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What is a Rubber Plant?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 03 November 2014
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The terms “rubber plant” and “rubber tree” are used generically to describe plants which produce latex, a gummy sap which can be turned into rubber. Until the development of synthetic rubber, tapping of rubber trees in South America was the only way to obtain this incredibly useful material, and around 40% of the world's rubber continues to come from natural sources. People also refer to some houseplants in the Ficus genus, especially F. elastica, as “rubber plants.” While these trees can produce latex, they are not viewed as a viable commercial source of the material.

The true rubber tree, Hevea brasiliensis, is native to South America. These trees can grow immensely tall, and they start producing latex at around three years of age. They are also known as Para rubber trees. In addition to being grown in South America, they can also be found on plantations in Southeast Asia, where they are cultivated for their valuable sap.

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The rubber plant which is grown as a houseplant is also known as the rubber fig or Indian rubber tree. It is native to Southeast Asia, and in the wild it can grow quite large. People who cultivate it as an ornamental tend to keep it trimmed and in small pots to prevent it from getting too large. The tree has distinctive dark green leathery leaves with a glossy finish and an oblong shape, and it produces small, figlike fruits which can yield viable seeds in the presence of fig wasps. Most people prefer to grow the plant from cuttings, rather than seeds.

Botanists have bred several Ficus elastica cultivars for ornamental use. Many of these cultivars have multicolored leaves, and they are bred to be smaller and hardier than their tropical counterparts. Hardiness is an important trait, as otherwise the plants would fail to thrive in the typically cooler, drier climate of homes. These cultivars are all very easy to grow, and the rubber plant has become ubiquitous in homes and offices as a result.

Many garden suppliers sell rubber plants for people who want to grow them. They prefer a spot with abundant natural light, and high humidity, if possible, although they will tolerate drier environments. Any standard potting soil mix is usually sufficient to nourish a rubber plant, and they like to be allowed to dry out between waterings. They are also very easy to prune; if you want to prune a rubber plant, wait until it is dormant, so that you will not shock it.

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VivAnne
Post 5

@Hawthorne - Good info here about the size of these trees in the wild! I wanted to mention this, too, because I have a really wonderful impression of rubber plants and rubber trees from my vacation in India a few years back. When I went over to India, I wanted to see the jungle. I've always been a fan of Rudyard Kipling's "The Jungle Book" story, and seeing India's jungles have always been on my must-do list.

Anyway, I took a guided jungle tour, and while there I saw rubber trees growing to enormous sizes -- at least a hundred feet tall, and about five foot thick trunks! The most impressive parts, though, were the trees' roots.

The guide showed me a bridge that had been made out of the roots. Apparently the roots trail out, and the Indians guide them to grow along a path to form bridges over cliffs and water. The rubber tree is unharmed, too -- so it makes natural bridges without disturbing nature at all. Isn't that awesome? If you ever visit India, you've got to see a rubber tree root bridge for yourself!

Hawthorne
Post 4

Did you know that rubber plant leaves vary in size depending on the age of the tree? The younger the tree is, the larger the leaves will be. Rubber trees growing in the wild can get as tall as 200 feet, and the leaves of young trees are pretty enormous -- 18 inches long! As the tree gets older, the leaves get smaller, ending up around 4 inches long on average int he oldest trees.

I wonder if the leaf size relative to age thing applies to small potted rubber plants used as house plants? I doubt that the youngest house plant sized rubber plants have leaves that are 18 inches long, but are they bigger than the leaves of an older rubber plant of the same size that is also potted?

Maybe somebody who has grown rubber plants can tell me.

malmal
Post 3

@TheGraham - I would check your local plant nursery and ask about the specific variety of rubber plant you want. Even if they don't have potted plants or seeds or clippings to sell you to grow your own rubber plant, a nursery should at least be able to tell you where you can get a rubber plant locally. If that doesn't work, I recommend doing a web search on "buy rubber plant Oregon". I'll bet you get lots of stores eager to sell to you!

The article says that the houseplant variety of rubber tree, Ficus elastica, isn't a viable source of latex for commercial purposes. I'm curious if that is because this kind of rubber tree makes less latex in its sap, or simply because the house plants are smaller trees so they don't have as much sap inside.

TheGraham
Post 2

Oh, awesome, you can have a rubber plant as a house plant? I so want one of these now! I wonder if they're hardy enough to ship a long ways. Something tells me they're not native to my area here in Oregon.

The article notes that they can be grown from clippings, and also that they actually prefer to dry out between waterings. I wonder if you could ship some of the leaves and grow a tree from them even if they got dried out, then?

All of this sounds kind of iffy to me -- like expecting the rubber plant to be one of those dinosaur ferns that goes dormant without water 'til you add more -- so I would prefer just buying a rubber plant somewhere close by. Does anybody know where I could order seeds and/or potted rubber plants?

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