For some reason, houseplant enthusiasts often tend to forget about orchids when it comes to propagation. They’re seen as fussy plants that are already difficult to keep alive, so better just leave them alone – but there’s no need! Learn how to propagate an orchid to easily multiply thriving plants.
Keep reading for everything you need to know about how to propagate an orchid 5 different ways.
How to propagate an orchid: What you’ll need
Propagating an orchid is not too challenging in most cases and you don’t need a lot of equipment. Although the methods are quite specific, anyone can do it at home with the right instructions, even if you’re new to orchids.
Disinfected pruning shears (you can disinfect with rubbing alcohol)
Appropriately sized orchid planters or orchid hangers
Your orchid (make sure it’s healthy and not blooming!)
How to propagate an orchid: The myths
One thing to keep in mind about how to propagate an orchid is that, as with other orchid care aspects, there are quite a few myths out there about how to propagate them.
First off, I’ve stumbled upon multiple articles stating that it’s possible to propagate an orchid using just air roots. That would be awesome, but it’s not true. It just doesn’t work, as roots don’t contain the right cells to produce new growth.
The same applies to trying to propagate a Phalaenopsis orchid (also known as the moth orchid) through flower stem cuttings. The flower stem can’t be used to grow new plants unless there is a keiki present (see below for more information about this!).
Lastly, there’s leaf propagation. Re-growing a plant from a single leaf works for some species, like succulents and Begonia, but unfortunately not for orchids. The leaf would have to have some stem attached, as that’s the only part that contains the right cells for regrowing.
Now that we’ve established how not to propagate an orchid, let’s go into the actual propagation options!
Note: As mentioned by Orchideria, jewel orchids (genus Ludisia) are an exception to the last myth. They can be propagated through just leaves and also very easily through normal stem cuttings. They’re just a bit different from other orchids!
How to grow an orchid from a cutting
As mentioned above, an orchid like a Phalaenopsis can’t be propagated using a flower stem cutting. That doesn’t mean stem cuttings are out, though!
Monopodial orchid stem cuttings
You can propagate a Phalaenopsis or another monopodial (single-stemmed) orchid like a Vanda by cutting the stem. The thing is, we’re not talking a flower stem here, we’re talking mature orchids that have so many leaves stacked on top of each other that a good-sized stem has formed.
You can take a clean knife or shears to basically cut your orchid in half, referred to as topping the plant. The bottom bit, which has roots, can be left in the current container and will continue growing with the right care.
The root-less top part can be planted in moist sphagnum moss. With some luck, it’ll throw roots and continue growing as usual.
Sympodial orchid stem cuttings
Sympodial orchids are those that don’t grow from a single stem, but form multiple canes or bulbs. Most of these stems can’t be used for propagation by means of cuttings.
One exception to this is the popular Dendrobium nobile. You can cut up the canes from this species and place them in a covered seedling tray with wet sphagnum. As long as each cutting contains a few nodes, some of them will sprout brand new Dendrobiums.
Vining orchid stem cuttings
Although they’re less popular, there are some vining orchid species out there. An example is Vanilla planifolia, also known as the vanilla orchid. Yes, that is indeed the species that produces vanilla pods! Not the easiest orchid to keep alive, but a pretty cool addition to your collection.
As you can imagine, propagating a vining orchid is a piece of cake. No bother with topping or chopping up canes: just snip the vine wherever you want and the cuttings will root. This also works with Ludisia orchids!
How to propagate an orchid through division
Dividing an orchid involves separating the rhizome. This is obviously something that can only be done using multi-stemmed (sympodial) orchids like Dendrobium or Cattleya. In monopodial orchids like Phalaenopsis there is nothing to separate, after all.
To propagate an orchid through division, make sure you’ve got a healthy, adult plant with plenty of canes/pseudobulbs. Take the orchid out of its planter and untangle the roots, dividing the rhizome clump into new orchids that have 3-4 actively growing bulbs/canes each. In most cases, this means splitting your plant in half.
Plant both halves of your orchid in a suitable medium. They should keep growing without much issue, as each plant will already have a root system of its own.
How to propagate an orchid from keikis
‘Keiki’ is a Hawaiian word meaning baby or child. In the case of growing orchids, it’s pretty accurate, as it refers to tiny copies of herself that an orchid mother plant can grow on her stems or at her base.
As you can imagine, you’re in luck if your orchid grows a keiki. Your plant is basically doing half of the work of propagating it by itself! This comes in especially handy with the monopodial Phalaenopsis, which is a bit of a pain to propagate through topping but does commonly grow keikis. Another common keiki producer is Dendrobium.
So what do you do if your orchid has grown a keiki on its stem or base?
Leave the keiki alone for a while, at least until it has grown a few leaves and a healthy air root system.
Once it’s ready, separate the keiki from the mother plant using clean shears or a knife.
Pot up your baby orchid in the same type of container and soil you used for the mother plant. Alternatively, you can plant the baby next to the original plant in the same pot.
Because the keiki already has a root system, it should continue growing just fine.
How to propagate an orchid from back bulbs
If you’re familiar with sympodial orchids, you might know what a back bulb is. For those who don’t: some orchids, such as Cymbidiums, have pseudobulbs on their canes. These are used to store nutrients or water. Pseudobulbs that have gone inactive in terms of growth but still supply nutrients are referred to as back bulbs.
Unless they’re really shriveled and sad, back bulbs can be coaxed back to life and used to propagate an orchid. They still have eyes on their stems that have the potential to produce new growth; they just don’t use them unless they are potted up separately and left to fend for themselves.
Back bulb propagation is pretty easy. You just separate the back bulb from the rhizome and pot it up into moist sphagnum. Once it seems to be rooting well, you can place it in a normal orchid medium.
Keep in mind that back bulbs aren’t the fastest-growing parts of your orchids. It can take quite a while for one to come out of dormancy and reach flowering age, but it works!
Tip: Try not to divide while your orchid is flowering. There’s a good chance it’ll drop its blooms if you disturb it too much during this period.
Bonus: How to grow an orchid from seed
As with most other houseplants, growing an orchid from seed is a propagation method best reserved for the most dedicated hobbyists. Growing new orchids is simply easier through vegetative propagation (the methods listed above). Growing from seed is a very slow process, but it is of course very rewarding if it works out!
If you’d like to grow an orchid from seed, you can buy seed pods online from a reputable business (not AliExpress, Wish or Amazon), get them from another hobbyist or pollinate your orchids yourself.
Getting the pods is the easy part – the rest of the process is what scares 99.9% of hobbyists away. Orchids tend to be grown in flasks, with special nutrient mixtures and very careful handling of the babies. I’m not even going to try to describe the process here – the American Orchid Society has an extensive PDF on the topic.
Tip: Wondering how to care for your brand new orchid after a successful propagation attempt? Have a look at the care guide for Phalaenopsis, the most popular orchid houseplant.
Photo credit: © Ольга Куликова and Justyna on Adobe Stock. Kwong Yiing Woan on Shutterstock.