Successful Herb Propagation in Water

rosemary herb

Rosemary is one of the herbs that can be propagated by cuttings.

Increasing your stock of herbs and other plants by propagating is thrifty, plus giving cuttings to friends is one of the most rewarding activities for the home gardener. There are various ways to do this, some more complicated than others, but the easiest way is to root cuttings in water. Unfortunately, cuttings rooted in water can easily fail, for a few reasons. Forgetting to top up the water is a typical one: the cuttings dry out and die. Cuttings in clear glass can rot and get murky. Michael Good, a former engineer from Apple has recently invented a propagating jar, The Rootcup, that solves this problem. Here’s how he came up with his cool invention:

Some friends were over for dinner and their daughter had picked up a rosemary cutting while they were walking to our apartment. We placed the cutting in a Sake glass on the kitchen table, with some water and forgot about it. A week or so later the water was nearly gone but roots had started.

The Rootcup is a small opaque container with a lid to keep out light. I plan to try his invention, as it’s a great looking design, simple but effective.  However, you can use any opaque container and tinfoil to successfully root cuttings, albeit less attractively. Cuttings root best in opaque containers as it mimics the natural state of root growth: darkness. I used Michael Good’s sake cup technique to root some pineapple sage cuttings.

Pineapple Sage cuttings in water, ready to be propagated.

Most salvias are fairly easy to root from cuttings. Pineapple sage, Salvia Elegans, has a wonderful pineapply-citrus scent, and red flowers in late summer. Sadly it is not hardy in our Canadian climate, so I bring in a pot to overwinter indoors, plus I take cuttings to spread around, just in case. Uses for pineapple sage, including recipes at the Essential Herbal Blog.

The leaves can be used to flavor teas, chopped for use in chicken and pork dishes, cream cheese, jams, jellies and fruit salad. Leaves should be added at the end of cooking time. They can stand in for regular sage in almost any recipe. The flowers, with their citrus-mint flavor, can be tossed into salads and teas.

Fill container about two thirds with water, then cover with tinfoil.

Make tinfoil stronger by folding it so it is double or triple thick. Stretch tinfoil over the top of the container and fold down the sides tightly. A rubber band would be a good idea, to keep tinfoil in place, but I didn’t have one on hand. I also cut the foil into a rounded shape to make it a little neater looking.

Container covered with tightly stretched foil.

A double layer of foil, for strength, is stretched over the container.

Poke holes into the tinfoil using something sharp and pointy. I used a chopstick, but a metal skewer is a little easier for poking. You want to make the hole just big enough for the plant stem to go through, while letting in as little light as possilble.

poke a hole with something sharp

Hold the foil in place while you poke the hole. I had 5 cuttings, so poked 5 holes.

The finished propagating container should be placed in a spot with bright light, but no direct sun. I put mine under 48″ flourescent light unit hooked onto a simple wooden shelf from IKEA, the cheapest way to get a light unit possible. The traditional time to root cuttings is the spring, but I always have so many cuttings in the fall when I trim my plants after bringing them indoors. Being a thrifty gal, I hate them to go to waste, so I always propagate in the fall, with pretty good results.

sage cuttings in a container covered in tin foil.

Make sure holes are small enough so that the cuttings are propped up in the container.

Once you have set this container up, you can mostly forget about it, as the lid minimizes evaporation. I would check it after a few weeks, though, just to make sure the cuttings’ feet are still in water.

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