No matter how content you are with your houseplant collection, it’s natural to be drawn towards large indoor trees.
There’s no question that an indoor tree is adds a touch of class to the home, and is one the best ways to complement large, airy spaces with that “interior-scaped” look.
In my opinion, you just can’t compare the impact of just one healthy tree, even compared to a mountain of leafy 6-inch pots.
But finding and growing beautiful indoor specimens is not the same as choosing a typical houseplant.
That’s why I figured it would make sense to go over my personal picks – but first let’s talk about the constraints to bear in mind when selecting your own.
Selecting Suitable Indoor Trees
Recognize that most trees generally do poorly indoors, for a variety of reasons; chief among them is the lack of light.
Unless you are blessed with large, floor to ceiling south-facing windows, most larger indoor trees will need to get buy with little to no direct sunlight.
Beyond tolerating relatively weak indoor lighting, a good indoor tree must naturally reach tree-like proportions. At minimum, this requires a plant that is tall (versus low and shrubby) and can reach a height of 6 feet.
Finally, good indoor trees should all be capable of adapting to home or office environments and actually growing. This includes thriving in varying humidity levels, tolerating stagnant indoor air, and not needing a winter cold-dormancy (such as that required for temperate zone trees).
Now let’s get started.
My Favorite Indoor Trees With Care Instructions
Here are our top (5) best indoor trees, based on attractiveness, ease of care, and tolerance for indoor light levels.
1) Fiddle-Leaf Fig (Ficus lyrata)
In the wild, where it grows along a thin coastal swath of steamy West African lowland rainforest stretching from Sierra Leon to Cameroon, the fiddle-leaf fig is a formidable tree that can exceed 40 feet in height.
This species falls within the subgenus Urostigma and is therefore considered one of many types of “strangler” figs, which refers to a group of fig species that have the ability to first take root in the crown of other “host” trees as a hemiepiphite (usually from seeds carried by bird droppings) where they send roots downward around the host until it’s smothered out via “girdling” (constriction around the trunk until the thin ring of living vascular tissue is cut).
This adaptation is a result of the fierce competition for light in the very tall and dense canopy of lowland tropical forests.
The flowers of Ficus lyrata are pollinated by a fig wasp in the genus Agaon. The small figs that result mature at roughly an inch in diameter.
Indoors, the fiddle-leaf fig is much more tame, and is typified by a thin upright trunk (or multiple trunks) topped with oversized pear-shaped, wavy deep green leaves. Presently, this may be the most fashionable home or office tree, thanks to its leafy, bold tropical appeal and wide tolerance for varying light and humidity levels.
As with most indoor trees, the real key to keeping this fig happy and looking good is light, as much as you can provide it.
Although it can certainly still do well in very bright indirect light, as long as this plant is gradually acclimatized to it, several hours of filtered direct light through a south, west or east-facing window will be greatly appreciated, and will create a much more vigorous, fuller tree.
Only water this tree when the surface soil layers begin to feel slightly dry when probed with a finger. But when you do water, really soak the roots and flush the plant out, taking care to dispose of the water that fills the collection tray.
This will help ensure that fertilizer salts and hard water minerals don’t wick their way back up into the soil where they can accumulate over time and result in leaf tip burn, a common condition in tropical plants whereby the tips or margins of the leaves become black and/or brown and resemble heat damage.
For an extra “purging” of accumulated salts in plants already affected by significant burn (or as a first aid for over-fertilized plants), you can water the tree with distilled or reverse osmosis water every couple weeks or so to strip salts from the roots.
Ficus lyrata enjoys high humidity, but will adapt to drier environments typical of most home or work spaces. A good way to give it some localized humidity is by misting daily, which will not only foster health but help keep its broad leaves dust free. For very dusty leaves, it’s best to wipe them down periodically with a damp cloth. Leaf shine looks very good on this plant.
