Want More Houseplants? Here's An Easy Way To Clone Your Favorites
How do you propagate a plant when you don't have seeds or when you want to speed up the propagation timeline? Vegetative cloning. It can take anywhere from eight to 12 weeks to grow a garden-ready or big-container-ready tomato transplant from seed, but you can root and start a vegetative cutting (clone) from an existing tomato plant in a quarter of that time. Each type of plant will have its own time frame. Tomatoes, for example, can start producing new roots from vegetative cuttings in a matter of days, while citrus or woody shrubs can take much longer—even months.
Another good reason for choosing vegetative propagation is when you want exact copies of the same plant you already have. You can clone your plant by taking vegetative cuttings, a piece of a stem, or other part of the plant and rooting it. Vegetative propagation requires access to a viable mother plant from which to take cuttings, as well as learning a few basic techniques. You might own a plant that was special in your family or handed down from a relative. Cloning such plants is a wonderful way to keep their legacy alive as well as gift exact copies of your special plant to family and friends.
Where to start
Different plants have varying requirements for how, where, and when to take cuttings, the ideal size of the cuttings, and how long they may take to root. Some plants, such as citrus or ivy, will root from stem and leaf-bud cuttings. You can propagate many tropicals, herbs, and perennials, such as pothos ivy and salvia, by placing a plant-stem cutting in water for a few weeks. Many succulents will root from stem cuttings but also can root from a single leaf (whole-leaf cutting). Some plants, such as peperomia, begonia, and African violets, will root from a leaf with a section of petiole attached (leaf-petiole cutting) and can also root straight from the leaf veins (non-petiole/split-vein cutting).
Some plants have evolved to produce small plantlets, or offsets (pups), that grow and develop their own root system while still attached to the mother plant. Many perennials are propagated by taking root cuttings or divisions. Some plants, such as citrus, will even produce asexual seeds that are clones of the parent plant. These clone seeds are essentially a type of vegetative reproduction. Clearly, you must get to know a few things about the plant you want to clone before you get started.
When taking cuttings, be sure to start with a vigorous, healthy mother plant that has characteristics you want to replicate. The overall health and nutrient levels of the mother plant will have a big impact on the success of your cuttings. Only take cuttings from plants that are insect- and disease-free and that don't show any nutrient or moisture stress. Also avoid taking cuttings of tissue with flowers. New cuttings need to establish a good root system before pushing out new leafy growth that they are not mature enough yet to support. Cuttings tend to root better and take off faster if the mother plant has high levels of carbohydrates and less nitrogen—stop fertilizing your mother plant with nitrogen for about a week before you take cuttings. Cuttings from younger plants tend to be more successful than cuttings taken from older, more mature plants. Sometimes cuttings from lateral shoots will root better than those taken from terminal shoots. Something else to consider is that different plants root better depending on the age of the growth.
Cuttings taken from the soft, new tip growth of annuals, herbs, perennials, and some woody plants, such as pothos ivy, basil, verbena, pelargonium, and hydrangeas, and many tropical houseplants, before it matures and hardens.
Cuttings taken from semi-mature sections of the current season's growth on plants such as rosemary, citrus, English ivy, and camellias; the tissue is still flexible but beginning to stiffen.
Cuttings taken from dormant sections of mature stems of shrubs and trees, such as hollies and junipers, in the late fall or winter. There is no active growth on these cuttings, and they are harder stems.
The time of year you take cuttings from certain plants can influence their success. It's usually better to take stem cuttings from plants when they are most actively growing. For many plants in your outside garden, the prime time to take cuttings is spring, early summer, or early fall. Early morning is the best time of day as your plant is usually fully turgid (full of water).
The key is to be efficient and take advantage of what the plant has already grown and developed. For example, when you take a stem or leaf-bud cutting, the tissue will only need to develop new adventitious roots, as the cutting already has pre-existing shoot tissue. Offsets and runners already have adventitious root systems and so can be very quick and easy to propagate. When you divide plants at the root zone, you're essentially separating a new complete plant—it will just need a little time to grow some new root tissue. A root cutting or a leaf cutting, on the other hand, must initiate both new adventitious roots and a new adventitious shoot; that means they will take longer to form new plants than stem and leaf-bud cuttings, offsets, and divisions.
Some species of plants are not easy to clone vegetatively. Certain pome fruits, such as peach, apple, pear, and cherry, as well as other woody plants, don't root well from cuttings. They are typically propagated by grafting and budding, which are more advanced propagation techniques not covered within the scope of this book. Such plants can be challenging for beginner propagators. Plants such as irises cannot be propagated from leaf cuttings, but you can easily divide their rhizomes.
It's the perfect time of year to try plant propagation, and this is a great place to start!
Leslie F. Halleck is a dedicated professional horticulturist and life-long gardener passionate about plants, gardening, and the horticulture industry. She currently lives in Dallas, Texas, and holds a master's in horticulture from Michigan State University and bachelor's in biology and botany from The University of North Texas. She is a Certified Professional Horticulturist (CPH) via The American Society for Horticulture Science, with more than 25 years of green industry work. Halleck is an award-winning writer for industry and consumer publications and authored Gardening Under Lights; The Complete Guide for Indoor Growers and Plant Parenting: Easy Ways to Make More Houseplants, Vegetables, and Flowers. Her two books go hand-in-hand for anyone interested in indoor gardening. Halleck currently runs Halleck Horticultural, LLC, a consulting company.