Ficus elastica, also known as the rubber plant, is an unusual-looking plant from the tropics of Southeast Asia with huge, soft leaves and an exotic name. In its natural habitat, it can grow 50 to 100 feet with an enormous canopy of draping, foot-long oval leaves. Like many ficuses, it has hanging roots and develops flanged trunks over time. In the home, it is an excellent standard plant that thrives with bright indirect light, regular watering, warmth, and fertilizer. It is winter hardy to USDA Zones 10 through 12; in colder climates it is grown as a houseplant.
F. elastica requires bright, filtered light and can tolerate morning sun. Plants that do not receive sufficient light will become leggy, lose their lower leaves, and the leaf color will become dull instead of glossy and vibrant.
Water frequently. This plant needs to be kept steadily moist but not wet. It is vulnerable to excessive dryness. Any good, fast-draining potting soil will likely do. Feed the plant a weak liquid fertilizer throughout the growing season. They are relatively heavy feeders when healthy.
Rubber plants can be propagated from leaf-tip cuttings, but it is not particularly easy. It is probably easier to buy a potted plant. If you take cuttings, use a rooting hormone and be vigilant about high humidity and plenty of warmth. Do not be discouraged if they do not propagate easily. It is an inexact science that takes some time.
This ficus grows fairly quickly under the right conditions and will need to be repotted every year until the plant reaches the height you want. Larger plants can be difficult to repot, so if you cannot move the container, scrape off a few inches of potting media and replace it with new potting soil. Some experts recommend only lightly fertilizing indoor plants to prevent stretching and plants becoming root-bound because they grow too fast.
The most common variety of this plant is the 'Decora' cultivar. This is the most familiar rubber tree, with a slight reddish or bronze cast to the undersides of its glossy green leaves. In general, F. elastica is bred for larger, glossier leaves. F. elastica 'Robusta' has larger leaves than 'Decora', F. elastica 'Black Prince', or 'Burgundy', which has nearly-black reddish leaves.
These are not particularly difficult plants, but successfully growing this plant generally means finding the right balance in the environment. That means providing bright indirect light but not direct sunlight, moist but not wet soil, and enough fertilizer to keep it healthy but not too much to encourage fast growth.
Like other types of ficuses, these plants are vulnerable to cool drafts. Unhealthy plants will become leggy, with stretching internodes, and the leaves might first turn yellow and then brown before dropping off entirely. F. elastica looks its best with full and healthy green foliage, so pay attention to leaf yellowing (although once a leaf starts to yellow, it is most likely gone already).
If the leaves look full and are drooping, light levels are probably too high. Ficus elastica is vulnerable to pests including aphids, mealy bugs, mites, scale, and whitefly. If possible, identify the infestation as early as possible and treat it with the least toxic option.