It sort of goes without saying, but fast-growing houseplants, like Rubber Tree plants (Ficus elastica), are fan favorites due to their sheer versatility. A plant that can fill space quickly and act as a focal point in your home goes a long way with any design-minded individual. However, with speedy plants comes great responsibility, mainly in the form of pruning.
Rubber Trees are resilient houseplants that can handle anything from a light trim to a hard prune. Pruning can help you maintain your tree’s shape and health, control its height by topping the main stem, or encourage bushier trees through branching out. Regardless of your reason, pruning is best done in early summer.
There are many reasons to trim your Rubber Tree. Whether it be for looks, structure, or to encourage branching, the process of pruning is the same in most situations. In fact, it is more a question of how hard you prune back your plant that determines the results you are trying to achieve.
Why Do Rubber Trees Need to be Pruned?
Let’s start with the basics. Although not as vigorous as their native ancestors that grow over 100 feet tall, Rubber Tree houseplants still tend to reach for the sky. Over the course of a few growing seasons, you may find that your plant has grown taller than you, with its leaves tickling the ceiling.
Because they grow fast, typically from one main stem, Rubber Trees can often outpace themselves, adding more height than the lower trunk can support, causing them to droop, bend, or even break.
Some people like the tall, tree-like structure of a narrow Rubber Tree and find that supporting the plant with stakes or poles is sufficient. Over time, the trunk does thicken up a bit, adding support to taller plants. However, by doing some strategic pruning, you have the ability to control the growth and structure of your Rubber Tree without the aid of supports, so over time, you end up with a robust, strong houseplant.
Another reason to trim your Rubber Tree is to encourage branching. Because these plants often grow straight up from one stem, they need a little incentive to branch. The best way to do this is by strategically pruning the plant at certain points to encourage new branches, each with their own growing tip, to sprout below where the cut was made. This is an excellent option for people with standard ceiling heights or who love a bushier look.
A third and important reason to prune your Rubber Tree is for general maintenance and health. Rubber Trees are pretty self-sufficient plants, but occasionally, it’s worth taking a look at the overall structure of the plant to ensure that it is growing in a pleasing shape. And more importantly, to check that it has enough access to light and airflow, two things that will keep your plant healthy.
Making small cuts to reshape the plant and remove crowded or aging branches will keep your Rubber Tree in top form.
What Tools Are Needed to Prune Rubber Trees?
Like I said, regardless of whether you are doing a hard prune or just some light trimming to shape the plant, the process is pretty much the same. All you need is a pair of sharp, clean garden shears.
I specifically recommend gardening shears here because you want to create clean, even cuts on a plant which can have thick branches with pretty significant diameters. I find that kitchen scissors or knives (which I use for trimming other houseplants occasionally) don’t do as good a job as a sturdy pair of shears.
I’ll also stress that your gardening shears should be very clean. Any time you make cuts into a houseplant, you create a wound that can easily be infected by disease. So you always want to take extra precautions by cleaning your tools in between uses.
A Quick Note Regarding Toxicity
You may also want to have a pair of gardening or rubber gloves on hand any time you prune your Rubber Tree. These plants have a milky white sap that contains latex, which is known to cause irritation or rashes on some folks when it comes into contact with their skin.
When you make your pruning cuts, you’ll notice the wound will gush out a significant amount of sap, which you may want to wipe up with a rag. Don’t worry; the plant is fine, and the flow will slow down as the cut seals over. Just be mindful that it can cause irritation if you touch it.
When to Prune Your Rubber Tree
Remember how I said that Rubber Trees are pretty low-maintenance? This extends to pruning, as well. Your plant is tough and will happily deal with light trimming or hard pruning almost any time of year. However, for the very best results, I suggest making significant cuts in early summer.
This allows your Rubber Tree time to fully awaken from its winter dormancy, so that photosynthesis and nutrient transport are in full swing. The root system should be shored up and robust, and the overall health of your plant should be strong.
