If you’ve owned a Rubber Tree plant (Ficus elastica) for any considerable period of time, you probably understand that they live up to their reputation for being fast growers. This is great when you need to fill space or have tall ceilings, but what if you want your plant to stay smaller? Or bushier? Or tall and narrow? And, how can you maintain these shapes?
What’s the best way to shape your Rubber Tree plant? For fast growth and tall plants, exceptional care should be practiced to ensure the plant has what it needs to grow. For shorter or bushier forms, strategic pruning of the plant will be your best bet in obtaining the shape you are hoping for.
You’re two main tools for achieving any shape with a Rubber Tree will be best habits in regards to basic plant care (such as appropriate watering, feeding, and making sure the plant has ample access to sunlight) and pruning (yes, you do have to get a little Edward Scissorhands-y to promote fuller growth). There are a few other tricks you might be able to utilize, which I’ll cover below.
Also, it is important to manage your expectations for your Rubber Tree. These things are meant to reach for the sky, so while there are strategies to keep them smaller, if you hope yours will remain a desktop plant for years to come, I would suggest you stick to a succulent or a bonsai tree.
What to Expect from an Indoor Rubber Tree?
Here’s the deal…Rubber Trees in their natural habitats can grow upwards of 100 feet tall. Of course, our cultivated houseplant varieties will never get that big, but let’s just say that these guys are genetically coded to tower.
Most Rubber Tree varieties are single stem plants that grow quickly and typically top out around 10 feet when planted indoors in a pot. Branching is uncommon but can be encouraged by pruning the stems of the plant. Big, glossy leaves line the stem from bottom to top, and hold on for long periods of time. Older leaves sometimes naturally drop from the bottom portion of the plant over time.
As you’ve probably gathered by this point, Rubber Trees are considered fast growers. When given the right conditions, these plants can put on anywhere from six to eighteen inches in one growing season. Even in a less than ideal environment, you may still see at least a few inches of growth during a single summer.
You may have bought your Rubber Tree as a smaller specimen, perhaps in a six- or eight-inch pot, but have noticed that, because of its rapid growth, you have already needed to repot it into a larger container. It is not uncommon to repot Rubber Trees once every year or two. They can handle being rootbound to a certain extent, but with a bit of room to spread their roots, you’ll also see more growth up top.
Overall, these plants can get big. They are very beautiful and can easily make a bold statement in your home when allowed to do their thing.
Factors You Can Manipulate to Change Your Rubber Tree’s Shape
I’ve already mentioned a few of the main ways you can change the overall shape of your Rubber Tree, but I wanted to list a few more factors you might be able to influence and explain the effects they will have on your Rubber Tree.
General Plant Care
It may go without saying, but general plant maintenance is very important. Regardless of whatever shape you want your Rubber Tree to be, the point is moot if your plant is struggling to survive because it hasn’t been adequately cared for.
Your plant needs ample light, proper amounts of water and nutrients, and the ideal environmental factors like temperature, humidity, and space in the soil. Ensuring these conditions are met is one of the best ways to encourage growth. If you are hoping for a plant that comes close to scraping the ceiling, your surest bet is to give it what it needs to grow.
Now, there are facets of plant care that you can manipulate to slow the plant down (such as pot size and light levels – more on this later), but these should never be utilized to the extent that the plant’s health is ever in question. Sad, unhealthy plants won’t look good regardless of how big they are.
If you’re looking to keep your plant shorter and smaller, or you want it to look fuller and bushier, pruning is going to be the most effective tool at your disposal. Rubber Trees tend to have one setting, which is “Aim for the sky and GROW!” Pruning changes that setting a bit in two ways.
First, you are manually removing height from the plant. A lot of folks want their Rubber Tree to fill their space, but they tend to get a little unruly when they’re crammed up against the ceiling in your living room. A simple prune to top the tree at the right height is an easy solution.
Second, Rubber Trees typically only have one growing stem initially. On that tip, there is a bundle of tissue called the “apical meristem.” This is where all new growth from the plant originates, so as long as it has one apical meristem, your Rubber Tree will continue to grow only from that point.
When you prune a growing tip off the plant, it sends a signal down the stem from the cut to little spots called “nodes,” which you can usually find just above where a leaf attaches to the stem. Usually, the two nodes below a cut will be activated to create their own apical meristems, which in turn, grow into new branches. So, for every cut, you often get two new branches.
