Are you looking for a large, striking houseplant that isn’t going to take over your room? The answer might be right under your nose. It’s a classic, maybe even a cliché, but a rubber plant (also known by the Latin name of Ficus Elastica) might be the perfect choice for your space.
Rubber plant care is easy to master. They’re also inexpensive and they grow fast. What’s more, in the last few years more and more varieties with colored leaves and stems have become available.
Read on for everything you need to know about keeping Ficus Elastica as an indoor plant.
||Rubber plant, rubber tree
||Ficus Lyrata (fiddle leaf fig) Ficus Audrey
||10’, leaves up to 13”
||Moderate indirect sunlight
||Moderate to high
||60 – 75F (15.5 – 24C)
||Well-draining potting soil with added sand or perlite
||NPK balanced fertilizer for green leafy plants
||Leaf and stem cuttings or air layering
||Toxic to humans and pets
||Spider mites, mealybugs, aphids, scales and root rot.
This plant gets its name from its sticky sap, which was used to make the original forms of rubber. It’s native to Brazil but was soon taken to tropical climates all over the world and grown as a valuable crop.
A rubber tree will grow as a single pole with thick, plasticky leaves sprouting from the trunk. Many people choose to remove the lower leaves and encourage it to branch so that it looks more like a tree.
The plant of the moment is still Ficus Lyrata, the fiddle leaf fig. Unlike its cousin from the lifestyle magazines, Ficus Elastica will tolerate a range of light and temperature conditions and only needs moderate watering and feeding. If you’re looking for a large plant to act as a focal point for your room, this will give you the same height and sculptural impact as a fiddle leaf for a fraction of the price and effort.
Rubber house plant care tips
Rubber plants are easy to water. They need only a moderate amount and they don’t mind if their top 2 inches of soil dry out between waterings. The only thing to avoid is overwatering, as their roots can quickly fall victim to rot if they’re left standing in water.
They also tolerate being watered with tap water better than other house plants, even if you live in an area where the water is highly chlorinated. The leaves are robust enough to resist browning and their rounded shape means that they’re unlikely to fry at the edges.
Just make sure to adjust your watering routine for the season. You’ll notice that your plant is thirstier in the summer when it’s making new leaves. In the colder months, don’t be surprised if you only have to water it every 3 – 4 weeks.
The rubber tree is a jungle plant, so it needs a moderate amount of indirect sunlight. It should survive well in a shady corner of your home, although you might notice that it grows more slowly if you place it too far from a window.
Variegated rubber plants need more sun to maintain the colors of their leaves, and even regular ones can end up looking spindly if they’re not getting enough light. Like many rainforest plants, however, it’s probably best to err on the side of too little light than too much. Sitting in a stream of direct sunlight will bake and upset this otherwise tough plant.
Ficus Elastica prefers humid air but, if you can’t provide it, it’s not going to stop growing. This is a robust plant that adapts well to the conditions of your home. You’ll get better results from keeping the humidity lower but constant throughout the year.
One thing it really won’t take well is being placed in front of a heater, as the periodic drying and cooling of the air in winter will cause damage to the leaves. Make sure that the spot you choose for your plant is away from central heating, drafty windows, and air conditioning units.
Plant Food and Soil
When choosing soil for your rubber tree, it’s best to go with a classic, well-draining potting compost. It’s not necessary to purchase a special mix but, if you want to play around, they like extra peat, and you could even mix 20 – 30% sand or perlite into the soil to increase the drainage.
When it comes to plant food, if your Ficus Elastica puts on a lot of new growth, it will appreciate a little fertilizer in the spring and summer. Use compost or a liquid feed for leafy green plants and apply it every 2 -4 weeks when you water your plant.
Additional Rubber Plant Care Tips
We’ve covered the basics and hope that you’re feeling confident that you can keep a Ficus Elastica alive. As always, though, there are further steps you can take to make your rubber tree into a prize specimen. Read on for some further advice that will make you feel like an expert gardener.
Repotting and Transplanting
If you’re caring for a young rubber plant and it’s growing quickly, you’ll probably have to repot it every year in the spring or early summer. Although it’s tempting to go up several pot sizes to save yourself a job next year, it’s best to choose a pot only 1 or 2 inches bigger so that you don’t overwater your plant as its roots are becoming re-established.
If you already have a proper tree, you’ll only have to repot it every few years. In fact, if it’s big enough already, stop repotting to restrict its growth. Being pot-bound isn’t going to kill this plant.
If you choose not to repot, it’s a good idea to replace the top few inches of potting soil or to dress the top of the pot with compost every year. This replaces the nutrients that the plant has sucked out and prevents the soil from becoming exhausted.
As with all statement indoor plants, your Ficus Elastica requires some pruning to keep it looking its best. It goes without saying that you should prune it when it gets too big for your space but, even if your plant is still quite young, a trim will encourage new growth and keep it strong. It’s an investment in the long-term health of your plant as it ensures the main stem will be strong enough to support the plant when it’s a fully-fledged tree.
When you’re pruning, use clean, sharp shears and be careful with the sap. Being rubber, it’s difficult to remove from clothing and soft furnishings and some people are also allergic to it.
