Last Wednesday, I asked how you would’ve answered the following email that I got from someone with this question about a Norfolk Island Pine:

Emailer: “Hi I have a question! I cut a piece off my grandpas plant to try and re grow it? How do I get roots from it? Thank u so much!”

I personally couldn’t help questioning the logic of the emailer’s “cut first, ask questions later” strategy. But putting that aside, let’s see what your advice would’ve been:

mr_subjunctive from Plants Are the Strangest People wrote, “in a clear container that won’t let air in or out (like an upside-down vase, or a terrarium). Be prepared for failure.[1]

[1] (The advice “be prepared for failure” is applicable to everything, though.)”

Which prompted this back and forth between us:

Me: “That’s good advice, mr_subjunctive. I’m curious, though, has it ever worked for you with a Norfolk? How about damp vermiculite?

I haven’t had success rooting Norfolks in anything.”

mr_s: I’ve never tried; that’s just what the books say to do.

There are photos of NIP cuttings on Google, but none from a side branch — which is what I fear the letter-writer may have done, and which if successful supposedly leads to lopsided, weird growth — and not many of them are before and after photos, so I suspect the success rate is low regardless.

Though the rooting medium can make a big difference in some plants — I was never able to root Ficus until I tried perlite, and never able to root Schefflera until I tried vermiculite — so it’s possible that they need very specific conditions to start with but are otherwise easy. It’s the sort of thing that might be interesting to experiment with if one had a NIP one wanted to hack to pieces. But I don’t.”

Me: “I agree about the rooting medium. I’d never successfully rooted Schefflera until I saw that you used vermiculite and then tried it myself. I’ve tried NIP cuttings in soil and vermiculite but was unsuccessful in both, but I think that’s more because I was trying to root the branches (that somehow got broken off) and not the main stem. I could see the stem would have a better chance of rooting than a branch (just as a scheff branch roots easily but a leaf does not).

It’s that main stem that had me worried with this emailer. If the writer cut the main growing stem, that could damage the parent plant. (Talk about growing lopsided forever.) Most trees just have that one main stem, so it seems nuts to me to cut it. I remember looking through all my old plant advice books a few years ago and every one of them said to leave that main stem alone. The Internet pretty much echoes that.

I do think that if there’s any chance of success, the emailer should follow your advice about making a “greenhouse” of sorts. I did not recommend that to the person, but I should’ve.”

Then Joseph Brenner wrote, “My “best” advice is don’t, unless you are trying to save a tree that is already damaged(or, you don’t mind “freaks of nature”). Sometimes, the terminal shoot will root fairly easily in damp sphagnum, but this causes permanent changes in the growth of the original tree. It is so much easier to pick up a new tree from your local nursery.(B>{D>>”

Me: “Thanks, Joseph. That’s my advice books say, too. The success rate from cuttings must be so low that they just say don’t bother.

I shudder to think of how many perfectly good Norfolks are in landfills right now following the Christmas holiday. Didn’t sell? Now you’re trash. It’s heartbreaking.”

Joseph added, “Yeah, me too. I had it tough in my first couple of nursery/landscape jobs because I couldn’t let go. I even attempted to start my own “plant rescue” business from my boss’s discards. It amounted to a lot of free compost and pots. (B>{D>>”

Good advice, I think, from both mr_subjunctive and Joseph. I don’t think the emailer was a regular reader, but who knows, maybe they’ll see this post and learn from it.

I probably could’ve offered a little more helpful advice than I did. At the time, I was thinking of the Grandpa – did he know about the cutting, did he endorse it, or did he walk in one day to discover a cut tree? That happened to me once with a Norfolk that someone cut without my knowledge, and I had a slight heart attack when I found it.

Here’s what I wrote back:

>>>Hello there. I got your question about a Norfolk Island Pine. Would you be able to send me a photo so I can know that we are both talking about the same plant?

From what I’ve read in books and online, you’re not supposed to cut Norfolks. They don’t root well. They say that you’re supposed to pull the small plants away from the base of the bigger parent plant in order to propagate them, or just go out and buy a young plant. You can try rooting the stem in water or vermiculite, but I wouldn’t get your hopes up for success. I’ve tried a few different times and haven’t had any luck – you may fare better, you should experiment and see what happens.

If it was the growing stem you cut from your Grandpa’s plant, it’s ok, your Grandpa’s plant probably won’t die. But it will probably start growing lopsided. It’s not a big deal, except part of the beauty of a Norfolk is its symmetry. Growing a little crooked won’t hurt the plant.

If you find a good way to root that cutting, please let me know. I’d love to hear a success story.

I was a little curt – I could’ve been a little softer in my response. I could’ve elaborated more on ways to try and grow roots on that cutting, but meh. In this day of googling, I don’t feel too bad. There weren’t many niceties on either end, so it’s hard to care a lot. I’ll never know what Grandpa thought.

I’m hoping for more of the “research first, act later” plant strategy in the future. Thanks to mr_s and Joseph for your advice – I appreciate it! Also, if anyone out there has successfully rooted a Norfolk Island Pine cutting, please let me know how! I really would like to hear about it.


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