As an owner of a nursery specialising in growing succulents, propagating succulents is something i do day in, day out. While the great majority of succulents are incredibly easy to propagate, there are a few things to know.
In this article i will cover how to propagate succulents successfully and share all the knowledge i have accumulated over the last 10 years of running the nursery.
We will look at how succulents reproduce and how different groups of succulents are likely to propagate, what is the best potting medium and how to care for young plants that have just been propagated.
How succulents reproduce
Succulents reproduce in a number of ways:
Most, but not all, succulents have the ability to reproduce from a single leaf. Some succulents even grow leaves that can be easily dislodged on purpose in order to reproduce further and faster.
While many succulents will grow from a single leaf, not all have this ability.
Succulents such as Sedum Dasyphyllum will lose leaves just at the slightest touch. This can be incredibly frustrating for people trying to grow such plants, but it ensures a good coverage and spread as pretty much 99% of leaves will germinate into a whole new plant.
In the 10 years of running my nursery I have seen many succulents being very clever about reproducing themselves. Some, in the face of death will drop their leaves which will then start growing. Succulents that get burn by strong UV on hot days (over 40C/104F) can drop their leaves before they die of their burns. The top leaves can still burn, but the survivors at the bottom will produce growth later on.
Rotting succulents can too sometimes release leaves so they can keep on growing even as the mother plant is dying. This does not happen all of time but it is one of the survival and reproduction techniques succulents can deploy.
Many succulents grow offsets as a means of reproduction. Offsets usually grow on rosette forming succulents such as Echeveria or Sempervivum and on cacti.
Some offsets will grow on longer stalks so they can establish further away from the mother plant and grow offsets of their own. Some offsets can grow quite close to the mother plant and create very tight clumps, but most will eventually try and get some space so they can send roots.
Succulents that grow offsets reproduce quite easily once the offset is big enough. Offsets can even snap off and start growing on their own, though I do know of quite a few plants where offsets grow so tight together it can take quite an effort to separate.
Most succulents are able to reproduce by cuttings or their parts. For the cutting to be able to root successfully a part of the stalk should be part of the cutting.
Although some succulents (very few such as Kalanchoe Tomentosa) will grow even from broken leaves that are not entire, in the great majority of cases, for cuttings to take root more than just a bit of leaf needs to be there.
Cuttings can be taken from succulents that branch out. Bigger the cutting better the chance of the plant sending roots. Some succulents reproduce so easily from cuttings that even a tiny bit will grow into a new plant. As an example, Crassula Ericoides will lose the tips of its branches every spring even at the slightest touch, but during the rest of the year the tips are rigid and won't separate as easily.
The genius behind the tips breaking off like that is the ability to roll further away and establish a whole new plant without being too close to the mother plant.
This is quite a clever way of reproduction and goes to show how easy it is for some succulents to regrow even without being physically planted. These tiny bits send roots that will eventually find a way into the ground.
Bulbil is a small offset, identical to the main plant that can grow on an inflorescence of succulents, instead of a flower. Bulbils only grow on a few succulent species.
To date I have seen bulbils or pups on stalks mostly on Haworthia species, Aloe species, Agave, Gasteria, some Echeveria and even Graptoveria. Bulbils are a bit different from offsets, but they too are a clone of the mother plant. Bulbils seem to appear at random. Sometimes there are quite a few on multiple stalks coming from one plant and next flowering season there are none.
Bulbil will become too heavy for the flower stalk and will eventually force it to the ground level where it can send roots and establish itself as a new plant.
Although reproduction from root in succulents is quite rare, it is one of the ways plants can multiply. I have only seen a few succulents, mostly Haworthia and Aloe species, reproduce this way.
Roots can grow new plant and start off underground.
Succulents produce viable seeds through pollination of flowers. If the flowers are pollinated, they will set seed. Seed pods will then open and the seed will get dispersed by the wind.
Most succulent seeds are very small, in some instances not much bigger than a grain of sand. A few succulent plants, such as Ceropegia Woodii, produce seeds that have additional cotton-like growth which will help them get carried away by wind.