Although the leaves of a rubber plant look tough, they’re vulnerable to mealybugs, whitefly, scales and other insects. When you first bring your plant home, check it thoroughly to make sure it hasn’t brought any unwanted guests along with it.
Often, the first sign of an infestation is damage to the leaves. If leaves further up the plant start to wither when you haven’t done anything to change your watering routine or the position of the plant, you should be suspicious. The bugs can be very hard to spot but, if your plant does anything unexpected, it’s worth going over both sides of the leaves with a magnifying glass.
If you find insects, wash the leaves with soapy water. Repeat the process every day or two until you’re confident all of the pests have gone. Pesticides are an option, but if you want to avoid spraying them inside, insecticidal soap or even normal dish soap is a great first line of defense.
All varieties of rubber trees are toxic to both humans and pets. Eating the leaves will cause severe tummy trouble and, if you suspect that any member of your household has done so, seek medical attention. The leaves of this plant are very tactile and attractive, so you should pay special attention to your children when they’re playing close to it.
Remember that the sap can also cause skin irritation, so you should wear gloves when you’re pruning it. If a piece is broken off accidentally, thoroughly wash the hands of the person who managed to do it.
Variegated Rubber Tree
A popular variation on the classic green rubber tree is the variegated variety. The leaves of a variegated Ficus Elastica have creamy colored edges and two shades of green at the center in a pattern that looks almost like camouflage. The new growth and the undersides of the leaves can sometimes appear pink.
It requires a little more sunlight, but it’s just as easy to care for and adds extra interest to your plant collection if you don’t have a lot of flowers around.
Red Rubber Trees
If you’re feeling even more adventurous, Burgundy and Black Prince rubber trees are also becoming popular. Lots of classic house plants have ‘black’ variants (such the Raven ZZ plant) and Ficus Elastica is no exception. These two varieties have very dark-colored leaves but the new growth is almost blood red.
At the moment, the red varieties are even more sought after than the variegated plants and are likely to cost you much more than a standard rubber tree, but many would say that it’s worth it for the impact they have in a room.
Where can I buy one?
A rubber tree is a safe plant to buy from a supermarket. As long as it’s in a nursery pot with lots of drainage holes, you can be fairly confident that it’s going to survive when you bring it home.
The plant is also a staple in many florists, although larger plants are likely to be very expensive if you look for one there as they take several years to grow.
If a variegated or red rubber tree tempts you, it’s probably best to look online for a stockist. They’re so popular at the moment that they tend to sell out of smaller shops on the same day they arrive.
How often should I water my rubber plant?
Because it shies away from sunlight and it’s probably in a nice big pot, your rubber tree won’t need to be watered as often as your other plants, even at the height of the growing season.
You can expect to water it weekly in the summer, but always check that the top inch or two of soil has dried out first. In the winter, don’t be surprised if you only have to get your watering can out once a month. Your plant is dormant in the colder months so it doesn’t need that much to drink, but it’ll grow just fine when spring rolls around.
How do I get my rubber plant to grow into a tree?
It’s the same with a lot of Ficus varieties – you buy a small plant, take it home and wait patiently for it to turn into a tree. Two years later, it’s as tall as you but there’s still not a branch in sight.
Just like a fiddle leaf, if you want your rubber tree to branch out, you need to give it some encouragement.
The easiest way to get a rubber plant to branch it to chop off the top. Instead of growing straight up in a pole shape, it will almost certainly sprout a separate branch or two and take off in different directions. Once it’s got lots of healthy new growth, you can then remove the leaves from lower down the trunk to achieve the shape you want.
How should I clean my rubber tree?
Like most jungle house plants, your Ficus Elastica is going to need some dusting. Shiny leaves are beautiful, but they do show up the dirt. Dusting the plants should be a monthly chore throughout the year.
You can dust your plant with a soft, damp cloth. As long as you’re gentle and try not to let too much water drip down the stem, you won’t damage your plant. Dusting also clears the pores in the leaves, allowing the plant to photosynthesize more efficiently.
Why is my rubber tree dropping leaves?
If your rubber plant drops leaves at the trunk’s bottom, you’re probably overwatering. Especially if the leaves are turning yellow before they fall, this is a sign that you’re killing your plant by loving it too much. Thankfully, it should recover quite well if you put the watering can down for a week or two.
If the leaves are dropping from further up the trunk, it could be a sign that the plant is too dry. It’s either getting too much direct sun or not enough humidity, so try moving it a little and see what happens over the following weeks. Of course, you should check your plant for pests at the first sign of any damage to the leaves.
If your rubber plant does drop its leaves, you can encourage it to grow new ones or to form branches by making a shallow cut in the node from which the leaf dropped. If you’re lucky, you should see new growth from that spot within a few weeks.
Rubber plants have been popular for many decades because they’re the perfect balance of striking and easy to care for. They’re an excellent first house plant, a thoughtful, low-maintenance housewarming gift, or just a great addition to your existing plant collection.
So often overlook the classics, and there was a time when the rubber plant’s popularity suffered as a result. But don’t disregard this plant because your grandmother had one, or because they’re a staple of dentist’s waiting rooms. Especially with the new, darker varieties, there’s a lot of fun still to be had.