Ficus elastica (rubber tree): best timing for prune and repot

mizbrendab(8)May 16, 2012

I have a 6-foot-plus Ficus elastica (rubber tree). It has over twenty branches coming off the main trunk, many of which are long and gangly with leaves mostly at the ends of the branches. It is currently putting on new leaves on most of the branches. I want to cut it back, root prune, and put it in the gritty mix.

I have read that it's best to repot around father's day, but I want to get the timing and order right for pruning the branches, also. I'm thinking I should cut it back hard now and wait for the new growth to come back. Then repot with root prune in a month. But maybe it is best to repot first so that there are more leaves to photosynthesize and help grow new roots. I'm not sure if I'm thinking about this correctly.

Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

I would do the root work first - early to mid Jun, wait about 2-3 weeks for the tree to get its feet back under it, then cut all the branches back to 2 leaves, but leave the leader unpruned if you want the tree to grow taller. Depending on how the tree responds, you might be able to do some additional pruning before fall - hard to say w/o a picture.


    Bookmark   May 16, 2012 at 10:13PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Thanks, Al.

I don't want the tree taller since it reaches the ceiling and is difficult to move. The leader splits in two. The whole thing curves and threatens to tip over. There are several large roots visible at the base.

Here are some photos:

    Bookmark   May 17, 2012 at 7:37PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Your Rubber Tree is quite obviously healthy and thriving. Pruning is like getting a haircut. It can be done at anytime of the year and you can prune it as much or as little as you like according to YOUR taste. Just remember that new growth will emerge on each pruned stem just below the pruning cut and grow out and up from there. So you get to control its height, width and shape in the way that you like - just like your hair.

What do you hope to accomplish by root pruning? If you are trying to control the size of the plant, then pruning the stems is all that is required. Root pruning is best done only when a plant's roots have completely outgrown their pot and you don't want to move it into a larger pot. There is no evidence that yours has badly outgrown its existing pot. Indeed, its overall health argues for leaving the roots alone, at least for now.

Like stem pruning, root pruning is non-seasonal with tropical indoor plants and can be done at any time of year.


    Bookmark   May 17, 2012 at 8:22PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

This plant has been dropping leaves for months, so it is not thriving. It has been in the same pot for 6 years and has certainly outgrown the pot (roots are growing out the bottom). I would prefer to maintain the pot size.

    Bookmark   May 17, 2012 at 8:34PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

While it's true you CAN prune or not prune as you wish, there are good reasons to avoid pruning at certain times of the year; and the fastest recovery time comes when major work is done (hard pruning and repotting) on tropical trees in the summer, when energy levels are high and the recovery period longer - before the short days of winter come into play.

Comparing pruning a tree to cutting your hair is a poor analogy. It might be closer to appropriate if your hair was where your food supply came from, as foliage is ultimately the apparatus responsible for a plant's source of food. When you cut half your hair off, you hardly miss it, but reduce the foliage by half and you just put your tree on half rations. You can prune your hair and your trees both on a whim, but one of the two operations is best undertaken with a little forethought and consideration of timing.

Brenda - Your tree doesn't appear to be on death's door, but I wouldn't describe it as healthy/thriving either. Obviously you recognize it's declining and want to be proactive in preventing further decline and minimizing the risk of working on a tree that isn't going to turn itself around. I do see what appears to be a very good opportunity to shorten the tree considerably, or you can rather easily correct the co-dominant leader problem if you want to. There is enough foliage on the tree that you can make the correction now if you want, do the repot in a month or so, and then do the hard pruning shortly after that.

I don't see much risk in getting your tree back on track at this point. Lemme know if you're up for it and what you'd like to do about the pruning.


    Bookmark   May 17, 2012 at 10:17PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Yes, I'm up for it, Al. I would like to shorten the tree by a few feet. That said, I do enjoy having a large plant. I want it to be more compact and stable.


    Bookmark   May 17, 2012 at 10:42PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

Tell me if I'm reading the picture correctly. Refer to the second picture you posted. About 1/4 of the way up from the soil line, there is a branch that appears to be wanting to grow nearly vertical. It appears to cross the trunk line in the picture from left to right. Is that how the branch really is, or am I losing perspective because of the 2D photo?

