Jeanine Hays and Bryan Mason are authors, designers, and the founders of the New York-based lifestyle and design brand AphroChic. In this column, they dive into the rich history of various design objects and motifs that originate within the African Diaspora.
It was around 2010 that today’s trendiest houseplant really began to explode onto the design scene. The Ficus Lyrata—better known as the fiddle leaf fig—started a revolution, quickly replacing the old, outdated palm tree of virtually every home and office of the 1990s. While the fiddle leaf fig has enjoyed soaring popularity over the past decade (even getting recognized by The New York Times as the go-to plant of top interior designers) its history is much longer and its roots (no pun intended) much deeper than that. In fact, this stylishly modern plant is millions of years old and traces its roots to west Africa — specifically modern day Cameroon and Sierra Leone.
Despite a somewhat bizarre name, the plant’s Latin title actually makes some good sense: Native to lowland tropical rainforests, where they commonly reach heights of 50 feet, this lush tropical ficus boasts large, leathery leaves that resemble a lyre, or lap harp, hence the name Ficus Lyrata. In English, we call it a fig tree because, in its homeland, this large flowering plant produces green fig fruit. While it stands alone as an ornamental statement plant in today’s interiors, in the wild, the fiddle leaf fig is known as a fierce competitor, growing to its gargantuan height by attaching itself to lower level trees and taking their share of sunlight. In domestic settings however, it has no such competition — which is probably good for the rest of the houseplants.
The plant has gained somewhat of a reputation for being being finicky and hard to care for—which may actually be a bit unfair. Far from being temperamental, the plant is simply out of its element in most homes. The fiddle leaf fig needs a bright spot to grow in and lots of humidity to keep it happy. While that doesn’t sound like too much to ask, most of our homes don’t offer the type of rain forest environment the plant requires (and most of us don’t want them to!). At the same time, if you can keep the fiddle leaf fig healthy and thriving, it can grow pretty wild, so pruning may be necessary from time to time.
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Interior design is all about trends, and whether we’re talking about furniture or plants, every era has its favorite styles. In the 1950s and 60s the African violet was the flora of choice, the 1970s had the spider plant, and the 80s and 90s, the ficus. In contemporary spaces, however, it’s the imposing size and sculptural quality of the fiddle leaf fig that makes it a stand out in any room. And its easy to see why—with its sculptural shape and oversized leaves, the plant can’t help but grab attention from any corner in the room. Plus, the softness of its curving leaves fits in beautifully with modern decor while freshening up more traditional spaces.
For those wanting to liven up their spaces with culture artifacts and plant life, the fiddle leaf fig can be a perfect way to bring a piece of the African Diaspora into daily decor. We love utilizing this tree in rooms with handcrafted rugs from the African continent, hand carved sculptures and other artisan objects by makers of the Diaspora.
While the fiddle leaf fig tree has west African roots, today, it’s popularity has led to it being grown in the US for decorative purposes. While we did try to research African growers, sadly we weren’t able to identify any. But, a fiddle leaf fig is a wonderful way to bring African roots home. (Not sure how to care for it? Read our guide here.)
Here are a few of our favorite sources for fiddle leaf fig trees:
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