Propagating Tropical Plants

To expand your backyard plant nursery, learn how to propagate these delightful tropical plants! Use heliconia, bamboo, and hibiscus to their fullest potential.

Reader Contribution by Elle Meager
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The Nature Guy -
Heliconia Golden Torch (Heliconia psittacorum x Heliconia spathocircinata)

To expand your backyard plant nursery, learn about propagating tropical plants! Use heliconia, bamboo, and hibiscus to their fullest potential.

In this series, we talked about how to choose plants to grow in part 1 of the Start a Backyard Plant Nursery Business series. In part 2, we talked about how to grow your nursery plants. In part 3, we covered equipment needed and fertilizers, including Dan’s Liquid Microbe Fertilizer. Today, in part 4, we’ll talk about how to propagate plants for your nursery business. It is very rewarding to propagate your own plants. Much more rewarding than ordering plants from a wholesale nursery!

You’ll get to watch the plant grow from seed to plant, or from little cutting to beautiful flowering shrub. Propagating your own plants feels a bit like magic! It is also very cost-efficient. Besides soil and water, home-propagated plants don’t cost you anything but a little time. My tip: propagate plants in bulk. The more you propagate, the higher the chances of success.

There are quite a few different ways of plant propagation. From seed, cuttings, layering, grafting, rhizome division, bulbs, offsets… Some plants will grow from a piece of leaf! How to propagate depends on the type of plant you want to grow. I’ll cover some varieties below.

How to Propagate Tropical Plants

I’m starting with tropical plants because I’m biased. I love tropical plants. I started out with succulents and cacti but soon realized I wanted big leaves, big flowers, and big, wild jungle. When you think of tropical plants, certain plants come to mind. Heliconia’s, Gingers, Bamboo, Philodendrons, Canna, Monstera, Cordyline, Croton, Coleus, and Hibiscus. Let’s talk about how to propagate these plants.

Propagating Heliconia, Ginger, and Canna

fresh ginger plant farm harvest ginger root plant on agricultura

You propagate Heliconias, Gingers, and Canna from rhizome division. Rhizome division is one of the more brutal propagation methods, but it is also the most rewarding. A rhizome will produce a nice-sized plant in no time!

If you are growing your plants for propagation in the garden, you’ll need a nice, sharp shovel or spade. You’ll also need a decent pair of boots and someone strong, someone that can apply plenty of foot pressure.

Heliconia’s and Gingers have several stems with distinct spaces between them. Place your shovel in one of these spaces, near the outside of the plant clump. Position the shovel so that when you cut it, you have a piece of root with some stems or new shoots. Look at the photo below to see what I mean.

If you’re growing your mother plants in pots, propagation is easier. See the photos of a West Indian Arrowroot I propagated this morning (below). The process is similar to the “shovel” method, but the plants are generally smaller in pots, meaning the roots and rhizomes aren’t as tough to get apart.

Have a good look at the plant to see where it naturally separates. Push your fingers in and try and tease the plant apart. Once you get confident, you might find yourself getting quite physical with the plant, shaking and pulling! Tease the plant apart, making sure each part has roots.

Don’t leave any offset or cutting in the sun! Try and have a bucket of water (with some added seaweed extract – even better) near you, or pot them up straight away. Sun will kill roots in a matter of seconds and you didn’t just exert all this effort for nothing.

For tropical plants, I generally recommend a slightly larger pot than other plants, because they like to stay quite moist. If the offsets have a nice clump of roots, you can add a little bit of organic fertilizer. Then, water them in well.

Propagating Bamboo

Bamboo is a tricky one. The easiest way to propagate bamboo is from seed, but there’s a problem with that. I’ll warn you that when buying seed online that claims it is Buddha Belly bamboo or Timor Black, 99.99 percent of the time this seed does NOT come true to type. What you’ll be growing instead is a form of running bamboo that no one wants in their garden!

The only way to propagate bamboo of the exact variety you want to propagate are offsets or possibly tissue culture. I don’t know much about bamboo tissue culture, although we grew Orchids, Bromeliads, and Bananas (QLD has strict banana regulations to stop the spread of disease) from tissue culture and they were wonderful. You get some truly amazing, rare, true-to-type plants with tissue culture.

We used division for bamboo. But, let me tell you, it is HARD. Bamboo root systems are super, super tough, like wood, and they are very tricky to divide. In the end, we bought a reciprocating saw for the sole purpose of dividing bamboo. Be prepared to buy lots of new blades as you’ll be using the saw to cut into dirt and blades will go blunt very quickly.

How to propagate bamboo is very similar to the above instructions for Gingers and Heliconia. Find a good spot to cut, put in lots of effort to get through the rhizome, remove the cut piece, and pot it up. Sometimes you can divide the piece you managed to dig out again when you remove it from the ground. Once it is out of the ground, it gets easier to cut and saw through.

