Rubber trees are instantly recognizable with their thick, glossy, oval leaves. They’re so unique that you wouldn’t be the first person to assume that they were artificial.
The symmetrical canopy features gracefully arching branches, giving the tree a shape that looks good in any kind of interior scheme, whether you’re a fan of spare mid-century modern or a more relaxed, bohemian vibe.
Rubber trees are related to fiddle leaf figs and edible figs. As with other plants in the genus, the flowers form inside the fruit, though houseplants usually won’t develop fruits. If you’ve ever eaten a fig, then you know what rubber tree fruits look like, as they’re similar.
- Genus: Ficus
- Species: elastica
- Native To: China, India, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal
- Sun Exposure: Typically bright indirect or diffused light
- Soil Preference: Well-draining loam or bark and moss
- Soil pH: 5.0-6.0
- Height: 10 feet (indoors)
- Leaf Color: Red, green, cream, yellow
- Growing Zones: 10-12
- Toxicity: Toxic if ingested, can cause contact dermatitis
Caring for Rubber Trees:
In its native habitat, rubber trees can grow up to 100 feet tall, but it stays smaller outside of its native range. For instance, people who grow them in their gardens in Zones 10-12, such as Florida, should see the tree to top out at around 40 feet.
Houseplant growers shouldn’t expect their specimens to grow much larger than ten feet.
These plants have pinnate, elliptic leaves that typically emerge as red and transition to green as they mature. They’re thick and glossy, and though they have a rubbery appearance, that’s not where the name comes from.
When you remove a leaf or cut the trunk, the tree exudes a milky latex. This latex was once used to create rubber, or at least manufacturers hoped it would prove to be a source of the latex needed to create the material.
Attempts to use it were largely abandoned, and we mostly continue to use the rubber plant (Hevea brasiliensis) to make rubber.
As an added element of visual interest, the leaf’s midrib is raised and often red or pale green in contrast to the leaf.
This plant can’t tolerate cold temperatures or drafts, so keep it away from air conditioner registers, doors, or open windows. If you live somewhere with a frigid winter climate, don’t place your plant near single-pane windows.
Anything below 55°F is too cool for your tree. On the other end of the spectrum, avoid temperatures above 85°F.
You’ll usually see bright, indirect light recommended for this plant. That will work perfectly well, and it’s what we recommend, as well. An hour of direct sun in the morning or all day a few feet away from an east, west, or south-facing window covered in a sheer curtain is ideal. Next to a north-facing window is also suitable.
But rubber trees can tolerate direct sun. Think of the 100-foot-tall trees growing in the wild. They’re not always hiding in the shade of neighboring trees. Sometimes, they’re the tallest tree around.
If you’d like to introduce your plant to brighter light, do so gradually. Place it in direct sun for 30 minutes and then move it back to a darker area. The next day, add another 30 minutes before you return it. Keep adding 30 minutes per day until the plant can tolerate the amount of sun that you’d like to keep it in.
Bear in mind that while it can tolerate bright sun, it doesn’t like high temperatures. So avoid placing it directly in front of a window where reflected heat from the afternoon sun can be intense.
Yellow blotches or wrinkled leaves are a sign that you moved the plant into sun too quickly. Back off a little and try introducing the plant more gradually.
If your plant is leggy, with long internodes, and the growth is slow, your plant probably needs more light.
Rubber trees aren’t fussy about their soil. Any commercial potting mix targeted at houseplants will do. Look for the words “well-draining” and “water-retentive” on the package. Something that contains a mix of loam, perlite or vermiculite, and moss is ideal.
If you like to make your own potting medium, combine one part sphagnum moss, one part well-shredded pine bark, and one part perlite.
The most important factor actually has to do with the container you use. Whichever pot you choose, make sure it has good drainage. It’s often tempting to grow in a decorative pot that lacks a drainage hole, but this promotes root rot.
If you’d like to use a decorative pot, keep your plant in a second, inner container with drainage and place it inside the decorative pot. Empty the decorative pot 30 minutes after you water.
Though rubber trees are tall, they don’t need a massive pot. The roots like to be somewhat constrained. Choose a container that is just slightly larger than the rootball.
Young trees need a bit more water than mature ones. Add water once the surface of the soil has dried out. Your goal is to keep the soil at the consistency of a well-wrung-out sponge. Any soggier and you run the risk of root rot.
Once the tree has grown more than a foot tall, allow the top inch of soil to dry out before adding water.
It’s easy to determine the soil moisture level by sticking your finger into the medium up to your first knuckle. If it feels dry, add water.
Rubber trees will tolerate quite a bit of drought before the leaves start to droop and drop, and indication that you went too long before watering. If in doubt, err on the side of caution and water less often than you think you need.
Be sure to empty any catchment container you have 30 minutes after watering.
This plant prefers moderate humidity in the range of 40-80 percent. Most homes have adequate relative humidity, so no special care is required. However, if the leaves begin to develop brown edges, your plant might need additional humidity.
If this is the case, use a humidifier or keep the plant in a bathroom or near the kitchen sink, where humidity is typically higher. You can also group plants to raise their collective humidity.
