The rubber plant is a striking floor plant which adds a tropical feel to the indoor garden. Although the rubber plant, Ficus elastica, is cousin to the often-finicky Fiddle Leaf Fig plant, rubber plant care is not as daunting.
The rubber plant, native to tropical climates, can adapt well to the indoors, particularly if started indoors when young. In fact, if you do not live in USDA Hardiness Zones 11 or 12, you must grow your rubber plant indoors although it will enjoy an outdoor spot in the summertime.
Its waxy leaves are oval-shaped, and on thick stalks; a pink mid-rib runs full length on the deep green leaves. This is a plant that grows up, not out, meaning that new growth happens at the tip of the stalks. As a houseplant, the rubber plant can easily grow 8 to 10 feet although it can be kept to a smaller size by potting in smaller pots if desired.
The rubber plant has an interesting growth pattern. New leaves grow in sheaths from nodes above existing leaves. The sheath becomes a burgundy colored spike which, as it lengthens, turns pink. The new leaf emerges from the sheath, shedding it as it grows.
The rubber plant can grow quickly – up to 24 inches in a good growing season. Interestingly, however, the rubber plant is not self-supporting and will need to be staked as it grows toward the ceiling.
Here is a look at the specifics of rubber plant care.
The rubber plant’s water needs will depend on the season and the size of your plant. In general, this plant does not like to have soggy roots.
In the summer growing season, the plant should be kept moist (think: wrung out sponge) with a deep watering done (so that water runs from the holes in the pot) when the top two inches of soil are dry to the touch. You are overwatering if leaves begin to turn yellow or brown.
In the dormant season (winter) , the rubber plant needs to be well watered only once or twice per month. Although we plant lovers always worry that our plants are not getting enough water, this is an instance where the maxim “less is more” is crucial.
The rubber plant will tell you if it needs more water, perhaps due to heat or dryness in your home. If leaves begin to droop, increase watering gradually to restore the plant’s health.
It is also recommended, no matter the season, to spritz the leaves with water occasionally and to wipe the leaves with a damp cloth. It is always best to use water that has reached room temperature and has sat out long enough for minerals to evaporate.
Good rubber plant care requires bright but indirect sunlight. Direct sunlight can cause leaves to burn. A rubber plant that receives dappled sunlight, even if placed outdoors in summer, will thrive. Wiping the leaves occasionally with a damp cloth is another way of ensuring that the rubber plant’s leaves absorb enough light.
If the plant becomes leggy or lower leaves begin to fall, the plant likely needs better light. Also, rotating the rubber plant helps the leaves to spread more uniformly.
Soil and fertilizing requirements
The main requirement for rubber plant soil is good drainage. Regular potting soil can be used, provided it is mixed with sand or perlite to allow drainage and ensure that the plant does not have soggy roots. Soil prepared for cactus is good as well.
Fertilizing, like for most houseplants, should be done every few weeks but only during the summer growing season. A solution of 10-10-10 nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium, mixed with water, is suggested for a mature plant.
Temperature and Humidity
The rubber plant is a tropical plant and so, likes warmer temperatures and some humidity. Plant lovers living in USDA zones below zone 10 should only keep rubber plants outdoors in summer, planted in a container.
The plant must be brought indoors before temperatures reach 30 F or 0 Celsius. Misting the plant with water from time to time, particularly in the early morning, helps with the dryness of indoor winter heating.
Repotting is an important aspect of rubber plant care. If the plant is still small and you would just like to add some nutrients to the soil, changing out the top few inches of soil is probably enough.
But once your rubber plant becomes top-heavy or it is obvious that more space is needed for the root ball, it is time to change containers.
Choose a pot that is only 2 to 4 inches larger; this encourages growth while not providing too much moisture in the soil. Organic material, like peat or compost, should be combined with the soil.
If your plant is very tall, you may wish to weigh it down by adding builder’s sand to the bottom of the pot. As you transfer the plant to its new pot, lightly separate the roots, pruning if necessary.
Pruning and Propagating
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Rubber plant care does not include a great deal of pruning unless you are trying to control its height. To shape the plant, cut only when the plant has reached its desired height. Once top stem and leaves are cut, lower leaves will branch, making the plant fuller.
To encourage branching, it’s best to make cuts in late spring, as the growing season takes hold, and to cut just above leaf notes. Because the rubber plant produces a milky, toxic sap, it is recommended that gloves be worn when pruning.
The stem and leaves removed during pruning can be used for propagating. Each cutting should have a small piece of stem and a leaf on it. Wash the sap from the stem and place the cutting in water, replacing the water every few days, and be patient! It may take a few months for roots to develop but as long the leaf on the cutting is alive, the plant is growing. Easy peasy!
Propagating can also be done by air-layering. Air-layering is a technique that takes a bit of practice but can work well on many plants, especially those which don’t root well in water.
To air-layer the rubber plant, choose a stem at least 12 inches in length and remove a few leaves to make room for the cut. With a sharp knife, cut a 1- inch wide strip of bark all around the stem, being sure to leave the hard wood centre. In other words, cut deep enough to remove the outer layer but not deep enough to harm the plant.
Dust the cut with a rooting hormone, available at a garden centre, and cover the “wound” with moist sphagnum moss. Wrap the moss in plastic wrap to keep in the moisture. It will take a few weeks for roots to appear after which the rooted stem can be removed from the main plant and potted. Voila!
Pests, Toxicity, Rubber Plant Issues
Like all houseplants, rubber plants can be infested with a variety of pests. The rubber plant that stays indoors year- round may not have many issues but it is good to be prepared in case you notice aphids, scale, or spider mites feeding on the leaf nutrients of your rubber plant.
There are commercial products available to deal with these pests, as well as commercial insecticidal soap sprays. A safe, non- toxic option is Neem oil foliar spray which can be sprayed on the rubber plant weekly at first sign of pest invasion. For more information on Neem oil and its uses, check out this article on how to get rid of fungus gnats.
One issue to keep in mind is that the latex forming milky sap of the rubber plant is toxic to humans and animals. Skin irritation or stomach aches (if ingested) may occur so it’s important to wear gloves while handling the plant and keep young children and pets away.
When bringing a new plant into your home, there is a period of acclimatization. If some leaves begin to fall, it could be just the adjustment to the new environment. If the rubber plant’s leaves turn yellow, this likely is caused by the plant’s energy going into new growth and lower leaves naturally falling off.
If the plant seems too tall and leggy, it could be due to insufficient light – the stem is seeking light. Also, keep in mind that the rubber plant does not support itself and may need bamboo supports.
The rubber plant is an interesting way to introduce a tree-like plant into your living space. Rubber plant care is not arduous, but it is important to remember light, water and support requirements. With a little love and attention, this plant can become the centre piece of your indoor garden!
What is your experience with rubber plants? We would love to hear from you!