A healthy fiddle-leaf fig in good light will grow quite quickly. And a 6-foot plant from small starter plant material is easily attainable by even inexperienced growers. And as with most ficus species, they don’t need a very large pot to attain tree-like proportions either. If anything, resist the temptation to increase pot size too rapidly; these trees seem to do better when their roots mostly fill the pot.
If you see roots coming out the drainage holes, or the tree has been growing vigorously in the same pot for more than a year, gradually start increasing pot size annually. Any high quality potting mix should do.
Ficus lyrata should be fertilized during periods of growth (especially during the summer months), at a dose commensurate with growth rates. For example, a tree grown in strong light should receive an all-purpose indoor plant food at full dose; whereas a tree kept in dim light may require only 1/2 of the manufacturer’s recommended application.
This is easily one of the most durable indoor tree species, which is why they’re so often used in interior landscaping for homes and offices. In fact, even if this species is placed in a totally unsuitable location (e.g., a very dim, windowless corner) and is in fact slowly dying, it may still seem outwardly healthy for months. Although they are not unusually susceptible to pests by general houseplant standards, they can be infested by the usual suspects.
A much more common problem with F. lyrata are the development of brown or black blotches or spots on their leaves. These spots are normally a result of some trauma caused by physical injury, pests, chemical/fertilizer residues, nutrient / trace element deficiencies, heat or fungal/viral diseases. Unfortunately, in many cases it can be very difficult to determine the exact cause.
If lighting is sufficient, good watering practices are being used, and no pests are found after careful inspection of the leaves and roots (pull plant from pot to look for root mealybugs – look for their telltale fluffy secretions), it is a good idea to “reset” things and try to re-establish mineral balance with this detox procedure.
Flush the pot with a thorough watering with distilled or reverse osmosis water; really soak the plant, let the water run out of the pot and be sure to discard the drained water. Then immediately apply an all purpose plant fertilizer at 1/2 manufacturer’s recommended strength, and continue watering using distilled or reverse osmosis water for the next month or two. If the blotches resulted from either a nutrient deficiency or an excessive buildup of fertilizer or hard-water mineral salts, this should help.
In addition, it is not unusual for nursery plants grown in optimal conditions (high light/humidity) to gradually lose some leaves upon acclimating to a much dimmer, drier location in a home. Leaf loss should stabilize within a couple months at most; if not, look for pests, confirm sufficient light is being provided, and make sure to avoid over or under watering.
2) The Weeping Fig (Ficus benjamina)
While we’re on the subject of Ficus, let’s not forget the venerable weeping fig, Ficus benjamina. While the fiddle-leaf fig has enjoyed a comparatively recent surge of popularity, the weeping fig has been a popular indoor tree for much longer, and is presently growing in many more households than any other fig species, by far. As you might expect, there’s a good reason for such ubiquity.
With its roots in lowland southeast Asia, the weeping fig thrives in the heat and humidity, and in the wild it can grow into a towering tree with a canopy pushing over 80 feet high that rains down elegantly drooping boughs teeming with shiny, lanceolate leaves. The bark is smooth and pale, and will often give rise to aerial roots along the trunks and lower branches in regions with particularly high humidity. This species can produce an edible fruit, but they are small and mostly favored by birds.
Ficus benjamina is a very tough tree that is frequently used for exterior landscaping; it is a common street trees in frost-free zones worldwide, along with the also ever-present and bulletproof Ficus microcarpa. However, it is indoors where the weeping fig has an earned even broader recognition, as it can be grown into an attractive and stately indoor tree that demands remarkably little care.
Despite what you may have heard, Ficus benjamina grows very well in full sunlight, even outdoors.
Consequently, there is absolutely no way you can provide too much direct light when growing indoors unless you (1) shock the plant by failing to acclimating it when moving it from a low to high light location, or (2) burn the leaves due to excessive heat buildup near a window in direct light, which can often occur in a poorly ventilated rooms in summer. Filtering such “hot” light through blinds or screening is recommended.