Succulents in general are not awfully easy to reproduce by seed. Some grow relatively well from seed but most are incredibly hard as well as very slow.
Few succulents can reproduce through the flower stalk and will produce pups that are different to bulbil along the stalk as the plant flowers. However, not all succulents have this ability.
Some succulent flower stalks will produce a round of pups (how many will depend on the particular species) when it is planted or while it grows, These pups usually grow at the ground level. We have a separate article on succulent flowers and how to reproduce succulents from flower stalks here.
Propagating succulents from leaf
Leaf propagation is possible with a great number of succulents, however, it does not work for all succulent varieties.
Before you start pulling succulents apart it is best to establish what they are. Once you know the name, simply type ‘can (name of the succulent) be propagated from leaf’ into your search engine of choice. It is very likely there will be an answer to that somewhere out there on the internet.
I'm working on A-Z of succulents we grow in our nursery. I've tried propagating every single one from leaf and know which ones work. The A-Z can be accessed from the menu above.
If your succulent did not come with a name you can search for characteristics, like ‘succulent pointy green leaves red tips’ and then go to images and scroll through. You can try a different description if you're not having any luck. Facebook and other social media also have ID groups where you can post the photo of your succulent.
It is possible you may never find out the name or get a false identification. This can happens often as anyone can put a name to a succulent photo, even if it’s not correct.
If you can’t identify the plant it is still possible to follow through the next steps.
1. Pick a mature plant
Many succulents will grow a new plant even from a small leaf though it is best to choose a bigger, more mature plant that has a few large leaves or multiple branches. Bigger the leaf, bigger the plant that will emerge from the leaf.
2. Let the plant dry out for a few days
This is not essential, but in most succulents the leaves come off easier when the plant is a little thirsty and not plump prior to pulling the leaves off. When the leaves are full of water they are more likely to break. Once a leaf breaks, it is worthless.
3. Only pick a few leaves
Even if you know the name of your plant and the information available says it is possible to propagate from leaf we recommend to only take a few leaves off (3-4 depending on the size of the plant) just in case it does not work out.
4. Only propagate in the growing season
Succulents natural growing clock will be affected by the seasons. Many succulents grow rapidly in the warmer months (though, as always, there are exceptions) and go dormant in winter. During their dormant time it is difficult to propagate and you may be wasting your time and precious plant leaves.
For many succulents the best time to pull leaves for propagation is spring. Summer is also a good season to propagate succulents, but there is a good chance the small plants will burn on a hot day and so the leaves will need to be kept under shade cloth or in bright shade.
5. Start by pulling the most bottom leaves
The largest leaves are often the oldest ones at the bottom of the plant. In succulents with a rosette formation they are also the easiest to pull off whole (this is extremely important).
It can help to take the plant out of the pot for better access.
If a leaf that has nothing else growing to its side can be located, it should be easy to gently pull to the side that is free of any other leaves. You will then create good space for the next leaf to come off. Dislodge by pulling from side to side gently. In some succulents the leaves come off easily just by touching. It all depends on the particular plant.
If the growth is too tight a leaf or two may have to be sacrificed and pulled off, even if they are breaking, to make space.
The leaf cannot be damaged or broken and has to come off whole. Nothing of the leaf can be left on the stalk.
There is only one succulent I know of that will grow even when the leaf is damaged- Kalanchoe Tomentosa. The leaf will produce new plants even if it is broken. I have not yet come across another succulent with an ability to grow from a damaged leaf.
Once you have collected your leaves, place them on a dry surface & leave in a bright but sheltered spot. Greenhouse or a bright patio is ideal.
We use plastic trays but anything will do- a dry towel, take-away container or a paper towel. Put the leaves on the same way as they were when attached to the plant and space out so they are not touching each other.
It is important the leaves are not in direct sun for too long and should be kept dry. In most instances they will grow even when left in the rain, but some varieties may rot, and so it is better to be on the safe side and keep them dry.
New plants should emerge within a month, depending on the type of succulent and the season. Some plants will send roots first, some the new mini-me version of the mother plants and some both at the same time.
