Lost Arts

How to Make Two Plants from One

Making your favorite tree or flower reproduce itself is easier than you think

Propagating the wildflowers you see in nature is surprisingly easy. (borchee / iStock)

Years ago, my father-in-law, Jerry, was walking along the Clark Fork River in Missoula when he noticed a beautiful flower—no one in the family can remember what kind—beside the trail. He knelt down and cut off one of its stems. Then he folded the cutting into a damp square of toilet paper, tucked it into his breast pocket, and brought it home to his rock garden, where it thrived.

This was just one of the ways in which my father-in-law was remarkable—he could make two plants from one. It sounds like magic, but propagating plants by cutting is relatively straightforward and much faster than growing them by seed. And once you learn the technique, a walk in the woods can become a shopping spree for your home garden.

My friend Alexis Gibson, an ecologist in Missoula, tells me it’s possible to take a cutting from most plants. “Step one is to find a plant,” she says. “Then go out with pair of clippers and cut off a branch.”

The branch should be at least four inches long and should include at least one node—the swollen nub where a leaf forms. Make sure your cut is clean so you don’t mash the stem. Remove the lower leaves and branches.

“Then,” Gibson says, “dip the cutting in some rooting hormone,” which you can buy at Lowe’s and will increase your chances of success, “and stick it in some potting mix.”

Keep the potted cutting in a warm, humid, low-light environment, like a greenhouse. (If you don’t have a greenhouse, just put some clear plastic over the plant like a tent.) Then you wait—a cutting can take six days to six weeks to grow roots. When the plant has developed a root system, it’s ready to be transplanted into your garden—an exact genetic copy of the original plant.

Propagating plants by cutting is a handy practice for gardeners, Gibson says. “Many plants are difficult to start from seed or would take a long time to reach the size of a cutting. And in some cases, you may want to clone the existing plant.”

Aside from that, it’s yet another marvel of the plant kingdom. “It would be like if you took someone’s arm off and it grew a new body,” Gibson says. “And it’s really easy to do. All it takes is some dirt and some water and maybe a hormonal cue to tell it to start growing.”

That story about my father-in-law taking a cutting of the flower isn’t quite finished. Some time later, he was walking the same trail when he noticed that the flower was no longer growing where he had found it. So he went home, took a cutting from his plant, grew out its roots, and returned it to its original location. That was another remarkable thing about Jerry—he never took a gift for granted.

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