Cacti in their natural habitat look like tall trees emerging from random spots on a desert. Despite unattentive gardeners taking good care of them, they keep on multiplying. How do they continue their species? Can you propagate a cactus?
Cacti in nature reproduce easily but take a longer time to develop. However, gardeners can propagate cacti in 4 easy ways: 1) rooting offset (the easiest), 2) beheading, 3) grafting and 4) seed growing (the slowest).
If you want to expand your cactus collections, propagation is the fastest way to achieve them. I will share with you several methods of propagating cactus that will multiply your collections and make your wallet happy.
The life cycle of a cactus is the same as any flowering plant. Gardeners propagate cacti through 1) rooting offsets, 2) stem cuttings, 3) grafting, and 4) seed sowing. The first two are the easiest and fastest way, while the third requires skills and the fourth takes lots of time and patience.
Cacti can procreate several times throughout their lives. In nature, cactus can reproduce in various ways depending on their species, and it will often take some time due to limited resources. However, in cultivation, cactus propagation comes easy and fast with the involvement of gardeners.
You can grow your collections when you know how to propagate cactus. I will walk you through each different method I used to reproduce cacti in my shop.
Propagating with cactus offset is the easiest method to propagate cacti. It requires the gardener to separate the plant offset and let them develop in the ideal environment in order to develop roots and become a new genetically identical copy of the mother plants
Cactus offsets or pups are small genetically identical cacti produced by the parent plant as a means of reproduction. Pups growing around the stem of the parent plant is an asexual reproduction because it does need fertilization to develop.
Propagating the offshoots is a vegetative way of reproducing the cactus. It is also one of the popular propagation methods among cactus growers because it is easier.
Not all cacti produce offsets naturally. So their means of reproduction is either through seeds or stem cuttings. Cactus such as the barrel species do not typically give offshoots, but seeding is their primary way of procreating.
However, they are capable of producing offsets when part of their stems are cut or rotten. The offsets they produce can be another potential cactus.
I did dozens of cactus propagation over the years. You need to know what you are doing if you want to avoid losing your young offset. Here are the 7 steps for a perfect cactus offset propagation developed over the years.
1) Choose the ideal offset. Look for a cactus species with a healthy offspring of decent size, preferably 2-3 cm or more for higher viability.
2) Remove the pup from the parent cactus. Separate the offspring by twisting it gently using tweezers or your fingers to break it off. If you are sensitive to spines, make sure you wear gloves.
3) Air-dry the pup. It would be best if you kept it in a clean, dry place and away from direct sunlight. Air-drying for 5-7 days is the best way to ensure that the wound will heal before replanting. Otherwise, it will be prone to rot. Some growers apply rooting hormones to encourage root growth.
4) Replant the baby cactus. Most of the time, I wait for the roots to develop before replanting. But sometimes, I replant it once the wound is cured as long as the potting medium is entirely dry. Use a container suitable for the size of the cactus pup, and of course, with drainage holes.
5) Allow the pup to develop roots. After 3-4 weeks, the roots will start to sprout from the bottom. You can check for any root growth by slightly lifting the cactus. Roots appear to be small, white strands protruding from the healed wound.
6) Water gradually. Introduce 5-10 ml of water once the roots are present while gradually increasing the amount of water every week. Refrain from watering if the cactus does not have roots yet to avoid chances of infection and rotting.
7) Place in a spot with ample but indirect sunlight. Provide enough light for the cactus pup, but do not let it bask under direct sunlight. Intense light can burn the baby cactus.
Beheading is the propagation of a cactus using its stem. In this technique, the cactus stem is cut and from such fragment, a new plant will be developed.
Propagating cactus through stem cutting is another easy way of asexual reproduction. Stem propagation is helpful if the cactus is getting top-heavy or has become unattractive due to corking. Cacti that are rotting or severely infested with pests can be saved by cutting the healthy portion to make a new plant.
Columnar cacti such as mammillaria, echinopsis, cereus species can make excellent stem propagation. Likewise, opuntia, thanksgiving cactus, and other cacti with cladodes or pads can be easily propagated through stems too.
1) Cut off a portion on the cactus stem. Using a sharp and sterile cutting tool, make a clean angle cut off the stem of the cactus. Sprinkle cinnamon powder on both the cut parts to prevent infection and speed up wound healing.
2) Leave the cactus to heal. Keep the cutting in a dry place away from direct sunlight. Allow 5-7 days to dry a small cutting and 10-14 days for a chunky stem cutting. This ensures that the wound is entirely scabbed or callous before replanting and preventing the cactus from rotting.
3) Wait for the roots to grow. If you want to speed up root formation, you may dip your cutting in a rooting hormone before drying. Otherwise, you’ll have to wait for the cutting to start growing roots. Position your cutting vertically with the cut side down to encourage root formation on the base. You may use an empty pot to hold the cutting upright.
4) Replant the cutting. Usually, roots start to appear from the base after 3 weeks. It is time to repot the cutting in a suitable container filled with a gritty cactus mix. Keep the new plant from direct sunlight and rain.
5) Water lightly. As the roots continue growing, keep the soil moist but not wet to promote more root development. Make sure you’ll only provide light watering to avoid flooding the pot as there are not many roots to absorb the water. The potting medium will stay wet for an extended period, and rotting can happen for the unstable cactus.
6) Stabilize and acclimatize the propagation. Once the plant is well-rooted, gradually introduce more sunlight while increasing the amount of water. New growth on the plant indicates that your propagation is now stable and ready for regular cactus care.
Propagating cactus via grafting, though less common, is the fastest way to propagate cactus. It is done by slicing the top part of the rootstock cactus and the bottom side of the scion cactus. These two cut sides are attached and fastened together securely to heal and grow as one new cactus plant.
