True to its name, the rubber tree or rubber plant—Ficus elastica—was once harvested in its native Southeast Asia for its latex-rich sap. As a houseplant, rubber trees are fast-growing plants that are relatively easy to care for. Their large, glossy leaves make a striking visual impression while helping to purify the air in your home.
Since rubber plants can grow up to 10 feet tall in just a few years, they’re great for accenting a space with high ceilings. As homes and apartments have become smaller, though, these plants have fallen out of fashion. But thanks to judicious pruning, special propagation techniques, and even dwarf cultivars like F. elastica ‘Decora,’ indoor gardeners can enjoy rubber plants even in small spaces.
What Is Propagation?
Propagation is the process of creating new plants. This process can be asexual (creating plants identical to the parent plant) or sexual (the parent plant creating seeds not genetically identical to it).
Best Growing Conditions for Your Rubber Tree Plant
Plant your rubber tree in a fast-draining, all-purpose potting mix. They prefer to be pot-bound, so avoid choosing a container that’s disproportionately large for the plant.
Place your rubber tree in a spot with moderate temperatures (75 to 85 degrees during the day and 60 to 65 degrees at night) and away from cold drafts or dry heat.
Try to avoid sudden changes in environment: As with its relative, the fiddle-leaf fig, relocating your rubber tree to a spot with different conditions may cause it to drop leaves. With proper care, the plant will eventually adjust to its new home.
In terms of light, rubber trees are highly adaptable and able to thrive in bright indirect light or lower-light spots. Since variegated cultivars like pink-veined ‘Ruby’ need bright light to maintain their light green and cream coloring, only choose these varieties if you have a particularly bright spot indoors for them to grow. A rubber tree grown in a sunny spot will require more water and vigilant attention to soil moisture levels than one grown in shade.
How to Care for Your Rubber Tree Plant
Keep a close eye on the moisture level of your rubber tree’s soil. It should be moist at all times, but too much or too little water can both cause issues. For your plant to thrive, the soil must be kept evenly moist at all times—not too wet and not too dry.
Spring is the best time of year to cut back your rubber plant. Save tip and stem cuttings to propagate into new plants.
Too little or too much water will lead to chlorosis (yellowing leaves) and leaf drop. Keep in mind that your rubber plant may need less frequent waterings during the winter months. In addition to closely watching soil moisture, it's a good idea to keep your plant in a relatively small pot, which can’t hold enough water to drown the plant even if you're a little heavy-handed with the watering can.
Early spring is typically the best time to repot your rubber tree. Fertilize your plant no more than every six months to keep these vigorous growers from getting too large for your indoor space.
When you notice dust accumulating on your rubber tree plant’s shiny leaves, simply wipe them gently with a dusting feather or a damp cloth. You can also place your plant in the shower and give it a gentle rinse with tepid water to clean the leaves.
How to Propagate Rubber Tree Plants
There are two different methods you can use to grow a new rubber plant: air layering, which is the preferred method, and taking tip or stem cuttings.
While the timeline for propagating rubber plants is months rather than weeks, the process will go more quickly if you begin propagation in the spring and take longer if you start the process in winter.
How to Propagate Rubber Tree Plants by Air Layering
With air layering, a cut in a living stem or branch causes nutrients in the plant’s vascular system to accumulate at the location of the cut, which will cause new roots to grow from that point on the stem. Then, the stem or branch can be cut off below the new roots and repotted as a new plant.
Air layering is often used with plants like rubber trees that tend to grow very tall and accumulate leaves at the top of a bare stem. This technique allows you to turn the top portion of the stem into a short yet full-leaved new plant before cutting back the original plant, which will eventually regrow.
Avoid touching the toxic sap that will form on the cut ends of the stem—it’s a good idea to wear gloves while pruning or propagating rubber plants. Wash your hands right away if you come into contact with the sap, as it can cause irritation to skin.
To propagate your rubber plant using the air layering technique, you will need a sharp knife, a toothpick, a handful of long-fibered sphagnum moss, twine or twist ties, a sheet of clear plastic (like a plastic sandwich bag or a piece of cling wrap), and optional rooting hormone.
Step 1: Examine your rubber tree’s stem or a healthy side branch and identify the spot where you’d like the roots on your new plant to grow. If you are air layering before pruning the leafy top of a too-tall specimen, choose a spot that’s at least six inches below the lowest leaves.
Step 2: Using a clean, sharp blade, carefully make an upward diagonal cut about one-third of the way through the stem or branch at the point you chose.
Step 3: Insert a toothpick sideways into the cut to keep it open. To speed the process, you can apply rooting hormone to the cut surface of the stem at this point, but new roots will still grow without it.
Step 4: Moisten a big handful of the sphagnum moss and tie it around the cut on the stem using the twine or twist ties. This will give the new roots a medium to grow into.
Step 5: Tie the plastic around the stem or branch just above and below the cutting so that it's completely covering the ball of moss. This will hold in moisture.
Step 6: When you see new roots within a few months, remove the plastic wrap and cut through the stem or branch just below the new root growth. Plant your new rubber tree—leaving the moss on the roots—in an appropriately-sized pot with fresh soil, then care for it as usual.
If you still need to cut back a leggy rubber plant after the air layering process, cut off the remaining bare stem about five inches above the soil line and add some fresh soil to the pot.
Water your pruned rubber tree sparingly, but keep a close eye on the soil moisture. Since the plant has no leaves, it doesn’t need the same amount of water as before, but soil should still be kept just barely moist. When you see new growth appearing on the stem, you can gradually give your rubber tree more water.
How to Propagate Rubber Tree Plants With Cuttings
Propagating with cuttings is a great way to put the pruned-off pieces of your rubber tree to work. You can use tip cuttings—the end of a branch with new growth—or a portion of stem with at least one leaf at the top.
Step 1: Using a clean, sharp blade, cut off a six-inch portion of a healthy-looking branch, making the cut just above a leaf node. Tips should have a cluster of two to three leaves at the end, while stem sections should have one or two leaves growing at the top of the cutting.
Step 2: Cut off any lower leaves. Apply optional rooting hormone to the bottom end of your cutting and plant it in a small pot with moist, all-purpose potting soil.
Step 3: Place your new planting in a clear, sealable plastic bag—a gallon zip-top bag is a good size for this. Use a chopstick or other implement embedded in the soil to keep the sides of the bag away from the cutting if need be. Seal the bag almost all the way but not completely. This will hold in moisture and warmth without suffocating the plant.
Step 4: Put the bag in a warm place with moderate indirect light. After two to three months, new roots should grow, and you can remove the plastic bag. Care for your rubber plant as usual. You should see new foliage within six months or so.