The Best Way to Propagate Spider Plants

If you follow my Instagram, you know that I own a *lot* of plants. A few weeks ago, I was handed down my grandmother’s spider plant. I’m not one to say no to a free plant- besides, how hard could it be?

What is a Spider Plant?

Spider plants (Chlorophytum comosum) are a common houseplant which are allegedly easy to care for (I just got one, so I don’t have much firsthand experience to back that up). These plants are native to tropical and southern Africa, and tend to do best indoors with bright, indirect light.

This is the spider plant I received from my grandma. It actually consisted of several plants together in a single large pot. You can see tendrils extending from the plant with a handful of young “plantlets”

What makes spider plants unique is their reproductive strategy- they produce long tendrils which produce small plantlets, which are basically tiny plants with their own roots and leaves. What makes spider plants fun is that these plantlets are easy to remove and grow into new plants, aka propagating. (Disclaimer: it helps if you wait until the plantlets have begun developing roots).

When I received my spider plant, it had A LOT of plantlets. I removed 33 which had already begun to develop root nodes. Since I had so many (and had never attempted propagating this plant before) my husband and I thought it would be fun to try three different propagating methods: damp paper towels, water propagation, and soil propagation.

The Experiment & Methods

On November 23, 2020, I removed 33 plantlets from the mother plant, dividing them equally into three groups of 11 (each with a variety of plantlet sizes). These groups were then assigned to one of three propagating treatments:

  • Damp paper towels: I placed 11 plantlets into two bowls lined with paper towels. I heavily misted the plants/towels with distilled water until the towels were thoroughly damp. I repeated this at least every morning.
  • Water propagation: I divided the 11 plantlets among 4 small glass containers, which were filled with tap water until the roots were submerged. If water levels got low, I would add more until the roots were submerged again (once or twice a week).
    • Tip: For containers, I use a variety of glass containers that I’ve acquired over time. I find shot glasses to work especially well for propagating.
  • Soil propagation: I divided the 11 plantlets into two 3.5 inch nursery pots containing soil medium (Miracle Gro potting soil). I ensured that the roots were below the soil surface, and lightly packed the soil down. At the initial planting, I watered thoroughly with tap water until water drained out the bottom. In the following days, I would periodically spray the soil every couple of days (the goal was to keep the soil damp, but not saturated).

All 33 plantelets were placed in a northeast-facing window, which recieves bright, indirect light for 8-9 hours a day.

The experimental setup. The “Paper Towel” group is in the white bowls on the left, the “water propagating” group is in 4 glass containers at the top of the image, and the “soil propagating” group is in the two pots in the bottom right of the image.

The Verdict

The Loser

Propagating the plantlets on damp paper towels did. not. work. for. me. As of December 1st, there was no visible root growth and the leaves were beginning to wilt. At that point, I decided to terminate that treatment and shifted the plants to water (where they quickly recovered and began growing roots). I *might* have been more successful if I had attempted to create a small greenhouse using plastic wrap- but since there were other clearly effective methods, I didn’t feel like it made a lot of sense trying to make it work.

Aside from the fact this method did *not* work for me, there were some clear cons- the most obvious being that I had to water these every. single. day. Possibly more than once a day, as the towels often dried out in a matter of a few hours. Even if this method worked, the upkeep made this technique far inferior to the other two (in my opinion).

After 8 days, there was no visible root growth on the paper towel group. (Any new growth on the roots would be visibly white)

The Winners

Both water propagating and soil propagating worked very well. Let’s break down what happened for each one:

Remaining plantlets in the soil and water propagating groups as of December 9, 2020.

Water Propagating

With the water propagating treatment, plantlets began growing new roots within 24 hours. I simply left the plants be, checking the water levels about once a week. I’d say that within 14 days the plantlets were ready to be potted in soil.

Personally, this might be my favorite method since it is easy to gauge root growth. It was low maintenance and it worked. What’s not to love?

1. Easy and low maintenance
2. Can easily view root growth
3. Easy to assess when more water is needed
1. water lacks nutrients, so it is not sustainable long-term- you will want to eventually move the plantlets to soil
Pros and cons of water propagating

Soil Propagating

The progress of the soil propagating group was harder to assess. All I really had to go on was whether the plantlets felt stable (from well established roots). I had no idea how they were really doing until I pulled one up on December 9th to compare it with the water propagating group. I wasn’t a fan of the fact there wasn’t an obvious indicator when the soil needed more water. (Unlike the water propagating group, where you can see if the water level is getting low).

