The Roots of Propagation

I’m preparing to do an updated version of my popular program about plant propagation and thinking long and hard about the subject. It seems to me that every time we slip a cutting into a glass of water or a pot of soil, it seems to me that we are continuing the chain of civilization. That may sound crazy to you, but bear with me and I will explain in this blog.

According to archaeologists and the fossil record, our human ancestors were nomadic. They wandered sometimes vast landscapes in search of food, moving on to elude threats like dangerous weather and predators. Over time they developed patterns that returned them to good hunting areas and to fruitful places in time fashion to harvest ripe fruits and nuts. Few populations can be considered truly nomadic today; long ago they planted themselves in communities organized around these food sources. When something changes, it changes, and this development changed the way people saw themselves and their commitments to one another. Settlements became permanent and what is known as modern civilization began when humans took responsibility for a particular place and its inhabitants. The need to feed more people coupled with a preference for this berry over that one inevitably led to farming and its necessary adjutant, propagation.

Eventually, smart people in disparate places worldwide learned to save seed for the next season and to dig up the little sprouts that appeared near favored trees and to plant them. They figured out any extra they had was worth something to someone else and traded for the other’s extra. So began trade and the valuable crops got propagated more often so their distribution spread. If you are with me here in the ‘WayBack’ machine, you realize that these events took centuries, but stay with me for one more leap in time to the 17th century Dutch Golden Age. The rules of supply and demand plus human greed came together and a single tulip bulb became so prized that it was worth an estate full of furniture plus a wagonload of money. Bulb growers and professional growers today express confidence that no one plant specimen will ever be so dear again, thanks in part to advances in plant propagation.

Somewhere along the way, trial and error taught us humans that some plants are easy to grow, others not. No doubt we employed any number of strategies to improve the odds. One of the best early options still in use today is willow water, made from the bark of any species of willow tree (Salix). Who knows how the eager propagator figured out that a willow branch roots very quickly in water and added other trimmings to it with good success. Or when someone noticed that the willow tree cut down for other purposes soon pushed out lots of sprouts that could be used in the same way. The discovery was made, the process refined, and by the 20th century, scientists analyzed the willow water in their quest to figure out how and why things work.

Not surprisingly, the stimulus provided by willow water is due to strong levels of IBA (indolebutyric acid) and SA (salicylic acid). Further analysis determined that it is the plant hormone IBA that does the most to promote rooting and some began to synthesize it commercially. Not all rooting powders are the same and in 1959, Gary Brooker developed the formulation now known as Hormex. He met the challenge of creating a compound that worked quickly and consistently with his Hormogenization process, a Proprietary Process that is exclusive to Hormex, Inc. today.

By the way, SA is related to the modern analgesic, aspirin, and is a plant hormone that triggers the defense mechanisms that repel pathogens. Perhaps that’s why my mother always put an aspirin tablet in a vase of cut flowers. She claimed a florist told her to do that, a tale I believe. She was a woman who cherished cut flowers whether in an elaborate arrangement, a classic florist’s box, or clipped from the garden for a pitcher on the kitchen table. She passed that love on to me, along with her vase collection which now numbers near 50 of every size and shape!

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