Propagating from Leaves

A friend of mine had a meltdown last week. With a cool spell predicted, she decided to move the tender plants from the porch into the house. Good idea, of course, so the plants suffer less shock than if she waited to bring them in until truly cold weather arrives. Gardeners can be clumsy, but too often it is those we enlist for help that cause the real trouble. Sadly, there were mishaps along the way – a Rex begonia fell off its tray and a big pot of mixed succulents that didn’t need to come in got kicked over, among other things.

When she showed up at my back door with a bag of leaves and a look of despair, I knew a propagation clinic was in order. After 2 cups of coffee and a verbal castigating of the oaf in question and in general, we got down to business.

There are lots of ways to root leaves and we used 3 of the most straightforward to restart the collection and build my friend’s confidence.

  • Leaves that need to heal over, or callus, before cloning
  • Leaves that need a stem to support them in propagation
  • Leaves that can be cut to give rise to new plants

The mixed pot contained Sedums including some that trailed with chains of small green leaves and others with larger gray leaves, usually called hen and chicks. There were also dense clusters of Sempervirens that always look like little cabbages to me, some green and others quite rosy. Its remains were drippy and soft. I sorted through the pile of leaves, chose about 15 that were plump and healthy-looking, and composted the other 40 while she wasn’t looking. She was too sad for a reflection about the circle of life from plant debris to compost and back again and I knew it. These and other leaves that ooze latex or other substances need to form callus, to heal over, before sticking them to root.

My friend complained that her African violets had grown dense in the middle over the summer, leaving long-stemmed leaves in a skirt shooting out from the pot. At my suggestion, she clipped several of those leaves and brought them along. I made a fresh cut at the stem’s end, dipped it in Hormex Liquid Concentrate, and slipped each one into a tiny pot of soilless mix. She brought a bag of the mix and I showed her how to fill pots, water them well, and refill where it settles too far below the rim of the pot with damp mix. Ideally, the stem of the violet will be mostly below the soil surface with about half an inch above, putting the leaf outside the pot.

Most exciting for me, the ragtag remains of her bad day yielded 3 perfect Rex begonia leaves. Each had lovely petioles, the narrow structures that stand between the leaf and its stem and healthy veins. She held her breath as I held one leaf between my fingers by its petiole, slipped the scissors into alcohol, and cut a 2 inch semicircle from one side to the other. The result looks like a lollipop with the petiole for a stick and veins where the stripes might be. I rolled the base of the petiole in Hormex #1 and stuck it into a pot of loose mix made of hers plus some finely ground bark for extra drainage. She gasped as I took another Rex leaf, laid it on a pot of the soilless mix, and sliced through 2 of the veins. They were only small slits; just enough to wound the leaf and stimulate it to root and send up small plants, rather like those that will emerge from the African violet. I used a shallow dish for this effort and sent it home in a zipper bag to keep humidity up around the leaf while it roots. This method of making new plants is slow but never fails to amaze.

As we were working, my friend asked about leaves that sprout plantlets like the mother of thousands she saw on my bench. Its botanic name is Kalanchoe daigremontiana or Bryophyllum daigremontiana, depending on who you ask. It is also called devil’s backbone in some circles and is hardy in USDA Zone 9b and southward. I include these names here in case you want to look it up, but I recommend it as a blooming joy with tubular flowers in winter and spring. The plantlets are amusing and drop on their own to root in the pot below and in my greenhouse floor. Other plants that display this unusual behavior include piggyback plant (Tolmeia), another plant for your collection that easily becomes a conversation piece.

My friend left with plenty of propagation to keep her content and will pick up the pot full of sedum leaves this week. They took four days to heal over and are standing pretty now.

Two ways of using leaves for propagation that we didn’t use are cones and leaf wedges which are very efficient if sterile conditions can be maintained. Let me know if these propagation methods intrigue you, and I’ll blog about them.

Nellie Neal is a passionate propagator and owner of GardenMama, Inc. She advocates for gardening 24/7 at her website, Ask questions and comment about this blog on the Contact Us page of

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