Editor’s note: This is an archive column that first ran last November. Mrs. Torley is taking a week off.
What’s not to love about cuttings? They are so darn easy to get. Just keep a pair of garden snippers in the car. And so darn easy to start. In some cases, just stick them in a patch of dirt. You would think there is nothing else to say about cuttings, but there is.
First, there is the type of cutting you are taking. There are plants that propagate best from hardwood cuttings and some that do best from softwood cuttings. Softwood is new growth that hasn’t developed bark; it is still green or greenish. Hardwood has developed bark. Some plants will develop roots from either type of cutting. Others will only develop roots if the cutting is taken at the right place, from softwood or hardwood. But why?
Plants have cells designed for specific purposes. One type makes leaves, another bark, a third develops roots and so on. In order for a cutting to develop roots, it needs to have cells capable of differentiation. They must be able to change from producing bark or leaves to being capable of producing roots. In this, they might be compared to human stem cells. Don’t know whether to cut from hard or soft wood? Neither do I, so try a bit of both.
Now you have your cutting; what’s next? When you get your cuttings home the cells at the cut are probably a bit dry, so make a fresh cut. At this point, I like a to put a bit of hormone powder or liquid on the stem to help cells differentiate into roots, remove some of the leaves and all of the flowers or buds, and then put it in prepared soil. Keep the soil moist but not soggy. You will probably notice some wilting; in some cases all the old leaves fall off the cutting. Do not be discouraged, as this is normal for some plants. Some of the cuttings may develop new leaves. If the cutting dies, problems could include soil that is too wet or too dry or you may have taken the wrong kind of cutting (soft vs. hard). This is why we try to take multiple cuttings from different places on the same plant.
And now, a word of caution. A friend of mine tells the story of stopping by the road, hopping out, and snipping a piece from a roadside plant. She didn’t notice how close she was to the property owner’s home until a woman ran out at the car, yelling and waving her arms. Oops! So be careful with roadside cuttings. That plant may be someone’s treasure.