What are cuttings and why take them?
Cuttings are pieces of plant material that are removed from a plant and used to propagate new plants. Plant propagation by cuttings is a form of asexual propagation (also known as vegetative propagation) that creates a genetically identical clone of the original plant. There are five main different types of cuttings that home gardeners typically take to increase their stock of plants. These are: softwood cuttings, hardwood cuttings, semi-ripe cuttings, root cuttings, and leaf cuttings. The best type of cutting to take in any give case will depend on a number of factors, including the type of plant, the time of year, and the maturity of the plant
I’ve had lots of success creating cuttings, although it is a patience game. Some cuttings can take up to 12 months to root, but others such as dahlias, can root and flower in one season if conditions are right. In any case cuttings are well worth the effort – who can resist the lure of free plants, after all?
In this post we’ll cover all you need to know about each type of plant cutting so you can successfully propagate plants by using the most suitable cutting technique for the plant and time of year.
- What are cuttings and why take them?
- The science behind propagation from taking cuttings
- What are the different types of cutting?
- Whole leaf and stalk cuttings
- Whole leaf cuttings
- Mid-rib cuttings
- Lateral vein cuttings
- Slashed leaf cuttings
- Leaf square cuttings
The science behind propagation from taking cuttings
Plant propagation from cuttings relies upon the fact that plants have the almost magical capacity for cell differentiation. What this means is that the plant material cut from the parent plant, if given the right conditions, can create new cells of the kind that it lacks. In other words, stem cuttings can produce root cells and leaf cuttings can produce stem cells, as well as root cells. The roots formed by these cells are called adventitious roots. It is the capacity of plants to create adventitious roots from stems and leaves that enables plants to be grown from cuttings.
The action of severing the plant material triggers the biological mechanisms that drive cell division. Studies of the plant tissue that forms at the site of the wound on cut plants have shown that two plant hormones – auxin and cytokinin – have an important role in the cell division process. In particular a high ratio of auxin to cytokinin is associated with the development of root cells, whereas a high ratio of cytokinin to auxin is associated with the development of stems cells.
It is important to remember that not all plants can be propagated by the cuttings in the same way. For most plants there is typically a preferred cutting method at a preferred time of year that is most likely to result in a well-rooted cutting. For example, some cuttings are likely to experience better root formation when days are longer and some will root more succesfully in shorter days. It is known that auxin and cytokinin levels can be affected by day length. So these differences are likely due to the releative concentrations of those hormones in the cutting.
We’ll give some examples of plants that are suited to each individual method of cutting below. However, it is worth consulting texts like the RHS A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants, or the individual plant guides on this or other authoritative websites (such as the RHS) to find out the best method of propagation among the different types of cuttings for any given plant.
What are the different types of cutting?
Softwood cuttings, semi ripe cuttings and hardwood cuttings are also known as stem cuttings.
Many different types of annuals, perennials, herbaceous and woody plants can be be propagated by stem cutting.
The techniques for taking these types of stem cutting are similar. However, there are some differences in how to look after the different stem cuttings once they have been taken, especially between leafy cuttings and leafless hardwood cuttings of deciduous plants. We’ll cover these differences below.
The challenge with taking cuttings is to keep the cutting alive whilst it forms the new roots which will sustain it. Until the new roots are formed, the cutting depends upon the food supplies in its stem and leaves, and on the energy created in the leaves, where present, by photosynthesis.
There is also a risk of fungal attack causing the cutting to rot as well as a risk of the plant losing its fluids and drying out completely. Plants naturally lose fluids through the small pores (or stomata) in the underside of their leaves in a process called transpiration. Therefore, whilst we want cuttings with some leafy material in order to promote photosynthesis, we do not want the leaf area to be so large that the loss of fluid is fatal.
For these reasons, there is a careful balance to be struck when it comes to taking cuttings of a sufficient size to keep the plant alive.
Softwood cuttings have less stem material and therefore less stored reserves than hardwood cuttings, Also, because hardwood cuttings have more woody material, they are less prone to rot and drying out.
This means that softwood cuttings need to be encouraged to root quickly and given greater protection from rotting and drying out. Therefore they need to be kept in warm and humid environments. Hardwood cuttings, on the other hand can be given longer to take root, with less protection
Root and leaf cuttings
The other main types of cuttings are root cuttings and leaf cuttings. Root cuttings are often taken from herbaceous plants with fleshy roots and leaf cuttings from a variety of plants that we typically consider to be house plants in temperate climates. There are various types of leaf cuttings as detailed below.
Softwood stem cuttings
Softwood cuttings, also known as tip cuttings, are taken from the tip of non-flowering stems. This is where there is a continual production of new growth during the growing season.
