Ficus pumila

climbing fig

As winter's grip begins to loosen but the flush of spring color has not yet arrived, the landscape can look quite bare. This is the time of year when a simple green blanket of leaves can seem a spectacular tapestry in contrast with a bare grey wall or fence. While this same evergreen foliage cover may go unnoticed in the extravagance of summer, it is very valuable in late winter and often a neglected concept in garden planning. Ficus pumila, the Climbing Fig, provides just such lovely relief in winter, and is a handsome addition to the garden during the rest of the year as well.

Climbing Fig is an evergreen twining vine, native to China and Japan, which holds fast to surfaces using aerial rootlets (it is similar to Ivy, Hedera, in that respect but it is actually a botanical relative of Mulberry, Morus). Climbing Fig can be found with two different leaf forms. The juvenile leaf form is more usually seen. Juvenile foliage is small (about 1 inch long), fine-textured, emerald green and somewhat heart-shaped with a very short petiole (the petiole is the 'stem' by which the leaf is attached to the vine). Adult foliage is larger (2 to 4 inches long), leathery, dark green and more oval in shape with longer petioles. Juvenile foliage is produced initially until the plant reaches a certain stage in development. Adult foliage is produced when the vine has reached physiological maturity and is able to flower and bear fruit. This shift in 'maturity' is not necessarily time related but generally occurs after the vine has reached a certain height above the ground. This phenomenon can also be seen in the development of other vines, like Ivy. Adult or juvenile character can be propagated vegetatively which is why adult Ivy forms are available at nurseries and garden centers even though the adult plants for sale are not all 50 feet tall! Climbing Fig is a relatively rapid grower and gracefully covers most surfaces with lovely ribbons of green interwoven amongst themselves. It thrives in high humidity and prefers a moist well-drained soil but will tolerate clay soils as well. Climbing Fig will perform well in sun or partial shade but some shade can be beneficial. It is reliably hardy through the coastal and Piedmont regions of the southeast but temperatures in the range of 0F will cause significant die-back and so it is chancy in the mountains (except as a woody perennial). Climbing Fig is an easily propagated plant that roots readily from cuttings taken any time of year and rooted under mist.

There are some named cultivars of Climbing Fig available. 'Minima' has juvenile foliage with especially small leaves and 'Variegata' produces leaves with white markings. There is also another species of Climbing Fig currently under evaluation at The NCSU Arboretum (now the JC Raulston Arboretum). Ficus nipponica is a Climbing Fig from Korea which may have improved hardiness. The elongated, pointed oval foliage is a deep green which retains its beautiful quality throughout the year. A good specimen of Ficus nipponica can be seen growing in the Shade House at the Arboretum. This is a special plant to watch out for as it becomes available in the trade.

Climbing Fig can turn a rough wooden surface or a bare stone wall into a delightful emerald tapestry. Late winter is an excellent time to consider where to plant Climbing Fig in your garden because the bones of the landscape are bare and the best site for this wonderful climber is most easily determined. As you wander through your garden in winter, imagine a soft blanket of green clambering over the bench or up the back side of the old trellis. Climbing Fig can bring that soft blanket to life in your garden.