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November 2008 Introduction by Leigh Fulghum, botanist and landscape designer

Ficus, the "F" Hedge

"Nature is marvelous when you know what to leave alone," my voice teacher George S. Dane used to say.

In that spirit, and not to voice any negativity in the cases of Fici which may already be afflicted with Hemoptera in these almost worst of times, my educated opinion is we may at last be bidding farewell to a good deal of Ficus in South Florida. An impractical mis-plant as a shrub, residential lawn tree or street tree, Ficus benjamina is in any case and in a botanical sense hands down, an "F" hedge, particularly since the species is by habit a 45'-90'H tree. It is only necessary to wait 25 years or so to discover that maintaining a sheared hedgerow more than 50'L of such a robust plant, at 6'-8'H under sub-tropical growth rate conditions, inevitably develops into Ficus folly. Though by then owners fear the expense of demolition and the shock of sudden exposure. Even to their own continuing detriment they hold on, unable to force themselves to start over with a sensible long range low maintenance solution. Now we see Nature providing the more swiftly compelling impetus for change, decimation and death, versus heroic measures and costliness: soon we will be rethinking widespread planting and maintenance of Ficus trees and hedges, perhaps.

The advent of Ficus Whitefly (Singhiella simplex) in South Florida was espied by FDACS/DPI inspector (not Rolling Stone member) Keith Richardson on August 3, 2007. Nature had begun laying waste to about four decades of previous effort establishing formal ficus hedges. Inestimable man power had been expended thus far, polluting the environment with high volume gas fumes and noise, all necessary to effectively bonsai the thousands upon thousands of miles of Ficus-composed screening hedges installed without a care (this when so much other important work is neglected, like weeding, proper irrigation operation and picking up trash).

It should be noted the unfortunate trend in widespread Ficus hedge planting did not stem from any recommendation of Florida agricultural agencies, but was largely a grotesque developer innovation heavily exploited beginning around 1970 as a substitute for developing with desirable easements, aesthetics, and a site suitable for proper landscaping. By this time, Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach County Ficus trees planted several decades earlier had grown to monstrous scale, literally engulfing some of the small pioneer houses of just 1945 vintage, creating root havoc in drainfields, cracking driveways, sidewalks, foundations and laying down sinewy networks across lawns and under homes right into the plumbing fixtures. Warnings were passed neighborhood gardener to gardener about the invasive, aggressive nature of Ficus roots years before we ever heard about Schinus, Casuarina or DDT in the Everglades!

By 1972 South Floridian widows were selling off assets to cover the expense of having dead coconut palms hauled out of the yard. Lethal Yellowing had just completed its course, wiping out a very thick, though non-native coconut palm canopy which had been developing since the Land Boom. People settling here desiring to create a South Seas paradise of their own relied heavily on palms easily grown from coconuts.Typical tropical neighborhood yards once thick with thirteen or so spreading palms whose trunks curiously wound this way and that from hurricanes, were reduced to bleak plots of blighted headless staves by Lethal Yellowing. Moreover, intensive inocculation programs proved highly expensive and ineffective. Suddenly, we were faced by the sight of our community as it really is without plant life- one big over-extended concrete grid plat of concrete boxes whose highways and mainstreets are lined with parking lots. It was a horrible, depressing thing to behold, and most, most unfortunately accompanied by a building boom which introduced a compensatory palette of some of the ghastliest landscape plants in Florida's brief landscape history. Along with the quick fix Ficus hedge we became a super-allergenic noxious misch-masch of Norfolk Island Pine, Black Olives, Bischoffia, Silk Oaks, Earleaf Acacia, Rosewood; Wedelia, invasive aroids and 'Sprengerii,' laced heavily with poisonous jatropha and oleander.
It was a horticultural nightmare beyond compare.

Community appearance is ever so much better now, thanks to the efforts of those who just couldn't stand it any longer and fought bravely for municipal landscape codes. A number of villain plants have been banned, while it was necessary to abandon attempts at saving the old coconut varieties. Resistant strains have been replanted, but to safeguard against another widespread loss of the tree canopy, requirements were instituted for planting native and canopy trees in every plan, palms counting usually, 3 for 1.

In my daily course I refer to codes and regulations for both municipalities and home associations and boards within them. Ficus is universally considered a plant to be avoided, in other words, it has become more widely recognized as an "F." Lists of recommended plants for privacy screens and hedges are readily available, and the time to study up is now.

The new predator can travel in clippings on trucks, maturing while on the mulch pile, until it can fly away to a new juicy hedge. The weekly rate of visible destruction, specifically, whole hedges or large sections suddenly appearing to die, heralds a big hit for Ficus Whitefly. There is an enormous food supply which is bound to outlast the chemical budget of trying to kill them all. The most effective product is highly toxic to bees, and though applied as a drench, should not contact groundwater.

Online References

Ficus Alternatives ORNAMENTAL PLANTS COMMONLY USED AS HEDGES IN SOUTH FLORIDA Mary Misitis, Urban Horticulture Assistant, Miami-Dade

Ficus Gall Midge Pest Alert published by UF/IFAS; PDF Document with images of plant damage and destructive pest.

Ficus Whitefly Handout published by UF/IFAS; PDF Document with images of plant damage, whitefly life cycle stages, and natural predators.

The Fig Whitefly Singhiella simplex (Singh) (Hemiptera: Aleyrodidae): A New Exotic Whitefly Found on Ficus Species in South Florida Greg Hodges, hodgesg@doacs.state.fl.us, Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services, Division of Plant Industry.

Safari® Insecticide Label Has chemicals and precautions associated with this treatment for Ficus Whitefly; product is highly toxic to bees also to shrimp.

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