Your rubber tree has been looking a little peaked lately. Once a handsome young specimen full of glossy green leaves, the plant is crowned with vigorous growth on the tip and a long expanse of bare trunk reaching down to the roots. How do you restore it to its former glory? Air-layering to the rescue!
Perhaps you are a veteran of rooting soft-stemmed African Violets, impatiens, coleus and other easy-to-root favorites, but rubber trees and most woody-stemmed plants are a horse of a different color. Such plants often take on the appearance of a middle-aged man with a bit on top and nothing else, but rescuing them from their dotage takes art.
Woody-stemmed plants can’t just be plopped into a jar of water to root. Sometimes they can be rooted successfully with rooting hormone and ample patience, but the safest way is by air-layering. Air-layering is a method of rooting a cutting while it is still attached. In fact, if you visit a tropical greenhouse, you will see that many tropical trees will spontaneously sprout roots from mid-trunk in a high humidity environment. Such trees are the easiest to air-layer, but this method is also useful for saving fruit trees, including peaches and many others whose homes are far from the tropics.
To do this, you will need a sharp knife, some rubber bands or twin, a couple of plastic bags, and your choice of peat moss (long-fibered if you can find it) or a sterile, soil-less mix such as Miracle Grow. Rooting hormone is helpful, but optional.
Begin by examining your plant to locate the areas where branches naturally sprout. You will see a bump or a scar on the stem where leaves or branches once were. When you have located this spot, take a sharp knife and cut a piece out of the stem right where the plant would have had a branch or leaf sprout during its salad days. Leave the other side of the stem alone since it will provide necessary moisture and nutrition while the injured plant starts forming roots.
If you have it, apply rooting hormone to the injured area. If not, proceed to step two. Moisten the peat moss or soil-less mix. Rip a piece from one of the plastic bags and deposit a small amount of moistened growing material. Wrap the bag and moist soil around the injured plant and return it to its usually place in the window. Take the second, larger bag and put it over the pot to provide supplemental moisture while the plant heals.
When the roots are large and visible through the plastic dressing, saw through the trunk entirely, unwrap the roots and plant the rejuvenated tree in a small plastic pot. Keep the large plastic bag on top and water normally for now. As time goes by, begin puncturing the bag each day to reduce the humidity levels and prepare it for the day it will stand on its own with the other mature plants in your window.
Air-layering can restore an aging tree or save a tree whose roots are under attack by soil pests like nematodes. It is one of the easiest propagation techniques to master and provides gratifying results.