For People Who Want to Learn More About the Care & History of Ficus elastica

Ficus elastica, a.k.a. the rubber tree, is a wonderful, common houseplant featuring large, succulent, shiny leaves and thriving indoors with occasional watering and lots of bright light.

This post will discuss more in-depth care of Ficus elastica, where it grows naturally, and its history both as a houseplant and for its uses outside of the houseplant industry, including how this special houseplant is used to create a living bridge!

Table of Contents

Where is Ficus elastica native to?

Ficus elastica is from Southeast Asia where it is used to warm, humid conditions.

Ficus elastica is part of the fig family, where it shares the spotlight with other popular ficus houseplants such as the Fiddle Leaf Fig (Ficus lyrata) and Ficus ‘Audrey.’

Outdoors it can grow to be 100 feet tall or more! As it matures, the tree develops aerial roots which help to anchor the tree in the ground. These aerial roots are one characteristic of the Fig tree group called Banyans.

Check out the photo below to see one example of Ficus elastica’s glorious aerial roots!

Banyan figs are Ficus trees that often begin as an epiphyte, germinating and growing on other trees and plants. It wasn’t until researching F. elastica that I realized a Banyan tree referred to more than one specific type.

The one that I and many other people think of when they hear Banyan tree is Ficus benghalensis.

Ficus elastica rarely flowers indoors, but it does flower outdoors and is pollinated by a specific fig wasp native to the same region as this tree.

Aerial Roots Ficus elastica
Amazing aerial roots growing from Ficus elastica, Photo by: ZSM, Source
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What has Ficus elastica been used for? Is it really used to make rubber (as the common name implies)?

Ficus elastica really was grown to produce rubber in the early 1900s. The sticky sap was harvested for this early rendition of rubber.

Eventually, people discovered that the sap from Hevea brasiliensis (a plant that is a part of the Euphorbia family) was superior for producing rubber and is still being used today.

What I find much more interesting, however, is that the aerial roots from Ficus elastica have been used in India to create living bridges! Over time, people slowly train the roots to create a bridge without ever needing to harm the tree.

The locally abundant Indian rubber tree, Ficus elastica, produces strong, rope-like aerial roots that, when lashed onto a scaffold of hollowed-out betel nut trunks, or tied to bamboo stalks, can be trained patiently over decades to grow horizontally across steep ravines and riverbanks.

By Paul Salopek, National Geographic, Living tree bridges in India stand strong for hundreds of years

As such, the tree gets to live on and the bridge is literally alive!

You can see one of these bridges in the photo below. To read more about these amazing bridges, click here to check out National Geographic’s article, Living tree bridges in India stand strong for hundreds of years

Living Bridge Ficus elastica
Living Bridge created using Ficus elastica’s aerial roots – Photo by: Anselmrogers, Source

What is Ficus elastica’s history as a houseplant?

Ficus elastica was discovered in the early 1800s in India. By the late 1800s, it was being grown out for use as an indoor plant.

Because of its low-maintenance nature, it became extremely popular and has remained pretty popular since.

It is also used as a landscape plant in tropical areas around the world and was the plant used to create rubber in the early 1900s before people discovered a better alternative.

What varieties are there of Ficus elastica?

While researching the different varieties/cultivars of Ficus elastica, I was unable to find a definitive source that confirmed which are unique cultivars and which are the same cultivar with several common names.

So! I am going to list a few of the varieties that I feel confident are unique and include all of the other varieties that look incredibly similar to me and might be different names for the same plant or could be their own unique variety.

If you are someone who has more information about the specific cultivars and could help me to create a more accurate source with identification information, that would be wonderful! Please reach out in the comments below or via email (colleen @ anaturalcuriosity . org – remove the spaces)

Ficus elastica ‘Burgundy’

Ficus elastica Burgundy

Ficus elastica ‘Burgundy’ has gorgeous, nearly black leaves that emerge inside of bright pink-red cataphylls or leaf sheaths. Stunning plant.

There are a few other plants that look similar to ‘Burgundy’ but have a different name.

I’m not sure if they are their own cultivars or different common names for ‘Burgundy.’ I’ll list them below, but you will see this is a common trend with most of the varieties I will discuss here.

The other varieties that appear to be similar to ‘Burgundy’ are ‘Black Prince,’ ‘Abidjan,’ and ‘Black Burgundy.’

Ficus elastica ‘Tineke’

Ficus elastica Tineke

Ficus elastica ‘Tineke’ is a variegated plant with a creamy white around much of the leaf margin and splashes of light and dark green on the inner portion of these leaves.

This is my personal favorite because each leaf looks like a unique painting and the new growth, if given ample light, emerges in pink and fades to green and cream.

There are a bunch of other plants that look similar to ‘Tineke’ but have a different name.

I’m not sure if they are their own cultivars or different common names for ‘Tineke.’ If you are curious, look up Ficus elastica ‘Sylvie,’ ‘Variegata,’ ‘Tricolor,’ ‘Sylvia,’ and there may be others.

Ficus elastica ‘Ruby’

Ficus elastica ‘Ruby’ looks similar to ‘Tineke’ when grown in high light. The leaves emerge a deep pink and are said to keep that pink coloration over time, as long as the tree is getting the light it needs.

There is another plant referred to as Ficus elastica ‘Belize’ which looks very very similar to Ficus elastica ‘Ruby.’ If I find out whether these two plants are actually the same or different, I will update the post accordingly!