Cactus grafting serves different purposes in gardening. One is to propagate cacti species that cannot photosynthesize, like moon cactus and variegated species. It is also helpful in replacing the rotting stem of a cactus to extend its lifespan. Another purpose is to aid in the growth of a cactus that does not develop roots easily, such as astrophytum, rebutia, and Lophophora.
The steps on grafting cactus are simple that even newbies can perform. The method includes chopping off the top portion of the rootstock and slicing the bottom of the scion. Both cut parts are joined in such a way that their vascular tissues overlap. The grafts are fastened firmly to ensure successful grafting.
Seeds are products of the successful pollination of cactus flowers. Growing cactus from seeds takes much longer to develop. Seeds are sown just above the moist medium and allowed to germinate. It is best to transfer seedlings when spines and roots are healthy enough.
Cactus seeds are produced sexually by pollinating the cactus flower. Successful pollination will result in fruit and seed development. Although growing cactus from seeds takes patience because of its slow growth, avid cactus collectors find it fulfilling and fun. Sowing cactus seed is the best way to expand your collection without spending a lot.
Sowing cactus seeds are very similar to sowing seeds for other plants. However, if you do not want to get it wrong, here is what I do to propagate my cactus.
1) Prepare the materials. Prepare your cactus seeds. Cactus seeds are minuscule (similar in size to poppy seeds) so careful handling is essential. You will need a pot with drainage holes, resealable plastic, germination medium, labels, and a spritzer with clean water. These materials must be essentially clean and sterile to lessen pathogens.
2) Prepare the germination soil. The ideal medium for germinating cactus seeds needs to be well-draining well and hold moisture without being too compact. You may use fine pumice and coco coir for better moisture retention and root growth. Before using, I recommend sterilizing your germinating mix in the microwave to kill possible pests and fungus present.
3) Sow the seeds. Fill the pot with your germination medium and drench it with clean water. Allow the pot to stand for a few minutes so the excess water from the soil will drip. Place a label in the pot and carefully sprinkle the seeds on the top of the moist soil. Gently spray it with water to increase soil contact and moisten the seeds.
4) Wait until germination. Seal the pot in a plastic bag giving enough air inside. Place the bag with the sown seeds in a warm spot with a bright shade for your seeds to germinate. Avoid direct sun exposure since your seedlings are very sensitive to too much light at first.
Leave the bags unopened for at least 3-4 months to maintain moisture and avoid contamination. Most cacti seeds will germinate after 1-2 weeks and develop fully after 5-6 months.
Cacti reproduce through fertilization by pollinating flowers, offset formation, and stem propagation in their natural environment. They can extend their lifespan by surviving and adapting to the nature they are living in to
Cactus species continue to exist in the wild because of their ability to reproduce naturally. Although they grow slowly, production of new offsprings come easily. Insects and animals living in the dry land contribute mainly to cacti distribution in different parts of the desert.
In pollination, the goal is to transfer pollen from the anthers to the stigma for fertilization to occur and seeds to develop. While most cacti need outside pollinators to perform pollination, there are cactus species that can perform pollination within themselves.
Cactus flowers have both female and male organs. The stamen is the male portion where the anther that contains the pollen is found. On the other hand, the female part is called the pistil, which encloses the stigma and the ovary. For the cactus to reproduce, the pollen from the anther must be in contact with the stigma and fertilize the egg cell in the female organ.
Deserts are inhospitable environments for a large number of animals, plants, and insects. Nevertheless, over the eons, some cacti have developed defenses and strategies to survive in these arid environments and even becoming key players for the ecosystem’s survival.
Indeed, cactus and other arid plants provide food and water through their nectars, fruits, and stems for birds and insects. In turn, birds, bees, and butterflies help the plants pollinate for reproduction.
The flashy colors, sweet-smelling fragrance, and the nectar of the cactus flowers draw birds and insects to help with pollination. Bats are capable of pollinating cactus flowers that bloom at night. These creatures take up pollen from one plant to another while they feed on them. The pollen reached the female egg cell and fertilized it.
The fertilized ovary will develop into a fleshy, rounded fruit that contains tiny black/ brown seeds. The seeds are dispersed by winds, birds, bats, and rain. The seeds that germinate will slowly grow and develop into mature cactus.
Most cactus species form offsets around the base or above its stem. These offsets look exactly just like the parent plant but are a bit smaller. When an animal or predator brushes on the stem of the cactus, spines will attach to their skin, carrying the cactus offsets with them.
The detached offset will fall to the ground and then take root and develop into a new plant. Examples of cactus that can easily attach to the skin are Cholla, Opuntia Pads, and barrels cactus.
There are cases that the stem of a cactus breaks off due to severe weather conditions, rotting, or animal bites. The broken segment of the stem will grow roots to the soil and grow into another cactus plant.
The above shows how mother nature can be ingenious and resourceful and our cacti strong and resilient.
- Cactus flowers in nature are pollinated with the help of insects, birds, and bats. Successful pollination will fertilize the ovary and develop into a fruit with many seeds.
- In nature, cactus can easily reproduce through seeds, offsets, and stem cuttings, but growing will take a lot of time and patience.
- However, gardeners propagate cactus through rooting offsets, cutting stems, grafting, and seed growing. The first three methods are easy and fast ways of reproducing, while the last one will test your patience.
- “Pollination in the Desert,” University of Chicago
- “Sonoran Desert Columnar Cacti and the Evolution of Generalized Pollination Systems,” Iowa State University
- “Cactus (Cactaceae)” University of California Los Angeles.
- “Lesser Long-Nosed Bat,” United States Department of Agriculture
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