Ficus Popular for Privacy but Disliked for Their Invasive Growth

Invasive ficus roots cause big problems for neighbor hood lawns and sprinkler lines in Florida.

Offering the world a wall of glossy green leaves, it wraps around subdivisions and marches in neat flat lines down miles of roadway, dominating and cloaking local scenery.

Dense, preened to boxy perfection and wonderfully view-obstructing, this is the hedge that ate South Florida.

Woven from trees clipped and trimmed into perpetual submission as shrubs, the classic South Florida ficus hedge grows almost everywhere, often planted from one of two varieties: Ficus benjamina or Ficus microcarpa.

Rising 8, 15, 20, even 40 feet, the popular ficus separates subdivisions and individual yards, conceals weathered fences and dresses up cold concrete walls all over Palm Beach and Broward counties.

"People will slap those ficus hedges up so fast," said Ken Fairman, general manager of a Miami driveway-maintenance company. "Homeowners are terribly guilty of it. As we all isolate ourselves from one another, a ficus hedge is one of the best ways to do it."

The non-native small-leaved ficus hedge is both loved and despised. "There's no middle ground," said Gene Joyner, Palm Beach County urban horticulturalist.

Loved, because it knits perhaps the ultimate living privacy screen, grows quickly into a ground-up blockade of green, is cheap to plant and easy to shape. Despised, because it is prolifically planted, spreading sameness to landscapes. "It removes any sense of place," laments Lake Worth native-plant nursery owner Richard Moyroud.

There are those famously invasive roots, too, which make raids on neighboring yards and beyond. The tentacles can crack pipes and sprinkler lines, buckle pavement, invade pools, clog toilets and pop bathroom tiles off walls (so says local ficus lore).

"You actually have to defend yourself from ficus growth," points out one Fort Lauderdale gardener on a tropical-plant Web site. "Ficus benjamina is probably the most over-planted tree in all of South Florida."

The hedges don't add much aesthetically, says Joanne Davis, a landscape designer and community planner for the environmental group 1000 Friends of Florida. "It's boring. I would be happy to never see another ficus hedge," she said. "It's a waste of good soil."

Ficus hedges are really cut-to-size ficus trees that, unchecked, can climb 50 feet high or more. And they're known for durability. "If you stuck one on a roadside somewhere and never ever touched it with fertilizer, it would still be there 30 years from now," Joyner said. "And it would get bigger, too."

But as the hedges grow, so does the cost to keep from fulfilling their inclination to turn into gigantic trees, experts said. They're continually coiffed by landscapers -- some charging by the mile -- who snip branches from ladders, scaffolding and even bucket trucks.

Benjamina's cousin, Ficus microcarpa, a look-alike with darker leaves often curled from infestations of insects called thrips, has turned into something more ominous than a maintenance problem. It is an invader of natural areas.

After a pollinating wasp arrived in Florida years ago, possibly from Hawaii, the plant's once-sterile fruit began yielding fertile seeds. And with that, the urban dweller began branching out on its own. Microcarpa trees -- the grown-up hedge -- have found their way into Big Cypress National Preserve and dwell in at least 18 natural areas in Monroe, Miami-Dade, Collier, Palm Beach and Martin counties, according to the Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council.

The wasp that could spring Ficus benjamina from its lawn's-edge confinement has yet to arrive in Florida, but the shrub's urban exploits are cause enough for grief. Ficus roots, along with black olive roots, are the two worst infiltrators of water and sewer lines, said Ray Posada, Roto-Rooter's general manager for Palm Beach and Broward counties.

"I've seen toilets shifted. ... I've seen them crack bowls, unfortunately," said Posada, whose company advises builders to avoid planting ficus. "They'll attack any kind of seam, any kind of void there is in a pipe."

Fairman's company, Driveway Maintenance Inc., makes money off root damage from ficus shrubs and full-grown trees. He thinks the ficus hedge makes for a dull divider but can still find something nice to say about it.

"It's probably better than a chain-link fence with plastic slats in it," Fairman said.

Despite criticism, ficus hedge plantings go on. Landscape architects still specify them for projects, though "in limited areas," said landscape architect Tammy Cook with Calvin, Giordano and Associates in Fort Lauderdale. "It's not as profuse as it used to be," she said.

Weston is loaded with ficus hedges but restricts their height to 6 feet, she said.

In the well-heeled town of Palm Beach, fortresses of ficus obscure many palatial homes. Cook's firm sees one good place for them in society: around trash bins.

"That's about the only place we're proponents of the ficus hedge," she said.

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