1. Easy
2. Plants have access to nutrients
3. No re-potting necessary
1. Cannot view root growth
2. More difficult to gauge when water is needed
Pros and cons of soil propagating

Something I wasn’t expecting was how different the roots grown in soil looked from those grown in water. The water propagated plantlets had long, healthy roots, but the soil propagated ones were much more…robust.

Root growth after 16 days for soil propagating group (bottom) and water propagating group (top)

Why do the roots look different?

At maturity, spider plants produce fleshy, tuberous roots. These tubers are enlarged roots that help store nutrients that can sustain the plant in times of hardship (sort of like our body fat, which helps store energy for future use- more on that in another post).

These are the roots of the mother spider plant. You can clearly see the enlarged tubers compared to the normal roots. These sections of root store energy and nutrients for future use.

I was having a hard time finding any research to explain the different root results between the propagating methods, so here’s my best guess: spider plants need access to nutrients in order to store nutrients (e.g. produce tubers). The plantlets that were propagating in water didn’t have access to any nutrients, meaning there was nothing to store in tubers. On the other hand, the soil propagating group *did* have access to nutrients. The enlarged size of the soil propagating plantlet roots makes me think that they were beginning to form tubers. I’m not sure what difference (if any) this will make in the long-term success of the plantlets.

Final Thoughts

Something to consider: the ultimate goal is to eventually move your plantlets to soil. At this point, I can’t say whether the differences I observed in root growth will impact the plants at all in the long run. (Perhaps I will have to make an update in a few months!)

Whether soil or water propagating works best is probably up to you- would you forget to regularly dampen soil? Do you want to avoid the hassle of moving the plantlets to soil after water propagating them? I’ll leave it up to you which method to use.

On December 9, I moved all remaining plantlets to soil.

Would you like to see me do a future update on the spider plants? Have you ever tried propagating spider plants? If so, how did it go? Let me know in the comments!


Demystifying Orchid Care (based on their ecology)

Orchids are actually much easier to care for than you think.

About Phalaenopsis Orchids

I’m focusing on Phalaenopsis orchids (aka “moth orchids”) in this post because realistically that’s what most people are dealing with.

  • Orchids are technically succulents. Succulents are any plant that stores water in their leaves- including cacti, echeverias, etc. Storing water in their leaves allows succulents to go long periods of time without water. (That’s going to become important).
  • Moth orchids are native to South and Southeast Asia. The species which has been widely cultivated as a houseplant (Phalaneopsis amabilis) are typically found in tropical rainforests with high humidity.
  • Most Phalaenopsis species are epiphytes– meaning that they grow on surfaces like rocks or other plants (rather than the soil).
  • Orchids (and their flower spikes) do not naturally stand upright. They tend to lay on their side and hang downward.
This is the orchid my husband gave me. The left image is right after he bought it in March 2019- you can see how the leaves point upward and a stake has been used to guide the flowers to grow upwards. The right image is a year later in 2020. I did almost nothing to guide the growth of the orchid, and you can definitely tell. The leaves point sideways (which is how they would grow in nature) and one of the flower stalks hangs downward (since it doesn’t have a stake supporting it). The flower spike going upwards is supported by a bamboo stick.

Takeaways for Orchid Care

So what can we learn from understanding orchid ecology?

  • Orchids are succulents: their leaves store water and they do not need to be watered very often.
  • Orchids live in tropical rainforests: there are two takeaways from this- 1) they don’t tolerate cold temperatures well, and 2) they aren’t used to getting a lot of direct sunlight.
  • Orchids are epiphytes: they don’t grow in soil, so you don’t want to plant them in normal potting soil! Orchids are grown in a much bulkier, porous medium (termed “orchid bark”), typically composed of pieces of bark and other organic material. They also are used to lots of airflow don’t like their roots to be perpetually damp, which will cause root rot. Additionally, they grow areal roots (which are designed to grab onto things in nature)- these will often sprawl outside of their container.
  • Orchids normally lay on their side: this is important for watering. In nature, if water lands on their leaves, it will drain out the side. However, most cultivated orchids have been manipulated so that the leaves stand upright. If you get water on the leaves, it has nowhere to go. This can lead to crown rot, which is possible (but very difficult) to recover from.

