Ficus Elastica, also known as the Rubber Plant is a great choice if you want to add some drama and color to your home. An easy going plant, Ficus Elastica is a great choice for new or nervous gardeners.
Ficus Elastica is part of the larger Ficus genus, of which there are around 900 different varieties. This includes shrubs, vining plants and trees. The species is native to the Himalayas.
In frost free areas you can grow rubber plants outside throughout the year. However in cooler climes they are best grown as a houseplant.
Ficus elastica is one of the most attractive indoor plants. It is also pleasingly easy to care for.
This is one of the most attractive indoor plants. An unpruned rubber plant can achieve a height and spread, when mature, of around 10 ft. If cultivated outside, ficus elastica can reach a height and spread of around 100 ft when fully mature. The plant’s growth habit is easily controlled by regular pruning. Ficus elastica has only a modest growth rate so pruning shouldn’t take up too much of your time.
Warning. Ficus elastica contains psoralen and proteolytic enzyme ficin. This means that the entire plant is toxic to cats and dogs. It can also harm young children.
Rubber Plant Varieties
The most common varieties of ficus elastica produce glossy green foliage about a foot long. However, if you want something with a little bit more color there are some other options. Decora’s dark green foliage is broken up by a white rib that runs along the center of the leaf. Similarly Rubra produces a red midrib to break up its dark green foliage.
For something a little different try the cultivar Foliis Aureo-marginata. This produces leaves that have a rich, gold margin. Meanwhile, the cultivar Tricolor produces green foliage that is broken up by attractive cream and pink patches.
Doescheri is an interesting cultivar, a pink rib runs along the plants variegated foliage in shades of gray and cream. Similarly Variegata produces variegated yellow and green leaves that are smaller than other cultivars.
Whichever variety you choose, all are suitable for container gardens and for cultivation as a houseplant. They all, also, share similar care and growing needs.
Rubber plant foliage differs between varieties. Take the time to explore the range of plants available to you.
How to Grow Ficus Elastica
After purchasing your ficus elastica it is wise to re-pot it. The plants are usually sold in 1 gallon containers and are often on the verge of being top heavy. If this is the case it is definitely time to re-pot.
A 3 gallon container will house your rubber tree plant for several years. It also provides ample room for the plant’s root system to grow and spread. Allowing a rubber plant’s root system to become compacted can permanently stunt the growth of the plant.
Your chosen container should be clean and have drainage holes in the bottom. If you want a low maintenance option, or are worried that you will forget to water your plant, try a self-watering planter such as the Lechuza Self-Watering Garden Planter. Rubber tree plants happily thrive in these containers.
What Soil is Best?
Ficus elastica will happily tolerate most soil conditions as long as the soil is well-draining. For container growing a fertile, well-draining soil is best.
Avoid using just potting soil. This can be heavy and slow to drain. Allowing ficus elastica to sit in damp or soggy soil can lead to the plant developing problems such as root rot. Mixing peat or another medium into the potting mix, at a 50-50 ration, lightens the soil enough to allow your plant to thrive. A potting mix with a slow release fertilizer provides a nutritional boost, helping the plant to establish itself after planting.
If you want to make your own potting mix remember, again, that it must be well draining. A mix of equal parts peat, coarse sand and pine bark will provide an ideal home.
How to Plant a Rubber Plant
Once you have chosen your container and prepared your soil mix it is time to re-pot your plant. Begin by gently removing the rubber plant from the original container. Check the root system. If any of the roots are showing signs of wrapping themselves around the other roots tease them apart. Be careful not to damage the roots.
Fill the new container about a quarter full with your chosen potting mix. Position the rubber plant in the center of the container. The root system should be about an inch below the top of the container. Don’t plant ficus elastica any deeper than it previously was.
Once you are happy with the position of the plant, fill in the container with more potting mix. Firm the soil down and water well, until water drains from the bottom of the pot. Return the plant to its usual position.
How to Care for Ficus Elastica
If you can find a good position for ficus elastica then the plant will prove pleasingly easy to care for. Remember, variegated varieties require more light than varieties that only produce solid green leaves. If the plant doesn’t receive enough light its foliage may fade or not appear as rich as possible.
Variegated varieties should be placed in a position that receives lots of bright, indirect light. Other varieties, that produce simple solid green leaves, prefer slightly darker positions. They will also tolerate bright, indirect light positions.
Never place ficus elastica in a position where it will receive direct light. This can cause the foliage to burn or turn brown. If your plant is in a position that is too dark it may become spindly or leggy.
Growers unable to provide enough natural light might have more success if they utilise a grow lamp. Artificial light can be just as beneficial to plants as light from natural sources.
