Rubber plants (Ficus elastica) make beautiful houseplants and can easily grow to 6-8” indoors. But what if you want a bushy appearance to your plant, rather than a tall giant that’s heading for the ceiling?
The secret to a bushy rubber plant is effective and careful pruning. More than that, it’s the only guaranteed way of getting your rubber plant under control and filling out in the bushy way you want it to.
In this article we’ll cover how to properly prune your rubber plant, the best ways to prevent a ‘leggy’ appearance and how to buy rubber plants that will give you that ‘bushy’ plant look.
Pruning to make a rubber plant bushy
Pruning is the contradictory art of cutting back growth you don’t want to encourage the kind of growth you do. In the case of the rubber plant, that means cutting away growth that doesn’t help the plant get a bushy look, so that growth can take place in such a way as to give you the bushy look you’re aiming for.
First, examine your rubber plant. If you look at a rubber plant, you should see it has what are called “nodes” just above each existing leaf. You should still be able to see them just above the leaves on your rubber plant, though.
Find the nodes. Nodes are important to this process. Because nodes on the stem are the above-grown equivalent of seeds in the earth – they’re the point from which new growth… grows.
Got yourself a node? Good. Does it have a leaf sheath extending from it? (Naturally, you can do this in reverse – find the leaf sheath and follow it down to the node).
If you see a leaf sheath, pinch it at the base, and snap it back.
Yes, it absolutely feels like leaf-murder, but the point is right now, the leaf sheath is “It.” Once it started growing, it sent signals to the node, to stop the node producing any new growth.
Snap the unproductive leaf sheath and you free up the node to start new growth again. New growth means more leaves, means more bushiness in your rubber plant. It’s not exactly being cruel to be kind, but it is being cruel so the plant will do what you want it to. Which, if it helps you sleep at night, is absolutely what you should tell yourself.
Incidentally, when you snap back the leaf sheath, it will technically “bleed” a white substance that can irritate sensitive skin, so be careful as you go about your leaf-sheath killing spree.
On the other hand, the node should start growing again within a few weeks or months and begin that process of adding foliage for a bushier look.
Pruning with shears
Don’t want to snap the neck of your leaf-sheaths by hand? Bring out the sterilized pruning shears – there’s another way. This is fairly simply known as cutting back new growth. The effect is largely the same, but the process is different.
Take your pruning shears and make a cut about half an inch above a leaf/node combination. This is a tricky judgment, because if you take it too close to the node, you risk endangering the action of the node, but if you cut it too far from the node, it can actually rot, and damage your plant. Half an inch or so is ideal.
Cutting above the node has a similar effect as pinching back the new growth – it frees the node to start growing again, and new branching will eventually extend from the node.
There’s a third technique for the extra-specially squeamish plant-lover, which is called “Notching.”
In the notching technique, you’re not killing or cutting off new growth at all.
Find a point on the stem roughly halfway between two nodes. Then use your pruning shears to make an angled cut, going about a quarter of the way through the stem. Bear in mind, if your shears aren’t sharp enough, all you’ll do is scar the stem, and the plant won’t branch from the scar.
Mark your notch with some easily identifiable marker like a piece of ribbon, and then check back on the nearest nodes regularly. If you’ve done it right, you should see new growth from the nearest nodes within around a month.
Those are the three easiest ways to get new growth on your rubber plant and encourage a bushier look:
- Pinch back new growth
- Cut back new growth
Of course, all of these methods assume you’re also giving your rubber plant all the other things it needs, from light to water, to humidity, to nutrition. A plant in its optimum conditions will grow faster and better.
Pruning steps to remember
Sterilize your cutters
Sterilizing your cutters is important, regardless of what plant you are pruning. You can use rubbing alcohol or white vinegar to clean them. Sterilization prevents any infection entering the cut you make in the plant. So, always sterilize before you prune. As we said, you’d expect a surgeon to sterilize their scalpels before making an incision into you, and the same reasons apply to plants.
Pruning the plant
Note where on the plant you wish to see more growth and prune there. Pruning in the area you wish to see more bushiness will stimulate growth in that area. Make cuts at the base stem of the leaf – do not just cut the leaf from its stem. You want to prune the whole leaf and stem from the ‘trunk’ of the plant.
Once you have finished pruning, you can now use the cuttings to propagate a new plant if you wish to.
Pruning your plant will require some care afterwards, do not induce any stress on the plant and give it time to recover from this ordeal.
Be sure to manage your plant, ensuring adequate watering, sun, nutrients, and humidity. The more optimal the conditions are post-pruning, the happier the plant will be, and thus, your plant will produce a bushier appearance with more speed and enthusiasm.
How to prevent your rubber plant looking leggy
Sometimes a plant will look leggy and bare if it is not getting enough sunlight, nutrition, or water. Pruning alone cannot make a plant bushy if the plant is not getting what it needs to increase its growth. You can see our article on rubber plant care here.
So before wielding your pruning shears, try moving your plant to a sunnier spot and ensure that it’s watered when the top of inch soil becomes dry.
Buying and arranging bushy rubber plants
If you’re buying new rubber plants, there’s a trick to getting a plant with a bushy appearance. Instead of buying a single plant, buy 3 smaller plants and pot them up together in the same pot. These plants will grow into the most glorious bushy specimen.
Some plant sellers have started selling rubber plants like this already made up. So, if you don’t want the hassle of transplanting 3 plants, all the hard work is already done for you.