The smaller varieties of bamboo are easier to propagate than the big ones. We had a huge Gigantochlea and gave up on propagating it in the end. However, smaller varieties of bamboo are possible, as is Tiger Grass, though it is not technically a bamboo. Tiger Grass was very popular though, and not too hard to divide so definitely give it a go for a bamboo-looking plant.

Find out more here about growing and planting bamboo.

Propagating Monstera and Philodendron

These two varieties are beautiful with big foliage, lots of different colors, and even fruit in Monstera’s case. It’s also known as the Fruit Salad Plant because of its rather strange but delicious fruit. Monstera is great as a house plant! My latest acquisition is a Philodendron squamiferum, I was rather pleased to get my hands on one of those! Its leaves are very similar to other Philodendrons, but the stems are covered in red hairs or fur, really stunning.

To propagate Monstera, you need to use a cutting. Monstera and Philodendron grow exposed roots from their stems, which makes it easy to see where to cut them. When you see exposed roots (these may be grabbing onto a tree, or burying themselves in the ground next to the mother plant), you can cut this piece of the stem off to replant.

Always use clean cutting tools for all cuttings, and wash it between varieties. Cutting is the easiest way to introduce infection to your mother plant, which is the last thing we want. We need to take care of the mother plant most of all as she will provide us with more (and more) free plants.

I like putting the cutting in water for a week or two, similar to Spider Plants. I found that it really promotes root growth and keeps them moist enough. Make sure the container with water is not transparent, like a glass jar. The roots should be as dark as possible (I know, I used a glass one for the photo, my excuse is that Spider Plants don’t mind…). After a week or two, plant your cutting in nice, fertile soil and water it well. You can add some organic fertilizer as your cutting already has roots.

To make sure this article doesn’t get too long, I will cover how to propagate Hibiscus below. Then, in the next part, I’ll cover how to propagate Coleus, Croton, Cordyline, and Succulents (including Aloe plants and Jade plant). Maybe Spider Plant as well, because they’re incredibly rewarding!

How to Propagate Hibiscus

Of all the shrubs, Hibiscus is my favorite to propagate. The “normal” varieties are the easiest. The most flamboyant and rare the flower, the harder it is to propagate (and grow, for that matter). The easiest Hibiscus to propagate are the single light pink, the single white, the single red (Regius-Maximus) and the double cherry pink (landersii).

Any others, like this gorgeous double orange, are harder. You don’t need to have a greenhouse to propagate Hibiscus, but you’ll find that your strike rate will go up with one. Hibiscus cuttings like a certain amount of humidity around them, preventing them from drying out. You can propagate them out in the open too, just keep them nice and moist.

Take cuttings just below a node. Make sure every cutting has at least three nodes, but aim for more, especially if the nodes are close together. At least 7 to 8″ long. Remove most of the leaves with sharp scissors or secateurs to reduce moisture loss.

As soon as you have cut it, drop it in a bucket of water with some seaweed extract mixed in. You can also use special rooting hormones, like Ezy-root, to promote root growth.

Don’t choose pots that are too big, we want a dense root system, not a rambling, fragile root system. For the size cutting in the picture above, I used a 4-inch tall pot (called a “supersaver”). Push the soil down tightly around the cutting so it doesn’t move. Water it well. You can use the seaweed solution from soaking your cuttings to water the cuttings in with.

Keep all cuttings in a shady position and keep them well-watered. Roots may appear in as little as a couple of weeks, or they make take much longer.

Mycorrhizal Fungi

My latest experiment is the addition of mycorrhizal fungi. It’s too early to tell if it’s working or not, but the idea is great. Mycorrhizal fungi are fungi that burrow into the new roots, and they help increase the root surface area. It is mainly used for existing plants in the garden, applied with a watering can, but I’m trialing it as it is beneficial for root systems.

Mycorrhizal fungi increase mineral uptake for your plants; zinc, phosphorus, and calcium in particular. This means you’ll need less fertilizer for happy plants, and it makes the plants stronger too. Soil humus levels are increased as well, for happy soil and soil organisms.

I add a tiny amount to a bucket of water, agitate it to mix it in and drop the whole cutting in the water. Cuttings are usually in the water from a few minutes to an hour, depending on how long it takes me to get the cuttings I want. When you’re ready to plant them, fish them out of the bucket, and plant them in pots.

Elle Meager is an Australian homesteader and natural remedy creator in the Pioneer Valley. She promotes vegetarian homesteading principles on her 10-acre farm shared with four horses, three dogs, 11 chickens, cattle, kangaroos, snakes, kookaburras, native bees, eight 100-year-old mango trees, over 40 different types of fruit trees, 12 gardens, and two children.

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