6. Plant the leaf babies
Once the leaf has grown a few leaves and ideally some roots it is time to get your hands dirty. We recommend using succulent potting mix but a general potting mix (can’t have manure) with some extra perlite or pumice added will do.
The plants can be planted straight in pots, or trays and the hardy varieties can go in the garden.
If the plants have roots make a little hole in the potting mix and gently force them in. Cover with more potting mix. If there are only leaves you can either wait until the roots emerge or put the plant with the leaf still intact on top of potting mix. Do not bury the leaf in (this prevents rot), the roots will find their way in.
7. Introduce the new plant to the sun
The baby succulents are still a bit fragile when this small and can get cooked by direct sun on hot days. The best way is to slowly introduce them to the sun a bit at a time.
Morning sun is quite gentle. The plants can be placed in a spot that is sunny in the morning but shaded during the afternoon. The little succulents should not be exposed to hot sun of over 30C/86F.
After about a week place in a spot where they can get an hour or so of afternoon sun as well and increase until they are able to withstand full sun.
Once the leaves are in a tray/pots watering can begin. Water regularly, but leave the potting mix to dry out between waterings. The original leaf will die off and shrivel up on its own. Do not try taking it off as the plant can get damaged.
Propagating succulents by cuttings and offsets
Succulent offsets aka chicks or pups are little clones of a plant. They usually grow at the base of a mother plant and are referred to as chicks or pups because they start out by hiding under mum, just like baby chicks would. Succulents that grow offsets are often referred to as hen and chicks.
Offsets and other parts of succulents like branches can be easily propagated by cutting them off and re-planting in another pot or garden.
1. Only propagate in the growing season
I have mentioned this above, but it cannot be said often enough. Do not try take cutting and propagate them when the plant is dormant. Pretty much all succulents can be propagated in Spring. Most will propagate well in Summer as well, though there are succulents, like the Aeonium, that are Summer dormant.
For a comprehensive article about the best possible time for succulent propagation see this article.
2. Wait until the offsets are big enough
This can be a bit subjective as some succulents do not grow very big, but a good rule is that there should be a long enough stalk and at least a few rows of leaves.
Bigger the offset or a branch, easier it is to take off and propagate. Small plants are much more vulnerable to rotting or burning. Also, and this is quite a big thing, if there is not enough stalk to cut through, the offset will not easily pull off and can break too high, causing it to fall apart. This will completely destroy any pup, and you will end up with just a bunch of leaves that will be no good.
Another bonus of being patient is that bigger offsets are likely to grow roots while they are still attached to the mother plants, which will make propagation even easier. To help the mother plant grow the offsets bigger faster, re-pot into a larger pot. More root space = bigger plants, including offsets.
When taking bigger cuttings from more mature plants, they also have a better chance at sending roots and establishing faster.
3. Cut and leave the wound to dry
After cutting of an offset or a branch always leave the fresh cutting to dry its wound. This is in order to prevent disease and fungus entering the plant. I usually leave the cuttings alone for a day or two.
The cuttings should not be left to dry out in the sun as they can get suffer burns. It is best to leave them in a bright shade.
4. Plant the cuttings
Once the wound has dried out, it is time to plant the cuttings in pots or garden. Succulent potting mix, propagating sand or seed raising mix can be used.
I always use succulent potting mix as the cuttings have all the nutrients they need once the roots start growing and i can leave the cutting in for longer periods.
Propagating sand can be a good way to start off cuttings but they will need to be re-potted once the roots appear, because there are no decent nutrients to support healthy growth.
The cuttings can be planted in any sort of plastic tub, pot or even straight in the garden. Planting straight in the garden can be a bit risky as cuttings can burn and die when hit by strong UV on hot days.
5. Re-pot the cuttings as they get bigger
Once the cuttings have a a good rootball and reaching the limits of their pot, it is a good idea to re-pot into a bigger pot. This will ensure the succulent will keep on growing.
To read a detailed article on why it is a good idea to re-pot succulents, see here.
Propagating succulents from seed
Seed propagation can be incredibly tricky but at the same time very rewarding. Watching succulents grow from tiny seeds is a fun project. Seeds are also usually much cheaper than buying a cutting or a small plant.
