Botany

Making Baby Cacti

… and succulents too!

… so what’s the difference?

Succulents are weird, let’s be honest. Cacti are too, though they’re more threatening. 

Cacti are also, technically, succulents.

Just how a square is always a rectangle (and a rectangle is not always a square), a cactus is a succulent – though there are many more succulents that are not cacti. 

Cacti are succulents that have areoles. These areoles are little buds (reduced branches) where spines or spikes or other poky bits stick out of (specialized leaves). These spikes often exist just to provide shade for the plant, while sometimes they’re also useful for hanging on to animal pelts so pieces of the plant can ride far afield.

Succulents (and cacti!) are pretty amazing camels. They store water in their specialized leaves and stems. The roots don’t reach very deep, as desert rains tend to just wash over the surface of the dirt. Many grow in a form that allows them to fall apart, enabling them to propagate in very special way.
The stem is usually where photosynthesis happens. The leaves and stems are typically cylindrical or spherical, to swell with water more than a flat leaf – while cutting down on surface area.

Which leads us to the main question: How do you make more succulents (and cacti?)

It’s actually easy, if you’re willing to be lazy. 

Let’s propagate some plants!


What is propagation? 

It’s the word for making new plants. This includes all the ways that people try to grow more plants, and all the ways it happens naturally – spreading seeds, cutting stems, tying branches together, and so much more. There’s two ways to go about it: sexual and asexual.

Sexual

Sexual reproduction is the union of the pollen and egg, drawing from the genes of two parents to create a new, third individual.

U of Maine

This is often the most common method of plants propagating themselves in the wild.
Largely this process is natural and taken care of by flowers, using bees or wind (or special lizards) to move pollen around. This means that the timing of the next generation of plants are season-dependent.

On the upside, this usually prevents diseases from passing down to the child plant. This process is also quite cheap, because plants do it naturally.

On the other hand, bees are a touchy subject these day. Beyond that, not all plants flower with enough frequency for them to survive changing environments.

Succulents do flower, though it typically takes an awful long time. In the environments that some cacti are in, the new seeds would hardly have a chance to start growing.

Asexual

This is how all of my current cacti have come into being.

Asexual propagation (reproduction) is often a more involved process, on the part of the human. There’s more than a few ways to go about it, and each plant has its preferences and timing. The long and short of it is, these are typically pieces of a parent plant that are forced in some way to take root and start growing again, separate from the parent plant. In this way, the new plant is actually a clone of the parent.

After doing a bit of research on the Cholla Cactus, I’ve come to realize that succulents are often shaped in just the right way to allow asexual propagation, naturally.

I’m going to skip over grafting, which usually involves splicing one tree branch into another. I’ll also skip over layering, which encourages the plant to sprout roots further up the stem or shoots of the parent plant, then cutting the plant into two root-bearing sections. Because of how succulents store their water, I have a feeling this won’t work terribly well.

Instead, I’ll focus on cuttings. A cutting is a piece of the parent plant – the stem, a leaf on a stalk, or what have you – that is encouraged to start life anew.

Asexual propagation avoids the juvenile stage of most plants – the tender little shoot phase. Succulents can start from seed, but they often live in environments where the new little shoot won’t have much of a chance at life that way. Instead, leaves drop off of the succulent, already full of that life-sustaining water, and have a chance to grow using their stored reserves.


How to do it


1

Break off a piece of that succulent.

2

Let the end scab over.
Just leave it in a sunny spot for a few days and you’re good to go. The broken end of the plant should look dry, and definitely should not be weeping any sap.
I left these pieces of aloe out for a whole month before planting to test their hardiness. Of the 5 pieces shown, 4 survived and are currently growing happily.

3

Stick that thing in dirt and water it.
You can lay the piece across the dirt on top, though I’ve had issues with the leaf getting knocked around and not forming roots properly. Instead, it’s often better to make a tiny hole with your finger, and just stick the scabby end of the leaf in.

After that, just treat the baby succulent like a regular one, except smaller. Don’t poke it around and pull it out repeatedly to check if the roots are forming. You’ll likely cause some rot at the rough end of the leaf. I’m speaking from experience on this one.

Succulents tend to naturally limit themselves to the capability of the pot they’re in. If their roots aren’t allowed to expand, the plant won’t try to grow beyond that. If you’re looking for your succulents to grow hearty, you’ll need to give them the room to do so.
I use small pots like the above as an easy place to get a bunch of baby plants going. After six months or a year, they’re sturdy enough to move to a bigger home.


Pups

Not all succulents are easy to break apart. Some happen to be little spike balls that are impossible to get a good (or painless) piece from. In these cases, you’re typically going to look for a ‘pup’ to pop up at the hip of the parent. Most succulents or cacti will grow a pup at some point, unless they grow like a tree (as in the Cholla cactus).


Now watch them grow!

I have about a 75% success rate this way. Some succulents, like the stonefruit, are so successful at starting that I’ve had a pot grow dozens of new plants from leaves that accidentally fell into the dirt and got mixed it.

New plants will pop up one of two ways… and sometimes both:

  • The plant will continue to grow up, with a comically small segment popping out of the top like a strange hat. Eventually, slowly, it’ll puff up and get growing. The bottom section will often look like it’s dying, but it hangs on quite well.
  • Roots will form from the old section, and a new plant will grow from those roots. It’ll pop up at the hip of the parent segment, or come up out of the dirt a very short distance away.

In either case, once the new segment has gotten growing, it’s safe to assume the propagated plant will survive. At this point, you could transplant it or let it have its way. Succulents survive transplanting with little difficulty. Just be gentle with the roots, and make sure to put the plant in the dirt at the same height as it left.

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