Propagation 101: Babies Making Babies

Propagation.  That thing you keep hearing about that you "swear you're gonna try one day".  Well, plant parents, the time has come to learn.

The good news is it's easy and it's free.  That's right, we said EASY.  We promise.  In this post, we'll outline the basic approaches to plant propagation that folks with any level of plant experience can successfully do with a smidge of patience. 

Continue reading to learn how to make your very own plant babies.

What is Propagation?

Plant propagation is human-generated plant reproduction.  Simply put, it means a person uses a part of a plant (stem, leaf, root) and cultures it (in soil or water) so that it grows roots and begins a new plant.

Essentially, it's people making plant clones.  Playing Lord of the Leaves, if you will. 

How is Propagation Different Than Growing a Plant by Seed?

In almost all cases, plants grown by seed have undergone sexual reproduction.  This process involves two gametes (e.g. 1 boy plant part AND 1 girl plant part) that make genetically different offspring from the parent plant via fertilized seed, or in the case of ferns and mosses, spores.  This is not what we are doing when we propagate.

Propagation differs from sexual reproduction because we are using only one plant part and copying it to create another plant that is genetically the same. 

While we aren't going to get into the down and dirty of plant reproduction (you can put the Barry White playlist away, sorry), what follows is an overview of techniques you can do at home to create clones of your favorite houseplants. #babiesmakingbabies

And, in the spirit of keeping it simple, we won't get into the super science-y ways to propagate plants used by horticulturists, professional growers and geneticists, such as micropropagation, grafting and twin-scaling. Another time, plant nerds, another time.

Propagation is free, so you have the perfect justification for buying those adorable baby plant pots you've had your eye on. 

Propagation by Division

This is arguably the easiest way to propagate houseplants.  This method works well for plants that have outgrown a container.  Basically you are splitting the plant into two (or more) smaller plants by dividing the root ball.  Here's a great step-by-step guide.

Propagation by division can be a messy process, so it's a good activity to do outside.  And because it's so simple, it's a great activity to do with kids, but be sure to supervise the sharp object use with the little ones.

Try it with: Peace Lily, Snake Plant, ZZ Plant, Ferns

The ZZ Plant (Zamioculcas zamiifolia) is a great option for beginners because it can be divided easily. This species is also particularly tough and can handle a few mistakes and mishaps.

Propagation by Offshoots 

Some flowering plants will also propagate themselves by using "asexual vegetative reproduction" to grow new plants from rhizomes (underground) or offshoots (above ground).  Basically the plant makes tiny clones of itself that eventually separate from the parent plant to continue rooting. 

Offshoots are sort of like a built in reproduction insurance policy for flowering plants in case they don't get pollinated. It also makes propagation super easy.  You can learn how to propagate with offshoots here, where the author uses the adorable Pilea peperomioides as an example.

Try it with: Aloe, Bromeliads, Ponytail Palm, Spider Plant

Spider plants (Chlorophytum comosum) are a great beginner plant to practice propagation by offshoot.  Learn more here.

Propagation by Stem and Leaf Cuttings

Propagating a plant from cuttings is also quite simple, but it requires a bit more time and patience than other methods.  There are two basic parts of the plant you can cut from: the stem or the leaf.

Stem cuttings

Pick a stem of your plant and cut it.  Remove the bottom set of leaves with sharp clippers or a knife.  ZEN tip: Cut low enough on the stem to leave 3-4 leaf nodes, or sets of leaves, intact.  Two nodes for above ground, two nodes for below ground (or in water).

Once you have your prepared cutting, dip the end in into rooting hormone. This will help seal the "cut" and promote new root growth.  This step is not required but it's awfully helpful and, in our experience, increases success rate.

Swiss cheese plant (Monstera adansonii) stem cutting rooting in water.  Image source: Folia Collective.

Next, you have two options: rooting the cutting in water or soil.

Option 1: Water

Put your cutting in water. This is known as water propagation and is quite satisfying, as you can see the roots grow in front of your very eyes! 

Option 2: Soil

Put your cutting straight in some moist soil.  Regular potting soil works just fine, but make sure you have a pot with adequate drainage.

For a  thorough, step-by-step instruction on propagation by stem cutting, click here.

Try it with:  Hoya, Philodendron, Pothos, Prayer Plant.

Philodendron, like this Satin Silver (Philodendron scindapsus), are great plants to practice propagation by stem cutting because they root easily.  The parent plant also rebounds quickly, so you can keep on propagating!

Leaf cuttings

This method works best with succulents.  It requires the most time and is a bit more involved, but super rewarding. No pain, no gain, amiright?

For a great step-by-step instruction, complete with helpful pictures, check out Succulents and Sunshine's blog post on the topic.

Try it with:  Sedum, Crassula, Echeveria, Kalanchoe, Seneco.

Succulents, like this jade (Crassula ovata), can be propagated by leaf or stem cuttings.  Try both methods to see which works best for you.

If you aren't successful with propagation right away, fret not.  Success rate can depend on local climate, type of plant, moisture and light levels.  It's a constant process of tweaking and learning.  

Keep in mind that just like any science experiment, there may be some trial and error involved in getting it right. And remember, it's supposed to be fun!


What plant do you have in your collection that you want to propagate?