The Ficus elastica rubber plant is a well-known ornamental fig tree belonging to the Banyan fig group. This plant’s glossy, dark green foliage continues to be highly sought after by many houseplant fanatics amongst us. Let’s take a look at some of the different varieties available, and how to help them thrive.
With its popularity growing ever since early Victorian times, the beautiful Ficus elastica has achieved fame as a very valuable and decorative plant to have.
This tree variety is originally native to Southern Asia. Over time, it has become naturalized in Sri Lanka, the West Indies and the U.S. state of Florida. Here it can be seen growing wild, reaching heights of up to a huge 40 meters tall. Its long, aerial roots are used to anchor itself to the ground, giving support to its heavy, tree-like branches.
No need to fret, however: specimens bred for home growing reach a much more manageable height of around 3 metres.
The Ficus genus contains a selection of evergreen and deciduous trees and shrubs. All of these have scrambling root climbers, and are generally grown for their large and lustrous ovate green leaves.
Many ornamental hybrids have been derived from the wild Ficus elastica plant. All of them have different foliage qualities, which I have listed below.
Ficus elastica “Robusta”
This is a newer form of the ornamental fig tree, with much longer and wider glossy, ovate deep green leaves with prominent midribs. At maturity, the “Robusta” will reach a height of around 4 meters and a generous spread of 1.5 meters.
Ficus elastics “Decora”
The beautiful, shiny rich green leaves of the “Decora” variety can grow to a huge 12 inches long. These oblong-ovate leaves are borne on short leaf stalks and arranged in a spiral formation along the woody stem. The prominent mid rib from the underside of the leaves has a red appearance in infancy, which matures to a deeper red-green shade. Young new buds are also covered with a bronze-red sheath. A real showstopper of a plant.
Ficus elastica “Variegata”
I know that many people prefer the pure green Ficus elastica varieties, but I’m a bit of a sucker for nice-coloured foliage and this has exactly that. The leaves and leaf margins on this variegated variety are freely blotched with cream markings, which contrast beautifully with the lovely bright red midribs.
This combination makes for a very striking plant. In maturity, it will grow to a height of around 1.8 meters with a healthy spread of around 1.2 metres. A great example of foliage at its best.
Ficus elastica “Doescheri”
A strong grower, this lovely variegated variety has paler green leaves. In fact, these are often tinged with pink and broader ivory-white leaf margins. Its form is initially upright, which will start to spread in maturity. You can expect this plant to reach a hefty height of over 13 meters, and a spread of around 8 meters.
Obviously, this variety is too large for the average home interior. That said, if you live in a temperate climate and need some colourful variegation to brighten things up, then this is the tree for you
Ficus elastica “Tricolor”
The thick, glossy leaves of the “Tricolor” variety are mottled with a variety of hues. You’ll see pinks, creams and whites, with creamy yellow leaf margins and very pink young growth. When pot-grown, this colourful Ficus will reach around 2–3 metres; just perfect for indoors, or on a sunny patio throughout the summer months.
Ficus elastica “Bali”
A great non-variegated rubber plant variety , with bright red leaf sheaths and glossy dark green leaves. In fact, these leaves are so dark in colour, they almost appear black. This is another fabulous foliage plant suitable for indoor growing, and will reach a modest height of around 3 m.
Planting your Ficus elastica
Perfect Potting Compost
Your rubber plant will need to have a nice, light, free-draining soil. Choose a compost that contains small amounts of peat mixed with shredded bark, sand and perlite. This will create just the right airy mix we’re looking for, in order to achieve optimum plant growth.
Where to Site Your Rubber Plant
All rubber plants like a well-lit site with bright, but indirect sunlight. Direct sunlight can cause scorching of the leaves which will leave your plant very unhappy. Therefore, your ideal spot is somewhere that will have a few hours of bright light per day, without getting too hot. Ensure your plant has enough space around it to allow for growth.
I would advise keeping your Ficus tree at a temperature of above 12 degrees C (55 degrees F), as lower temperatures will cause damage to your plant. Make sure to keep yours at a temperature of around 41 degrees C/64 degrees F.
Remember that your rubber plant is susceptible to stress, and won’t appreciate being moved around too much. A sudden difference in light and heat levels can cause them to drop their leaves. The leaves will grow back when adapted to the new habitat, but it’s best to keep them in their preferred spot whenever possible
Your Ficus tree will need to be watered moderately throughout the growing season, when the summer temperatures and longer daylight hours are prevalent. Misting your plant can also be a good idea in the summer months. This will increase the humidity and emulate their native environment.
Watering should be carried out when the compost is dry to the touch. Give your plant a good drink, letting the soil dry out in-between waterings. Don’t keep your plant’s soil moist: doing so will cause root-rot and make it susceptible to infections.
Water very sparingly throughout the cooler and darker winter months.
Feed your rubber plant with a suitable diluted house plant feed every two to three weeks while it’s in “active growth” mode. Your plant won’t need extra food throughout the winter months.
You only really need to prune your tree when you’re trying to keep the plant growth to a maximum height. Remove dead, diseased, or awkwardly placed branches when the plant is in dormancy.
All of the Ficus family have a milky-white sap within their leaves and stems. This sap is known to us as “latex”, and is a highly toxic, chemical compound that was originally used to make rubber. When plants are pruned, the milky sap will bleed from the plant until the cut has healed over. Please be aware that the sap is an irritant, so it’s important to wear gloves to avoid any problems.
It is important to change the growing soil in your pot every year. The mediums within the soil will break down over time, reducing its structural capacity and airy nature. When we repot using a fresh compost mix, it allows the roots to breathe again, and gives the plant stability and extra nutritional goodness from the fresh soil.
It is best to repot your rubber plant in the early springtime, before active growth has started.
Take stem or tip cuttings from your Ficus tree in the summertime. Both are pretty simple to do, and require minimal knowledge. In addition, it feels really great to propagate your own plants.
Take some 4-inch-long stem cuttings and let their sap dry out. Once dry, dip your cutting into a rooting hormone and place it in a small pot filled with a good, well-draining compost mix. Then place your potted cutting on a heated bed, set to around 21 degrees C, (70 degrees F).
Each of your cuttings will grow new roots. In time you can pot these cuttings on, and watch them grow into full-size trees.
Make sure you don’t overwater this plant. As a nation, we sometimes feel we need to care a little more than necessary for our plants. As a result, many drought-tolerant plants become waterlogged and eventually die off.
Rubber trees are happiest when they are quite dry. Overwatering your Ficus can lead to leaf yellowing, leaf fall, root rot, and disease.
Pests and Diseases
Mealy Bugs, Spider Mites, and Scale Insects are the most common rubber plant pests.
Treat these with a suitable spray insecticide from your local garden centre or nursery.
Keep a check on the leaves of your Ficus elastica to ensure there are no infestations, especially on the leaf sheaths and stem points. Keeping your plant clean will help to prevent an outbreak. Simply use a wet sponge to wash any dust or grime from the leaves. Doing so not only makes the leaves shine, it will make the leaves less susceptible to problems.
Suitable Companion Plants
When choosing companion plants, I always like to have a diverse range of foliage and structure. I feel it gives the impression of a wild, tropical jungle in my own living room, which I love.
Plants such as the Areca Palm, the Dracaena Dragon trees and the Philodendron Devil’s Ivy offer a nice range of differing leaf structures and forms. Also take a look at the wonderful, hanging epiphytic ferns available, such as the Staghorn fern.
You could create your own tropical jungle in no time at all!