Rubber Plant: How To Grow Ficus Elastica The Right Way
The rubber plant is a lovely houseplant that is simple to care for. Our thorough care guide explains all aspects of growing Ficus elastica!
If you are considering adding new plants to your houseplant collection, including rubber plant care in your repertoire is definitely the way to go! Give this ficus indirect sunlight, let the soil dry between waterings, and feed it in spring and summer, and you’re set.
While care for a rubber plant is similar to other indoor plant care practices, there are different factors to consider. Keeping the shiny leaves the right color, and avoiding wounds which result in drips of white sap isn’t difficult, per se, but it does require a little more understanding than some other plants do.
Thankfully, we’ve dedicated this whole piece to rubber plant care, so you can do it at home! Let’s discuss everything you need to know about this lovely plant.
Quick Care Guide
|Common Name||Rubber fig, rubber bush, rubber tree, rubber plant, Indian rubber bush, Indian rubber tree|
|Scientific Name||Ficus elastica, Ficus elastica robusta|
|Height & Spread||3-12 feet tall, 3-6 feet wide indoors; 50-100 feet tall and wide outdoors|
|Light||Bright, indirect light|
|Soil||Well-drained potting soil|
|Water||Water when the top few inches of soil are dry|
|Pests & Diseases||Fungus gnats, spider mites, scale, root rot, botrytis, leaf spot, powdery mildew, southern blight|
All About the Rubber Plant
The rubber plant (Ficus elastica) is a flowering tree native to southeast Asia, and is naturalized in Sri Lanka, Florida, and the West Indies. In its native range, Ficus elastica grows large, up to 100 feet in jungles of the tropics. It stays at about 6 feet tall as a common houseplant, as rubber plant care is fairly simple.
In USDA zones 10 and 11, and indoors, rubber plants are perennial evergreens. They have woody stems and large, broad, waxy leaves that are arranged alternately. The leaves are varying colors based on the cultivar in question. In its natural habitat the greenish-white fragrant flowers of Ficus elastica bloom in spring. These form inedible fruit when they are pollinated by specific species of wasps. Like other fig trees, only psenes wasps have the anatomical structure that’s compatible with their flowers.
In domestic settings, Ficus elastica doesn’t bloom, but produces lovely leaves year-round. Rubber tree plant roots are voracious, and can damage foundations and other plants if they are planted in conditions that promote excessive growth. The common name “rubber plant” relates to the tree’s use as a source of latex, which the tree bleeds when cut. While the Hevea brasiliensis tree is the main source of commercial rubber, this plant has been a secondary source in the past.
The sap of both trees can cause irritation when contact is made with human skin. Therefore, wear gloves, eye protection, and long sleeves when pruning and repotting. Similarly, the plant is mildly toxic to pets and children if ingested. Avoid placing it where curious dogs, cats, and children can reach it. However, it cleans toxins from the air where it is placed. This and their stark foliage is why rubber tree plants are so beloved.
Rubber Plant Care
So you’ve decided to care for a rubber plant at home. Let’s talk about rubber plant care in both indoor and outdoor settings.
Sun and Temperature
The rubber plant needs at least a few hours of bright, indirect light. If you’re growing one indoors, place it somewhere near a south-facing or east-facing window, where it receives indirect sunlight. If you live in zones 10 and 11, plant your rubber tree outdoors in a lightly shaded area. Hard afternoon sun isn’t preferable, so ensure there is some shade in the latter part of the day. Lower light may make your rubber plant grow slowly.
Rubber plants do best in night temperatures between 60°F to 65°F, and day temperatures between 75°F and 80°F. Make sure your rubber tree isn’t exposed to 55°F or lower temperatures for extended periods. While your rubber plants can live in hotter temperatures, they may lose the interesting coloring on their leaves above 85°F.
Water and Humidity
Water your container-grown rubber tree plant when the top few inches of soil dry out. For outdoor-grown trees, water them every other week when the soil around the tree dries. Because the rubber tree is a tropical plant, it has an active growing season in spring and summer, and enters dormancy in fall. This dormant period lasts through winter. Don’t water as much during this time. Let cold water come to room temperature before irrigating.
