Water Works: Rooting Cuttings in Water

As a commercial herb grower, I’ve growled more than once that home gardeners can’t expect to successfully propagate herbs from cuttings without spending a lot of money for equipment, but I repent. I’ve found a simple, inexpensive, effective way to root cuttings of many herb varieties; it’s probably the same method that your grandmother used. All you need is a glass of water and a windowsill.

I spent a recent summer experimenting with rooting cuttings of more than a dozen herb species in water, and I can tell you that this method, in some instances, will root cuttings as fast for you as my expensive automated propagation gadgets can for me. This method almost totally eliminates plant stress, which other­wise slows rooting, and it avoids some of the wilts and rots that plague home gardeners when they try to root cuttings in a soilless medium. (“Growing Herbs from Stem Cuttings” in the February/March 1993 Herb Companion addresses some of the difficulties.)

In comparing new and old gardening techniques, I find that traditional methods sometimes are at least as good as modern ones, but Grandma may not have told you all you need to know to make her way of rooting cuttings work as well for you as it did for her.

What Works

Plant Propagation: Principles and Prac­tices, by Hudson T. Hartmann and Dale E. Kester, a text used by many professional propagators, states that water can be used to root cuttings of easily propagated species. I’ve found that many herbs fit that category.

Most of the herbs I tried rooted within two weeks or less: mints (Mentha ¥ piperita ‘Mitcham’ and M. spicata) in seven days, basil (five varieties of Ocimum basilicum) in five to ten days, patchouli (Pogostemon cablin) in ten, pineapple sage (Salvia elegans) in eleven, and lemon verbena (Aloysia triphylla) and a cultivar of rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis ‘Arp’) in fourteen days. (Although basil is usually grown from seed, some new cultivars, such as Aussie Sweetie, Mulberry Dance, and Holly’s Painted, to name a few, either don’t flower well or don’t come true from seed, so rooting their cuttings is the most reliable way to propagate them.)

Some herbs were less successful. Scented geraniums took twenty-six days to root vigorously; an oregano (Origanum ¥ majoricum) took about as long, but the roots were weak and sparse. Fruit sage (S. dorisiana) took nearly four weeks. The two lavenders I tried, Lavandula angustifolia ‘Tucker’s Early Purple’ and L. a. ‘Sharon Ro­b­erts’, rooted in a little over six weeks, but only a small percentage of the Tucker’s Early Purple struck roots, and weak ones at that.

John Reeder
8/5/2020 2:32:04 PM

Leslie, a better solution than hydrogen peroxide for your plants is colloidal silver; a few drops of 20 ppm CS works wonders.

9/17/2019 5:34:24 PM

I start many kinds of plants from cuttings placed in a glass or jar of water placed on a windowsill. Will this method work for calibrochoa? All the advice sites say to plant each cutting in a small pot of planting soil, but I seldom have success with this unless the cutting first has developed strong roots.

6/30/2014 6:56:02 PM

This really does work. I started a hibiscus as a bare root in a container on my balcony, and it took off so well that I had to pinch back the top most growth to get it to spread out more. I decided to try to get the part I pinched off to root. I actually have 2 pieces. I only change my water weekly, and it's outside on my balcony in the hot, humid summer weather in New Orleans but not in direct sunlight. At first nothing for a few weeks, now I've got roots like crazy. It's a good idea to add 2 drops of hydrogen peroxide to the water when you change it as this keeps the microbes out and you then don't have to change the water daily but at least weekly.

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