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.
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.