This becomes important when you are wishing your tall, narrow Rubber Tree was actually a little bushier. By strategically pruning your plant, over time, you can encourage it to fill out by branching more and more.
One of the reasons Rubber Trees grow so fast and tall is because of how they evolved in their natural habitat: the rainforests of South Asia. Rainforests are famously dense with plant life, so to survive, many plants have needed to develop strategies for finding resources. Because of the thick canopies, sunlight is commonly a limiting factor in rainforests, so Rubber Trees evolved to grow skyward quickly to search out more light.
Now, cultivated varieties don’t often need to work as hard to find the sun, but they do prefer lots of bright, indirect light to be their best selves and grow faster. But what if we want to keep our plant smaller? Well, light exposure is one environmental factor we can easily control.
By reducing the amount of light your plant receives, you can slow your plant’s growth down to a certain degree. Remember, though, there are trade-offs with this technique. If you reduce access to light too much, your plant’s health can suffer, and you may find that any new growth is weak and leggy.
Any changes should be introduced gradually so as not to shock the plant, and if you notice the overall health of your Rubber Tree declining, you should move it back. Think of this strategy as a micro-adjustment. If your plant is growing fast next to a bright window, pull it back a few feet and see how it fares over the next few weeks.
I mentioned earlier that Rubber Trees can handle being rootbound to a certain extent. Because of their fast-growing nature, it isn’t uncommon to have to repot your plant several times throughout its lifetime, but again, you can occasionally slow growth down by leaving your plant in a smaller pot for a while.
As the plant gets more rootbound in its container, growth begins to slow down. In many cases, you can leave your Rubber Tree in that same container for some time, perhaps even up to a year or two.
Again, there are trade-offs to this. Severely rootbound Rubber Trees can begin to have trouble absorbing water and nutrients. Also, as roots begin to outbalance the soil, you may find you have to water your plant more often because moisture isn’t being retained by the soil as efficiently.
In some cases, if you leave a Rubber Tree confined to a pot too long, you may also find that the roots can bust or break plastic or ceramic pots, requiring you to replant it into something bigger.
This technique is meant to be a stop-gap measure only. You shouldn’t expect that you can keep your Rubber Tree in a small pot forever and have it stay healthy. If you notice a decline in the health of your plant, it’s time to repot it into something bigger.
You may be looking at your Rubber Tree plant right now and notice that it has three or more stems sticking up from the soil. Most likely, this is actually three separate plants potted together in one container. It’s a trick that nurseries use to make a plant appear fuller.
Eventually, these plants’ roots will get all tangled together, and it will grow like it is one plant, but they can be separated out. For more information on separating Rubber Trees, read this article.
This is good information to know. Perhaps you have multiple smaller Rubber Trees in separate pots. If you want one fuller-looking plant, consider planting them all together. Conversely, if you like the tall narrow look of a single stem, you may want to detangle the stems and pot them separately or prune back all but the strongest stem for a more tree-like appearance.
Tools For Pruning Rubber Trees
Because you’ll probably do at least a little pruning to your Rubber Tree eventually, I wanted to talk about a few tools that you might find useful.
First, before you make any cuts, invest in a good, sharp pair of garden shears or a nice garden knife. Rubber Tree branches can get thick, and you want to make even, clean cuts while pruning, so having a quality pair of shears will help achieve this.
Make sure all your tools are clean and sterilized to avoid spreading disease to your plant.
Also, gardening gloves are always a good idea when pruning Rubber Trees. The white, latex sap of the plant can irritate skin, so covering your hands can protect you from some discomfort.
Alternatively, if you are hoping for a tall or bushy plant, consider investing in some quality bamboo stakes, which can be used to support new, sometimes floppy growth from your Rubber Tree. Over time, stems will thicken and support themselves, but stakes can go a long way in helping you shape your plant.
How to Make a Rubber Tree Grow Faster
You already know what I’m going to say, don’t you? Alright, then…all together! “PROPER. PLANT. CARE!”
You guessed it. The most effective way to get your Rubber Tree to grow quickly is to care for it in such a way that all of its needs are met. Light, water, nutrients, and space should all be accounted for.