Softwood cuttings are best taken in Spring, although they can be taken through to the end of summer. It is even possible to take softwood cuttings in autumn from the fresh growth on a plant that has been cut back hard earlier in the year.
Softwood cuttings work well because they come from the growing point of the plant. This active growth tendency aids root formation and means that a softwood cutting has the potential to root more quickly than other kinds of cuttings.
Because softwood cuttings are prone to losing water rapidly, it is best to take softwood cuttings early in the morning. At that time of day they are full of water, so are less prone to drying out quickly.
Full step by step instructions for taking softwood cuttings are set out in a separate post. But the they key point to remember when taking a softwood cutting is that will easily dry out if not kept in a moist and humid environment from the moment they are cut.
This mean they need to be placed immediately in a sealed polythene bag or bucket of water when they are cut. They also need to be kept in a covered propagator or within a sealed polythene bag once they have been placed in the rooting medium in a pot to root.
Softwood cuttings can be taken from shrubs, such as: Buddleia, Callicarpa, Calycanthus, Caryopteris, Euonymus, Fuchsia, Hydrangea, Lavatera, Lavender, Nemesia, Perovskia, Sambucus, and Viburnum. They can be taken from perennials or herbacesous plants such as: Aubretia, Osteospermum, Pelargonium, Penstemon, Salvia, Verbena, as well as from some trees including Betula (Birch) and Magnolia.
Greenwood cuttings are very similar to softwood cuttings, except they are taken in late spring and early summer, when the stem has matured more and is therefore slightly firmer. They are treated the same as softwood cuttings except that the stem should be slightly longer: around 8-13cm (3 to 5 inches).
Greenwood cuttings are a good way to propagate shrubs such as ceanothus, philadelphus and forsythia.
Semi ripe cuttings
Semi ripe (or semi hardwood) cuttings are taken from mid-summer to mid-autumn/fall. At this point the pace of growth of the plant has slowed and the new growth from spring is beginning to harden in the stems.
For semi ripe cuttings, the tip of the stem should still be soft, but the base should be harder. The distance between the leaf nodes (the internodes) should be fairly short.
Semi ripe cuttings have more substance to them than softwood cuttings. They are thicker and woodier and are therefore easier to keep alive than soft wood cuttings because they have more energy reserves. On the other hand, they still have leaves, so, like softwood cuttings, they are prone to loss of fluids and can easily dry out.
Semi ripe cuttings need less warmth and light to root than softwood cuttings. But they do no need to be kept in an environment with high humidity. Therefore, keep them covered in a sealed polythene bag, in a propagator or in a cold frame
Because semi ripe cuttings are taken later in the growing season, they may not root until late in the winter or early spring. It is possible to speed up the rooting process by placing your cuttings in a heated propagator. But for those cuttings that are slow to root, you will need to make sure that they are protected against freezing temperatures. To do this, heat or insulate your greenhouse or cold frame, or bring the cuttings inside if practical when the temperatures are at their lowest.
Hardwood stem cuttings
Hardwood cuttings are taken from deciduous trees and shrubs, roses or soft fruit bushes (essentially, woody plants) in mid-autumn to winter when the plant is dormant. Because a hardwood cutting has no leaves and woody stems, it can survive more easily than softwood or semi ripe cuttings.
If you are planning ahead, it is a good idea to cut back the plant in spring and then take hardwood cuttings from the growth that has matured over the growing season, as this is more likely to root than old wood.
Hardwood cuttings are taken from the woody plant growth near the tops of the stem. They should be 15 to 30cm (6 to 12 inches long) with a bud just below the top of the cutting and another just above the bottom of the cutting. Make the top cut a sloping one, so as to avoid any risk of confusion and inserting the hardwood cutting into the soil upside down.
Hardwood cuttings are usually inserted in the soil in a sheltered garden bed outside (although they can be rooted in a deep container with a mix of grit and potting soil/compost). Make a slit trench with you spade and add some grit in the bottom to avoid rotting. Insert your cuttings, ensuring they are upright and leaving an inch or two above the soil surface. Label the cuttings and water then in.
Hardwood cuttings take a long time to root and can be largely ignore until the end of the following summer when they should have rooted. The main maintenance tasks are to ensure they are not lifted by hard frosts, or burrowing creatures, and that the don’t dry out in hot weather.
Evergreen cuttings from evergreen plants
Evergreen cuttings are taken on evergreen plants in later summer and autumn when the growth on the stem has almost become hardwood. They differ from hardwood cuttings because as they are evergreen plants they retain their leaves.
