How To Take Care Of Rubber Trees (Which, BTW, Are Surprisingly Hands-Off)
The rubber plant (also known by its very fitting scientific name, Ficus elastica) makes for a dramatic and relatively low-maintenance addition to most spaces. Known for its long, waxy dark green leaves that can have underbellies of burgundy, this popular houseplant also comes in variegated varieties that have even more color.
Here's what greenery experts want you to know about how to care for this strong, steady beaut.
The back story:
Rubber plants are also known as Indian rubber tees since they're native to Southeast Asia. They can grow to over 50 feet tall in outdoor habitats and were once prized for their sap, which was used to make rubber in the 1900s. The Amazonian rubber tree quickly replaced it for this purpose, but the Ficus elastica's sap is still used medicinally in a few cultures—though it can be poisonous to cats and dogs, so pet parents should steer clear of this one.
The main mistake that Monai Nailah McCullough, the horticulturist and founder of Amsterdam-based shop Planthood, sees people make with rubber plants is underestimating their lighting needs. "The Ficus elastica actually needs a lot more sun than its other ficus cousins," she tells mbg. "If you ever see it described as a low-light plant, it's a lie! They do a lot better in fuller sun." Feel free to put this one in a spot that receives a few hours of bright, direct sun every day.
NYC-based houseplant enthusiast and chemistry teacher Paul Thompson, M.A. has seen his thrive in an Eastern-facing window. "The less light it's getting, the slower it will grow, so don't be afraid to put these in brightly lit areas," he says.
If you start to notice your plant develop light brown, crispy leaves, though, it's a sign it might be getting too much light. In this case move it further away from the window or invest in sheer white curtains to block some sunlight during bright afternoon hours.
Since this plant can be a fast grower, especially when it's getting enough sun, it appreciates the occasional fertilizer feeding too. Treat it with an organic fertilizer once every two weeks during growing season, between Easter and Halloween. If it's still growing during the colder season, feel free to continue fertilizing but cut back to once a month.
Rubber plants need a fair amount of sunlight to thrive. Place yours near a bright window that receives some direct sun every day, and fertilize every two weeks during growing season.
Like many tropical trees, rubber plants like to be watered when the top 2 inches of their soil are totally dry to the touch. "Trees store water in their trunks for the drier seasons," McCullough explains, so they can typically go a week or two without water and be totally happy—though if yours is placed in a really bright spot, it might need to be watered a bit more frequently.
Stick your fingers into the top layer of soil to be sure. If it's dry to the touch, water with room-temperature water until it starts to leak out of the drainage hole at the bottom. When water starts pooling in your plant's tray, you'll know it's had enough to drink. Give your tree 15 minutes to drink up the last of that liquid. If there's still any water left after that, toss it so it doesn't drown your plant's roots.
"You don't want water to sit in that plant—it can go south very quickly," says McCullough. Some signs that your plant is overwatered include prolonged wet soil and soft, dark brown leaves. If you spot these, stop watering, move to a brighter spot, and let the plant dry out for a while.
McCullough notes that rubber plants tend to be pretty resilient, so they should be OK once you give them some time to bounce back and trim off any leaves that have been damaged.
Rubber plants can go 1 to 2 weeks between waterings, depending on the season. Make sure the top 2 inches of its soil are completely dry to the touch before giving it water to avoid overwatering.
How to prevent and get rid of bugs:
Fungus gnats, spider mites, mealybugs, and other plant pests can flock to the rubber plant's thick, meaty leaves. Get in the habit of wiping the leaves of yours down with a damp towel every so often to look out for the telltale signs of pests: tiny holes; unexplained yellowing, slimy, sticky residue; or small eggs. "Pests will always lay their eggs on new, fresh leaves because they have a lot of the plant's energy and chlorophyll development," McCullough says, so pay extra attention to those.
If you do spot pests, it's time to get to work treating with neem oil. After discovering spider mites on his rubber plant recently, Thompson found success with this routine:
- Immediately separate the plant from the rest of your collection so the pests don't spread.
- Hose down the leaves (top and bottom!) with water. If your plant is really big, you'll want to take it to the shower for this step.
- Prepare your neem oil according to the package instructions (you may need to dilute it with water first). Then, spray all over the plant's leaves and let it sit, keeping it isolated from the rest of your plants. Wait three days.
- Repeat Steps 2 and 3, washing and spraying your plant for a second time and leaving it for another three days.
- Repeat the process once more, for a total of three applications of neem oil. Wait for another day or so before putting the plant back with your other greenery. "The neem oil can burn the leaves if it gets a lot of direct sun, so you want to be careful with that," Thompson says.
When it comes to pests, McCullough reminds us that the best prevention is great care. If you give your rubber plant the right amount of light and water, fertilize as needed, and wipe down its leaves from time to time, it'll have a good shot at staying beautiful and bug-free.
Rubber plants can attract bugs like fungus gnats, spider mites, and mealybugs. If you find bugs, eggs, small holes, or sticky goo on your plant, it could be a pest problem. Separate the plant from the rest of your collection and treat with neem oil or another natural pesticide.
How and when to repot and propagate:
Rubber trees should be moved to a new pot every one to two years. Signs that your plant has outgrown its home include roots that stick out of its pot's drainage hole, peek through its top soil, or press against the side of its container. Spring or summer is the best time to move your plant into a new container that's 1 to 2 inches larger in diameter.
Another good habit to get into during the start of growing season is pruning your tree. Without pruning, rubber trees often grow upward and not outward, causing them to look a little leggy. To encourage more fullness, you can cut a few of its top leaves off at their internode—the part of the stem right underneath where the leaf juts out—using shears. These clippings can then be propagated in water and replanted if you'd like.
While you're at it, snip off any yellow leaves that may have formed on your plant. Just be sure not to remove more than 25% of its leaves.
Move your rubber plant into a slightly larger planter every one to two years, or when you notice its roots start to get unruly. Prune its top leaves for a fuller look.
Signs of distress:
- Droopy leaves: You're probably underwatering or overwatering your rubber plant. Touch the top layer of soil to find out. If it's bone dry, give it some water. If it's damp, lay off on the water for the week.
- Soft, dark brown leaves: You're probably overwatering. Lay off on the water and move your plant to a brighter area if the problem persists.
- Light brown, crispy leaves: Your plant is thirsty. Touch the top layer of soil to be sure, and give it a good soaking if it feels dry.
- Yellowing leaves: It depends. The older leaves of a plant, located at the bottom of its canopy, will naturally turn yellow and die off over time. If your plant's upper leaves are yellow, it could be a watering, sunlight, or pest issue.
- Leaves covered in goo or small spots: You might have a pest problem. Take a good look at the leaves (top and bottom), and if you spot any bugs or eggs, treat the plant with neem oil or another natural pesticide.
The bottom line.
Rubber plants (rubber trees, Indian rubber trees, or Ficus elastica by any other name) are a relatively low-maintenance houseplant that can grow to be quite the statement piece. If you give yours enough sunlight, monitor water levels closely, and keep an eye out for pests, it will reward you with fast, dramatic growth.
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