By waiting for these conditions, your plant will recover from the cuts you make faster, and any new growth you are hoping to encourage (i.e., branching) should happen swiftly. Those same cuts made while the plant is dormant may take many more months to show any new growth.
Don’t be afraid to make smaller maintenance cuts throughout the year, though. Snipping off old leaves or a stray branch is no big deal, and your Rubber Tree will be just fine.
Three Types of Rubber Tree Pruning
Although all pruning on Rubber Trees is basically the same in practice, I divide it into three separate types to help highlight individual nuances I find helpful when trying to determine the best way to go about shaping my plant.
The first type of pruning I like to point out for Rubber Trees is what I call “maintenance trimming.” This is essentially the practice of light pruning to maintain your Rubber Tree’s shape and health.
I find I use this type of pruning most on older Rubber Trees that I’ve encouraged branching on from an early age. Those plants tend to be bushier and fuller, with many branches that sometimes grow at odd angles or cross one another.
When maintenance trimming, I assess my plant and envision the shape I am trying to maintain. Any branches that have grown outside of that shape or have grown downward or at a strange angle are cut back. The same goes for any branches crossing over others or otherwise impeding the habit I’m trying to achieve.
I also look for any old, dying branches or leaves and snip them back to maintain the plant’s health.
I make each cut just above a leaf node at a 45° angle, making sure to wipe away excess sap, so it doesn’t get on the rest of the plant. You can also make your cuts straight across, but I prefer the angle, as I think the wound scales over a bit better.
Pruning to Encourage Branching
I categorize this as its own type of pruning, but in reality, any time you make cuts on a Rubber Tree, there is the potential for it to branch at the location of the cut. However, I single this out because this pruning practice is one that you will continue to use if you are hoping for a fuller, shorter, and more substantial Rubber Tree.
Because Rubber Trees tend to grow from one stem coming out of the soil, if there is no interference from us, they can get very tall very quickly-but stay slender. They do this because they grow from an apical meristem, which is essentially growth tissue at the tip of the stem, from which all new growth is produced.
To slow that growth and encourage branching, you need to remove that apical meristem to signal to the plant that it needs to develop a new growth source. This activates nodes, located just above where a leaf attaches to the stem, to grow into new branches with their own apical meristems.
To put it simply, if you remove the growing tip of a Rubber Tree, the nodes just below the cut will be activated to grow into new branches. Often, you will see two new branches developing from each cut you make, but it isn’t uncommon to see either a single new branch or multiple developing at the same time.
By strategically cutting your Rubber Tree’s branches at certain heights, you can encourage new branches to form, eventually creating a fuller, bush-like habit.
I like to call out “topping” as a specific form of pruning because you will eventually have to use it on your Rubber Tree, unless you have really tall ceilings.
Regardless of whether you have a more tree-like look or you’ve been pruning to encourage branching, topping refers specifically to cutting your main growing stems back to a specific height as a way to maintain the Rubber Tree’s look and prevent further vertical growth.
You’ll want to make sure your plant has reached your desired height before topping off any of the stems since growth will be significantly hampered as the plant activates new nodes to branch.
And, it will most likely try to branch. So, if you really like the height of the plant and would rather encourage more growth on lower branches to fill out, you can cut back any new branches originating from your top cut close to the stem to discourage new growth.
Typical Reasons to Prune Your Rubber Tree
All this information on pruning your Rubber Tree best serves you before you even bring one home, but we all know that isn’t how life works. Perhaps you’ve already owned a Rubber Tree for quite some time and are just noticing it’s bent up against your ceiling. Or, maybe you’ve inherited a mature specimen that needs a little love.
Whatever the case may be, don’t worry. Using a combination of the different pruning types above, you can usually wrangle an overgrown Rubber Tree back into something a little more manageable.
“My Rubber Tree is So Tall”
This is probably the most common scenario you will run up against. Turn your head for a second, and you swear your Rubber Tree just doubled in size—time to grab the shears and bring it back to earth.
Start by considering the entire tree. If you already have branches lower down on the plant with a good amount of foliage, you may only need to utilize topping to get your tree back down to the desired height.
