Climbing fig (Ficus pumila) is a woody, self-supporting evergreen vine whose overlapping leaves and stems create a tapestry of colors and textures on walls, fences, trellises, and other vertical structures. Climbing fig can also be cultivated as a groundcover; hence, its other common name, creeping fig, which forms a low-growing dense mat of foliage. This member of the mulberry family (Moraceae) is native to southeast Asia, and is cold hardy in USDA zones 7b to 11. Where it cannot be cultivated outdoors, climbing fig can be used in interiorscapes in hanging baskets, pseudo-topiaries where the stems are trained onto moss-filled wire shapes, and in terrariums with other small-leaved plants.
Growth Rate and Mature Height/Spread
The juvenile form of climbing fig can grow up to a foot per year and less than 2 inches high. Although it can climb to 40 feet, the surface area of the structure often constrains its overall spread.
Climbing fig has two distinct growth stages manifested by two different types of leaves. The juvenile form produces small, less than 1-inch long leaves that can be flat or wrinkled. They showcase a mosaic of colors as young, emerging burgundy leaves expand and change to bronze, copper, and finally mature to light to medium-green.
The juvenile form produces aerial rootlets along the length of the stem that allows it to hug and cling to vertical surfaces in a textured canvas of overlapping leaves and stems. Climbing fig also produces specialized structures called adhesive pads, which are comprised of clustered roots. The rootlets and adhesive pads secrete a sticky latex compound that affixes the stems to the structure. When the vines are removed, these attachments often remain, which mars the structure’s appearance. Some surfaces, particularly wood and stucco, may be damaged when the stems are detached.
In the second mature, reproductive stage, the leaves are larger—2 to 4 inches long, darker green, and shiny. These moderately, coarse-textured leaves feel leathery, unlike the thin, paper-like texture of the fine-textured, refined-looking juvenile leaves. Mature stems lack aerial roots and become thick and shrubby as they grow away from the structure to create a three-dimensional look to planar surfaces. In some cases adult forms have been trained and sheared into hedges.
Mature vines bear non-showy unisexual or monecious flowers (the flower either possesses male or female floral structures, but not both). Fertilized female flowers produce pale green, pearlike inedible fruit.
Climbing fig thrives in full sun or shade. Leaves may be injured or killed when temperatures fall between 10 and 15 oF. Vines growing in open, west- or south-facing locations and exposed to cold, wind, and direct sun, may be affected by winter leaf scorch. (See HGIC 2350 Cold Damage, for more information.) Over time the damaged leaves will naturally slough-off, but they can be brushed away with a gloved hand to neaten its appearance. Gloves offer protection from the latex in climbing fig, which may cause dermatitis. To reduce occurrences of winter leaf scorch, plant creeping fig in a location that offers protection from direct winter sun and cold, drying winds.
Delay any removal of damaged or dead stems until after new growth emerges in the spring. Creeping fig grows vigorously, which requires periodic pruning to remove wayward stems and keep it in bounds and confined to structures. To maintain the pleated quilt of juvenile foliage, remove mature shoots at their points of attachment on the stem.
Creeping fig has no significant insect or disease problems that require attention. Established vines exhibit moderate drought and salt tolerance.
The attractive juvenile stage of climbing fig roots easily and does not require a rooting hormone to stimulate root formation.
Cultivars and Hybrids
- ‘Snowflake’ is a variegated form with wide white margins on the leaves.
- ‘Minima’ has tiny leaves that makes it suitable for growing indoors in a container or hanging basket.
- ‘Quercifolia’ also has small foliage, which is lobed and looks like miniature oak leaves.
- ‘Sunny Fig’ is a variegated form with white margins, and these white areas tend to extend beyond the normal leaf margin.
- Arnold, M. A. 2008. Landscape plants for Texas and environs. 3rd ed. Stipes Pub., Champaign, IL.
- CABI, 2021. Ficus pumila [original text by M. J. Datiles and P. Acevedo-Rodríguez]. In: Invasive Species Compendium. Wallingford, UK: CAB International. 5 May 2021 <www.cabi.org/isc>.
- Davies, Jr. F. T., J. E. Lazarte and J. N. Joiner. 1982. Initiation and development of roots in juvenile and mature leaf bud cuttings of Ficus pumila L. American Journal of Botany 69(5):804-811.
- Dirr, M. A. 2011. Dirr’s encyclopedia of trees and shrubs. Timber Press, Portland, OR.
- Gilman E. F. 1999. Ficus pumila, Fact Sheet FPS-212. Florida, USA: Environmental Horticulture Department, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS), University of Florida. 5 May 2021. <http://hort.ifas.ufl.edu/database/documents/pdf/shrub_fact_sheets/ficpuma.pdf>.
- Groot, E. P., E. J. Sweeney, and T. L. Rost. 2003. Development of the adhesive pad on climbing fig (Ficus pumila) stems from clusters of adventitious roots. Plant Soil 248(1/2):85-96.