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I must admit that I have been contemplating this post for quite some time.  To be honest, I have been hesitant about it because of people’s overwhelming affection for ficus trees (Ficus nitida).

At first, the benefits of planting a ficus tree are obvious.  They are lush, beautiful and provide dense shade, which is sometimes scarce in the desert.

So what’s the problem with having a ficus tree?

Well there are a couple of things that you should be aware of before you plant a ficus tree.

First, is the fact that they do suffer frost damage in the low desert when temperatures dip below freezing.  It can be worse when consecutive days of freezing temperatures occur.

Frost-Damaged Ficus nitida
 
This past winter, we had temperatures in the low 20’s for three days in a row and the damage to the local ficus trees was noticeable.  I could drive through any neighborhood street and tell from a distance who had Ficus trees and who didn’t by simply noting the ‘brown’ trees.
 
Once the warmer temperatures came back, there were quite a few ‘short’ ficus trees seen around the neighborhood due to the frost-damage branches being removed.

Ficus tree that had frost damaged branches removed.

The second problem that sometimes occur when people don’t research how large ficus trees will become.
 
Young Ficus Tree
 
They are soon caught unprepared when the pretty, shade tree that they planted soon grows so large that it almost seems like it is ‘eating’ up the house….
 
Mature Ficus Tree
 
So, what should you do if you absolutely love ficus trees and want one in your garden?

By all means, buy one.  Just know that you will have some winters where it will suffer frost damage and will look unsightly until new branches grow in.


Also, be careful where you plant it.  Allow enough room for it to grow so that it doesn’t ‘eat’ your house.  In addition, keep it away from patios and pools or its roots can become a problem with shallow watering.  It can grow 30 – 50 feet high and 40 feet wide.
Some people look to sissoo trees as an alternative to ficus.
 
Sissoo Tree
 
The sissoo tree (Dalbergia sissoo) is similar in appearance to the ficus tree, but they do have greater tolerance to frost.  

Like ficus trees, sissoo trees do grow quite large but I no longer recommend them for average size residential landscapes. The photo of the tree above was taken four years after it was planted from a 15-gallon container and it rapidly grew even larger.  This tree made it’s debut in the Phoenix area about 15 years ago and rapidly became quite popular for its lush green beauty.

However, as sissoo trees have been grown in the southwest landscape for several years, problems have begun to crop up. They have invasive root systems that cause problems with sidewalks, patio decks, pools, and block walls. In addition, their mature size is so big that they dwarf the landscapes they have been planted in. 

 
3 Sissoo Trees
 
 Sissoo trees are a better choice than ficus trees when used in large outdoor areas such as parks as they have greater tolerance to frost.