Leaf propagation

At any given time, I usually have some succulent leaf propagations in progress.  My success rate has been getting higher, so here’s a rundown of my general practice.

I’ll use a crassula “red pagoda” as an example.  This plant thrives on direct sunlight, and even in summer it was having a hard time indoors getting enough light.  With the onset of winter and shorter days, it had stretched out quite a bit and was starting to flop over the sides of the pot.  I figured I had a good opportunity to try leaf propagation.

I took a pair of sharp scissors, wiped the blades down with some rubbing alcohol, and snipped the longest stems of the plant.

While the plant grows mainly from the main tip, snipping off the growing end forces the plant to branch.  Most of them have started a new branch / growing tip right from the top node under the cut — and the largest stem actually has one or two branches growing further down, although they aren’t developing as quickly. So the mother plant is rebounding quite happily.

The cut sections were long enough I trimmed them into a few inch segments.  I wanted a good 1.5-2″ of exposed stem at the bottom, so I removed the leaf pairs from the stem at the bottom of the segment to expose the nodes.  Rocking the leaves gently side to side until they release is the way to do this; you want to avoid vertical movement if possible, as that may cause a tear.

The leaves can be saved, and both the leaves and stem segments need a few days for the wounds to callous over before being introduced to soil or moisture.  I have a few thrift store ceramic plates that I can clean off and place them on that are relatively sterile.  The leaves and stem segments should be in bright, but indirect light during this time period.

After 3-5 days, the leaves can be placed on a tray of shallow soil, and you can begin misting them daily.  Again, bright but indirect light helps.  You can lay them across the surface of the soil, or you can try to prop the leaf up with the cut end slightly depressed into the soil.  If you’re looking for a good container for this, I like to find cheap plastic watering trays at a store like Lowe’s or Home Depot. You can get them in various diameters, and they’re usually around a dollar or less depending on size. You can arrange the leaves nicely in a circle, propping them up against the edges, which is all well and good until you (or a cat) accidentally bumps them and they all topple over.

It may take a while, but I wait and watch for leaves that show signs of both new leaf formation AND roots.  Sometimes you’ll get roots, but no leaves.  If you wait long enough, you may eventually get new vegetative growth, but in my experience this can take months and I usually regard these as duds. That guy in the middle in the photo above? This is one of the most frustrating parts. You may get an explosion of roots, and never any new plant forming.

If absolutely nothing happens for a while, I also will try covering the tray and placing it on a seedling heat mat.  It’s quite astonishing how a few hours on the heat mat will kick dormant leaves into activity.

When leaves start showing signs of new growth plus roots, I will gently lift the leaf and resettle it into an individual 2″ pot.  Generally I try to move them early, so they don’t have extensive roots I’m damaging… sometime around when they look like this:

For leaves, once in the 2″ pot, I’ll follow the same misting regimen until I see enough progress to know that it’s taken to being relocated and is continuing to root and establish in its own pot. Then I’ll gradually make waterings heavier, but less frequent, until you reach the ultimate goal of a watering schedule where you flush the pot until water comes out the bottom, but allow it to dry out almost completely in between waterings. As the waterings get heavier, and deeper, you’ll encourage the roots to drive down deeper into the soil and anchor the plant. While the plant is young and the roots are shallow, more frequent watering is required to keep it alive, but being too wet too long will also kill it.

Eventually, the parent leaf will wither and drop off. If that happens early, it may be a sign that roots were slow to form, or your watering was too light and it consumed the leaf for resources. Let it completely wither and don’t force removing it early (Even if it’s unsightly); at this point, the parent leaf is a food bank and also a bit of a safety cushion for the young plant as you get the hang of it. If the plant develops rapidly, the parent leaf may stay healthy and attached a VERY long time, and that’s a sign of success.

Being able to gauge the amount of water takes a little bit of practice, but generally you’ll have a handful of volunteer leaves so losing a few along the way while you get the hang of it won’t make or break you.

For rooting stems, I will generally move them to a 2″ pot early if the plant roots easily. Otherwise, I may need to put them in a small shot glass or cup and fill the bottom with water. Placing that cup on the heat mat will yield pretty good results, although this method does increase the risk of rot with succulents. If the cut ends start turning brown or black before roots form, I may snip the affected part off back to healthy growth and start the process over again forming new callous.

Similar to the mother plant, any middle segment with a cut top end will start new growth at leaf node, and that may start to happen even before the roots have started.

I’ll note that in this picture, most of these roots showed up in one day of being on the heat mat for a few hours, and then removed and left to sit under a flourescent shop light.

Once you have roots forming, I’ll pot it up, trying not to disturb the roots more than necessary to avoid damaging them.

If you’re loathe to cut into your plant but still want to try your hand at leaf propagation, some species (like echevaria) actually form small leaves along flower stems that would eventually wither and die off when the flowers are done blooming and the stem dies back. If you are quick enough, this process works on those leaves too – although, since the leaves are smaller, your success rate may be lower.

This is a successful leaf propagation from a flower stem leaf of an echevaria:

As an added bonus, you might also get multiple plants starting from a single leaf! You can either leave theses to grow as one clump — or, when they are reasonably large, you can cut rosettes off the bunch and follow the same basic process to root it to create multiple separate plants.

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