Friday, March 9, 2012

Ficus Elastica

I'm tired of winter. And I'm sure people are tired of my complaining about winter - and the snow, and the cold, and the snow, and the cold, and the snow. Bull all my bellyaching will end soon because spring is (officially) on its way. No matter how much snow there is out there (or not), and even if (but I hope not) there’s a storm on the way, it still doesn’t change the fact that another tiresomely long winter is finally coming to an end – whether it likes it or not. The snow will stop for good. The weather will warm up. The days will get longer. The tulips will sprout. My sanity will be saved.

In addition, the lengthy, warm-weather walks I take after supper with my husband (something that we both enjoy immensely) will resume. And on the days that we will stroll through the neighbourhood, my eyes will once again dart from house to house, yard to yard, balcony to balcony and window to window, looking at the plants the local residents put on display both indoors and out.

Some local residents don’t have any houseplants near their best-lit windows (at least none that I can see), which makes me sigh, shake my head and think “What a waste of good plant space” Several people have a handful of small specimens that look reasonably healthy, others have large plants that look like they’re taking over the house, and a few have an abundance of indoor greenery sitting (and hanging) in front of every window. In any case, it makes for an interesting walk, and some nice (leafy or flowery) eye candy.

One of the things I’ve noticed during my leisurely strolls is that most indoor gardeners typically grow the same houseplants, which also happen to be the most commonly-available at the local stores – at least where I live. Some customary favourites include Dracaena Marginata, Dracaena Fragrans Massangeana, Dieffenbachia ‘Tropic Snow’, Aglaonema ‘Chinese Evergreen’, Pothos, Sansevieria Trifasciata and Chlorophytum Comosum. I’ve also spotted occasional displays of African Violets, Aloes, an assortment of cacti and succulents and (for the more daring) Crotons, Begonias and some Marantas, three groups that aren’t the most difficult to grow but are a little more challenging than the usual selection. What I don’t see very often is Orchids, Alocasias, Gardenias and Bromeliads - plants that are not readily available, too expensive or slightly more finicky about their needs.

So, it seems that most people grow the tried-and-true favourites that grace homes and businesses everywhere, more often than not. The conclusion I’ve come to after these observations is that people are too lazy, too busy or too inexperienced to grow something more challenging – or they’re just not as obsessed as I am about houseplants and have better things to do with their lives. Hard to believe, but I suppose it’s possible.

Included in the mix of tried-and-true favourites is one very popular plant the majority of homes seem to grow – the Ficus Elastica. Not only do I see it everywhere, but everywhere I see it, it’s a huge specimen. And not only is it a huge specimen sitting in front of brightly-lit windows of homes, it’s also a huge specimen sitting in front of brightly-lit windows in several stores. One supermarket that we used to walk by in our old city showed off a Ficus Elastica in their front store window that must have been about 7 - 8 feet tall and 4 – 5 feet wide. It was huge, and absolutely magnificent. During the cold months, the shop owners kept it indoors in front of the window, and during the warmer ones, they placed it outside. I imagine it must have been one heck of a job moving it from one place to another! Next time I visit our old stomping ground, I should pop by and see if the plant is still there.

In any case, the Ficus Elastica seems to be an all-around favourite, with good reason. It’s beautiful and affordable and quite easy to grow. And here’s how to care for it:

Growing A Ficus Elastica

Ficus Elastica, also known as rubber tree, rubber plant, rubber fig or Indian rubber, is a species of plant in the fig genus. An evergreen tree, native to tropical areas of Asia, it can easily reach heights of 100 to 150 feet in the wild. In homes, offices and public spaces, you’ll find specimens in a range of sizes: from two to six feet, and as high as eight. Retailers also sell young Rubber Plants in 4” pots that are no more than 12” high, sometimes smaller.

One of the most popular indoor plants with its broad, glossy, oval leaves, the Ficus Elastica adds a tropical flair to any spot it graces and is an excellent choice for beginners - and a valued specimen for the more experienced. Ficus Elastica has been rightfully awarded the reputation of “easy to grow” because of its ability to adapt to lower light conditions and its willingness to endure a considerable amount of neglect. However, there is a misconception that it prefers dim lighting and thrives on slapdash care. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Ficus will put up with diffused light but it prefers full sun. You heard right, full sun. You will hear advice and arguments that this accommodating plant doesn’t do well in sun but don’t heed it if you want to provide the best care for it. The line of reasoning used to justify placing this houseplant in sunless – and sometimes very shady - locations is that its dark green leaves are a prime indicator that it simply doesn’t need sun or bright light. But as one member on a houseplant forum stated (and I quote him): “If dark leaves were an indicator of shade preference, there are plenty of oaks, maples, beech, plum, cherry, barberry, etc., that couldn't be grown, except under cover.” Great point.

The Rubber Plant wants, needs and thrives in as much light as you can possibly supply. You can place your plant in slightly filtered or full sun provided you take the time for it to get used to it. If you’ve been growing your plant in a darker location, acclimatize it to a brighter spot by gradually increasing light intensities over a period of two weeks. If you do not have any sunny spots to offer, place your Ficus in front of a window that offers the brightest location. A note of caution: Depending on where you live, you may have to offer protection against the midday sun during the summer. Watch your plant for signs of discontentment; symptoms vary but here are a possible few: white or bleached spots, yellow or light green leaves, leaves curl under, small or compact new growth, wilting. If you suspect that your plant is suffering from too much light, move it to an area that offers substantial bright light, but offers relief from direct sun as well.

Ficus has received a bad rap for dropping leaves when moved or disturbed. On the contrary, this plant will hang on to all its leaves if moved to a better location – brighter light, warmer area – as opposed to a dimmer, cooler position. If your Ficus begins dropping leaves shortly after you’ve changed its location or care, it’s in response to shoddier conditions; it’s not just a ‘typical’ Ficus tantrum.

Ficus Elastica is generally problem-free, making it that much more attractive to grow indoors. One of the only things that will injure this otherwise carefree specimen severely is poor watering habits. Highly susceptible to root rot from too much water, and quite unforgiving to critical under-watering, this plant will die with the former and drop leaves with the latter. All Ficus are very sensitive to unfavorable water habits – the greatest danger always being over-watering – and their leaves won’t hesitate to be underdeveloped, turn yellow, brown at the tips or margins, wilt and often drop (even healthy leaves can plummet prematurely).

Keep this lovely plant evenly moist during the active growing season and fairly dry during the resting period (fall and winter). Don’t place it in cold areas or drafts, especially in the winter, and make sure that the pot and medium it’s growing in allow for good drainage. Humidity is not critical; the plant grows well when moisture levels are between 30 to 50% range. If humidity drops too low, place the plant on a pebble tray filled with water to help increase the level.

For an alternative growing style, switch this lovely Ficus to hydroculture and put an end to the water juggling act for good. Make sure you give your plant optimal care during its conversion to hydroculture to avoid any negative reactions. Keep it warm, provide extra humidity if the air is too dry and do not move it to an area with lower light levels or cooler temperatures at any time. Within no time at all, your carefree plant will develop its water roots and flourish in its new growing style.

When given the appropriate care, which is very simple, this charming indoor plant is easy to grow, ideal for the novice and a wonderful choice for gift giving. I look forward to seeing many more of these plants in neighbourhood windows during this year’s marathon walks. They truly are a tropical treat.


  1. OK, I of the Killer Paws am going to buy one of these and follow your instructions. Start praying now!

    1. Ha ha...I'm sure you'll do fine! In any case, you'll have a nice plant for awhile.