What I'm thinking is that branch will be the new leader, if it's orientation appropriate. If it's not - pick another branch as the new leader. I'll try to explain this without making it too complicated. You'll be eventually doing away with the main trunk from somewhere below where it forks into co-dominant leaders. For now though, those branches, or one of them, is a convenient 'post' you can use to secure the new leader in place. You'll cut all the branches off of those two leaders and tie a new leader that best balances the tree. It will be a branch that leans in the opposite direction of the main trunk-line. After the branch is secured in place, you can cut the main leader back to a point just above where you have it secured. Once the new leader puts on enough new wood that it will remain rigid in its new position, you cut off the old leader immediately above where the new leader branches off the main trunk line.

This is called a trunk chop. In bonsai, it's used on almost every quality tree, several times per tree, as an aid in developing a tapered trunk, which adds to the illusion of great age. All hobby growers should be aware of its value in shortening a tree in a way that produces a natural looking end result.

You can see the already nearly healed scar on this young maple where the trunk was severed and a branch trained upward. The tree is already being prepared for a second 'chop', which will occur immediately above the fine branch that is wired. This procedure will occur several times, each time removing the 'sacrifice' branch whose only function is to increase thickening of the wood below it's junction to the main stem.

After you complete the repot, we'll be able to start working on the branches & ramification (bushiness).


    Bookmark   May 18, 2012 at 10:43AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

I see the branch you mean, Al. Yes, it could be tied to go straight up. It may be worth noting that, like most of the large branches, it has been cut and has a new branch starting in the notch next to the cut. Does that still make it a good candidate?

I can see that I'm going to lose a lot of tree eventually if everything above that new leader is cut. Gulp. It's interesting how hard change can be, even if I want it.

Okay, I'll start by tying it up and prepare to chop the old leader down to the ties (waiting to make sure you think the new leader will work even with it's top cut).

    Bookmark   May 18, 2012 at 2:05PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

Clarification: You wrote, "You'll cut all the branches off of those two leaders and tie a new leader. . ." So will I be cutting ALL branches off the main leader above the new leader? Obviously that means a lot of foliage. Okay before the repot? Or maybe you mean just the branches at the top after the split?

I have tied up the new leader but haven't cut anything yet. There were a few branches to maneuver around for the tying, but I think it works. I'm also wondering how tightly to tie it. I'm worried it will learn to lean like the old leader.

Here it is after tying:

    Bookmark   May 18, 2012 at 2:39PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

OK - that's good. The only thing you need any part of the old leader for is to provide an anchor for the new leader - to hold it in place. You can cut all the branches off the old leader, including the half of the 'Y' you aren't using, and you can sever the old leader just above where you have the highest tie on the new leader. I would also tip-prune everything now. Every branch with more than 4 leaves would get just the tip of the branch (the apical meristem) pruned off. This will significantly reduce the polar flow of auxin toward the roots and create a lot of back-budding. If it's possible to move the tree outdoors, it will really speed things up and help with the back-budding, too. Don't worry, you'll still have plenty of foliage left on the tree to jump-start the root system after you repot.

By this time next year, the new leader will prolly stand on it's own, so you'll be able to eliminate the support it's tied to. Now that you know how to cut the tree back and 'rebalance' it, you shouldn't have to worry about it leaning. If it favors one side, just choose a new branch that balances the tree out and make it the new leader. At some point, it's possible you might even want to chop the trunk back BELOW the new leader you just created. I'm sure you'll be pleased with your efforts.


    Bookmark   May 18, 2012 at 5:32PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

I went ahead with the cutting you described: all the branches on the old leader, the other side of the Y, and tips of everything else. I'm surprised by how much I like the new shape. It's a whole new plant for sure and I can really see a nice future for it. Thanks!!

I guess we come back to it in a few weeks for the repot. . .

    Bookmark   May 18, 2012 at 10:30PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

Glad you're happy. Try not to be nervous. I have no doubt about how well your plant will respond to your ministrations and how quickly it will bounce right back. It's easy to imagine, once you've actually observed the time it takes to bounce back, how much longer it would have taken if you'd done the pruning in the winter ...... and setting the additional stress of repotting close on the heels of a hard pruning just doesn't make sense at any other time but summer, unless your hand is forced by emergency.

Best luck - you need more trees! Al

    Bookmark   May 19, 2012 at 5:22AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo


Oh, I do indeed have more trees! I am a bit overwhelmed by the number of pots both in and outside of my home. I am an incurable collector. I could ask you questions about them all day. . .