If cuttings are taken from evergreens earlier in the year on soft or semi ripe wood, then they can be treated like softwood or semi ripe cuttings respectively.
When taking true evergreen cuttings they size of the cutting differs according to the plant you are working with. Cuttings from large trees or shrubs can be around 15cm (6 inches) long. Cuttings form small shrubs may only be 5cm (2 inches).
Take the cutting just below a bud leaving the apical (tip bud) intact. Strip the lower leaves, dip the stem in rooting hormone and place in a gritty potting soil or compost mix.
Where the leaves are large, they can be cut in half to reduce water loss. Evergreen cuttings can be kept in a covered tray or propagator, as long as the leaves are not touching the lid, as this will provoke rotting. For similar reasons, evergreen cuttings will not often survive when covered in a tight polythene bag. Keep the compost moist and protect from frost. Rooting may take up to 12 months or so.
Heel cuttings are a variation that can be applied to softwood, greenwood, semi ripe, hardwood or evergreen cuttings. Heel cuttings involve cutting out a side shoot. When the cutting is taken, it should be cut away with a section of bark (or heel) from the main stem. It is a good idea to make another clean cut on the parent plant just above the next bud to prevent the plant succumbing to any disease. Otherwise, heel cuttings involve the same processes and care as those other types of cuttings.
The older wood of the heel is less prone to rotting and is therefore likely to help harder to root plants survive until new roots and shoots are formed. Heel cuttings are often used for cuttings from Rosemary, Ceanothus, and Berberis.
Mallet cuttings can be taken from semi ripe or hardwood cuttings and work well with plants with pithy or hollow stems. Mallet cuttings are effective because they involve more plant material for the cutting to survive on through autumn and winter. Mallet cuttings take their name from the fact that the cutting looks like a hammer. These cuttings also involve the use of side shoots.
You take the cutting by making a cut on the main stem above and below the location of the side shoot, about 12mm (half an inch) away from the shoot on either side. Cut the side shoot to around 5 to 10cm (2 to 4 inches) in length for small leaved plants and maybe twice that for large leaved plants. Then, dip the cuts in rooting hormone and bury the mallet head in compost up to the first set of leaves of the shoot. Sometimes better results are obtained by removing a sliver of bark from the bottom of the stem section. Keep mallet cuttings in unheated or heated conditions, according to the hardiness of the plant concerned.
Leaf bud cuttings
Leaf bud cuttings are usually taken from semi ripe wood (though they can be done with soft wood or evergreen shoots). The point of the leaf bud cutting is to use a section of plant material with the leaf, the bud in the leaf axil and a section of stem about 2.5 to 4cm (1 to 1.5 inches) long below bud. Remove excess leaves to prevent moisture loss (cut large leaves in half if necessary) and place the cutting in gritty compost with the bud just above the compost surface.
Vine eye cuttings
Vine eye cuttings are the same as leaf bud cuttings except applied to hard wood. They are often used for striking cuttings of vines and other woody climbing plants.
Plant root cuttings
Root cuttings are taken from the roots of plants, usually when they are dormant in winter. Because there are no leaves to photosynthesise, root cuttings need to be of a sufficient size to have enough stores of energy to keep the material viable until new shoots develop and break above ground level. Therefore, root cuttings are most successfully take from plants with fleshy roots, such as Acanthus mollis (Bears Breeches), Crambe maritima (Sea Kale), or Papaver orientalis (Oriental Poppy) and Verbascum.
Root cuttings are best taken from more newly formed roots, as long as they are of reasonable size, as these are likely to have more vigour and will more likely succeed.
The root should be cut near the crown of the parent plant and any fibrous side roots removed. The length of the cutting depends upon how it is to be rooted and the temperatures it will be raised in. Cuttings to be rooted outdoors will take more time to develop shoots than cuttings raised in a heated propagator.
Therefore, outdoor rooted cuttings need more energy stores and, accordingly, need to be greater in length. As a guide, root cuttings need to be about 10-15 cm (4 to 6 inches) to survive outdoors, whereas those raised in a heated environment only need to be 2.5 to 4cm (1 to 1.5 inches) long. Root cuttings raised outdoor will take around 4 months to establish, whereas those in a warm environment will take only 4 weeks.
An important thing to remember when taking root cuttings is that the roots have ‘polarity’. This means they need to placed in the pot or container the right way up, replicating how they were growing on the parent plant. Therefore, the part of the cutting that was nearer the parent plant when cut needs to be uppermost. To make sure this happens, it is conventional to make a straight cut at the ‘top’ of the cutting and a sloping cut at the bottom.
