Stem cuttings are a reliable way to duplicate a favorite plant. Unlike growing by seed, stem cuttings create a genetic clone of the parent plant, meaning you’ll grow a new plant with the exact same characteristics as the one you took it from.
With seed growing, it can be up to the whims of nature what you’ll end up with.
Most herbaceous houseplants can be propagated this way and are ready for planting in their permanent pot within a few months, depending on the species. Even woody species can be propagated via stem cutting provided that you can remove a section of soft, pliant, new growth.
When to Take Cuttings
The ideal time for stem propagation is during the spring, summer, or fall, provided that the plant isn’t in bloom.
For example, holiday cacti (Schlumbergera spp., Rhipsalidopsis spp., and Hatiora spp.) bloom in winter (though there are exceptions) in the Northern Hemisphere. You’d want to take cuttings from these in the summer.
Rubber trees (Ficus elastica), on the other hand, bloom in the summer, so you’d want to hold off on taking cuttings until the sheaths are gone.
While you can take cuttings at any point in the year, there are a few times that will reduce your chances of success. If the plant is blooming, it’s putting its energy into producing the blossoms rather than developing roots, so it’s not the ideal time for propagation.
Similarly, many species go at least partially dormant in the winter. This means that they reduce growth or might stop growing altogether. Propagating at this time might result in rot before the roots can develop.
You should also avoid propagating if the plant is stressed in any way, whether that means it’s showing signs of disease or it has just been repotted.
In addition to the original plant, you will need a few things to complete the job. The cutting will need its own container separate from the parent, since a developing plant has different growing requirements than a mature one.
A small container is all that’s necessary for most plants and a container that’s too large can contribute to rot since you need to provide a large amount of water to ensure that all of the soil is being moistened. Depending on the species, a three or four-inch pot is perfect.
You’ll also need a growing medium. For epiphytes or lithophytes like Monstera species or philodendrons, a loose, loamy mix with sphagnum moss is ideal. You can sometimes find seed-starting mixes with the right combination, or you can create your own by purchasing a water-retentive potting soil and adding equal parts sphagnum moss.
For terrestrial plants that grow in the ground, a typical potting soil with a combination of loam, perlite, and moss will work. Cacti and succulents do best with a sand-based mixture with added vermiculite at a ratio of one to four.
Never use soil or dirt from the garden. Soil from the outdoors is alive and contains pathogens that can wreak havoc on cuttings. Dirt is inorganic and devoid of the nutrients and water-retentive qualities that all plants need.
Avoid using any potting mixture that contains soil. Soilless mixtures prevent soil-borne pathogens from infecting the vulnerable cuttings.
You will also need a clean pair of scissors or pruners. Wipe them with soapy water followed by isopropyl alcohol to ensure that no leftover material is on the tools from previous pruning jobs that can spread fungal, viral, or bacterial pathogens.
For species that require high humidity, you will need some sort of cloche, plastic covering, or a clear plastic bag to tent over the cutting. This traps in moisture and raises the relative humidity around the plant.
If you use a piece of plastic, you’ll also need a pencil, chopstick, or dowel to prop the plastic up.
Finally, rooting hormone can be useful because it encourages rooting, but it isn’t required for most plants. Still, it will increase the rate of growth, which is beneficial.
Take the Cutting
Before you start working, examine the plant closely. You might have missed the early signs of a disease or pest infestation. Look for spots on the leaves, fungal growth, or things like webbing or lumps on the stems.
So long as the plant looks healthy, take a cutting from a stem that has three or more leaves on it. Make the cut just below a node on a stem or branch that is soft and pliable. Woody cuttings will also work, but they take longer to root, and there is more time for the cutting to fail. Herbaceous growth roots more quickly.
A node is the place where leaves emerge from the stem. If the node isn’t growing leaves, you might just see a small bump on the stem. You may need to make the cut just below the leaf if the plant isn’t the type that has bare nodes.
For plants that grow adventitious roots, which are roots that grow from the stem above the soil, take a cutting that includes at least one root node. Plants with adventitious roots include Monsteras (Monstera spp.) and Pothos (Pothos spp.).
Remove all of the leaves on the stem except for one if the plant has large leaves, like a fiddle leaf fig (Ficus lyrata), or two or three if the plant has small leaves, like a weeping fig (F. benjamina).
A smart practice is to take several cuttings at a time so that if one or two fail, you will still have one that survives.
In between taking cuttings, place the unplanted cuttings in a glass of water to keep the pores from closing and to keep the plant part hydrated.
Prepare the Cutting
If you didn’t make a 45-degree cut when you took the cutting, now is the time to shape up the end so that it’s at a 45-degree angle. This provides more surface area for the roots to form.
You should also re-cut the bottom if the cutting hasn’t been kept moist as you work. This will re-open the pores so the plant can absorb moisture and nutrients.
Dip the end in a little bit of water and then dip the moist end in rooting hormone, if using.
Make a hole in the soil by sticking a pencil or chopstick, or something slightly larger than the diameter of the cutting you took, to make an opening for the cutting to go into.
Gently lower the cutting about a third of the way into the medium and firm the medium up around it. Water the medium so that it feels moist but not wet.
At all times during the growing process, the medium should feel moist. To determine if you have the right amount of moisture, feel the medium. If you can ball a little bit up in your hands and it sticks together, it’s too wet. If it falls apart, it’s about right. If you imagine the texture of a well-wrung-out sponge, that’s what you’re aiming for.
After watering, place the cover over the cutting. No part of the glass or plastic should be touching the plant. If it’s touching the cutting, it will cause rot.
Keep the medium moist as the cuttings are growing, with few exceptions. With cacti and succulents, you can allow the surface of the medium to dry out. Otherwise, the medium should remain moist but not wet.
The amount of light the cutting should receive while growing depends on the species. Some need bright indirect light, and others need some direct light throughout the day. There are few, if any, species that don’t require a good amount of light to develop roots.
Research your particular species to understand its needs.
Don’t fertilize the cutting. This can lead to rot. Only feed plants that have developed roots.
How to Know It’s Ready
The easiest way to tell if the cutting has taken and developed roots is to give it a gentle tug after three or four weeks. If the cutting hasn’t wilted, wrinkled, or faded at all, and it resists slightly when you tug it, that means it has developed roots.
This should be a very gentle tug. If you pull, it could disturb any small roots that are developing.
Any new growth on the cutting is a sure sign that it has taken.
Don’t give up on a herbaceous cutting so long as it hasn’t wilted, wrinkled, turned brown or yellow, or collapsed. Some species take longer than others to develop roots, so as long as the cutting hasn’t died, there’s a chance it can still grow.
Once the cutting has taken, you can continue to grow it in the existing pot in the sort of location that is healthy for the species, or you can re-pot it.