Rubber plant left outside by shed, 2021

Dead Plant Growing

This rubber plant (Ficus elastica) is on Death Row. It was there all summer, but didn’t know it. The plant thought it was on a holiday, but nights are cooler now. In a month or two, there will be a clear night with frost, and the rubber plant will die.

Rubber plant left outside by shed, 2021
Doomed rubber plant awaiting a killing frost.

The plant has a history. It is a clone (via many cuttings and air layering) of one acquired by my mother at least sixty years ago, maybe more. Every house she lived in (and my parents moved a lot) had a rubber tree in the living room. Mom liked the leaves, which could grow to two feet long while remaining relatively narrow. Maybe that’s why she put up with the plant’s growth habit in suboptimal conditions–a single stem that eventually threatened to scrape the ceiling, or acquired an ungainly lean. At that point it would be decapitated, and the cut off piece would be rooted to make a new plant. Meanwhile, the original put out a branch at right angles to the stem, which made it look like a gibbet with leaves.

Rubber plants grown in their preferred conditions look much better. (Photo by Daria Shevtsova on Pexels.com)

Eventually, Mom got rid of her rubber tree. By that time she lived in a small apartment and had also acquired a fiddle-leaf fig (Ficus lyrata), which she liked better than the rubber plant. It certainly looked better. But by then I also had a clone of the rubber plant. It wasn’t welcome in our living room, which at the time hosted two big weeping figs (Ficus benjamina), so it was relegated to what became my writing room in the basement. It’s a low-ceilinged room, and while it’s south-facing, there really isn’t enough sun for the rubber plant. So said plant ended up looking like a gibbet for gnomes. Mind you, it was present while I wrote my first novel and several others.

My mother died in October of 2018. Although I was tired of the rubber plant, which was not doing well, I felt obliged to keep it going in her memory. By this summer, the plant really was a thing of ugly. I decided that rather than watch its slow decline, I would put it outside and let the first frost kill it decisively.

Of course, with more light and lots of summer heat, the rubber plant grew new leaves, which reminded me why my mom liked the plant in the first place. But its proportions haven’t improved; if anything, the extra foliage has made it even more of a hulking mess. It wouldn’t be easy to find a spot for it in its old quarters, and it would likely go into a decline again over the winter. So it’s now on Death Row.

As a gardener, I feel a certain amount of guilt about this. If the rubber plant were a cat or dog that just happened to look old and scruffy, I wouldn’t be planning its demise, would I? On the other hand, gardeners rip out and kill healthy weeds without compunction. Maybe it’s because this is a house plant, and of course there’s that connection with my mother.

I thought about propagating a new plant. Unlike animals, plants are sort of immortal in that new clones can be created through cuttings or tissue cultures. The best way to make a new rubber plant is a technique called air layering. You cut partway through a branch and wrap the cut area with sphagnum moss, making sure to keep the cut open. Wrap plastic around the moss and stem and keep the moss damp. Roots grow in several weeks, at which point the new plant may be removed and potted up. My current plant was produced this way, and its predecessor dispatched. I blogged about that HERE.

The trouble is that under the same suboptimal growing conditions that produced ugly specimens before, a new rubber plant would be no different. Watching my various rubber plants looking less than beautiful was not a happy experience, so I’ve decided it’s time to bid Ficus elastica a fond farewell.

45 comments

  1. At this stage Audrey I expect there will be lots of last minute appeals to the Governor(You) to have the sentence commuted. This leaving the plant to try and survive frosts could be classed as cruel and unusual punishment and might not fit with the State Ethos.
    Huge Hugs

    Liked by 2 people

  2. “Everyone knows that an ant, can’t, move a rubber tree plant. But he’s got…”

    Hang the plant from one as a warning to all other plants in the area: Audrey will not tolerate scraggly ugly. (Or, maybe your species has the genes to save the entire race? Rubber blight is raging through SE Asia, you know.)

    Didn’t know what a gibbet was, nice: https://allthatsinteresting.com/gibbet Gibbet gravy, mmm.

    Like

    1. I think rubber blight affects the true rubber tree (Hevea brasilensis), which is the main source of natural rubber. Ficus elastica (a.k.a. rubber plant) is mostly an ornamental outside of its natural range. I didn’t know all that until I did some checking for this post.
      Don’t think I’d like gibbet gravy.

      Like

  3. I had a rubber tree for years, Audrey. I like them, but I understand the choices, especially when plants need to be brought inside as they do here. My entire garden lives according to the laws of “survival of the fittest.”

    BTW, thank you for the review of The Sorcerer’s Garden. I was tickled to find it. πŸ™‚

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Those types of plants are weeds in Australia. If you put one outside, the roots escape the pot and it takes over the garden. Taking one out is the equivalent of taking on a dragon with a steak-knife — which is what we had to do when we moved into our current house, and we found roots going into a neighbour’s garden four houses away!
    I say kill it quick, painless as possible, and know you gave life to it for long enough in a place where it not only didn’t belong, but struggled to breathe. Now it will be free.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. In their natural environments, they get to 100 feet tall and have aerial roots. No way that’s going to happen here; it won’t survive a temperature of 0 degrees C, which we’re sure to get soon. But you have a point–the quick chop may be the kindest cut.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. You might not be a fan of athletics, Audrey, but I’m going with a sports analogy here. I played baseball with a guy who used a favorite bat for a long time. He experimented with others but always came back to it. After several years, the bat broke during a game, but the baseball landed just over an infielder’s head to score the winning run. His parting words about his bat were, “At least it died a hero.”

    Great history about the rubber plant. I would say it’s dying a hero too, considering how much pleasure it gave you and your mom.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. With power comes responsibility I guess.
    Maybe all the other plants will be glad, more room for them?
    I have to do as my garden tells me and leave them all to slug it out (apart from unidentified by spikey woody critter which got its notice last week)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Rubber plants are tropicals, so it’s not going to survive 0 degrees C. You have to wonder who got the idea to turn something into a houseplant that grows huge (100 feet with all kinds of aerial roots) in its native habitat. It’s like trying to make an elephant into a house pet. It’s amazing that between my mom and me we kept rubber plants going for several decades.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I’d beg for clemency except that I don’t like rubber plants either. That said, could you put the poor thing in a relatively sheltered spot so that it has a ‘chance’ even if only a teensy weensy one? Then it would be as Diana says – survival of the fittest. πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Against the garden shed, under a tree and facing west is about as good a spot as it can get. I’d be really surprised if it survives even a light frost, but if it did, it would deserve another chance. It’s already had a couple of 2 degree nights, but not yet 0.
      On the other hand, maybe I should just dispatch it quickly. πŸ˜‰

      Liked by 1 person

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