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I’m not the biggest fan of fiddle leaf fig trees. I think they look amazing, but they’re finicky growers.
And when they do grow, they frequently have edema. Or oedema. I, despite being English, don’t like the superfluous ‘o’.
What is edema?
Edema happens when cells in the plant’s leaves swell and burst. It can look different in different plants, but it looks most alarming in fiddle leaf figs.
Unhappily, it also happens VERY frequently in fiddle leaf figs. YAY.
In fiddle leaf figs, it looks like this:
Er, kind of.
The more eagle-eyed amongst you may have realised that that isn’t a fiddle leaf fig; it’s a schefflera. I don’t have a fiddle leaf fig at the moment, because they’re too big and too dramatic for my household.
In fact, the only ficus I’ll allow over my threshold at the moment is a ficus robusta or tineke. They’re much hardier, and less likely to wake up one morning, drop all their leaves, and die.
Edema looks like little spots. In fiddle leaf figs especially, it looks quite reddish.
You can see why people panic, can’t you?
One would assume that red spots would signify that a plant has some kind of hideous disease, not that it doesn’t know how to drink properly.
Edema looks most alarming on new leaves. As fiddle leaf fig leaves age, they become much harder and unyielding. They also learn how to drink properly. It’s the younger leaves that slurp too much at once and end up bursting their cell walls.
But because the leaves are smaller, the spots are closer together and look very…rash-y. Don’t worry. If there are little red dots on a new fiddle leaf fig tree, it’s probably edema, not a disease.
Why do Fiddle leaf figs get edema?
Edema is caused by the wrong amount of water. It’s often caused incongruent watering, but I don’t like that, because it places unnecessary blame on the caregiver.
This is my own theory, based on seeing thousands of edema-stricken flfs over the years, but it is this:
Fiddle leaf fig trees can't drink properly when they're born, and have to learn
Sure, you do have to water your fiddle leaf fig, but even the most dilligent waterer still ends up with edema on at least one leaf.
It’s definitely a them problem.
There isn’t a lot of information out there, but the fact that edema is so common in flfs is probably to do with how soft the newly-emerged leaves are compared to the almost plastic-like texture of the old ones.
The new leaves have much weaker cell walls, but the plant is designed to take in a certain amount of water, so the new leaves end up with edema.
Does edema on Fiddle Leaf Fig trees go away?
It can – if you have a good watering schedule (which involves, er, not watering on a schedule) then edema mostly resolves itself as the leaves harden off.
If you are, as I am, an incongruent waterer (i.e. you go through phases of being great at watering, and phases of forgetting to do it entirely) then you’ll end up with leaf drop.
Edema can weaken the leaves, but isn’t fatal and can resolve itself with proper care.
Proper care isn’t even difficult – you just have to remember to thoroughly water your plant when it gets dry.
But if you have edema AND continue to not water, that’s when you’re putting your plant in peril, and it’ll drop it’s leaves.
Fiddle leaf figs are actually quite hard to kill, but they drop their leaves quite readily, so you might find yourself having to nurture a pot of roots.
How to water fiddle leaf fig trees so that they don’t get edema
It’s quite hard to water a fiddle leaf fig so perfectly that it never gets edema. They just seem to naturally prone to it.
If you’re determined to give it a try, you may as well try all the tools in your arsenal:
- Check the soil frequently and water it whenever it’s dry-ish. If you’re using a moisture metre, we’re looking at 2/3
- Use room temperature water. Fiddle leaf figs are delicate souls and will appreciate this
- Use rain or filtered water, for the same reasons as above
- Alternate between bottom and top watering to cover your bases
Other tips for maintaining the correct moisture levels in fiddle leaf fig plants
When it comes to under and over watering, the actual watering part, where you pour water over your plant, isn’t the whole story.
The reason why people can over and under watering despite every effort to add water to the plant at the correct time is that there are several other factors at play when it comes to water retention.
Use a well draining but moisture retaining soil
This is a bit like the whole ‘bright, indirect light’ thing that used to confuse me when I first got into house plants.
Surely we either want the soil to be quick draining OR we want it to retain moisture? How can it be both?
Basically, we want damp soil, but we don’t want mud or standing water building up in the pot.
First off, we need drainage holes, to allow water to drain through.
We also want a nice chunky soil mix, so we can get lots of oxygen to the roots. Healthy roots can absorb water more effectively.
But we also don’t want to soil to dry out too quickly, so we add water retaining materials, such as perlite to the soil mix.
Alternating watering from the top and the bottom is great because the top watering allows the water to wash out any mineral build-up, and bottom watering makes sure the soil is thoroughly dampened and the perlite has ample time to absorb water.
Changing the pot type can also help with water retention. Use terracotta if the soil isn’t drying out quickly enough, and plastic if it’s drying out too quickly.
Cover the soil if it’s in direct sunlight
Fiddle leaf figs trees like quite a lot of light, but that can be a pain when the soil is drying out really frequently.
Covering the soil with pebbles can help keep the moisture in. It can also add a bit of stability if your plant is a bit top-heavy.
If you have cats, you can try covering the soil with aluminium foil to deter them from digging in it. I can’t confirm that this will put off all cats, but it might work and it’s cheap!
Don’t over fertilise
Over fertilising can cause a myriad of issues, but root burn is probably the most common. Root burn will damage the roots (you probably guessed that!) and can result in incongruent water uptake.
If any of my plants are having issues I usually stop fertilising them (if I think they need food I’ll give them worm castings), because it can cause unnecessary stress.
This isn’t necessary in the case of edema, BUT here are a couple of tips for ensuring that fertilsing isn’t going to make edema worse.
Since fiddle leaf figs are so finicky, I recommend watering them first with plain water, and then following up with the nutrient water.
This is best practice for all house plants since it stops thirsty plants from absorbing nutrient water too quickly (which can cause damage), but it’s not usually that big of a deal if you water dry soil with nutrient water.
However, with fiddle leaf figs, it’s best to keep them as happy as you can, so dampen the soil first.
Check the humidity
Fiddle leaf figs aren’t hugely obsessed with super high humidity, but if you can swing an ambient humidity of around 50% then the plant will be happier and you’ll be less likely to encounter edema.
Edema is all about maintaining a consistent water level in the leaves, and having a good amount of humidity will help to keep the soil from drying out really quickly, it can stop plants from losing a lot of water through respiration.
Keep the soil well aerated
This can be as simple as poking a few holes in the soil after you’ve watered, but it’s generally easier to add orchid bark, perlite, or leca to your soil.
Bottom watering every now and again is also helpful, because top watering all the time can lead to soil impaction over time.
Edema is pretty much part and parcel of owning a fiddle leaf fig.
If you want to stop it completely, you’ll have to completely micro-manage every aspect of your plant care, to the point that it’ll drive you mad.
I think you should just accept that a bit of edema is unavoidable, and try to keep the moisture levels of the soil as consistent as possible.