Some plants can be propagated by cuttings taken from their leaves, whether it be whole leaves, section of leaves or just discs of leaf material. Very often the types of plants that are suitable for leaf cuttings are tender plants with fleshy leaves – the kinds of plants that in cool and temperate climates we grow as house plants. There are several different types of leaf cuttings as detailed below.
Bear in mind, leaf cuttings are quite prone to rotting through fungal attack, so make sure you use clean, sharp knives or blades, clean pots or seeds trays and fresh gritty compost. It is also usually advisable to spray the cuttings with fungicide before covering.
Whole leaf and stalk cuttings
A single leaf and its stalk (5cm (2 inches) long) is placed in a pencil hole in the compost. The hole should be at a 45 degree angle so that the leaf tilts back. You can use this method for Saintpaulia, Gloxinia, small leaf Peperomias and some Begonias. Keep in a warm, humid environment, for example a heated propagator or by covering the pot with a polythene bag. Insert stakes in the compost to keep the polythene from touching the leaves.
Whole leaf cuttings
This type of cutting works well with the mature fleshy leaves of succulents such as Sedums, Echeveria and Crassula. The leaf should be cut from the parent plant and left to dry for a day or two, so the cut end begins to form a callus. You should put some sharp sand on the surface of the compost, which should be a gritty mix in a suitable sized pot, and then push the cut end of the leaf into the compost. Keep the pot in a warm position but do not cover.
Plants such as Streptocarpus, Begonia Rex and Sansavieria (Snake plant), which have a strong vein or mid rib running down the centre of their leaves can be propagated from mid rib cuttings. This is best done is from mid-spring to mid-summer.
Take a strong fresh, fully unfurled leaf and cut it into sections about 5 cm (2 inches) deep, cutting across the mid-rib. Place the sections about half an inch deep in gritty, moist compost. Like roots, leaves have polarity so make sure it is the bottom section of the leaf (i.e. that which would have been nearer the stem) that is planted in the compost. Spray with a fungicide, as these types of cuttings are prone to rotting, and keep in a heated propagator.
Lateral vein cuttings
These are an alternative to mid rib cuttings when the plants do not have prominent mid-ribs. In this case, you carefully cut out the mid-rib from the leaf blade, exposing the ends of the veins on each half of the leaf you have cut, and insert the leaf halves horizontally into the compost. Make sure you insert the edge where the mid-rib has been cut out, as this material has the capacity to general new plant growth. Otherwise, care for lateral vein cuttings as you would for mid rib cuttings.
Slashed leaf cuttings
These types of cuttings are suitable for plants that do not have a strong central mid-rib, but instead have network of veins across the leaf. Take a suitable leaf and carefully remove the stem. Place it upside down on a cutting surface and make a series of half inch (12 mm) cuts across at right angles to the main veins of the leaf. Make you cuts about half an inch apart.
Place the slashed leaf upside down on a seed tray filled with moist gritty compost and make sure the leaf cuts are in contact with the compost by using wire staples or small stones. Spray with fungicide and cover the tray with a pane of glass or clingfilm. Place the tray in a warm, light environment (but away from direct sunlight) and wait for the plantlets to develop at the site of the leaf cuts.
Leaf square cuttings
This leaf cutting method is often used for large leaves, for example of Begonia rex or Gloxinia species. In this case, you need to remove the leaf stalk and cut the leaf into one inch (2.5cm) squares, making sure each square has a vein within it. Treat leaf square cuttings the same as slashed leaf cuttings, although there is usually no need to pin or weigh each square down on the compost.
Brickell, C. (2016). Royal Horticultural Society AZ encyclopedia of garden plants. 4th Edition Dorling Kindersley.
Hessayon, D. G. (1991). The house plant expert. Sterling Publishing Company, Inc.
Toogood, A. (2019) RHS Propagating Plants: How to Create New Plants for Free. RHS,DK.
Beazley, M (2011). Propagation Techniques. RHS/Hachette
Ingram, D.S., Vince-Pru, D. and Gregory, P.J. (2002) Science and the Garden – the Scientific Basis of Horticultural Practice. RHS?Blackwell
Martin Cole has been an avid gardener for more than 20 years and loves to talk and write about gardening. In 2006 he was a finalist in the BBC Gardener of the Year competition. He is a member of the National dahlia Society.
He previously lived in London and Sydney, Australia, where he took a diploma course in Horticultural studies and is now based in North Berwick in Scotland. He founded GardeningStepbyStep.com in 2012. The website is aimed at everybody who has been bitten by the gardening bug and wants to know more.
Gardening Step by Step has been cited by Thompson and Morgan, the UK’s largest mail order plant retailer, as a website that publishes expert gardening content.
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