During the warm summer months you may decide to place the plant outside on a balcony or in the garden. This is fine, just remember to avoid positions where the plant will be exposed to bright, direct light. Instead place it in a partial sun position. If you do decide to place your plant outside remember to bring it in at the end of summer, before temperatures fall too dramatically.
Temperature and Humidity
Remember ficus elastica plants are native to tropical regions of the Himalayas. To keep the plant happy, and help to maintain a steady growth habit, temperatures should average 50 to 85°F. If you are unsure, remember that these are unfussy plants. If you are happy with the temperature of a room, the chances are your rubber plant will be too.
Identifying a favorable position, with lots of bright, indirect light, is important. Once you have found a spot where your rubber plant will thrive, care is pleasingly straightforward.
Rubber plants can survive exposure to indoor temperatures as low as 39 °F. However, exposure to temperatures this cold shouldn’t be a regular occurrence.
Ficus elastic naturally grows in an area that is constantly humid. You need to replicate this if you want your plant to remain healthy. There are a number of ways to do this. One of the easiest is to mist the plant with water from a spray bottle. The more frequently you are able to do this the better.
Another way to maintain humidity levels is to place the plant on a tray filled with pebbles and water. Remember to regularly re-fill the tray, the water level should sit just below the top of the pebbles. If you choose to place your plant on a pebble tray make sure that the container isn’t sitting directly in water. This can cause the soil to become waterlogged and can lead to the plant developing issues such as root rot.
The plant can also be placed in a bathroom, if you have a large and light enough space. Bathrooms are naturally humid thanks to all the hot water we use. Finally, you can also buy a humidifier and run it close to the plant.
Never place the plant near a radiator or air vent. The air is often drier in these areas than in other parts of our home, meaning that humidity levels are particularly low.
Watering Your Ficus Elastica
Knowing how often to water any houseplant can be difficult. When the plant is actively growing, during the spring and summer, it needs watering at least once a week. If you are unsure when to water stick your finger into the soil. If the top inch is dry it is time to water the plant.
When watering make sure that you thoroughly soak the soil and the roots of the plant. This means watering until water begins to drip from the drainage holes in the bottom of the container. If your container is sitting on a tray allow the plant to sit in water for about half an hour. This gives it a chance to absorb any extra moisture it may need, then empty the tray. Never let your ficus elastica sit in water.
During the fall and winter months, when growth slows, you can reduce watering to once a fortnight. Again sticking your finger into the soil and feeling how damp it is will give you an idea of when to water.
If you want a more accurate measure, try a soil moisture meter. Some, such as the Atree Soil Moisture Sensor also monitor the humidity levels of the plant. This is particularly useful when growing ficus elastica.
If the foliage of the plant begins to yellow it is a sign that the plant is thirsty and in desperate need of more water.
Harvesting your own rainwater to re-use on your plants is cheap and easy. It also helps to cut down on your water usage. If you are using water from a tap, allow it to stand a while before applying to the soil. This allows the water to warm up to room temperature. Cold water can cause shock, leading to plants struggling or dropping their leaves.
As with many houseplants, the foliage of the rubber plant will tell you if it is happy. Rich, green foliage is the clearest sign of a healthy plant. If the foliage yellows, or curls, it may be a sign that the plant is unhappy.
Applying a light organic mulch, such as homemade compost helps to keep the soil moist. As the organic mulch breaks down it also gives the plant an extra nutritional boost.
Fertilizing Your Ficus Elastica
Ficus elastica doesn’t require lots of fertilizer. However a regular application once a month during the growing season will help to promote growth and foliage production. During the fall and winter when the plant is dormant, there is no need to fertilize at all.
A houseplant feed, diluted to half its strength is suitable as is a general purpose balanced plant feed. Slow-release granules are also effective and easy to use. Simply sprinkle on top of the soil and allow them to break down as you water. Applications can last up to three months before you need to apply again.
Similarly, a water-soluble fertilizer is easily incorporated into your watering routine. Liquid plant feeds are also easy to make at home and are just as reliable as commercial products. Making your own plant feed also allows you to monitor exactly what you are putting in your soil.
Fertilizers can lead to salt building up in the soil. This can cause plants to develop brown patches, or burning, on their foliage. This is a common problem for many houseplants and container gardens. The easiest way to prevent a salt build up is to flush the soil regularly.
Flushing the soil can be done by placing the container in a sink, or bath tub. You can also take the plant outside to flush, if it is too large to handle indoors. Gently run water into the container for at least five minutes. Aim to get all parts of the soil wet.
Continue to do this even after water begins to drain from the bottom of the container. After at least five minutes cease watering. Allow the water to finish draining away and then return the plant to its usual position.
Keeping the Plant Clean
Like other houseplants the foliage of ficus elastica is prone to gathering dust and dirt.
Regular misting not only helps to raise humidity and keeps the plants healthy it also helps to keep the leaves clean. You can also clean the leaves by gently wiping them with a damp cloth when they begin to look dirty.