Back in March, you answered several of my questions about making the gritty mix when I was just embarking upon that adventure. I put a few plants that were on death's doorstep in the mix then. A few didn't make it (a draceana among them), a few are thriving (the aloe and spider plant love the mix!), most have held steady and are starting to show signs of growth (shefflera, swiss cheese philodendron). So I do have a sense of the patience required when repotting before the optimal time. I'm looking forward to seeing the results of undertaking things at the right time. It's been nice to practice with the mix, learn about it's water retention, and begin to tweak it for my needs before I moved my most-beloveds into it.

This week I chopped an enormous floppy jade back to it's thick base and put it in the mix. Looking forward to that development. Also a favorite cactus whose name I don't know; it's about four feet tall, main stalk about 3-4" diameter with five stalks coming off the main, so maneuvering it was an exciting project. I was nervous about that one, but glad I did it when I got in there and saw how cemented the roots were in the hardest soil I've ever dealt with. I have a ficus lyrata (fiddle fig) that also reaches the ceiling, so I'm using your advice to give it a new shape. I'm planning on following roughly the same timing for it as for the elastica.

I have a very big Bloodgood maple in a pot that's too big to move. I'd love to get that back to a manageable size, but it has just leafed out beautifully and I'm thinking that it is not the right time for that. Your comments are welcome.

My other big question involves conifers. I have a very sick Wilma Goldcrest Cypress, and some kind of arborvitae (I think). I've noted that you don't recommend bare-rooting these, but cutting wedges. Is that correct? What about timing?

Okay, I've rambled enough. As you can probably tell now, I'm addicted (like many folks I've read on this site). Thanks again for your help. I'm really enjoying learning about the plants, seeing their roots, and giving them conditions to thrive.


    Bookmark   May 20, 2012 at 6:29PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
tapla (mid-MI z5b-6a)

.... read your comments with interest. I just did a MAJOR overhaul of a mini jade today, too. It's one I've shown pictures of many times. It will be at least a couple of years getting back into anything resembling the shape it was in prior to the operation. That's how it goes with bonsai. Eventually, they outgrow their style and need a do-over. Half the fun of bonsai and houseplants for me, is reading their tendencies and bringing them along in a way that incorporates their best assets into the vision their growth habit suggests. In bonsai, that's referred to 'listening to the tree', or the tree telling you what it wants to be.

The bloodgood can be pruned hard now if you wish. It has plenty of time to recover, but don't dally if you're going to do it. If you think the roots are tight, pot up and wait until spring, at the first hint of bud movement to repot. Because of their brushy habit, they're pretty easy to reduce.

I bet you bought the cypress because it smells like lemons - yes? Are you keeping it indoors? how about the Thuja? Any idea what might be wrong? Insects - disease - tight roots - collapsed soil - nutrition .....? Using what for fertilizer?

Both the cypress & the (not a true) cedar should be repotted in spring, but you could pot up if you think it's tight feet that's limiting the plants.

How about starting a thread to document your progress on the elastica and lyrata. I'm sure it would be a very good way to help others visualize what can be done to restructure a too tall tree.


    Bookmark   May 20, 2012 at 8:05PM
Sign Up to comment
More Discussions
Avocado Plant Leaf Trouble
I started an avocado plant from a over the winter,...
Patrick Johnston
Question on pot-up house Azaleas
I have no problem growing florist Azalea as a houseplant....
Satus Update!
It was 52 degrees yesterday, and in my yard I found...
Is my pothos dying?
I bought a beautiful verigated pothos a few weeks ago...
How to introduce houseplants to outside and should i worry bout rodent
I got a lot of house plants in the last 9 months. I...
Sponsored Products
Hinkley Lighting Luna Bronze Outdoor Wall Light
$89.00 | LuxeDecor
Good Housekeeping Solar Screens
Hinkley Lighting Chandler Black Incandescent Outdoor Wall Light
$299.00 | LuxeDecor
Darya Rugs Persian, Red, 4'0" x 9'5" M5765-15659
Bitterroot Bit and Spur
Copeland Furniture | Contour Bed
Hinkley Lighting Accent Bronze 8 Watt LED Medium Beam Outdoor Landscape Light
$159.00 | LuxeDecor
Danze® Opulence™ Two Handle Wall Mount Lavatory Faucet Trim Kit - Polished Nicke
Modern Bathroom
Hinkley Lighting Eleanor Polished Antique Nickel 15-Light 44.25 Wide Chandelier
© 2015 Houzz Inc. Houzz® The new way to design your home™