Having said that, the wonderful thing about weeping fig is its adaptability to fairly dim conditions. This tree can do reasonably well with no direct light at all, provided it is given very bright indirect light along an east/west facing window. Of course, even brief exposure to some direct sunlight will promote a much fuller, more vigorous tree.
A north-facing window is not recommended.
F. benjamina’s reported vulnerability to cool weather in some sources is overstated. Again, this a common street tree in many cities in the U.S. that experience winter temperatures that routinely dip below 45F. These temperatures will certainly suspend growth temporarily, but the tree will generally retain a full canopy of leaves and otherwise remain unaffected. A bigger concern are very cold drafts, which prevent the plant from adapting to falling temperatures naturally.
If continuous, strong growth throughout the winter is desired, keep ambient temperatures above 70F and keep floor pots a few inches off of the ground to slow heat loss from the root mass. A heating pad applied to the bottom of the pot can also be used.
Misting this tree is a good idea, not so much because the species needs it (it can adapt to very dry air), but it does help make it less vulnerable to dry air-loving spider mites and helps keep leaves free of dust.
Aside from providing moderate to high light, give Ficus benjamina good general houseplant care: pot in a well-draining medium; fertilize regularly with a general purpose houseplant fertilizer (especially in summer and when grown in bright light); water thoroughly but allow the surface layers of soil to dry very slightly between waterings; and repot vigorously growing trees annually, with only a slightly larger pot each time. Do these things and you will find the weeping fig to be a very fast-growing and trouble-free indoor tree to cherish for a very long time.
As an added bonus, I find Ficus benjamina to be relatively disease-free compared to most houseplants, and not particularly vulnerable to sap-sucking insects either, probably due in part to the thick latex they exude when subjected to even slight injury. Still, they can be targeted by mealybugs and spider mites, among other pests, so monitor them periodically to catch/react to any infestations early.
Probably the most common issue with this tree is its well-know habit of shedding leaves when acclimatizing to a new location.
This can happen to any houseplant to some degree, especially if it’s going from a much brighter location to a dimmer one, but the weeping fig is legendary for doing this even in the face of slight moves in the same house.
Don’t panic! Just continue applying good basic care and this should stop fairly quickly. Remember that a weeping fig grown in primarily indirect light will have a much more sparsely-leaved, open look compared to the leafier form it assumes when grown in partial to full direct light.
Light pruning of branches is a good idea, especially if needed to keep a compact shape in moderate light situations; however, F. benjamina does not respond well to drastic pruning, and is often reluctant to re-sprout from old wood unlike other Ficus species that can regrow from stump cuts (e.g., F. microcarpa).
Don’t forget that variegated (white-streaked) forms of Ficus benjamina, while beautiful, will need substantially more light than the standard type to support itself, since variegation dramatically reduces the amount of leaf area dedicated to light-capturing chloroplasts. Thus, if you are looking for a tree for moderate light conditions, do yourself and the plant a favor and pass on the variegation.
3) The Umbrella Plant (Schefflera actinophylla & Schefflera arboricola)
There are two species that go by the common name “umbrella plant” or “umbrella tree,” Schefflera actinophylla & Schefflera arboricola. While the two share many features, they are quite distinct.
Schefflera actinophylla – The “Octopus” Tree
Also referred to as the “octopus plant,” S. actinophylla is native to the rainforest of Australia, Java and New Guinea where it often grows as a large multi-trunked tree that can reach up to 50 feet tall.
Owing to its more common handle “the umbrella tree,” this species produces very large, palmate and compound leaves that can stretch up to two feet across like a small parasol. The name “octopus” tree likely follows from its 2-feet long, red and tentacle-like raceme flowers. Like the fiddle-leaf fig discussed above, S. actinophylla is also known to sometimes start as a hemiephiphte on host trees.
In the wild, and in virtually any other region with suitable moisture and a frost-free climate, S. actinophylla is a quick-growing and highly versatile species that can thrive in full sun or nearly full shade. Unfortunately, this hardiness has made it a very troublesome invasive species in most of the Hawaiian islands and in south and central Florida, where it has been shown to rapidly colonize disturbed areas and also infiltrate pristine forests.
