The summer of 2007 could very well go down in history as the beginning of the end of the stately ficus hedge that was once such a big part of South Florida landscaping.
That’s when the first signs of the ficus whitefly ( Singhiella simplex) turned up in Miami-Dade County. Since then it has become common to see yellowing, thinning, and in some cases, nearly bare ficus hedges throughout South Florida.
And now many homeowners, fed up with the expense of battling the tiny but voracious pests, are starting to remove their ficus and replace them with other shrubs — no easy feat because of the notorious root systems on ficus.
“The ficus whitefly is still a problem,” said Adrian Hunsberger, Urban Horticulture agent and entomologist at the University of Florida/IFAS Miami-Dade County Extension office in Homestead, in an email. “Either people have quit treating because of the expense, don’t know that the cause of the leaf drop is from a pest and don’t know the treatment, or have chosen to ignore the problem.”
She noted that the recommended pesticides are still effective, if used before the plant shows significant damage. They are best applied in the spring.
Products that consumers can buy and apply themselves include imidacloprid (Bayers Advanced Tree & Shrub Insect Control) or dinotefuran (Spectracide Systemic Tree & Shrub Insect Control), applied through soil drenches. These treatments can last from six months to a year, whereas foliar sprays often have to be repeated much more frequently, during the summer, at least, sometimes as often as every 7 to 10 days, according to the University of Florida. Many professionals provide services to treat ficus.
As recently as five years ago, ficus was the No. 1 seller for hedges in South Florida, said Jeremy Hayes, vice president of Runway Growers, a wholesaler in Fort Lauderdale, Weston and Central Florida.
“But it seems like ficus hedges are being removed in exponential numbers in the last year and a half,” Hayes said.
Removing long rows of ficus is no cheap proposition. Hunsberger said that as costly as treatments can be, in the short run that option can be cheaper than removing and replacing long rows of ficus hedges, unless they are simply too far gone — in other words, practically leafless.
However, John Leserra, owner of Leserra Nursery, a plant and tree retailer in Coconut Creek, thinks that three years of treating and trimming the high maintenance ficus would pay for the removal and replacement of the hedge in most South Florida yards.
The next question is what to use as a replacement.
Yuliesky Argoda, owner of Farm Networks LLC, a Homestead grower, said that the two most popular ficus hedge replacements in the Miami-Dade area are Clusia guttifera, known as Small Leaf Clusia — though the leaves are not at all small — and Podocarpus macrophyllus.
(The Clusia nana, which really does have small leaves, is considered a dwarf and only grows about a foot and a half tall. It is best used as a border, rather than a hedge.)
Hayes of Broward-based Runway Growers agreed. “Without a doubt, Clusia is the most popular replacement plant,” he said. “You cannot kill it, it is easy to trim, and it does well in drought, wind, salt and flood conditions.”
Argoda added that it can be easily kept at six to 10 feet high and 31/2 feet wide.
Although it is relatively slow growing, if left to its own devices it can grow into a large shrub or tree.
Leserra disagrees about its suitability as a ficus replacement.
“You can’t square it off, it has to grow wide, and it is not going to make a good formal hedge,” he said.
He agrees about the lovely Podocarpus, however, but added homeowners need to buy a bigger Podocarpus, at the very least a seven-gallon container, because it is such a slow grower. That generally makes this choice more expensive than other faster growing hedges that can be bought at local garden centers in a three-gallon size.
“If you buy a big one, you have an instant hedge, and you can shape it to any size,” he said, adding that another advantage is that the roots are not a problem. (The roots on Clusia are sometimes described as aggressive.)
Most customers want the “Disney look,” and they want it now, Leserra added. “They don’t like it if you tell them a plant is going to take three or four years to turn into a decent hedge.”
LeSerra’s favorite hedge, once a big seller in South Florida, is commonly called a cherry hedge, (Surinam Cherry, or Eugenia uniflora). However, though it is readily available and makes a beautiful hedge, it has a downside.
Surinam Cherry is generally considered invasive because of its abundant fruiting and the attractiveness of its fruits to birds and small mammals, although many of its fans deny having any problems with it spreading on their property.
The Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council listed it as a Category 1 invasive plant in its most recent list, in 2011. A plant is classified as Category 1 invasive when it alters native plant communities by displacing native species or hybridizing with natives. However, in a University of Florida publication, it is recommended as an excellent shrub for hedges, and described only as “potentially invasive.” (http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/fp202)
Finally, for those who want to go native, the two most popular candidates are the Cocoplum (Chrysobalanus icaco), long a favorite for hedges in parking lots and along roadsides, and Simpson Stoppers ( Myrcianthes fragrans, once known as Eugenia simpsonii). Although another member of the Clusia species, the Clusia rosea, is usually listed as a Florida native, there is some debate about it and it has also been described as a native of the West Indies.
The Red-Tipped Cocoplum, the most widely available form of this easy-to-grow, attractive native, is not salt-tolerant, so is better away from the coast, and young plants can be damaged by cold. It has also been included on lists of ornamentals that are vulnerable to the messy spiraling whitefly, but it has not become a problem, at least not yet. Otherwise it is considered resilient, relatively pest free and low maintenance. It grows bushier in full sun and is not picky about the soil. Trimming chores are much less onerous than for the fast-growing ficus.
Simpson Stoppers are also starting to show up as substitute hedges. They get small but pretty fuzzy white flowers and orange berries, which attract birds. It is actually a small tree, and might need some grooming as a hedge, but it is relatively slow growing, and is denser and less rangy in full sun than shaded areas.
Of course, this is South Florida, and there are many more options available, ranging from smaller palms like solitary Fishtails (Caryota urens) to the massive Areca palm (Dypsis lutescens), which creates more of an impenetrable screen than a typical hedge. Hibiscus and Ixora make attractive, but high-maintenance flowering hedges, requiring a good deal of fertilizer and pruning.
Hunsberger suggested that homeowners troubled by whitefly and thinking of replacing their ficus call the Miami Dade Extension office at 305-248-3311 to get guidance. The University of Florida offers many publications on suitable hedges for South Florida.