Use a liquid fertilizer once in the early spring and again in the early summer. Any mild, balanced fertilizer will work. Aim for something with an NPK of 3-3-3 or 5-5-5, or similar. Foliar fertilizers work, as well.
If you choose a slow-release fertilizer, choose something formulated for houseplants.
Young plants need to be repotted regularly as the tree matures. Once a year or every other year is typical. Once the plant reaches its mature height, expect to need to repot every three to five years.
Look for roots growing out of the drainage hole or circling the top of the soil. If you stick your finger into the soil, you shouldn’t be able to feel compact, tangled roots. If so, remove the plant from the existing container and remove as much of the soil as you can. Pot the plant in a new container that’s at least two inches larger.
These plants form aerial roots, which are roots that develop outside of the soil. The presence of these doesn’t indicate that your plant has outgrown its container. These roots are simply an additional way for the plant to access food and moisture. Don’t trim them off, as they help keep the tree healthy.
Replace the soil every year or every other year, whether you need to repot or not. Old soil becomes hydrophobic, which means it doesn’t absorb water. It also compacts, making it more difficult for the roots to access oxygen.
Old potting soil is usually depleted of nutrients and contains a build-up of minerals from your water.
Remove any faded or discolored leaves, but no pruning is necessary. Feel free to take off branches to thin out the crown or provide symmetry, if you desire.
If you don’t want the plant to grow any taller, cut the growing tip off.
Timing doesn’t matter, though it’s usually easier on the plant to repot or trim it during the dormant winter season.
Some plants might become top-heavy as they’re maturing. If a trunk begins to lean in a way that you don’t like, prop it up with a support stick or pole.
Clean the leaves regularly with a damp cloth. Dust build-up limits the ability of the leaves to respirate.
When you work with the plant, take care not to get any of the sap onto your skin, furniture, or floors. The sap can irritate your skin and stain cloth or wood.
Best Species and Cultivars
While the species is beautiful in its own right, there are many cultivars out there featuring different leaf colors or combinations of colors like cream, yellow, green, red, pink, or dark burgundy.
This cultivar is in high demand for its deep, dark, glossy leaves. They’re so deep burgundy colored that they almost appear black. The only color on the leaf is a bright red midrib.
‘Burgundy’ is an eye-catching option with leaves that range from deep green to a dark burgundy that is nearly black. The midrib is red, contrasting against the rest of the leaf.
‘Decora’ has been on the market for over 70 years, drawing growers in with its plain green foliage dappled with cream splotches. The red midrib creates a striking focal point.
‘Doescheri’ is wildly popular. The leaves on this cultivar have pale yellow leaves dappled with angular spots of light green, dark green, and sage green, with a pink midrib running up the center.
‘Robusta’ looks similar to the species but with slightly thinner leaves. The leaf sheaths are pink and the midrib is green.
As the name suggests, the leaves on ‘Tricolor’ have three hues: pale yellow, medium green, and light green.
Beloved ‘Variegata’ has pale green leaves with white or light yellow margins and a pink midrib.
Both air layering and stem cuttings work to propagate this plant.
Stem cuttings involve snipping off a six to 12-inch length of stem just below a leaf node. Remove all but the top two leaves and place the cutting a few inches deep in potting soil. Moisten the soil and place the cutting in bright, indirect light.
Keep the soil moist but not wet as the cutting develops roots. After a few months, you should see new growth. If you don’t, give the stem a gentle tug. If it resists, that means roots have developed, and the plant just needs time to grow new leaves. If it doesn’t resist and no roots have formed, the cutting likely failed, and you’ll need to try again.
Once new leaves have formed, you can replant the pot in a permanent container.
To propagate through air layering, use a sharp, clean knife to cut a bit of the bark away from the stem. Pack moist sphagnum moss around the cut and wrap it in plastic. Seal both ends of the plastic. Allow the tree to grow as normal and keep the moss moist.
Eventually, you’ll be able to see new roots growing in the moss. At this point, remove the plastic and cut the plant just below the roots. Plant the new rubber tree in its own container.
Common Problems, Pests, and Diseases
While rubber trees are generally healthy, stressed trees might be attacked by aphids, scale, nematodes, spider mites, or mealybugs.
Any sign of pests, like webbing, yellowing leaves, stunted growth, or dropping leaves, is a signal that you need to isolate your plant and examine it closely. Look for any insects to determine how to address them.
Aphids and spider mites can be dealt with by spraying them off the plant with a stream of water. Repeat once a week until the pests are gone. Mealybugs and scale can be scraped off gently using a butterknife. Nematodes require completely replacing the soil.
Diseases are extremely rare the one thing to watch for is root rot, which can be caused by a fungal pathogen or by drowning the roots in too much water. Either way, it will cause drooping leaves that may develop brown edges and they will drop off the plant.
To fix the problem, remove the plant from its container and brush away all of the soil. Since it’s hard to tell if the issue is being caused by fungi or overwatering, you’ll need to treat for both. Spray the roots with copper fungicide and clean out the container with a 1:10 bleach to water solution. Repot the plant with fresh soil.