Young plants need more water to grow, and a mature plant needs less. 50% or more humidity is necessary to grow a healthy rubber tree houseplant. In a warm humid climate, outdoor trees will do just fine. Indoor rubber plants may need an external source to boost humidity levels in the form of a daily misting with distilled water, or a plant humidifier. Always water in the morning when your plant has time to absorb the water before the sun evaporates it.
A rubber tree houseplant can thrive in basic, well-draining potting mix. When you’re growing indoors, give your rubber plant a good quality container with decent sized drainage holes. A mix of one part pine bark, one part peat moss, and one part sand is ideal for your rubber plant.
The same goes for growing outdoors. Ensure the area in which you’ve planted it has well-draining soil by providing the necessary aeration and amendments. Break up compacted areas, and add compost and drainage materials like agricultural sand or perlite. Poor quality soils aren’t best for Ficus elastica, and acidic soil at a pH of 5 to 7 is optimal.
Fertilizing Rubber Plants
Your rubber tree needs fertilizer every two weeks to every month during the growing season. In the dormant season, don’t add fertilizer, as this can cause root and moisture retention issues. Young trees do best with an organic, high-phosphorus liquid fertilizer diluted to half strength to support new growth of roots. Search for something with an NPK of 24:8:15.
A more mature plant appreciates nitrogen fertilizers applied at the same rate, without dilution. Espoma indoor liquid fertilizers are great for this purpose, as they have the right balance of nutrients in the right concentrations.
Pruning Your Rubber Plant
While pruning isn’t necessary, you can prune an indoor plant to encourage bushier growth. Remove a desired portion from the top of your rubber plant by clipping the central trunk with sterile loppers or pruning shears depending on its size. Always wear gloves and protective gear when you do this, as the latex sap can cause skin irritation.
As a general rule for houseplants, remove diseased or dead leaves or branches year-round. This rule also applies to outdoor trees. If you live somewhere these kinds of ficus plants are invasive, it’s probably best to avoid planting outdoors. However, if you inherited the outdoor rubber plant, you can try to install a root barrier, and prune away any suckers that develop around the rubber tree.
In both indoor and outdoor cases, prune your tree just above a leaf node to encourage new growth. Clean cuts prevent entryways for disease, and issues with your rubber plant overall.
Rubber Tree Propagation
During the process of pruning your rubber plant, you can take cuttings to make new rubber trees. Make your cuts one inch above the node. If any milky white latex drips from the plant in this process, dab it with a paper towel until it stops. Remove all but one leaf on the stem cutting, and roll the leaf into a cylinder so the waxy surface of the leaf faces outward. Then place a rubber band over it to hold it in place.
Dip your stems in rooting hormone, and plant them in small pots filled with the same potting mix you’d use for a rubber plant grown indoors. Affix a plastic bag over the top of your rubber plants and ensure the moisture level stays up around them as new growth begins. Place your cuttings in a warm area with access to indirect light, and in about 5 or 6 months you’ll notice new growth.
You can also propagate rubber plants through air-layering. Select a stem that will disconnect from the parent rubber plant to make a new one. Use sterile pruning shears or a budding knife to cut ⅔ of the way through the stem. Dab away any dripping sap. Then pack damp moss around the wound and wrap plastic wrap around it.
Ensure the moisture stays consistent, and in 2 to 3 weeks, you’ll see roots begin to form. It’s at this time you can remove the plastic wrap and detach the stem with the root intact. Plant the stem in your favorite ficus potting soil and place it in bright light. If you have a healthy Ficus elastica, feel free to pack damp moss around other stems when the tree is in active growth to make more.
Troubleshooting Rubber Plants
While rubber plant care is relatively low maintenance, you may run into some issues. Let’s discuss what can crop up and what to look out for when you care for a rubber plant.
Rubber Plant Growing Problems
Slow growth or a lack of new leaf growth could indicate improper light levels. Give your rubber plant a little more light by moving it closer to a light source, removing obstructions, or providing additional light from a grow light. Green leaves on those that should have red or purple ones probably resulted from improper light conditions as well – usually too much light.
Browning of green leaves could indicate a couple of different things. Crispy brown leaves indicate too much light, and your rubber plant needs to be protected. Brown mushy leaves could indicate fertilizer burn or overwatering. To remedy this, stop watering and fertilizing until the soil is dry. Remove damaged leaves from the rubber plant. When the rubber plant soil is dry, you can resume watering and fertilizing on an adjusted schedule. Try a plant moisture meter if you’re having trouble telling when to water next.