Find a spot for your plant that has lots and lots of bright, indirect light. Direct sunlight can burn the leaves, so pull it back from the window a bit or draw a sheer curtain. While you’re at it, be sure that the spot you place your plant in has consistently warm temperatures (above 65° F), and it isn’t exposed to extreme hot or cold drafts.
Good watering habits are a must. Only water when necessary (when the top inch of soil is dry) and do so thoroughly, ensuring proper drainage from the soil and pot.
Rubber Trees aren’t heavy feeders, but applying a well-balanced fertilizer will help maintain nutrients in the soil. Pretty much all you need is one application, diluted to half-strength, about once a month during the growing season.
Lastly, make sure your plant has room in its pot. If you notice the roots are up against the sides of the container, pot up to the next size, so there is about one to two inches of space between the roots and the pot’s walls.
How to Make a Rubber Tree Taller
This is a slight variation from the guideline above, but the same rules apply. Proper plant care will not only help your plant grow faster, but taller, as well. Remember that Rubber Trees tend to grow straight up, so as long as you provide the building blocks, your plant will do the rest.
If you find that you have a multi-stemmed Rubber Tree plant consisting of multiple individual plants, you can choose to prune back all but one stem or separate each stem into its own container. That way, competition for nutrients and resources is removed, and your single-stemmed plant can focus solely on vertical growth.
How to Keep a Rubber Tree Small-ish
If you want to keep your Rubber Tree at a manageable size, grab your garden shears, friend, because it’s time to prune. You have a couple options, depending on how old your Rubber Tree is.
If you have an established tree that has reached an ideal height, you can slow growth and keep it to size by topping the growing tip off the stem. This will temporarily halt vertical growth as the plant activates nodes below the cut to start branching.
If you have a younger plant and have the foresight to start pruning now, you can be a bit more strategic about how you shape your Rubber Tree, so it responds the way you want it to. By making periodic cuts to the growing tips of your plant, you can slow the growth while simultaneously promoting branching. This definitely takes more consideration, and additional time will be needed to get your plant to the ideal height, but it gives you more options.
Aside from pruning, you can experiment with light levels and letting your plant get rootbound, as explained above, to slow growth while still monitoring the plant for any signs of distress.
How To Make a Rubber Tree Branch
If you are pruning your Rubber Tree, you are promoting it to branch. Each cut activates the nodes below it to produce new branches. When you choose to prune will help you determine certain looks.
If you start pruning to promote branching early, throughout a few growing seasons, you should see your Rubber Tree growing with a bushier, fuller habit. Branches will start low on the primary stem, and, over time, you can promote the newer growing stems to further branch.
If you prune later in the plant’s life, branching will start higher up the stem, giving you a classic tree “standard” look, with a single trunk holding up a branched ball of foliage. Many people like this look because it works well in a lot of homes and is a bit more dramatic.
For more information on promoting branching on Rubber Trees, read an article I wrote HERE.
How To Grow a Fuller Rubber Tree
Similar to promoting branching above, you get a fuller-looking Rubber Tree by pruning early and often. The more branches you can achieve on your plant, the bigger and bushier it will appear.
A general rule for pruning to promote branching and girth is to wait until primary stems are 16-24″ tall before making any cuts. This gives the plant a good, solid base with enough leaves to support healthy functioning while the plant recovers.
As side branches begin to form, you want to wait at least until they have put out 3-5 leaves before making any additional cuts. That way, you’ll be sure you have enough mature nodes to form additional branches.
If the thought of timing your cuts is giving you anxiety, you may be better off utilizing the nursery trick of planting multiple Rubber Tree stems together in one pot to achieve the fuller look. You could mix and match colors if you want, but three of the same variety will create the illusion of one fuller plant.
Hopefully, you have a better understanding of how Rubber Trees tend to grow and what you can and can’t control to shape them for your home. The most important thing to remember is that the plant’s overall health is the most critical factor in having a beautiful specimen, so don’t compromise on that for a slightly smaller shape.
Rubber Trees are hardy and resilient, so feel free to experiment a little bit and see what works best in your home. It may look lopsided or sad after a prune, but trust yourself and know that your plant will grow back looking more like the plant you’ve envisioned in your space.