Some succulents grow better from seed that others. At the nursery i only propagate a few succulents varieties from seed as it can take ages for seeds to grow from into a decent sized plant. They are mostly Lithops, Euphorbia, some cacti and very rare succulents.
If you'd like to have a go, here's how i recommend doing it.
1. Find a reputable seller
The most important thing when it comes to seed propagation is to find viable seeds. I have often bought succulent seeds that ended being dead.
If buying off a bigger site such as Amazon or eBay, do check the reviews and see if anyone has had success.
If something looks too good to be true and the images seem to highly photoshopped, it is very likely the listing is not selling genuine succulent seeds. For instance, you can find blue string of pearls seeds for sale, but there is no such plant as blue string of pearls. Expensive succulents such as Echeveria Rubin are also not likely to be sold as cheap seeds.
2. Sow in spring
Once you've sourced the seeds, sow them in the growing season. Best time to sow seed is in spring.
3. Get seed raising mix into shallow trays
Seed raising mix will help greatly with seed germination. All the ingredients are of the right size and mixed for optimal performance.
The growing vessel can be a meat or vegetable tray, about 10cm/4inch deep with holes at the bottom. These can be punched in by scissors or knife.
Pour a 5-7cm layer of potting mix into the tray and pat down.
4. Sow the seeds
Sprinkle the seeds on top of the potting mix and cover with a light layer of more potting mix.
When sowing tiny seeds, only a little bit of top dressing is needed.
5. Water and cover with plastic
The seeds will need to stay moist. Water the whole tray well, let the water drain off and cover with plastic.
The whole tray can also be placed in a clear plastic bag and tied. Once this is done the moisture level in the tray should keep the seeds happy until they germinate.
Do check on how wet the potting mix now and then, as if it dries out it can kill germinating seeds. If it starts to dry out, spray some water on the surface.
Too much water can kill the seeds too. The potting mix should be moist but not soggy.
6. Place in a bright spot
The covered tray will need to be in a bright spot, but not in direct sun. The UV rays of the sun can get too strong for the seedlings and may cause them to die.
A greenhouse, windowsill, covered patio or a bright room are all good options.
7. Remove plastic when seeds have germinated
Once the green growth starts coming through, the plastic cover can be taken off. The tiny seedlings will still need moist water.
The seedlings can be left in the container until they are bigger and easier to handle. Some succulents will take a month, some 2 and some even longer to grow to a size that will allow re-potting.
Different propagation methods
When propagating succulents a few different methods are available. Leaves, offsets and cuttings can be propagated in potting medium, water and air.
Potting mix, propagating sand or seed raising mix can all be used to propagate leaves, offsets, cuttings and seed.
As mentioned above, in my opinion, the best option is a good quality potting mix.
Leaves can be placed on top of a potting medium. Once the roots appear the will find their way in.
Offsets, cuttings and seed will need to planted in the potting medium.
Water propagation has become very trendy and it can be quite an effective way of propagating leaves, offsets and cuttings, but one that i would find a bit unnecessarily difficult.
First, a suitable vessel has to found. Only a little bit of the stalk can touch the water so the plant does not die or attract fungal disease. And so the vessel will need to have a tight neck.
Roots appear quite fast when propagating in water, but i would argue it is not faster than potting medium.
The plants will need to be potted up as well and the water changed prior to roots appearing so algae do not take hold.
While this is not a propagation method i would ever use, purely because it tends to be time consuming and not practical from a growers point of view, some people swear by it. If you're only trying to propagate one or two cuttings and would like to try water propagation, by all means, go for it.
This method will not work for all succulents as some leaves, cuttings and offsets of some succulent varieties will need contact with moist soil and water to produce roots.
The premise of air propagation is to leave cuttings, offsets or leaves grow roots just by hanging in the air, or be left on a dry surface.
While this will work for the majority of leaves and some succulent species' offsets and cuttings, there is a risk of these offsets and cuttings drying out too much and dying before they have a chance to send roots.
If you found this article helpful you may want to have a look at how long before succulent cuttings root.
For those of you who like to order succulents and succulent cuttings online, this piece may be of use.