Leaves drooping or leaves falling could indicate any of the above issues. If your rubber tree is dropping leaves, carefully consider which of these could be occurring, and adjust as needed. Of course, leaf fell is also sometimes an indication of pest issues.
Fungus gnats are often present in plants when moisture levels are too high. For a rubber tree houseplant, you might have to deal with them when they make their way inside your home. Outdoor rubber plants won’t have this issue as much. Cut back on watering to prevent them and either soak the soil around your rubber plant with diluted neem oil, or treat with beneficial nematodes to prevent any hatched larvae from eating the roots of your rubber plant.
Spider mites are small insects that feed on plant sap and weave tight webs around the leaves and branches of a rubber plant. If you notice them, gently wipe the leaves with a damp cloth to remove them. Then follow up with a light mist of neem oil or insecticidal soap to kill any remaining mites and prevent future infestations.
Scale is a common insect for the rubber tree houseplant, and presents in the form of slimy brown bumps on branches and nodes, or cottony masses. These are actually insects that move very slowly and feed on the rubber plant as they move around. You can remove them with a damp cloth or q-tip dipped in alcohol, and then follow up with a mist of insecticidal soap.
Rubber Plant Diseases
When it comes to diseases, rubber plants do have to contend with a few. Rubber plants may have issues with root rot, especially in conditions where a rubber tree houseplant has been overwatered or planted in a poorly draining medium. It’s in these conditions fungi that cause root rot thrive. Sometimes it’s possible to stop the issue by not watering or fertilizing and then resuming when the soil has dried. If the base of the rubber tree plant is mushy or the central trunk is, you may need to dispose of it, and start over.
Botrytis blight is caused by a fungus called botrytis cinerea. This disease is usually caused by wind carried spores. Indoors your rubber plants can contract it from other plants or infected soils. Young leaves of the rubber tree plant are the first to experience infection. Prune away infected leaves and branches. Copper fungicide may prevent the disease in conditions where botrytis thrives. If your rubber plants are covered in mold, you will likely have to throw them away and start over.
Leaf spot is caused by various fungi and bacteria that thrive on rubber plants especially in high humidity conditions. In the course of care for a rubber plant, remove leaves that exhibit these spots. They can spread and cause distorted growth. To treat them, use a copper-based fungicide as prevention. Water appropriately at the base of your rubber tree plant.
Powdery mildew is another disease rubber plants deal with, and it occurs in damp, cool conditions. It looks like white patches that form on the leaves of your rubber tree plant. Allowing the soil to dry out and repotting your plant into new soil can help. Selectively prune away diseased areas of the plant, which also provides good air circulation. You can try to prevent the disease with regular applications of neem oil spray as well.
Southern blight is a common disease of the rubber tree plant. It’s a fungal disease that grows mats of mycelial membranes that branch from the leaf of a rubber tree plant. There is no cure for this disease. Provide good air circulation around your rubber tree plant. Keep it in conditions where it’s not too hot, and not too wet. Allow the soil to dry between watering and prune away diseased foliage.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Where should I place a rubber plant in my house?
A: Place it near, but slightly offset from a bright light source.
Q: How do I know if my rubber plant needs water?
A: Wait for the top few inches to dry out in your container, and then water.
Q: Is rubber a good indoor plant?
A: Yes. It’s one of the best indoor houseplants.
Q: How long do rubber plants live?
A: They have a lifespan of about 10 years.
Q: Why do rubber plant leaves fall off?
A: This is usually attributed to a lack of humidity. Provide your rubber plant with a plant humidifier or a daily misting with distilled water to keep it happy.
Q: Does rubber plant need sunlight?
A: Place them out of direct sunlight, as their leaves are sensitive to too much light.
Q: Is rubber plant poisonous?
A: It is moderately poisonous when consumed, causing mouth irritation, and digestive distress. Keep it out of reach of children and pets.
Q: Is rubber plant lucky?
A: Yes. According to the tenets of Feng Shui, the plant is thought to bring good luck and good fortune to those who care for them and the spaces they are placed in.