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.
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.
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.