wilting/falling off.
  • Causes. Low levels of humidity due to air conditioning, draughts, and dry indoor air. Not watering often enough or with enough water and water-resistant soil.

The reason for ficus leaves turning brown is usually because the leaves are losing too much water due to dry indoors sapping moisture from the leaves causing them to turn brown and crispy. A lack of water at the roots due to underwatering and overly dry water-resistant soil can cause drought resulting in brown leaves.

Low Humidity

Ficus are subtropical plants that prefer around 40% humidity, whereas the air indoors is typically around 10% (of course this can vary with climate) and can fluctuate due to indoor heating, air conditioning, and even draughts from opening and closing doors or windows.

The discrepancy between preferred humidity and indoor dry air usually results in the leaf edges turning brown, dry, and crispy.

This was a problem for me every Winter due to how much my indoor heating would dry the air out.

Prolonged exposure to low humidity or perhaps if you live in particularly arid climates (such as Arizona) usually causes the leaves to fall off as the ficus is losing too much moisture from the leaves.

My solution is to:

  • Mist your ficus every day if the leaves are turning brown. Misting helps to recreate a humid microclimate and reduces water loss from the ficus’s leaves, preventing them from turning brown. If you cannot mist your leaves daily, grouping other humid-loving houseplants (ferns, peace lilies, etc.) together can also create a more humid environment. However as I mention I now actually use a humidifier an my ficus looks great.

What I found works well is moving the ficus to a bathroom (for the natural humidity) and misting as well.

Underwatering and Hydrophobic Soil

Sometimes I see people make the mistake of watering their ficus plants with the right frequency, but they do not use enough water, which means the moisture does not infiltrate all the soil and reach the ficus’s roots where it is required.

If there has been too long between each bout of watering the soil can dry out too much and become hydrophobic, which means it repels water off the surface of the soil and down the side of the pot without infiltrating the soil and reaching the roots.

You can often tell if the soil is hydrophobic if you scratch back some of the soil after watering and the underlying soil is still dry.

The resulting drought causes the ficus’s leaves to turn brown and drop off.

The solution is to:

  • Always water your ficus with a generous soak. Whilst it is important to wait for the top inch of the soil to dry, it is imperative that the soil gets a really good soak when it is watered, so that the soil is evenly moist. Use enough water so that excess water trickles from the drainage holes in the base to ensure the moisture has infiltrated properly.
  • Place your ficus in a basin of lukewarm water for around 10 minutes, ensuring that the root ball is submerged. By submerging the ficus’s root ball, the soil has a chance to absorb water properly, so that it can reach the roots and alleviate the drought stress.

Once the soil has had a good soak in a basin, the structure of the soil should improve, so that the water can more readily infiltrate properly, the next time you water your ficus.

(Read my article, How to Revive a Dying Fiddle Leaf Fig).

Key Takeaways:

  • The reason for a dying ficus, is often because of a sudden fluctuation in temperature or overwatering. Ficus plants prefer a daytime temperature range of 65ºF to 75ºF (18ºC to 24ºC) and require the first inch of the potting soil to dry slightly between bouts of watering. If the temperature changes drastically the ficus drops its leaves.
  • The leaves of ficus plants turn yellow and drop off in Winter in response to cooler temperatures, fewer hours of light, and a lower light intensity. This is a normal seasonal cycle for ficus grown indoors. The ficus should regrow its leaves in Spring.
  • Ficus leaves turn brown and crispy at the edges if the humidity is too low or the soil has dried out completely between bouts of watering. Dry air indoors saps moisture from the ficus’s leaves, turning them brown and crispy.
  • To revive dying ficus plants, recreate the conditions of their native environment by increasing the humidity, maintain an even temperature range of 65ºF to 75ºF (18ºC to 24ºC), and wait until the top inch of the soil feels dry before watering generously.

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