Sometimes, the plants we think we know surprise us in unexpected ways. Such is the unfortunate case with the Indian rubber tree (Ficus elastica) regarding watering.
Despite a closer resemblance to regular trees, the rubber tree is actually succulent, meaning it stores water in its leaves in case of drought.
This fact can quickly haunt unsuspecting homeowners when these otherwise easily cared for plants suddenly get sick.
Thankfully, it’s not only possible to save your rubber tree plant from overwatering, but it’s also easy to prevent overwatering in the future.
How To Save Overwatered Rubber Trees?
Once you identify that a plant’s been overwatered, you need to address the issue immediately.
As potted trees have a limited ecosystem, the damage tends to advance more quickly than in a grounded specimen.
Signs Of Overwatering
When you overwater your rubber tree, it will try to let you know something’s wrong.
The first symptoms may involve swollen leaves that start to yellow.
In many cases, this will happen from the bottom up, as the ficus will sacrifice its older leaves to protect the younger ones.
As the leaves swell, they may become mushy or even droop.
They may also develop edema, which is a condition where the water causes blisters to form.
Eventually, the leaves will droop under the water weight and begin to turn brown as they die off or become infected by fungal spores.
But below ground, another drama is happening.
All excess water prevents the root hairs from obtaining oxygen and nutrients.
The hairs begin to die back and may develop root rot.
You may notice the soil become soggy, a cottony fungus may form on the surface (often accompanied by fungus gnats), and there may even be a foul odor coming from the soil.
Why Calendars Are Bad: The #1 Cause Of Overwatering
One of the biggest mistakes a plant enthusiast can make is to water on a schedule.
Plants only drink when they’re thirsty, and all but trace amounts of the water go to a process called transpiration, similar to sweating.
Temperature, sun exposure, humidity, and several other factors can all affect how often the plant will need watering.
Thus, instead of deciding when the plant will be watered, it’s always best to let the plant itself tell you, which we will talk about later on.
Salvaging An Overwatered Rubber Plant
The sooner you intervene, the easier it is to treat an overwatered plant.
Overwatering once or twice can often be remedied by simply allowing the soil to dry out enough for the plant to recover.
In more extreme cases, however, you’ll need to uproot the entire plant and transplant it to another container or part of the garden.
When removing your rubber plant, be careful not to cut any roots and rinse them off as best you can.
Obviously, this won’t be possible for a full-grown rubber tree, so you may need to treat the ground with fungicides and hope the damage isn’t extensive.
But if you can clear the soil from your plant’s roots, you can examine them for signs of root rot.
This condition will result in brown to mushy black roots that may give off a rotten odor.
You will need to remove these infected roots and soak the entire root system in a solution of 1 part bleach to 10 parts water for 20 minutes to kill off any remaining rot.
While using a fungicide is an alternative, it’s not advisable because root rot can be caused by numerous bacterial strains, not just by fungus.
Allow the roots to air dry for 2 to 3 days and repot in brand new soil with a new pot, so there’s no risk of the infection returning.
Note that it might take a few weeks for your plant to begin recovering from its emergency surgery, so avoid fertilizing for 1 to 2 months and water sparingly for the first two weeks or so.
How To Prevent Overwatering?
We’ve talked about what can cause overwatering and how to treat it, but what about some good prevention methods?
The good news is that your rubber tree is a prime candidate for the two most effective watering techniques: soak and dry and bottom-up.
Testing With The Finger Trick
The first thing you need to know is the finger trick.
This nifty little testing method requires no special equipment and is so simple you can use it while walking by your plants (at a slow pace, of course).
You see, it turns out that the average adult human hand is a great measuring tool when you use the imperial system.
The space from your fingertip to the first knuckle, first to the second knuckle, and second to the base of the finger (NOT the third knuckle) equals roughly 1” inch, meaning your index finger is a 3” inch ruler.
You can check your finger against a regular ruler to see the distances if you have bigger or smaller hands.
For rubber trees, it’s time to water when the soil is dry 1” inch down.
Just stick your finger straight down into the soil to the first knuckle and check for dampness.
Damp soil will stick to your finger if you can’t feel it.
You can also substitute a chopstick or popsicle stick, which will turn dark in the presence of moisture after several minutes.
The Soak-and-Dry Method
This method works for most plants, although it doesn’t work so well if the plant’s too bushy for you to reach the soil.
You’ll need room temperature distilled water or natural rainwater in a container that allows you to pour at a slow rate.
The trick is to pour slowly enough that the soil soaks it up immediately.
Work your way around the plant, so the soil is evenly moistened, but the plant itself doesn’t get wet (in an artificial setting, this can lead to fungal infections).
The soil itself will tell you it’s time to stop when you see it struggling to absorb as fast as you’re pouring or moisture begins to seep from the drainage holes.
The Bottom-Up Method
While not necessary for a rubber tree plant, the bottom-up method is quite popular among potted ficus enthusiasts.
Once you know it’s time to water, simply set the container in a larger container (such as a tub or deep tray) with a few inches of water.
Let the pot sit in this water for 10 to 20 minutes until the soil surface feels slightly damp.
At that point, just remove the pot from your watering container and allow any excess to drain back out of the drainage holes.
This method is great when you can’t water from the top, but it can also be an easy alternative to the soak and dry method if your plant is in a container.