In the confines of the home, however, S. actinophylla makes a very adaptable and attractive indoor tree that can very easily reach 10 feet tall or more, if given good light (ideally including some filtered direct light), fertilizer and room to grow.
Water as any large houseplant (allowing surface soil to dry slightly between waterings) and prune as necessary to encourage fuller growth and increased branching. Pruning can be quite severe with this species, and it should resprout quickly from old wood if otherwise healthy.
This tree is comfortable at common room temperatures and not particularly sensitive to cold; in fact, it can tolerate brief exposure to temperatures just above freezing with no apparent problem. However, protect from drafts and keep warm to encourage vigorous growth throughout the year. High humidity is appreciated but not required.
Unfortunately, neither the flowers or fruit that this species produces outdoors or in a greenhouse setting is likely to be observed in most homes.
Schefflera arboricola – Dwarf Umbrella Plant
S. arboricola, or the “dwarf” umbrella plant, is a smaller, shrubbier version of S. actinophylla that hails from the cool, misty forests of Taiwan.
This evergreen species reaches a maximum of about 15 feet in height in the wild and has a similar leaf morphology to S. actinophylla. It also produces similarly-shaped flowers and fruit compared to its larger congener, which are likewise rarely observed indoors.
While outwardly similar, S. arboricola is much more manageable outdoors than S. actinophylla, where it is a popular patio and hedge plant in USDA Zones 9b and above. However, it is this specie’s adaptability as a houseplant that has made it a favorite.
Indoors when grown in good light and humidity, this plant can reach up to 5 or 6 feet tall and be pruned into an attractive tree or shrub. It’s tolerance for drastic pruning and re-growth from old wood also makes it a favorite among indoor bonsai keepers.
If you’ve ever visited Taiwan, you would not be surprised to hear that this species enjoys high humidity; therefore, daily light misting is a good idea, especially in dry/high light situations that can make it an attractive target for spider mites. High humidity has the added benefit of encouraging the formation of aerial roots in this species, which are especially attractive for specimens trained as bonsai.
The dwarf umbrella tree is very flexible in terms of light requirements, and can grow reasonably well in full shade, especially outdoors, but it will look and do better if given a bit of cool direct light; an east-facing window indoors is ideal.
It is a bit sensitive to excessive heat, so light through a south or west-facing window in summer should be filtered to prevent leaf burn. Although it is very amenable to low light levels, at minimum, very bright indirect light should be provided. A north-facing window is insufficient to support healthy growth.
The dwarf umbrella plant enjoys being watered thoroughly, but it is advisable to let the surface layers of the soil dry slightly between waterings, especially in winter. Not quite as cold tolerant as its larger cousin, try to keep S. arboricola on the warmer side, at temperatures above 70F to promote constant, vigorous growth year-round.
Beyond the above requirements, treat as any other houseplant and fertilize with a general purpose indoor plant formulation. Various cultivars are commonly available, including a variegated form.
4) The Madagascar Dragon Tree (Dracaena marginata)
The red-edged Dracaena, or more commonly the “dragon tree,” is a species native to Madagascar that can attain a height of 20 feet tall with a spread half as wide.
Unlike many other members of the popular houseplant genus Dracaena, the dragon tree sports thin and stiff, ribbon-like leaves that sit like pom-poms on top of skinny, curvy trunks.
While it is not terribly tree-like in form, it can easily reach 6 feet high indoors and therefore makes a great houseplant for making use of vertical space in corners or between furnishings.
More importantly, it is one of the most abuse-tolerant indoor trees you are going to find.
D. marginata is not at all demanding, and will thrive in strong indirect light from an east or west-facing window. Of course, it will gladly accept some filtered direct light as well, which can give it a bushier look and spur growth.
In addition to being a relatively low light tree, it is also very adaptable to a drier environment despite it’s tropical, exotic look. Daily misting is greatly appreciated, however, and will help it fend off attack from spider mites.