On the other hand, if your plant is very columnar, without many branches, this may be a great opportunity to do a hard prune further down the trunk to encourage more branching down low. You’ll have to be ok with a squat Rubber Tree for a while, but you’ll have a much fuller-looking plant down the line.
If you decide to do a hard prune, just remember that you can take up to half the plant’s height off in one go, as long as the lower portion has enough leaves for the plant to function. On older plants, I tend to try and keep 7-10 leaves. You may also want to evaluate the plant’s overall health to make sure it can handle such drastic pruning. If you notice any issues, try to resolve those before making any cuts.
“I Want A Bushier Rubber Tree”
In the event that you have a smaller plant and foresee a more bush-like Rubber Tree in your home, now is the perfect time to start pruning to encourage branching.
To successfully achieve this, you need to start with a vision of what you want it to look like. Where is the plant going in your house, and how do you want it to fill the space?
As your plant grows, monitor its height and plan your cuts to encourage branches to break at specific points to create the structure you want. Each cut should be made by picking a set of nodes at the desired height and making your cut (angled or straight across) just above them.
After a few weeks, you should begin to see new growth emerging from the nodes, eventually turning into new branches. Over the course of a few seasons using this strategic pruning, your Rubber Tree should be close to the desired shape and, hopefully, filling out its spot in your home nicely.
Any time you make a cut on a younger plant, be sure to leave at least 2-3 leaves below a cut to allow the plant to function.
If you start with a mature plant that hasn’t branched much, follow the guidelines above for a hard prune to encourage branching lower on the plant. Again, this takes a little vision and an assessment of your plant’s structure to determine the best place to make the initial cut.
“My Rubber Tree is Really Overgrown”
This scenario is more common with older Rubber Trees that have been encouraged to branch from an early age. After many seasons, bushier plants tend to get a little crowded with all those big, glossy leaves sprouting from the many branches that have formed.
Maintenance trimming is a perfect solution to remove some of the plant’s density and allow more light and airflow to penetrate all parts of the plant.
I start by cutting out any dead, dying, or bare branches from the Rubber Tree. This is more for the overall health of the plant, but it helps me see the entire structure better as I’m determining what to cut.
Next, I remove any branches that are growing downward, crossing over other branches, or otherwise impeding any growth I want to encourage. If it still looks like I need to take more off the plant, I will consider the overall shape and trim back any branches that stick out too far or cause the plant to have an unbalanced look.
Sometimes, older Rubber Trees can use a lot of trimming, but more often than not, you may find that removing just a couple branches makes all the difference.
“I Want My Rubber Tree to Look More Tree-Like”
Some people really love the look of the single-trunk houseplant with a ball of foliage on top. Sometimes referred to as a “standard,” this classic tree shape can be achieved with a Rubber Tree plant, but patience and timing are important.
To achieve this, it is best to start with a single-stemmed plant that hasn’t branched much. Your Rubber Tree should be reaching for the sky and have leaves all up and down the trunk. Once your plant reaches the desired height, you will want to top the trunk to the height you want your new foliage to start branching.
Your best bet is to start this process in the summertime to encourage at least two if not three nodes to activate new branch growth just below your cut. As the new branches form and grow, you can continue to strategically prune them to encourage further branching, always leaving at least 2-3 leaves before making a cut.
Once you’ve cultivated enough growth and foliage at the top of your plant, you can then snip off any remaining leaves along the original trunk, creating the standard look.
Be mindful that it might take some time for your trunk to grow wide enough to support the new growth on top, so utilizing stakes to support the tree as it grows will prevent it from toppling over.
Rubber Trees are pretty spectacular houseplants that can become truly stunning showpieces in your home. Although it might seem a little daunting, using pruning as a way to maintain and shape your Rubber Tree is the best way to achieve the look you want.
Remember that Rubber Trees are pretty tough, so pruning won’t often harm the plant. More importantly, understanding how these plants branch and grow goes a long way in determining how to maintain their height, shape, and overall health.