The Wild Gardener Indoors

According to horticultural tomes, there’s a member of the wide-ranging fig family for just about every conceivable purpose. There are figs for food, figs for fodder, figs that produce natural rubber, and figs whose bark is made into cloth. Banyan trees send down aerial roots that eventually form trunks to help support the enormous canopy, allowing a single tree to cover as much as several acres. Strangler figs start out growing on the branches of another tree, then gradually surround and strangle their host, becoming self-supporting trees. And some figs are hosts for the lac, an insect that secretes a resinous substance used to produce shellac.

A number of figs make great plants for the window garden, including the edible fig, the rubber plant (yes, it’s a member of the fig family), and the weeping fig (one of the most common container plants in today’s smart new office buildings).

And then there’s the clown fig: What an apt name for a plant with such a distinct aura of delight. From its winsome variegations to its striped fruit, this is a fig to lift the spirits. The botanical name is Ficus aspera; “ficus” is the old Latin name for this genus, and aspera is either an old Latin word for “rough” (referring to the feel of the upper leaf) or an old Greek word meaning “white” (specifically, the whiteness of silver coins).

Often called Ficus parcellii in older reference books, the clown fig is a small shrub or tree. Its 8-inch-long leaves are dotted and splashed with ivory-white dabs against a light-green background. The figlike fruits, about 1 inch in diameter, have green, white and pink stripes.

The clown fig, however, isn’t necessarily the easiest of plants to grow indoors: It will drop its leaves in response to a chill, and it’s highly prone to spider mites. So if you’d rather stick with an old warhorse, get yourself a rubber plant; but if you’re willing to give just a bit of extra effort, read on and adopt a clown fig.

Use a soil mix of equal parts potting soil, peat moss, composted manure and sand. Give the plant a spot in partial sun, and be sure to keep it warm in winter (the temperature should never fall below 60 degrees). Water your clown fig well and then let the soil dry before watering again. Propagate by cuttings.

As for spider mites, they do truly love the clown fig’s leaves. So the price of a healthy plant is eternal vigilance, especially during the summer months. Check the underleaves at least once a week, and if you find those insect invaders, treat your clown fig immediately with insecticidal soap, or wash the leaves in the bathtub or sink, using Ivory soap or its equivalent.

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