Ask a Question forum: Rubber Plant Ficus Elastica Help!

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Name: Oli
Surrey, England
Mar 28, 2017 8:30 AM CST
Hello there,

Please help, I am very worried about my indoor rubber plant.
It has been dropping numerous leaves over the past 2 months.
Background... I have had the plant for about 5 years and all has been well until around four months ago. I went away on vacation for one week, it was Winter in the UK and my apartment got very cold, maybe almost freezing as I did not leave the heating on. Just before I went away, I watered my plant and I guess it has now subsequently got frost damage.
One month ago, I have re-potted the plant into new soil, specially for indoor plants. I have given a few inches at the bottom of the pot of gravel specially designed for plants for extra drainage. I have only watered the plant once since then with rain water. The soil at the top of the pot is only just dry and still slightly moist a few inches down.
The plant sits near a window and has a decent amount of light, it has been in that position for a few years.
I am worried, after two more leaves fell off today that the plant is going to die! Is there anything I can do to prevent further damage or is it already too late?

Many thanks in advance..

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Name: Will Creed
Professional indoor plant consultan
Mar 28, 2017 5:21 PM CST
No doubt the cold temps caused some chilling damage, but I would be more concerned about the subsequent repotting. Repotting is rarely a cure for anything other than extreme potboundedness and never a good idea for plants that are ailing. Repotting an unhealthy plant simply adds to the stress. In addition, adding "drainage materiel" to the bottom of a pot is an out-dated and largely discredited practice.

You will have to be very careful not to over water because that is easy to do with recently repotted plants. Allow the top one quarter of the soil to dry before adding just enough water so that it reaches that same level of dryness again in a week.

Remove the discolored leaves as they will not recover. I also suggest pruning back the tall stem that has lost many of its middle leaves.

Finally, keep it close to and in front of a very sunny window.
Will Creed
Horticultural Help, NYC
Contact me directly at [email protected]
I now have a book available on indoor plant care
Name: Hetty
Sunny Naples, Florida (Zone 10a)
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Mar 28, 2017 6:23 PM CST
Yeah, these plants do not take kindly to changes in temperature or conditions, but I feel it should recover eventually.
Name: Liz Shaw
Gilbert, AZ (Sunset Zone 13) (Zone 9a)
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Mar 28, 2017 6:45 PM CST
I have one planted outside, and it has been lightly frozen repeatedly as well as being baked in the Arizona summer. Nothing kills it. Just keeps coming back. Prune off the dead parts. It will revive.
And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom. -Anaïs Nin
Name: Oli
Surrey, England
Mar 30, 2017 4:24 PM CST
Thank you to all who commented, all very very helpful and interesting especially to WillC, I have removed the dead leaves and will keep an eye on the watering levels.
I am also moving it to a brighter window to give it the best chance!

Thank You!

Name: Tiffany purpleinopp
Opp, AL 🌵🌷⚘🌹🌻 (Zone 8b)
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Apr 1, 2017 6:11 AM CST
Assuming you want your plant to stay alive for many years, decades, caring for the roots will be necessary, and is how bonsai masters are able to keep potted specimens alive for hundreds of years. Any plant can only be as healthy as its' roots.

There is a huge difference between repotting and potting-up.

Negative experiences in regard to potting-up, where an undisturbed root ball is placed into a bigger pot with more soil around it, vs. doing a repotting, as described below, can give rise to old wives' tales about plants not liking to be repotted/disturbed. Potting-up a root-bound plant that has roots surrounding the outside root ball often lead to this negative experience because those roots had adapted to accessing oxygen around the outside of the root ball and surrounding them with more dense, soggy-but-airless potting soil will likely lead to suffocation.

What is necessary for plants to stay alive is for their roots to not rot, which can happen so easily in a pot with dense soils, like ground dirt, or bagged mixes of predominantly tiny particles of peat, (or to simply shrivel from simply never getting any water.) Having very little soil around the roots would make the soil dry more quickly, and for even the most dedicated plant-overwaterers to not rot the roots of their plants. This is not ideal, since most non-cactus plants are stressed by dry conditions, it's just a way of coping with soil that has little air in it when moist.

When you unpot a plant and find a pancake of roots at the bottom, chopping that off will give roots a chance to grow normally again for a while and will make removing the old soil easier.

Roots need oxygen & moisture at the same time to function. Just air = shriveling. Just moisture = suffocation & rotting. Either will cause root death and dessicated foliage because the roots have been unable to deliver moisture. Having to let soil dry, as if ones' tropical jungle plant was a cactus, is an unnecessarily stressful coping mechanism for non-desert dwelling plants in soil without enough oxygen for the roots to stay healthy when it is moist and can lead to premature loss of older leaves and in extreme cases, dry shriveled roots/dead plant.

The ability of roots to be able to function properly depends greatly on the soil structure/texture, which can change over time. Potting soil tends to be very dense, mostly peat, with very little air in it. Any kind of organic ingredients decompose into smaller bits over time, and roots fill air spaces over time as they grow through soil. Replacing soil periodically is usually necessary to keep plants healthy because of these reasons. A more porous, chunky, airy soil (like cactus/palm, if one is buying bagged,) can have more air in it even when it is moist because there is space between the particles. When there are tiny particles of any kind in a pot, such as peat, sand, silt, clay, they filter into all of the tiny spaces in a pot, eliminating the air. "Overwatering" is the label and manifestation when roots have suffocated and/or rotted, combo of both. Over time, organic bits decompose into smaller bits, so even the "best" soil, if it has organic components, will need to be replaced when this happens. The speed at which this happens depends on many variables, but on average, about 1-3 years.
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