Rubber trees (Hevea brasiliensis) grow in the wild in hot, humid jungle conditions. The plants also work well as house plants grown in containers. The trees grow on rubber plantations where their sap is collected for processing and manufacturing into a variety of rubber products.
For more than a thousand years before European settlers arrived, the Aztec Indians of Central America and the Inca Indians of South America used rubber. They used the rubber to make footwear, bottles, torches and balls. It took years before the settlers figured out how to use the latex, which hardened beyond use within a few hours of removal from the tree. The latex they managed to collect was used for elastics in clothing and tubing for medicinal purposes. By 1770, cubes of the sap were used as erasers in England, putting the word "rubber" into use for the first time. In the 1820s, a way to turn the hardened sap back into a usable liquid helped manufacturers create more products.
A member of the Euphoriaceae family, rubber trees grow up to 150 feet high in their native jungle habitat. The tress sport 5- to 12-inch long, glossy evergreen leaves on branches from multiple trunks. The bark of the tree produces a liquid, or sap, called latex. Workers access the sap by making shallow cuts into the tree's bark to tap into the liquid. They then collect about a quart of the milky-looking sap each day from the tree. The latex is used in all kinds of rubber products. The trees take about 25 years to reach peak production of the sap.
The trees often grow in areas where tropical rainforests were logged and clearcut to make room for rubber tree plantations. Some of the first rubber plantations formed in Java, Singapore and Sri Lanka after the British carefully shipped the seeds to these countries in the 1890s. The trees also grow in areas including southern Thailand, South America, Malaysia, Indonesia, India and along Africa's Ivory Coast.
Rubber trees grow best in sun or partial shade in well-drained soil. The drought-tolerant trees thrive in hot, humid weather where the soil dries out between waterings. In the U.S., the trees grow in hardiness zones 10 and 11. The trees also grow well in containers or above-ground planters.
The sap from the rubber tree is made into numerous products, including tires, belts, insulation for electrical writing, gloves and gaskets. A variety of toys and waterproof clothing also are made from the valuable sap. The trees work well in the landscape when used as screens or single specimens. The trees also provide shade for a patio or deck. Some people grow rubber trees indoors.