Ficus elastica ‘Robusta’

Ficus elastica Robusta

Ficus elastica ‘Robusta’ has lighter, rich green leaves with a light green vein on the upper side of the leaf and a pink/red vein in the same area on the back of the leaf. It is said to be the most similar in appearance to the original Ficus elastica discovered in the 1800s.

Ficus elastica ‘Decora’

Ficus elastica ‘Decora’ is one of the oldest cultivated varieties, sporting dark green leaves (but not as dark or purpley as Burgundy). I believe the foliage on this one is darker than ‘Robusta’ as well.

I am not sure if I’ve ever seen the green varieties available in plant stores, so I’m just not as familiar. It’s also possible I’ve missed them as I wasn’t a huge Ficus fan until the last couple of years!

Ficus elastica ‘Melany’ is another variety that looks similar, at least to me, to ‘Decora’ but is said to be a more compact grower.

Ficus elastica ‘Shivereana’

Ficus elastica ‘Shivereana’ is a cultivar that seems to be available overseas but rarely on the market in the United States.

For this reason, the listings I do find for this plant are incredibly pricey, making this one the most expensive cultivars to my knowledge.

It is a heavily variegated plant with cream, yellow, and green. When you look at examples of this one, they are all very unique. Some have mostly cream leaves with lots of speckled greens. Others have larger splotches of color, a bit more like Tineke and Ruby.

How do you care for Ficus elastica?

Variegated Rubber Tree
Variegated Rubber Tree

Ficus elastica Care Summary

In-depth care is below this chart

Humidity:Normal household humidity levels
Light:Bright indirect light to direct sun
Pot:Any pot with a drainage hole
Potting Mix:A well-draining mix
Water:Water when dry or when nearly dry
Fertilizer:Fertilize during active growth

What kind of light does Ficus elastica prefer?

Ficus elastica likes lots of light. I keep my F. elasticas in a west-facing window, a south-facing window, and under a grow light.

When planted outdoors, it can take full sun. When purchased from the houseplant section, however, it may have been grown in lesser light so that it can tolerate a bit less light in our homes. This isn’t because less light is optimal for these plants, but because the reality is that many of us don’t get a large amount of light in our homes so growers train the plants to tolerate a bit less light.

But – if you want your ficus to thrive, give it all the light through acclimating it to nice, bright, sunny conditions.

How do you acclimate it? You can acclimate a plant to brighter conditions by placing it in the window for a few hours and then pulling it back a little for the rest of the day. Repeating that for a few days and then doubling the time it spends in the window every few days until it can be in the window all day.

An acclimation schedule could look like:

  • Days 1-3, spend 3 hours in the window
  • Days 4-6, spend 6 hours in the window
  • Every day after, spend all day (12 hours+) in the window

Some people acclimate using a less aggressive schedule. Others acclimate using a more aggressive schedule. This is just one example of what works for me.

What kind of potting mix does Ficus elastica prefer?

Ficus elasticas like well-draining, well-aerated mixes. A combination of 3 parts potting mix to 2 parts perlite could work well.

You could also add other ingredients in place of all perlite, like orchid bark, pumice, or charcoal. Ficus elastica would appreciate these as well.

How do you know when Ficus elastica needs to be watered?

Water your Ficus elastica when the potting mix is dry or nearly dry. This plant doesn’t want to sit dry for long but also doesn’t want to sit wet for long either.

If you see the lower leaves droop, it could be a sign that it is super dry and in need of water. If watered promptly, Ficus elastica will pull those leaves back up. If it dries out for a while regularly, the leaves may hang down full time.

How often does Ficus elastica need to be fertilized?

I fertilize my Ficus elastica year-round with a balanced fertilizer every few weeks. My plants seem to grow all year so I never stop fertilizing because I want to support large, healthy growth.

I have read that you can fertilize this plant less (once a month or every 6 weeks only during the growing season), but my experience currently has been that it appreciates a bit more frequent and regular nutrients.

What kind of pot/planter does Ficus elastica prefer?

Any pot with a drainage hole is a good fit for this plant. You don’t want your F. elastica sitting in excess water because it is prone to root disease, so just ensure that whatever type of planter you use can be drained.

If you are concerned about overwatering or like to water very frequently, you could plant your rubber tree in terracotta, which wicks away some of the excess moisture.

Otherwise, any pot is fine.

What pests are attracted to Ficus elastica?

All pests can be found on this plant, but the most common by far (in my experience at least) is spider mites. Spider mites just love all Ficus trees.

Regularly cleaning the leaves of your plant can help deter spider mites from establishing a population, but may not eradicate the problem.

To identify and control spider mites, click here to read that post.

How do you clean Ficus elastica’s leaves?

I personally prefer to just shower off my plant’s foliage on top and bottom either in the shower (if a large plant) or in the sink (if a smaller plant).

If I don’t have the time or motivation or get the plant to a shower or sink, I will also use a gentle cloth to wipe leaves. Sometimes just soaking the cloth with water is enough.

If, however, the plant has hard water spots or perhaps some sugary build-up from pests or floral nectaries, then I will use a solution of water with a little bit of vinegar or one of my homemade pest sprays (these recipes are available in all of my pest posts, like the one linked here).

I do not use any leaf shine products on the market. Many of them make your leaves look nice, but also clog the pores of the plant. I also never use milk to shine leaves because it smells disgusting afterward.

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