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How to propagate houseplants and my obsession with Begonia rex

What has always been for me a wonderful part of being a gardener, which I am so happy to see still very much alive through a millennial trend, is in sharing - whether that be advice, swapping stories or plants.

Plants bring people together and I am heartened to see houseplant workshops springing up here, there and everywhere.

En man i ett kök.
I am a plantaholic. En man i ett kök. Bild: Yle/Juha Leskelä Strömsö,Begonia rex

Social media has whipped up the trend

I came across an astounding, eye-opening article a few weeks ago written in the WALL STREET JOURNAL under the headline, “Forget The Stockmarket. The Rare-plant Market Has Gone Bonkers.”

The gist of the article explains how the Indoor plant market is booming and still one of the largest growing sectors of plant sales due to an upsurge of interest by millennials.

Bonkers is certainly an apt title as a simple one leaf cutting of the rarer variegated, Monstera adansonii ‘Archipelago’ plant is reaching up to $2800. If you want a four leaf specimen then be prepared to pay up to $5000!

Instagram and other social media channels are the go to places which have whipped up this trend, whereas Victorian horticulturalist William Robinson in the 1850’s onwards was one of the many nineteenth-century garden writers who shaped the rise of modern houseplant horticulture in Europe and America.

Robinson targeted his audience through print, yet the modern day influencers are doing their ‘How to’s’ on Tic Toc, and going under the hashtags of #indoorjungle and #monsteramonday.

For all the staged Instagram posts of users posing with their pride and joys I still see the actual face-to-face interactions of people as being more important. Indeed, for all the pros of social media we as humans need physical contact in order to grow a community and not to be just a recluse behind the screen.

I will make it clear though through my own opinion that for every gram of good advice out there there is a kilogram of uneducated advice with plenty of rookie mistakes. Beware!

En växt.
En växt. Bild: Yle/Juha Leskelä Strömsö,Begonia rex

A plantaholic can never have enough plants

For all us ‘plantaholics’ we can never have enough plants and the way to increase this stock, as well as being able to share them with others, is to propagate them.

If we want an exact copy of the plant in our possession then vegetative propagation is the way forward. By taking a physical part of the plant, whether that be a stem, a root or a leaf, and getting it to root is the name of the game.

The other common form of propagation is by taking a seed and sowing it in the soil. There are many F1 hybrid plants these days which have been bred from two parents of the same genus of plants. If we sow that seed in hoping we get an exact copy, we shall meet with failure often as not as the seed will revert to and produce a copy of one or the other of its parents. Therefore vegetative propagation gives us 100 percent success every time in making an exact copy, or clone.

Begonia rex.
Begonia rex. Begonia rex. Bild: Yle/Strömsö Strömsö,Begonia rex

Get many plants from one Begonia rex leaf

Over the last few years, one of my indoor plant obsessions has been with Begonia rex. If I want a new one, all I have to do is to take a leaf, put it in a glass of water in spring/summer (whilst the plant is in active growth) and it will produce roots which I can then pot up in a houseplant substrate in making a new plant.

The trouble is I am not satisfied with just one plant from one leaf, and I didn’t train as a production manager under some of the best names in the UK nursery business for nothing, so I employ a different method.

A Begonia rex leaf has on average five veins that run through it, used to transport water and food for growth. By removing a leaf from the parent plant, cutting off the stalk and making small cuts through each of these veins and then pinning the leaf onto the substrate (soil) in a pot or tray, new plants will be produced at each of the cuts within a couple of months.

Stenar på ett grön blad.
Make small cuts through each vein. Stenar på ett grön blad. Bild: Yle/Strömsö Strömsö,Begonia rex

It’s very important that the leaf veins are in good contact with the substrate in order for them to set their roots. This can either be done with pieces of fine wire, or another way I once learned from a lady many years ago who swore by the method, is to place stones on the leaves to make the contact.

En planta.
New plants will be produced at each of the cuts. En planta. Bild: Yle/Strömsö Strömsö,Begonia rex

Not all houseplants can be propagated in this way, but there are other methods that can be used to propagate these plants from leaves, such as Sansevieria spp., Streptocarpus spp. and Saintpaulia spp. Variegated plants don’t come true from leaf cuttings and have the tendency to revert to plain green.

Två plantor.
You can plant your begonias in 3-4 months. Två plantor. Bild: Yle/Strömsö Strömsö,Begonia rex

A decent knife an good hygiene is what you need

There is so much information out there on the subject but I can certainly recommend buying a book or two specific to propagation (See further reading below) to learn about what method to use for specific plants.

Very little equipment is needed to propagate but I strongly advise buying a decent propagation knife, a good pair of secateurs and always fresh houseplant substrate.

Remember also that hygiene is very important to prevent pests and diseases being transmitted through contamination.

Sterilise blades of knives and secateurs either by heating or wiping them with surgical spirit. Any used containers such as pots or trays to grow the plants in should also be cleaned in a dilute disinfectant.

The Royal Horticultural Society - Propagating plants ISBN 978-1-4053-1525-8
John Cushnie - How to propagate ISBN 978-1-85626-612-3