Fertilize this slow-growing species conservatively (i.e., at half manufacturer recommended dose/frequency) and water the dragon tree as you would any typical houseplant, taking care not to leave the plant sitting in water and allowing the surface soil layers to dry slightly between waterings.
It’s not finicky about temperature, but locate away from cold drafts or exterior doors in wintertime. As will other members of Dracaena, the dragon tree can be sensitive to fluorine in municipal water sources, which can lead to blackened or dying leaf tips. This can also occur due to build up of fertilizer or hard water mineral salts.
If leaf tip burn for whatever reason is noted, it is a good idea to water the plant thoroughly with distilled or reverse osmosis water weekly to leach out accumulated soil salts and chemicals.
Just be sure to fertilize regularly in such case, since water of this purity will be hyposmotic relative to the surrounding soil and quickly leach out the bad with the good – i.e., the beneficial macronutrients and trace elements in the soil needed for plant maintenance and growth.
Another issue that may arise with D. marginata is that it can get too tall, making it look a bit spindly. This is particularly noticeable for single-trunked specimens grown in relatively weak light. Fortunately, this can be dealt with by cutting off the leafy tops (taking care to leave a good 6 inches of stalk on) and putting them into the same pot (if there’s room) or another pot to start a new plant.
Rooting hormone can be used, but is not necessary. In any case, be sure to keep the soil from drying out to avoid quickly desiccating fragile new roots as they emerge.
As with most Dracaena, topping also has the salutary effect of causing new shoots to develop below the cut, thereby promoting a fuller plant. This species is also a great candidate for propagation through air layering.
5) The Rubber Plant (Ficus elastica)
In the wilds of southern Asia where the “rubber plant” grows in dense rainforest, it is a beautiful and large tree that is reported to reach heights up to 100 feet and boast massive crowns thick with broad, glossy leaves. In most other outdoor settings it generally reaches 40 or 50 feet tall.
This is the third Ficus species discussed here, but is no less impressive as F. lyrata or F. benjamina when given proper care. Don’t confuse this “rubber” plant, with the real rubber plant (Hevea brasiliensis) that is the primary used for commercial latex production.
Care of Ficus elastica is generally similar to that described for F. benjamina and F. lyrata. Remember to water thoroughly but avoid over-watering this plant by following the general rule of allowing surface soil layers to dry slightly between waterings.
Misting this plant is not required, but is recommended for optimal growth and health, along with periodically wiping its broad leaves with a damp cloth. Under good growing conditions, F. elastica can very easily exceed 6 feet tall indoors.
As usual, the most important factor governing health and appearance of this species is light. And as with F. benjamina, this is another species that is often erroneously reported to be averse to direct sunlight indoors.
On the contrary, F. elastica is known as plant that does best in full sun, even when planted outdoors. What this species does not tolerate is the heat buildup associated with direct sunlight indoors, which unfortunately is common in most interior spaces/offices where ventilation is poor and the air is still, especially in summer.
Therefore, it is advisable to situate this species along an east-facing window and/or filter any hot direct sunlight through blinds, drapes or some type of screening.
Indeed, without providing some measure of at least filtered direct light, such as that through an east, west or south-facing window, most growers will find F. elastica to become leggy, weak and require constant staking to remain upright. Thus, growing this species in purely indirect light does not do it justice.
Even under relatively good conditions indoors, these trees will often get a bit long and/or begin to lean. An option in such cases, besides staking, is to prune the tree back, which will encourage side-branching and give it a fuller look.
As a bonus, the cut tops can be rooted by dipping in a hormone and inserting into a light, seed-starting medium. Place the cuttings in indirect light to prevent heat stress or drying and mist regularly; if successful, the new plant will begin producing fresh growth in four or five weeks and it can be gradually acclimatized to brighter light.
The rubber plant is also easily propagated via air layering.
Featured (top) photo credit: “Indoor Tree” by Jeremy Keith under CC BY 2.0