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Getting Started 4: Propagating from Cuttings

Based on a series of short article aimed at the new grower of Australian native plants. The original series was written by the late Arthur Cooper and appeared in the newsletter "Native Plants for New South Wales" in the early 1970s. It was subsequently updated and reprinted in the same newsletter in 1990-91.

Why propagate from cuttings?

There are a number of reasons why propagation from cuttings can be advantageous:

  • Unlike seed, a cutting will produce a plant just like the original in foliage, growth habit and flowers. Seedlings often exhibit variations from the parent plant (eg. a seedling from a parent with a prostrate growth habit will often develop more upright growth; similarly, seedlings from a plant with an unusual flower colour are unlikely to retain that colour). It's for this reason that named cultivars (eg. Grevillea "Robyn Gordon", Callistemon "Captain Cook", etc) must NEVER be propagated from seed.

  • A cutting grown plant will often flower several years earlier that a seedling of the same species.

  • The seeds of some plants can be very difficult to germinate under non-natural conditions. This may be due to an inbuilt dormancy or to a rapid loss of viability making seed propagation impractical. Species in this category include most boronias, Eriostemon, Crowea, Eremophila and Persoonia (the latter is very difficult from cuttings as well!).

Cuttings - 7 Steps to Success!

The following step-by-step guidelines should be read in conjunctions with the similarly numbered diagrams:
  1. Take a piece 100-150 mm long by snipping (a tip cutting - "a") or by tearing off a side shoot (a heel cutting - "b").
  2. Remove all flowers and buds and all leaves to about half way up the stem.
  3. Slice a small sliver of bark off the bottom 5 mm of tip cuttings ("a") or carefully trim the end of heel cuttings ("b").
  4. Make holes with a pencil or knitting needle in damp, potting mix in a small, clean pot. A suitable mix is a mixture of 75% washed river sand and 25% sieved peat moss (or, preferably, an environmentally-friendly peat alternative such as "Coco Peat").
  5. Dip the prepared end of the cutting into a root -promoting hormone powder, blow off the excess, place in the hole in the damp sand to about half its length and press the sand firmly around the cutting. Root-promoting hormones should be kept in a refrigerator when not being used and are also available as liquids or gels.
  6. Place the pot of cuttings into a plastic ice-cream container (or similar) with a little damp sand or peat-moss in the bottom, cover with a plastic bag and seal with an elastic band or sticky tape.
  7. Finally....place the container in dappled shade and be patient!
Diagram 1Diagram 2Diagram 3
Diagram 4Diagram 5Diagram 6

When should I try?

Cuttings should have active growth at the tip but with some woodiness in the stem where they were cut or pulled off. This generally means that the best time to take cuttings is in mid to late summer and early autumn using firm, current season's growth. But there are no hard and fast rules; you can try cuttings at any time if the material looks reasonable.

Root-promoting hormones are applied to the base of a cutting. This is a powder (talc-based) form. Select the thumbnail image or the highlighted phrase for a higher resolution image [25k].

A batch of prepared cuttings...note the wire frame which prevents the plastic bag from collapsing.
Select the thumbnail image or the highlighted phrase for a higher resolution image (30k).

How long does it take?

A cutting can strike after a month, three months....or even years. There's always a chance as long as it's not obviously dead. Generally 6-8 weeks would be an average time during the warmer months.

How do I know if cuttings have "struck"?

Remove the pot from the container, place your hand over the top of the pot and carefully invert it. Carefully lift off the pot. It you see a good number of roots, the cuttings are ready for potting on; if not, put the pot back into the container and be patient. Sometimes roots can be seen projecting through the drainage holes in the pots.

Which plants should I try?

It's worth trying most things, but start with something likely to succeed such as Bauera, Prostanthera, Crowea, Melaleuca, Callistemon, and so on. Don't start with the hard ones like Acacia, Boronia, Persoonia and Eucalyptus.

...and some hints.

  • Get cuttings into their pots as quickly as possible. If you can't work on them straight away, store them in a plastic bag, with a bit of moisture in it, in a cool place...eg. a refrigerator.

  • No plant food is necessary in the propagating mix because the cuttings have no roots to take in food.

  • Never let the pots of cuttings dry out, but don't over-water either. If the plastic bag is reasonably airtight, you'll only need to water about every 3 to 4 weeks.

  • Don't get discouraged by initial failures. With time you will develop methods which "work" for you.

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Australian Plants online - March 1999
The Society for Growing Australian Plants