Flowering and Fruiting
The rubber plant is primarily grown for its foliage. While it doesn’t flower, fresh foliage emerges from a colorful sheath. This is often red in color and is frequently confused for a flower.
Additionally, ficus elastica is part of the fig family. When your plant is fully mature it may produce small fig-like fruits.
Fresh foliage emerges from colorful sheaths on the plant. This is often mistakenly identified as the plant flowering.
Pruning Ficus Elastica
Warning, ficus elastica exudes a milky white sap when cut. This can cause skin irritation in some people and animals. Wear a pair of gardening gloves and a long sleeved top when pruning to protect your skin. If you are extra cautious you may also want to wear protective goggles.
Small ficus elastica plants that are yet to reach the desired height require no pruning.
Once the plant reaches the height you desire prune away the top branches. This will stunt the growth. Sharp hand pruners or garden scissors should be fine but thicker branches may require pruning with loppers or shears.
Pruning away side branches encourages the plant to branch out and become fuller. For every branch that you remove several new branches will emerge. Pruning side branches is a great way to fill out thin plants.
Pruning is usually done when the plant is actively growing. However, branches can be removed at any time of year. It is best to remove dead, damaged or diseased foliage as soon as you notice it. This helps to prevent the rest of the plant becoming sickly.
Rubber Plant Propagation
One of the easiest ways to expand your collection of rubber plants is through propagation. This is easily done by cuttings. The best time to take cuttings is in the spring and summer, when the plant is actively growing.
To take a cutting you will need sharp, clean pruners or garden scissors. Remove a 4 to 6 inch long piece of branch. Your cutting should be healthy and have a few sets of leaves attached.
Remove all the foliage apart from the top few leaves. This encourages the cutting to place all its energy in forming a new root system. Allow the cutting to rest for about half an hour, until it stops exuding the milky sap.
While the cutting rests fill a clean container with a well-draining potting mix. The same mixture that you use to grow your large ficus elastica in will be fine.
The container should be between 6 inches and 1 gallon in size. This gives the cutting room to grow and expand its root system before you need to transplant it. Water the soil helps it to settle before you plant.
To pot your cutting, make an hole several inches deep. This should be large enough to hold the cutting. Dip the cut end of the cutting in rooting hormone to encourage the formation of new roots.
Place the cutting in the hold and firm down the soil around it. Water the container until water begins to drain from the drainage holes in the bottom of the container.
Place the container in a bright position where it will get lots of indirect sunlight. Keep the soil moist. After about 6 weeks the rubber plant will begin to develop roots.
After 4 months of steady growth the plant will have established a healthy root system. To test this gently try to pull the cutting from the soil. If you feel resistance it means that the root system is developing.
Common Ficus Elastica Pests and Problems
When grown as a houseplant ficus elastica is pleasingly pest and problem free. The most common problem is root rot. This is caused by allowing the plants to sit in overly wet soil for extended periods. Planting in well draining soil and amending your watering routine will help to avoid this issue.
Root rot usually manifests itself by turning the foliage and stems black. If left untreated the plant will begin to shed leaves as the root system dies. If the disease reaches this stage your plant is lost.
To try and rescue your plant from root rot remove it from the container and inspect the root system. Cut away any damaged or rotten roots with clean pruning shears or scissors. Remember to sterilize these after use. Repot the plant in fresh, well-draining soil. Water only when the top inch of soil is dry to the touch.
Spider mites, noticeable by leaving webbing over the foliage, and mealy bugs can target ficus elastica. Mealy bug infestations are most noticeable by the cotton white mass they leave on the foliage of the plants. To cure either infestation apply insecticidal soap, easily made at home, or neem oil to both sides of the leaves. Persistent infestations may require more than one application.
Leaf drop can be a sign of overwatering. It can also be a sign that the plant is too cold or in a drafty position.
Curling foliage can be a sign of one of a number of issues. Both over and under watering can cause foliage to curl. If your watering routine seems fine, the plant may be suffering from a lack of humidity.
Regularly inspect the foliage of the plant for signs of disease or infestation. Spotting problems early on gives you a chance to rectify them before they have the chance to damage your rubber plant.
Bold and elegant, the thick, leather like foliage of ficus elastica is a great way to bring drama and interest into your home. Easy to care for rubber plants will thrive with even minimal intervention, making them the ideal houseplant. Caring for a plant can also be good for your mental health, and the rubber plant is a great place to start.
Jen is a master gardener, interior designer and home improvement expert. She has completed many home improvement, decor and remodeling projects with her family over the past 10 years on their 4,500 sf Victorian house. She is also a passionate farmer who keeps goats, chickens, turkeys cows and pigs on her farm, and an instructor for her community’s Organic and Sustainable Farming project.