Let’s be honest, everyone loves a houseplant that rewards us with vigorous growth. This is the main reason Rubber Tree plants (Ficus elastica) are such popular additions to our homes. You give it a good spot and it will grow…a lot. However, left to their own devices, Rubber Trees don’t branch easily, so without a little intervention, you may be left with a single stalk reaching from floor to ceiling.
Can you force a Rubber Tree plant to branch out? Due to the natural habit of a Rubber Tree, branching rarely occurs naturally (especially in younger plants), so it is necessary to prune the plant to promote branching through nodes on the stem. By pinching or cutting back new growth, the plant will begin to produce new branches below the cut.
Now, this practice is not for the faint of heart. As plant people, we do our best to nurture our houseplants and keep them healthy, so the idea of cutting back otherwise happy plants seems a bit horrifying. However, pruning back Rubber Tree stalks, sometimes drastically, is, by far, the best way to promote branching for a fuller, bushier look.
What to Expect From a Rubber Tree Houseplant
There’s a reason why your Rubber Tree plant shoots straight for the sky. In their native habitats in the rainforests of Southeast Asia, the forests are thick and diverse with many different plants. Resources like nutrients, water, and light are always in high demand, and competition for these necessary elements is stiff.
Native Rubber Trees grow over 100 feet tall at a fairly rapid pace. This helps them reach the forest canopy faster to capture what light they can. So, it is not surprising to learn that cultivated varieties of Rubber Trees do the very same thing in our homes.
Although it isn’t necessary for them to grow that tall to find light indoors, they are genetically wired to do so. Only with some strategic pruning can we get them to stay at a manageable size and shape.
How to Force Side Shoots on a Rubber Tree
It is actually quite simple to manipulate a Rubber Tree into a general shape and size you desire, as long as you plan for it. Envisioning the shape you are trying to achieve will help you decide where to strategically prune the plant in order to make it branch out correctly.
First though, a little science lesson on why pruning promotes new branch growth. Rubber Trees have apical meristems, which is botany talk for the region of the plant where the growth tissue is located. In this case, the growth occurs at the stem tips of the Rubber Tree.
Because Rubber Trees are typically just one stalk, they have one apical meristem, and all the new growth is produced from the top of the plant. That is the reason they tend to grow straight up.
However, when you prune or pinch the apical meristem from the Rubber Tree, the plant sends a signal down the stalk of the plant and activates structures called “nodes.” These are located in the spot just above where a leaf meets the stem. Once activated, the nodes just below the cut tend to produce new branches, each with their own new apical meristem.
This means that in order to produce a multi-stemmed Rubber Tree, you need to strategically prune your plant, being mindful of where the nodes are located and where branching will then occur.
In many cases, store-bought Rubber Trees are actually three or four separate plants potted together in one container. This is done to make the plant look fuller from the get-go. Each of these stalks has its own apical meristems, so depending on how large your plant is, you can cut each one at the same or differing heights to achieve a bushier or more staggered branching effect.
When making your cuts to grow new branches, it is important to remember a few things to be successful. First, you want to use clean, sharp equipment. Make sure your garden shears or knife has been sterilized to avoid spreading disease. You may also want to wear gloves to avoid skin contact with the Rubber Tree’s sap, which is known to be an irritant.
Locate where you want to make your cut. Generally, it is best to decide how far back you want to prune your plant first and then make sure you cut just above a leaf node. Rubber Trees can handle a hard prune, so taking one-third to half of the plant is ok, as long as it is healthy and established.
Make a clean cut through the stem at a 45° angle, using a rag to dap up the excess sap that will flow out of the cut. Over time, the sap will dry and scale over the cut, sealing the wound.
Within a few weeks, you should start to see the nodes swelling and new growth pushing from them. Depending on the time of year, you may see growth from the first two to three nodes down from the cut.
After a couple of months, the branches should show significant growth, perhaps with a few new leaves beginning to unfurl.
How Big/Old Should a Rubber Tree Be Before Pruning?
When you first bring home a new Rubber Tree, pruning is probably the furthest thing from your mind. Typically, single stem plants tend to only 6-12 inches tall, while multi-stemmed plants may only be a couple feet.
Even if you don’t plan on pruning for a while, it is worthwhile to start thinking about how you want your plant to look. This way, you’ll be ready to make the cuts necessary to grow new branches where you want them when the time comes.
Rubber Trees are pretty hardy plants by nature, so there are no hard and fast rules about how big or old they should be before you prune them. More importantly, you should consider the plant’s overall health to make sure it can recover from the trauma of a pruning session.
If your plant is exhibiting any questionable signs, such as droopy or yellowing leaves, focus on getting your plant healthy before doing any pruning. Making cuts on an unhealthy plant can lead to longer recovery times and may kill the plant.
As a general guideline, try to let new plants grow to about 16-24″ before pruning them back to promote branching. Healthy, new plants will handle the cuts just fine, but you want to make sure you have enough plant material left after the cuts for the plant to perform critical processes like photosynthesis.
For older, taller plants, feel free to cut off one-third to a half of the plant at one time. Established Rubber Trees can handle hard toppings like this, but again, just be mindful that you leave enough leaves behind for the plant to function.
When is the Best Time of Year to Prune Rubber Trees?
To successfully make your plant branch out, the best time of year to prune your Rubber Tree is in the spring. The activation of the nodes and creation of new branches takes several months, so performing this task at the beginning of the plant’s growing season will give it plenty of time to recover and establish the new growth before it goes dormant in the winter.
Also, you will be much more successful with branching if pruning is done during the growing season. When the plant is active, making cuts will promote more than one node to create new branches. If you prune when the plant is dormant, you may only activate the node just below the cut, creating one new, lone branch, which defeats the purpose of the entire procedure.
Staking Rubber Tree Branches
You may find that once you have forced your Rubber Tree to grow new branches, they tend to grow out at an angle. It may take a while for the branches to grow rigid and skyward and even longer before they are thick and sturdy enough to grow outward without flopping over.
If this is the case, you may want to get creative about using bamboo or wooden stakes to prop your branches up in the configuration you hope they will grow. Using florist tape or loose ties, attach stakes to keep the branches pointing in the direction you’d like them to grow until they are sturdy enough to hold the shape you are hoping to achieve.
We all love Rubber Trees for the vigorous growth they are known for, but to create a bushier plant that doesn’t scrape your ceiling, a little bit of human intervention is necessary.
Hopefully, the concept of pruning back your Rubber Tree to promote branching is not as scary as it first sounded. Healthy, robust plants, when trimmed correctly, will yield beautiful new growth that you can control.
Keep visualizing what you want your Rubber Tree to look like and follow the guidelines above. Over time, you’ll be rewarded with a truly stunning showpiece in your home.