How I care for my Phalaenopsis Orchid

My husband Tom gave me an orchid for our 2nd anniversary in 2019. I almost killed it (which definitely taught me a thing or two!). Here are my tips on caring for Phalaenopsis orchids:

  • Potting Orchids:
    • Potting medium: Orchids need very airy, porous potting medium. I use Miracle-Gro Orchid Potting Mix (coarse blend)
    • Containers: you can find special pots for orchids with holes in the sides- these help mimic the conditions they would grow in in nature by increase airflow and reducing chance of root rot. You can find plastic orchid nursery pots as well as ceramic pots. I currently keep my orchid in a plastic nursery pot nested inside of a normal ceramic planter.
    • Repotting: Unlike most plants, being root-bound is not the main reason you should repot an orchid. You want to repot orchids whenever their potting medium has begun to decompose and break down. When this happens, it will hold more moisture and stay damp, which can cause root rot.
  • Watering:
    • To water my orchid, I soak its roots in a bowl of distilled water for 1 hour, then place it on a rack to drain thoroughly. I never submerge the leaves (to prevent the possibility of crown rot). I don’t water my orchid very often- maybe once or twice a month? I use distilled water because we have hard tap water (e.g. it has a lot of salts and minerals), which epiphytes may not be used to.
    • How frequently you should water an orchid will vary based on light, temperature, and humidity. You can tell an orchid really needs water if the leaves start to wrinkle (that means that it is depleting its water stores). Conversely, if the roots are a pale green, it doesn’t need any water. When in doubt, it’s best to err on the side of underwatering than overwatering.
    • The “ice cube trick” – some people recommend watering orchids by placing one ice cube on the roots per week. This works really well for some people. The advantage of using the ice cube trick is that you use a limited amount of water (which can minimize the chance of overwatering). However, there are a couple of disadvantages of using the ice cube trick. I mentioned that orchids don’t tolerate cold temperatures well, so putting a block of ice directly on their roots isn’t optimal. Additionally, the moisture from the ice cubes may become trapped. This is how I almost killed my orchid. Long story short: the way the orchid was potted prevented moisture from escaping- meaning that the roots of my orchid were perpetually damp. So damp, in fact, that it started growing mushrooms! Yikes!! Thankfully I was able to course correct, but that easily could have become an unsalvageable case of root rot.
  • Flowers
    • Part of what makes orchids great is that their flowers are very long-lasting (potentially lasting months!) Most people abandon their orchids once the flowers drop, but wait!! With a little bit of patience and TLC, you can get them to grow new flowers. I have had my orchid since March of 2019, and it bloomed again in January 2020 and is starting to put out a new flower spike now (November 2020).
    • There are a couple of things which help promote re-flowering:
      1. Cool nights
      2. Changing day length
    • Light is very important for re-flowering. Flowers take energy, and plants need sunlight to produce energy. My mom and I have had a lot of luck getting our orchids to re-flower when they are in a eastern facing window (e.g. get a small amount of direct sun first thing in the morning, then bright indirect light the rest of the day).
    • Resist the urge to cut off flower spikes after they drop their blooms. As long as they are still green and healthy, new spikes may grow from the old ones! (If they shrivel up, go ahead and remove them)
    • In my experience, I have found that flower spikes tend to grow towards the light (e.g. towards windows) . You may need to rotate your orchid to enjoy its blooms.
  • Fertilizer:
    • Fertilizer is important for re-flowering because making flowers takes a lot of nutrients.
    • Any time you’re dealing with fertilizer, it will have a description with 3 numbers (ex: 19-8-6). This represents the relative amounts of nitrogen, phosphate, and potassium (respectively).
    • Recommendations for orchid fertilizers vary. What’s important to keep in mind is that plants need different nutrients to produce flowers than they need to produce foliage (leaves). Well-balanced fertilizers (20-20-20) are good for plant growth overall. Orchid fertilizers tend to have additional N, which is important for flower production.
    • I honestly haven’t explored different fertilizers much, but I’ve been using this 19-8-16 fertilizer, and it seems to be working out alright. I fertilize my orchid every other watering by dissolving a small amount of fertilizer into the water before I begin to soak my orchid.
    • Tip: you should never use fertilizers at their recommended full strength. It’s best to use them at a lower strength/concentration to avoid burning roots or foliage.
  • Light and Temperature:
    • Orchids do best with bright, indirect light. They can survive with lower amounts of light, but they are unlikely to thrive (or re-bloom).
    • Avoid direct sunlight for extended amounts of time (e.g. west and south-facing windows). Too much direct sun can cause orchids to become sunburned. Remember, orchids traditionally live in rainforests, where tree cover would prevent sunlight from directly reaching them. The exception I would say to this is that my orchid has done well in a northeast-facing window, where it gets a small amount (<1 hour) of sunlight first thing in the morning. I’ve tried it in a southeast facing window (where it gets a lot more light and gets much warmer), and it didn’t do very well there.
    • Orchids tend to do well at normal indoor temperatures. Avoid temperatures below 50 degrees F (remember, they’re tropical plants. They aren’t really built for cold temperatures).

Got any more tips for caring for orchids? Leave them in a comment down below!

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